A tall tree often represented leaders or nations who defied God. In several of these examples, a cedar is used to symbolize their pride and rebellion. Cedars can grow to 80 ft. high and have long, spreading branches; their timber is known for its beauty and strength (Packer, 255, 256). Cedar wood was used for David's and Solomon's houses, for idol worship (Isaiah 44:14-15), and for building ships (Ezekiel 27:5) (Ryken, 256).
In Ezekiel chapter 17, a parable is given to Israel about a cedar whose topmost branch is taken off and transplanted, but it withers. This is a rebuke to King Zedekiah of Judah, who had disobeyed God in turning to the Egyptians for deliverance from Babylon. God says that he himself will take off a top sprig and plant it on a mountain so that it will "bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar" (verse 23 ESV). God pronounces himself clearly in charge of all nations by declaring, "And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it" (verse 24 ESV).
God rebukes Egypt, seemingly comparing it to Assyria (one commentary argues that this passage has nothing to do with Assyria, but that the word usually translated as Assyria could be "ashshur" meaning "sherbin" instead of Assyria; see Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary [Chicago: Moody Press, 1990], 748) , as a towering, flourishing cedar, that "no tree in the garden of God" could equal in beauty, and the envy of all the trees in Eden (Ezekiel 31:1-9 ESV). But because of its pride, this tree was allowed by God to be cut down because no tree "by the water" will be allowed to grow so tall, instead being cast down to the "pit" and to Sheol, the abode of the dead (verses 14-17).
God concludes, "Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. 'This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord GOD'" (verse 18 ESV). One commentary notes that the Egyptians, like the Jews, practiced circumcision (Wycliffe, 749), so telling them they would lie with the uncircumcised would have been an especially humiliating reproach.
Similar imagery is found in Daniel 4 where King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream or vision of a "tree in the midst of the earth" that "reached to heaven," but is chopped down and its branches stripped, although a stump is left (verses 19-15, ESV). Daniel's interpretation is that King Nebuchadnezzar will lose his mind and become like an animal for a period of time so that he and others will recognize that the Most High God rules "the realm of mankind" (verses 20-27 NASB). A point of interest is that in verse 4, the king states that before this vision he was "prospering" (ESV) or "flourishing" (NASB) in his palace. The word here for "prospering" and "flourishing" is the same word (Strong's 7488, "luxuriant") as found in Psalm 37:35, "I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil."
This term for flourishing is sometimes rendered as "spreading" and is used in some translations in passages describing pagan worship among the "spreading trees." Those who attempt to set themselves up against or above the one living God are as flourishing trees that endeavor to grow up towards heaven without acknowledging or subjecting themselves to God.
In addition to trees representing pride in certain cases, being hung on a tree is considered God's curse (judgment) on sin (Genesis 40:18; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29; and Esther 2:23), and God's condemnation is sometimes shown in descriptions of trees languishing, not yielding fruit, or drying up, as in Exodus 20:47 and Joel 1:7, 12.
King Nebuchadnezzar's description of the tree in his vision as being in "the midst of the earth" (verse 10) is reminiscent of many pagan myths that tell of a "world tree" or "cosmic tree" in the middle of the earth that connects to the underworld with its roots, to the earth with its trunk, and to the heavens with its branches, and is seen as a pathway between earth and heaven (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, Trans. John Buchanan-Brown [London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1996], 1026, 1027; Cooper, 177; Tresidder, 208; Philip Carr-Gomm, The Druid Tradition [Rockport, MA: Element Books Inc., 1991], 108). Could this possibly be a reference in some way to the lost tree of life in Eden, universally preserved, though with the original meaning obscured, through pagan myths and legends?
Many references are made in the Hebrew Scriptures to the worship of false gods at the high places, under the trees, and to images made of wood. High places were usually on prominent hills or rises; at Gezer (Isaiah 57:5), firstborn babies were slaughtered and their bodies placed in jars near the high place (Unger, 569). The chief gods were associated with natural phenomena, such as storms, rain, the sun and moon, crops, the sky, the sea, and vegetation (Packer, 107).
Canaanite worship, which was very influential in the Near East, included crude sexual rites of fertility that incorporated "orgiastic nature worship" (Packer, 110; R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.; Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970], 167; Unger, 603). The chief god was El, whose consort, Asherat, was known to the Israelites as Asherah. Of Amorite origin, then Canaanite and possibly Phoenician, this goddess was worshipped at hill shrines and linked with fertility rituals (Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods, [NY, NY: Facts On File, Inc., 1993], 27). Their offspring was the fertility god, Baal, who succeeded El as the main god (Harrison, 167). Baal's consort, Anat, was eventually identified with Asherah (also known as Astarte and Ashteroth). Excavations in the Phoenicia area revealed a center of worship to Anat, known for its fertility rites of ceremonial prostitution (Harrison, 168; Jordan, 17). Figures of these goddesses have been found throughout Palestine, depicted with exaggerated sexual features (Harrison, 168; Jordan 17).
God's people often turned away from him to follow the pagan ways around them: "They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth" (Judges 2:13 ESV). Canaanites and other Near Eastern peoples worshipped in groves or under green trees with thick foliage (Ezekiel 6:13; 20:28) such as the oak, terebinth (Is 1.29-30, 57:5) and poplar "where the shade is pleasant" (Hosea 4.13 NIV) (Unger, 1306). Not only were wooded areas used as places of worship (Unger, 604), but wood from trees was used to craft images of the goddess Asherah. The most prominent cult object associated with Asherah was a piece of wood (also called an Asherah pole), which was the image of the goddess and was usually erected besides Canaanite shrines (Harrison, 169-70; Jordan, 27; Unger, 484, 569). Canaanite religion involved "ritual prostitution, child sacrifice, and licentious worship" (Harrison, 170; Unger, 569). It is insightful to note that "Asherah" is translated "grove" in the King James version and in Greek and Latin versions of the Bible, since the goddess was associated with worship in those places (Harrison; Holman, 111; Jordan, 27). Veneration of Asherah continued until the 4th century A.D. when Emperor Theodosius destroyed her worship centers (Unger, 603).
Worship of and sacrifices to false gods under luxuriant or green trees is forbidden and condemned in several passages, as is worship of Asherah. Some passages that specifically mention worship of false gods under trees are: Deuteronomy 12:2, 16:20; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:4, 17:10; 2 Chronicles 28:4; Jerermiah 3:6, 13; Ezekiel 6:13, 20:28-29; and Hosea 4:12, 13. God condemns this very pointedly to Israel in Isaiah: "Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, you who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks?" (Is. 57:4b-5 ESV). Child sacrifice often accompanied such rites.
Using the wood of trees to make idols also garners God's censure. A sample passage states, "Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, 'Come to life!'" (Habakkuk 2:18,19a NIV). In Isaiah 44:13-20, God mocks those who cut a tree down and use part of it to build a fire and the other part to fashion idols: "I fall down before a block of wood" (verse 19 NASB). Through the prophet Jeremiah, in chapter 2:26-28, God rebukes this worship of idols, telling his people that they can call on the lifeless pieces of wood for help since they have turned from the true God. Other passages condemning idols of wood include Deuteronomy 4:28, 28:64, 29:16-18; Judges 6:26-27; 2 Kings 19:17, 18; Isaiah 40:20; Daniel 5:4, 23; and Hosea 4:12. In the Judges passage, God tells Gideon to tear down an altar to Baal and use the wood of an Asherah pole, apparently located at the Baal shrine, to build a fire for sacrifice to God.