Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #796 -- May 3, 2020
Of all man's works of art, a cathedral is greatest.
Yet, a vast and majestic tree is greater than that.

Henry Ward Beecher {1813-1887}
Proverbs From Plymouth Pulpit

Proverb of a Moist Green Tree
Puzzling Prophetic Pronouncement of Jesus to
Daughters of Jerusalem Prior to His Crucifixion

As Solomon brought the book we know as Ecclesiastes to an end, he made this observation: "Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care" (Ecclesiastes 12:9). Every society throughout mankind's history has sought to convey to its people and the generations yet to come the wisdom derived from experience, and one of the forms whereby this wisdom is conveyed is in proverbs. "A proverb is a short sentence based on long experience," wrote Cervantes (1547-1616). Lord John Russell (1792-1878) added: "It is the wit of one man, the wisdom of many." By definition, a proverb is "a short, concise, popular or traditional saying expressing an obvious truth with words of advice or warning." Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was quite correct, I believe, when he opined that "the genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs." I like the image conveyed by the renowned English novelist Charles Reade (1814-1884): "Proverbs put old heads on young shoulders." We (young and old) should never be reluctant to consider that wisdom born of experience that is frequently found in such proverbial statements penned and preserved by those who have lived before us.

Much could be said about how the biblical writers utilized the various tools of language and composition, especially as it pertains to the many figures of speech available to them. That is beyond the scope of this present study, however. For those who would like to examine this in greater depth, I would recommend my study titled "Figures of Speech & Thought: Creative Communicative Building Blocks" (Reflections #356) in which I examine not only proverbs, but 21 other common (and uncommon) building blocks utilized by the inspired writers of the Bible. Suffice it to say, Jesus made use of a number of these figures of speech and thought. He was especially fond of parables. "Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, He never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: 'I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world'" (Matthew 13:34-35, New Living Translation). Jesus also made use of proverbs, and it is one of these in particular that has puzzled disciples of Christ for centuries. It is found on the lips of Jesus as He was being led to His crucifixion. To some of the women in the crowd following along to witness His death, He made this statement: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us,' and to the hills, 'Cover us.' For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:28-31, English Standard Version).

It is that last line (vs. 31) that most people find particularly puzzling. A week or so back I got a message on Facebook from a reader in Georgia who asked, "Hey, Brother. I looked at your Reflections archives, in your "Textual Index," and didn't see any links to where you had commented on Luke 23:31. I thought this was a strange statement by Jesus, but it obviously had meaning to the listeners that day." The obvious questions on this friend's mind (as well as the minds of many, many other students of the Scriptures) are: "So, what did our Lord's words mean to them (those women listening that day), and what message did Jesus intend for us to receive from those words He uttered almost 2000 years ago?" There is no real debate among scholars as to the form of this statement by Jesus: all agree that it was "a proverbial expression." The problem is: what does it mean? And that problem is compounded over time with countless speculations as to that meaning, many of which are absolutely ludicrous. "The meaning of this proverb is not clear, and hence it early received the most absurd explanations" [The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, e-Sword]. John Wesley (1703-1791), the English clergyman and theologian who helped found the movement within the Church of England known as Methodism, was quite correct when he noted that "Our Lord makes use of a proverbial expression" that was "frequent among the Jews" [Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. This was not an unknown proverb to them, they had heard it before, but we're not them! Further, "This common proverb has various applications" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword], which has only served to add to the confusion among those disciples today who are simply seeking to understand what Jesus meant, and how that meaning has relevance for our own time and place. We must also take note of the fact that Luke's gospel account is the only one of the four that mentions this statement by Jesus: Matthew, Mark and John say nothing about it, nor does any other NT writer, which negates any hope of doing comparative studies of biblical texts that might have shed light on this exchange between Jesus and some women in the crowd as He made His way painfully to the "Place of a Skull" ("Golgotha" - Matthew 27:33) where He would experience the horrors of a death on a cross.

As we seek to make sense of verse 31 it is critical to remember one of the central tenets of biblical interpretation: context. Not only the literary and textual context of the verse itself (in relation to the verses around it), but also the cultural and historical context within which this statement by Jesus was made. As we consider the former, Luke has Jesus speaking to a specific audience: the "women who were mourning and lamenting Him" (vs. 27), who were part of "the large crowd of people" following Him as He was being led to the site of His execution. At this point Jesus had already fallen under the heavy load of the cross beam, and Simon of Cyrene was carrying it (vs. 26). Because of the wailing of these women, Jesus turned to them and addressed them as "Daughters of Jerusalem" (vs. 28). Understanding that His comments were largely gender specific (although in principle they are applicable to us all) helps us better appreciate how His comments would have been received at that specific time and place. He told these women, who were weeping for Him and His circumstances to shift their focus and weep for themselves and what was soon to come upon them. "Weep for yourselves and your children" (vs. 28). Although we should not discount the concern of men for their children, it is nevertheless generally true that women are far more sensitive to and concerned with the needs of their children; they are more emotionally invested than men (and this is mostly true in other species as well).

A time was quickly coming when the people of Judea, and Jerusalem specifically, would experience once again the horrors of the hatred of the Roman Empire for them. Their city would be sacked, their temple destroyed, their economy wrecked, their lives uprooted. Many would be mercilessly slaughtered. Famine and pestilence would descend upon them. Rome was currently occupying the land and overseeing it with a heavy hand, but things would go from bad to worse, and their oppressing of the people would become unbearable. Those who have studied the history of this time can appreciate to some degree the level of suffering these men, women and children would experience. Although Jesus was suffering that day, and these women were grieving for His affliction, they themselves were not that far off from experiencing as a nation a far more extensive time of cruelty and suffering. As they wept for Him, Jesus grieved for them! That time of suffering would be horrendous, thus Jesus said to them, "Behold, the days are coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed'" (vs. 29, New American Standard Bible).

The women of Israel placed great emphasis on bearing children, and there was no greater curse, in their minds, than to be barren. Yet, the time that was coming (and almost all scholars believe Jesus was speaking of the events before, during and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which was only a few decades away) when people would see not having children as being a blessing rather than a curse. Far worse than not having children is seeing one's children suffer and die. These people would, at that time, wish to be anywhere else than where they were and experiencing what they were experiencing. If they could hide themselves away from their oppressors, they would gladly do so, even if it meant being secluded within or underneath the nearby hills and mountains (vs. 30). Yet, escape would not be possible for the majority of those who were grieving over the fate of Jesus that day. Thus, as they wept for Him, Jesus, who knew what was soon to come upon them, shed tears of compassion for them. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!" (Matthew 23:37-38). A very graphic depiction of that coming desolation (culminating in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) was then made by Jesus, and that is preserved for us in Matthew 24 (not pleasant reading).

It was within this historical and textual context that Luke quotes Jesus as saying to these weeping women, "For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:31, English Standard Version). This is an interesting proverb that Jesus uses, and according to many scholars it was a rather common one. Several things should be noticed here before we attempt an explanation of intent. First, the Greek word which is translated "wood" by the ESV, may also be translated "tree" or "timber." If one examines enough different translations of this text, one will find each of these terms employed. Most translations favor "tree." Second, Jesus, in this statement, presents a contrast in condition between a tree or wood that is "green" and a tree or wood that is "dry." We are all familiar with a living, flourishing, fruit-bearing tree and one that is brown, dry and dead. We are also familiar with green wood and dry wood: although both will burn, the latter does so much more quickly than the former. Third, we should note that although most translations and versions of the Bible use the English word "green" here, which is the Greek word "chloros," that is NOT the word Luke uses in this verse. Instead, Luke uses a Greek word that only appears here in the entire New Testament writings. It is the word "hugros," which is the opposite of "dry," and which means "wet, moist, sappy" [W. E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 177]. It refers to living wood, not dead wood; a tree or timber that is still fresh, vibrant, alive, with its "life-blood" (sap) still in it, rather than a dry, lifeless, dead tree or piece of wood.

Luke, by placing this particular word in our Lord's statement (presumably because that is the word Jesus used when He spoke to these women), informs us that what Jesus intended when He spoke of a "green tree" was "one that is living, moist, fresh, growing or flourishing, and new" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 849]. Dr. Charles Ellicott concurs: "The 'green tree' is, therefore, that which is yet living, capable of bearing fruit; the 'dry,' that which is barren, fruitless, withered, fit only for the axe" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 356]. Drs. John McClintock and James Strong agree that the Greek word "hugros" conveyed the idea of "moist with sap; juicy; verdant with foliage; flourishing" [Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, e-Sword]. The Apostolic Bible Polyglot renders Luke 23:31 this way: "For if in the wet wood these things they do, in the dry what should happen?"

The central challenge here, of course, is to identify who or what is intended by the "wet, moist, green, fruitful, living wood" and who or what is intended by the "dry, brown, barren, unfruitful, dead wood." As noted earlier in this Reflections by the NT Greek scholar Dr. A. T. Robertson, these figures employed by Jesus in this statement are open to "various application." The primary application (i.e., the one that would be the most meaningful to the "daughters of Jerusalem" to whom Jesus was speaking) was that the "green/moist tree" was Jesus Himself, and the "dry, fruitless, lifeless" tree was a reference to the rebellious and wayward people of Israel. Jesus was filled with Life; He was the Living Branch; He was in full bloom and fruitful. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, by reason of their continual drift away from God, had ceased being fruitful and were dry, barren and dead: perfect fodder for the fire. If the "green tree" (Jesus) was at that time being "burned by Rome's fiery fury" (the crucifixion), imagine the flames that would be generated by the fiery fury of the Roman legions when they came against the "dry tree" (Israel) in 70 A.D. Thus, those weeping for Jesus as He faced the cross would do better to weep for themselves as they faced the fall of their nation. If what was happening to the "green tree" brought this level of wailing and misery, imagine the intensity of that wailing and misery when Rome's "fire" fell upon the "dry tree."

Jesus, once again, is expressing more concern for His people than His own plight. While they wept for Him, His heart was breaking for them! Why? Because He knew only too well what would soon befall them as their love for God grew colder and colder, and as their faithfulness and fruitfulness withered and died. As they witnessed the fire fall upon the "green tree," the Savior saw ahead to the fall of that fire upon the "dry tree." The Passion Translation of the New Testament renders this text: "For if this is what they do to the living Branch, what will they do with the dead ones?" "The idea of dryness suggests 'fit for burning'" [The Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary, e-Sword]. The nation had become "dry wood," even to the point of participating in the "burning" of that "green tree" which was filled with life, and which was fruitful and flourishing; which, indeed, held the promise of being their "Tree of Life" if they would but embrace this gift of grace! "Ever more thoughtful for others than for Himself, the Lord seemed to forget His griefs that He might address warnings and entreaties to these poor women. HE was the young green tree in the forest glade, consumed in the awful heat of divine burnings, while THEY and theirs were the dry wood, which would soon crackle in the overthrow of their city" [Dr. F. B. Meyer, Through the Bible Day-by-Day, e-Sword].

Most scholars agree that in the immediate context of both the textual and historical narratives, this was the primary application of the proverbial statement made by Jesus that day. There are other levels of meaning and application, however, just as one finds with most biblical prophecies. A secondary application, for example, could be that the "green/wet tree" represents those persons who have accepted God's calling, while the "dry tree" represents those who have not, but who have chosen to walk in the paths of wickedness rather than the paths of righteousness. In very similar sentiment to the proverbial expression used by Jesus, the apostle Peter wrote, "If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?" (1 Peter 4:16-18). Although Christians (the "green/wet trees") will undergo suffering and fiery ordeals here in this life, yet they know that through the victory of our Lord Jesus we have all become "more than conquerors." On the other hand, what will become of those who have rejected this great salvation?! Like dry branches they will be utterly consumed in the fury of the final fire. Both primary and secondary understandings and applications are acknowledged by Dr. Albert Barnes (and countless other scholars as well): "Our Lord alludes, evidently, to the calamities that would come upon them by the Romans in the destruction of their city and temple. The passage may be applied, however, without impropriety, and with great beauty and force, to the punishment of the wicked in the future world" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. This same dual fulfillment, by the way, may also be seen in the prophetic pronouncement of Jesus in Matthew 24.

Yes, there are times in the course of human history, and in the dealings of God with mankind throughout the ages, that "green trees" and "dry trees," fruitful trees and barren trees, good and bad, are both consumed in the outpouring of divine judgment. Sometimes good men suffer: that is a fact of life, although one difficult for many to process. But, in the ultimate eternal scheme of things, when viewed from the perspective of the Throne of God, in the end "green trees" will LIVE, even though they may suffer for a time, while the "dry trees" will DIE (being completely consumed in the final fire), even though they may prosper for a time in this temporal realm. The Lord told the prophet Ezekiel to declare to the residents of the Negev, "Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord God, 'Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it" (Ezekiel 20:47). The Lord never promised the righteous that they would be spared suffering (fiery afflictions). He promised they would LIVE in spite of them, just as He Himself lived in spite of the fiery ordeal of Golgotha. It is rather the "dry wood" (the willfully rebellious and wicked) that would be utterly consumed, forever forfeiting that promised abundant LIFE.

H. Leo Boles (1874-1946), one of the leaders in the conservative wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement about whom I wrote in Reflections #247 ("The Boles Manifesto: A Reflective Review of a Sectarian Speech Delivered by H. Leo Boles on May 3, 1939"), made this observation about our text: "Jesus here uses a common proverb to convey more vividly the awfulness of their coming sufferings. The green tree is the symbol of the righteous and the dry tree of the wicked. If an innocent man should so suffer, what would be the fate of the wicked? The green tree is representative of one which bears fruit, while the dry tree represents the one that does not bear fruit, but is ready to be burned. The Jewish people were now rejecting Him and leading Him forth to the death of the cross; upon them would come fearful judgment" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 448]. I will close with a personal application that was made by the German Augustinian monk, theologian, and reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) who wrote: "Such admonition we should accept as addressed to us. For we must all confess that we, on account of sins, are like an unfruitful, dry tree, in which there is nothing good, nor can any good come out therefrom. What will it, then, behoove us to do?!" [Quoted by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann in his Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 393]. I appreciate Luther turning the focus upon himself, and by so doing inviting us to do the same! Too often, when compared to the holiness of God and the righteousness of His Son, we find ourselves at best little more than dry, barren timbers, fit only for the fire. Yet, by the grace of our God and the willing sacrifice of Jesus (the green, moist, fruitful tree), we find that even barren, dry wood can be transformed by the power of the indwelling Spirit into blossoming, fruit-bearing branches. As Jesus walked that trail of tears to the place where He shed His blood, He nevertheless took a moment to share a powerful truth with a number of weeping women. He gave words of warning, but they were also, if properly perceived and applied, words of hope. I pray that many of those that day who heard Jesus "got the message;" I pray the same for those who hear Him today!


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Readers' Reflections

From an Author in California:

Lately I have been rereading the late Leroy Garrett's provocative book "What Must the Church of Christ Do to be Saved?" In it is a chapter on the assurance of salvation wherein he essentially affirms that "We don't really believe in the grace of God", but "We really believe in works-salvation." This is at the basis of so many of our members lacking the confidence and enjoying the assurance of being saved. Instead of saying out of humility that we are saved when asked, we reply legalistically that "we hope we are" or "we are working on it." At the core of our legalism with reference to being saved is "our" view on baptism. We have seen it as a work of righteousness on our part that procures salvation. Bro. Garrett wrote that "baptism is not our 'work of righteousness' but the work of God's grace upon us." Then he went on to give some of Alexander Campbell's thoughts on baptism. Included in Alexander Campbell's view of baptism was that it was a pardon-assuring and pardon-certifying act rather than a pardon-procuring act. That is, we do not "gain" or "procure" salvation by being baptized. ... It is God's "washing of generation" upon us, an act of grace. ... It is sad and unfortunate the effect legalism has had upon our feelings and thoughts about salvation.

From a Reader in Florida:

We have a fairly extensive nursing home ministry at our congregation with several baptisms each year. One male resident wants to be baptized. He is a heavy man with absolutely no use of his legs from birth. He also has other medical conditions that have caused the doctors and the nursing home itself, which is very accommodating to our ministry, to decline to allow him to be baptized. Should I advise the nursing home minister to wrap him in wet towels and pour water over his head? Or, should I just keep putting this man off until his doctor agrees? Or, should I go ahead and baptize him anyway, possibly risking a lawsuit and being thrown out of the facility, ending a fruitful ministry?

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, I loved this article ("Casuistry in Christianity: Reflecting on a Methodology Often Used and Abused in Applied Ethics" - Reflections #795), as I do all the things you write! I agreed with everything you wrote in it. I remember back when I was working in prison ministry that sometimes Kool-Aid was substituted for grape juice and saltine crackers were substituted for unleavened bread in order to serve Communion to the prisoners. There were some in our heritage who thought it was a "sin" to do so! However, the methodology was not nearly as important as the essence of the meaning of Communion for these prisoners. Please know how grateful I am for all the times you have set the legalists straight in their thinking! Those of us who live under grace, and not under rigid laws, find your messages so welcome. I pray for those who don't!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I loved, loved, LOVED your Reflections article on "Casuistry in Christianity." I think you captured the essence of the intellectual construct and gave some excellent examples from the Scriptures of when the Law just falls short and we need to use our brains. I think Jesus Himself made excellent points when He asked, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Even the example of the "donkey in the ditch" is an excellent illustration of how we just need to occasionally use our God-given brain instead of mindlessly following rules to our own, and to others', destruction. I really liked the example of Rahab lying to save the Israelite spies. She is considered one of the heroes of faith, and she is in the line of our Savior Jesus. She must have been one cool customer! I think you really drew the distinction between casuistry, which is a very "sturdy" intellectual construction, and sophistry, which can lead one down some very strange pathways indeed. The Pharisees used sophistry to justify not taking care of parents, but Jesus blew that apart in Matthew 15. I am intrigued to know what some of your readers think about your article on casuistry. Sometimes, thinking just takes work, but we are not unequipped. I really appreciate you giving this topic the "Reflections treatment."

From a Reader in Wyoming:

Brother Al, let me take just a moment of your time to thank you for another well done article ("Casuistry in Christianity"). It is "a breath of fresh air" to my spirit when any argument in question is given fairness to both sides of the coin in the search for the treasure of Truth. I humbly bow my head for beliefs held that are steeped in and held captive to a traditional box of flawed logic. Your article hit home for an experience flashback in which a Harding University Bible student once bared his heart in a classroom discussion of partaking the Lord's Supper on a Vietnam battlefield. With bullets flying and fearful for his life, this soldier, realizing it was Sunday, took out his rations of water and crackers and "communed" with the Lord. His question was a heart-searching quest to know if he had "sinned" and "shamed" the memorial by his use of those elements. There were a number of harsh judgmental comments and responses lacking in compassion toward a man we all knew simply had a desire to please our Lord. For those critics, my personal response was a picture of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, except it was me doing this via my thoughts and feelings of anger. I was inclined to shout judgmentally, "Your God is too small." Yet, even to this day I have a moment of "Peter in tears," for in fear, and in lack of faith and spiritual maturity, I held back in standing up for my brother that day at Harding. The blessed hope, both for me and those beloved brothers, is that we are all more seasoned in faith, knowledge and understanding than we were then: the impact of His grace realized! Anyway, brother, keep blessing lives as you are doing. You are a very special tool in the Lord's service, and I give thanks to God for you, and I pray for you to be protected against Satan's relentless schemes to defeat you and us!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

There are subjects that, when fully and fairly covered, have a left, a right, and a middle lesson. The problem is: those who believe it is all left, or all right, sometimes completely miss the lesson in the middle. Thanks for your many articles which provide a complete analysis, but my special thanks to you for this one ("Casuistry in Christianity").

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Thank you, Al, for your study on "Casuistry in Christianity." This was most interesting and informative.

From a Ministry Leader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, your writings really touch my heart and instruct my mind! I have never been a preacher or teacher, but I do enjoy "living the Scriptures," at least as much as I am able at my age. God bless you for helping so many see the road ahead better.

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