In Genesis 2:9 we first hear about the tree of life. We don’t know too much about it, other than that it is the midst of the garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve are barred from it after the fall, lest they eat from it and live forever. The tree, now hopelessly out of reach, seems capable of bestowing eternal life. So from Genesis 3 onward, the tree of life is a symbol of what we’ve lost, an unending life of joyful dependence on God, enjoying him and his good gifts forever. In a picture of a future glorious restoration, the tree reappears in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 2:7 and 22:1–2) as the world is made new and a renewed creation beckons. Indeed, in Revelation 22 the tree is on either side of the river of water of life. It is as if the tree has multiplied into a grove of trees. The picture of abundant life could not be more beautiful.
What comes as a surprise, however, is where else the tree of life makes an appearance in the Bible. Do you know where to look?
It finds a home in the wisdom literature:
[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.Proverbs 3:18 (ESV Anglicised)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,Proverbs 11:30
and whoever captures souls is wise.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,Proverbs 13:12
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
It is remarkable to learn that in between the peace of Eden and the perfection of the new creation there is something in this life that is like a recovery of the tree of life: wisdom. This means is that if we want the Eden life again (Genesis 2), and if we want the new creation life (Revelation 22), we need wisdom. The Bible is full of organic imagery to show us what is beautiful and what life should be like—think of Israel as a vineyard (Isaiah 5), Jesus as the true vine (John 15), God growing in us the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). The tree of life functions like this when it appears in the Bible’s wisdom literature. It means that wisdom is fruitful, it is beautiful, it is not an intellectual capacity so much as it is simply a picture of life as it was meant to be lived. If you want to get as close as you can to the garden, you need wisdom.
This means that the Bible’s wisdom is a most precious gift. I love these words from Derek Kidner:
“… there are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm, asking what a person is like to live with, or to employ; how he manages his affairs, his time, and himself.”
(Proverbs, IVP 1964, 13)
Although he is speaking about Proverbs, I believe these wonderful words are also true of other parts of Scripture we specifically recognize as wisdom literature (Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). God has given us clear precepts to address issues of character, discernment, and godly decision making—markers that make so much of a difference in how we live the life of faith. Job helps us embark on a journey towards the right kind of ignorance, because so much about who we are rebels against being ignorant. Song of Songs sings to us about love and sex and God, and about what can go wrong in sex and love without God. And Ecclesiastes tells us that character not shaped by the right view of death will lead to a misshapen soul and a mis-firing life.
I write these words as a forty-five-year-old, the reality of death seeming just a little bit closer than it did even ten years ago. I encounter reminders of mortality more often. It is now my close friends who are starting to get cancer. A friend I studied theology with at university blacked out at the wheel of his car, causing him to crash and die, leaving behind his wife and young children. A few years ago, a week after Easter, I buried one of the most wonderful women in our church family that I’ve ever known. A missionary friend church planting in Europe died tragically in a mountaineering accident, and as a pastor said at his funeral, “he was the best of us.” My mother’s close friend lost her husband a few years ago. She and my mother are at stage of life now where they make big decisions to prepare for the end of life, not big decisions about whole new chapters of life.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote to say: I can help you with all of this. I can help you with it by introducing you to death now, in advance, before you meet it yourself or have to face it up close and personal in the death of those you love. There is wisdom in Ecclesiastes that can introduce fine-grained godliness into your character. There is a way to live now, today, in the light of death that is wise; in fact, that is so wise that living like this will be like a tree of life to you.
It will nourish and sustain you and keep you in the Lord Jesus for eternal life.
Ecclesiastes: Life in the Light of Eternity
Listening carefully to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes will topple your false hopes in temporary comforts and achievements and steer you toward the unshakable hope you have in Jesus. Life is difficult and faith is a constant challenge, but dismantling your time-bound idols will help you look ahead to a hope-filled eternity and will equip you to live generously, wisely, and happily.