The Tree of Life is a beloved symbol in many cultures and beliefs worldwide.  It links heaven and earth, uniting above and below. The tree has many characteristics that lend easily to symbolism. Many trees take on the appearance of death in the winter- losing their leaves, only to sprout new growth with the return of spring. A tree also bears seeds or fruits, which contain the essence of the tree, and this continuous regeneration is a potent symbol of immortality.  The roots of the tree, or an inverted tree, represent spiritual growth.

In Celtic spirituality, the most sacred tree of all was the Oak tree, which represented the axis mundi, the center of the world. The Celtic name for oak, daur, is the origin of the word door – the root of the oak was, for them, a doorway to the Otherworld!

In Jewish and Christian spirituality, a tree sits at the center of both the Earthly and Heavenly Edens! “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground, the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Gen 2:8-9

And surprisingly, in Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, we find the Tree of Life again!

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”(2)

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.”(14)

Rev 2:7 refers to the blessing in the Tree of Life:  “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

In Genesis and Revelation, the symbol of the tree is a symbol of God’s presence and of the Life God gives!  When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, it was clearly stated that they no longer had access to the Tree of Life as before! With that, they lost the life, joy, beauty, happiness, healing, and peace offered by the Tree of Life.     

Then something happened… At the center of our Christian faith, Jesus died on a tree, a wooden cross, and the carpenter crucified on a broken tree became for us the Tree of Life.

As we read in Gal 3:13-14 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

The cross in front of the sanctuary testifies to the fact that we receive healing and life from the Tree of Life!

Psalm 1 uses this powerful metaphor of a flourishing tree, picking up on the strong Creation-tradition to communicate God’s life-giving presence. 

The first word in the Palms is “Happy!”(Ps1:1), or “Blessed are those.”  The Hebrew word “ashrei” (Alef) could be understood as “True Happiness as received from God as a blessing.”  It refers to the joy of someone who is flourishing. This fullness of life is expressed by the image of a tree, which beautifully combines the ideas of stability (a tree with deep roots), freshness (it bears plenty of green leaves), and fruitfulness.

The tree is the opposite of “chaff,” rootless, dry, empty little husks separated from the real grain by winnowing in the wind. No stability, or life, or fruit!

The destiny of chaff starts with the last word in the Hebrew alphabet, “toveid”(Taf), meaning “perish/doomed” (The last word in the psalm!) Because they wander away, walking down a long and crowded road, only to discover that it is a dead end with a steep cliff at the very end. How we live is decisive for our destiny.

What is the secret way to this “happy,” flourishing life? Psalm 1 points towards such a way and is, at the same time, a kind of celebration of it.

The way to a thriving life is by not following the advice of the wicked, not walking on the path of sinners, or sitting in the seat of mockers.” As Elwell puts it: “the corrosive influence of the cynical” as opposed to “taking pleasure instead in every revelation of the mind and will of God, feeding his mental life on the divine Word.”

What do you expose your roots to?  What are you reading? To whom are you listening? What are you programming your mind with? How life-giving are the things that you do?  Are you in the company of people that help you to thrive? What thoughts are you harboring in your mindscape?

As below, so above! (2X). Where you nourish your roots, influence your leaves and the fruit!

Let your roots grow into the fertile earth with the water of life that God offers you. Soak your ears, thoughts, heart, and daily life in the life-giving presence of God’s love. 

 The reference to “the law of the Lord” here doesn’t just mean the Ten Commandments.  The Law of the Lord refers to the first five books of the Bible, or rather, it means “teaching” or ‘instruction,” and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will. 

Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules for which one is duly rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that involves — indeed requires — constant meditation (“day and night”) upon God’s will.

Jesus would later summarize the Torah as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

Love leads to life!  Dip your roots in love, and life will appear!  Here you find plenty of stability and plenty of moisture.  The roots are stable, strong, and quite literally well-grounded.

The gifts and goodness of God are not earned through heroic effort and stamina. Psalm 1 tells us that goodness is borne of a deep receptive attitude. The metaphor of the tree planted by a stream suggests that goodness is the fruit that organically results when we allow ourselves to be nourished.  No striving toward some impossible ideal? Just allowing ourselves to be well-watered and trusting in the outcome?

It is worth noting that the tree of verse 3 does not plant itself. Indeed, the text employs a passive paarticiple to emphasize the point that the tree/happy person is set where the tree will remain fruitful, verdant, and prosperous. The fact that the tree is planted and well placed undermines any notion that the happy person precipitated her own prosperity by dodging the wicked or by marathon Bible study.

Yes, we can make ourselves perish, but only God can make us flourish. The verb “planted” in verse 3 is actually the verb “transplanted.” We don’t plant ourselves by streams of water; the Gardner transplants us. Blessedness, happiness, fruitfulness, and prosperity are not achievements; they are gifts that we receive by trusting, delighting, and loving God.

Naturally, faith formation (Spiritual Growth) has a better chance of taking root if we place ourselves in a position not to be seduced by the counsel of the wicked. Obviously, we are more likely to “bear fruit” if we put ourselves in a place to consider God’s word (Colossians 1:6). But none of that can serve as a formula or guarantee that we will likewise prosper. These verses are descriptive, not prescriptive. Everything forever depends on God’s grace.

The verb in verse 2, “meditate” in Hebrew, is the word “hagah.” In his book Eat This Book, Eugene Petersen explains how he understands “hagah”…

He writes, “Years ago, I owned a dog who had a fondness for large bones. Fortunately for him, we lived in the forested foothills of Montana. In his forest rambles, he often came across a carcass of a white-tailed deer brought down by coyotes. Later he would show up on our stone, lakeside patio carrying or dragging his trophy, usually a shank or a rib; he was a small dog, and the bone was often nearly as large as he was. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the routine: he would proudly and playfully parade before us with his prize, wagging his tail, proud of his find, courting our approval. And, of course, we approve, lavishing praise on him…. But after a while, sated with our applause, he would drag the bone off twenty yards to a more private place, usually the shade of a large moss-covered boulder, and go to work on the bone. The social aspects of the bone were behind him now; now, the pleasure was solitary. He gnawed and chewed the bone, turned it over and around, licked it, worried it. Sometimes we would hear a low rumble or growl, which would be a purr in a cat.”

It was a hagah, a growl of concentration, of pleasure, as he slowly but surely devoured the bone. The writer of Psalm 1 says that growling over God’s Torah is the secret of a deeply rooted, heavily fruited, always prosperous, thoroughly righteous life.

The goal of meditation is to know God better and to apply God’s word to our lives. This reaches well beyond just learning facts about the Bible. It calls us to love and trust the God of the Bible.  Meditation is integrating God’s gifts into my life!

The psalm does not call “blessed” someone who blindly follows all the rules as if God were interested in a kind of surface conformity. What is important is not rules but to realize that God’s intention for us is beautiful, joyful, and life-giving. God’s will for us is nothing other than his love. If we take time to integrate or “meditate” on love, this can become a way to allow full and authentic life to begin to grow within us.

True happiness is more a place where we are in God than an emotional state we are in. In psalm 1, happiness is not merely a subjective state of mind but an objective condition in union with Christ through the Water of Life in the Spirit.

The poet says, here is the world in all its complexity, with all its conflicting advice, diverse ways of living, and complicated ideas about life, death, and happiness. But in reality, we have to choose between two options:

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” opens with this line:

 “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and ends with these immortal words:

Somewhere ages and ages hence;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

That is exactly what Psalm 1 says. Which road you choose, which way of life you pursue, and which voice you obey “makes all the difference,” both in this life and “ages and ages hence.” Choose the wrong road, and you will be like chaff that the wind blows away, light, loose, and lifeless.

The translation “prosper” in verse 3 has also contributed to the misunderstanding of Psalm 1 since it has suggested to many commentators the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward, since “prosper” in English could be understood as material wealth. A better translation is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit.  There is vitality in all the seasons of the soul!

This stability, safety and vitality in Psalm 1 clearly comes from “the Lord that watches over the way of the righteous.” That doesn’t mean that he merely watches us from a distance. The Hebrew word translated “watches over” in the NIV is really the word for “know” in the most personal sense. It refers to a personal relationship and loving concern. Notice that the Psalm does not say that the righteousness of the righteous is the basis for their prosperity, but the fact that God is in relationship with them, that God knows them, and that God protects them. Their destiny is the result of God’s protection.

Scripture uses trees to show how God blesses us in abundance: “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever” (52:8). Another claims, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (92:12), and goes on to speak of their powers to bear fruit even in old age. Another says that the children of the faithful will be “like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3).

Our theme for next year as a congregation is Growing Together. The growth is not produced by us.  But we can let our roots grow deeper into the abundance that God offers each one of us individually and collectively.  If you fail to find the thriving, the answer lies not in superficial change, but, as below, so above…. Finding delight and vitality in God’s presence!

Beloved, you are planted next to an ever-flowing life-giving stream of God’s presence. Soak your roots into the nutrients of God’s gifts that lead to growth, substance, everlasting firmness, solidity, thriving and flourishing.  Delighting in and meditating on Love is the key to true lasting happiness.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” which one are you going to take?

That will make all the difference!


Tree of Life

Tree of Life and awesome mystery,

In your death we are reborn,

Though you die in all of history,

Still you rise with every morn,

Still you rise with every morn.

Seed that dies to rise in glory,

May we see ourselves in you,

If we learn to live your story

We may die to rise anew,

We may die to rise anew.

We remember truth once spoken,

Love passed on through act and word,

Every person lost and broken

Wears the body of our Lord,

Wears the body of our Lord.

Gentle Jesus, mighty Spirit,

Come inflame our hearts anew,

We may all your joy inherit

If we bear the cross with you,

If we bear the cross with you.

Christ, you lead and we shall follow,

Stumbling though our steps may be,

One with you in joy and sorrow,

We the river, you the sea,

We the river, you the sea.

Light of life beyond conceiving,

Mighty Spirit of our Lord;

Give new strength to our believing,

Give us faith to live your word.

Give us faith to live your word.

From the dawning of creation,

You have loved us as your own;

Stay with us through all temptation,

Make us turn to you alone.

Make us turn to you alone.

In our call to be a blessing,

May we be a blessing true;

May we live and die confessing

Christ as Lord of all we do.

Christ as Lord of all we do.

Living Water of salvation,

Be the fountain of each soul;

Springing up in new creation,

Flow in us and make us whole.

Flow in us and make us whole.

Give us eyes to see you clearly,

Make us children of your light;

Give us hearts to live more nearly

As your gospel shining bright.

As your gospel shining bright.

God of all our fear and sorrow,

God who lives beyond our death;

Hold us close through each tomorrow,

Love as near as every breath.

Love as near as every breath.

Marty Haugen