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The Tree of Life...In Proverbs?
The ways Solomon employs a remnant of Eden
The language “tree of life” appears first in Genesis, where God planted a garden in Eden and put a “tree of life” in the midst of it (Gen. 2:9). When Adam and Eve were exiled and then barred from reentering Eden, we’re told it was so that Adam could not “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22).
Besides Genesis 2—3, there is only one other book in the Old Testament where the “tree of life” is mentioned, and that book is Proverbs.
The phrase “tree of life” appears in Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; and 15:4.
First, 3:18. Solomon is talking about wisdom when he says, “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” He uses the “tree of life” to mean the lifegiving effects of wisdom. Those who find wisdom are blessed; they are spiritually enlivened, as if they’re eating from the tree of life.
Second, 11:30. Solomon says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise.” The word “fruit” has in view the actions that the righteous perform and the resulting impact. The decisions of the righteous have consequences, and these consequences are good. Because the righteous pursue what is good, the fruit of their actions is lifegiving to others—like “a tree of life.”
Third, 13:12. Solomon taught, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” This verse is about what happens to the heart when the fulfillment of hope is prolonged or when a desire is fulfilled. When hope is deferred, the heart is saddened. But the heart is thrilled, full of life, when a desire is met. The phrase “tree of life” denotes a rejuvenated state of the heart.
Fourth, 15:4. Solomon said, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” This proverb is about how our words can affect others. We can build up or destroy, edify or tear down. A twisted (or perverse) tongue breaks the spirit of another person, but a gentle tongue is “a tree of life” to another person. Our wise words bear good fruit that others taste and are thereby nourished.
Put simply, the “tree of life” is the tree with fruit that gives life, that spiritually nourishes.
Because wisdom is lifegiving for the one who has wisdom, and because the acts of the righteous are lifegiving to those around them, and because the fulfillment of godly desires are lifegiving to the one with those desires, and because wise words are lifegiving to those who hear them, Solomon employs the Edenic “tree of life” image to make his “lifegiving” point.
Though we are not in Eden and have no access to the actual tree of life that was in the midst of the garden, we can pursue wisdom and live wisely before the Lord. The echoes of Eden are experienced as we grow in the fear of the Lord and walk uprightly on the path of life that is truly life.
I love the way Matthew Henry connects the lives of the saints with the tree of life. He said, “The fruits of their piety and charity, their instructions, reproofs, examples, and prayers, their interest in heaven, and their influence upon earth, are like the fruits of that tree, precious and useful, contributing to the support and nourishment of the spiritual life in many; they are the ornaments of paradise, God’s church on earth, for whose sake it stands.”