The fig tree, along with the olive tree and grapevine, symbolised the great abundance to be found in the Promised Land (Deut. 8:8). Also, being able to enjoy the fruit of one’s fig tree meant, for the Israelites, to enjoy ideal circumstances (e.g., 1 Kgs. 4:25; 2 Kgs. 18:31 par. Isa. 36:16; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10). On the other hand, the destruction of the fig tree featured in prophecies of divine punishment for Israel’s sins, symbolizing national threats (e.g., Jer. 5:17; Hos. 2:12; Joel 1:7, 12; Amos 4:9).
It is fitting then that Jesus used the fig tree in Matt. 21:18-22 to illustrate the unfruitful nation of Israel. After his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he went straight to the temple. There he found total indifference to the true worship and praise of God. Instead of a house of prayer, he found a den of robbers. They had converted the outer court meant for Gentiles into a marketplace for pilgrims. Any Gentile who wanted to worship and pray to the God of Israel, would have to do so amidst the throng of the buying and selling. Without doubt, the noise of this market would have been audible from the inner courts as well. The religious authority had done nothing to remove this practice and restore order and peace in the temple. This clearly shows a complete disregard to the spiritual needs of the people. The continued use of the outer court as a marketplace must have been seen as a pragmatic solution for the convenience of the pilgrims.
Jesus thought otherwise and promptly cleared the premises. Interestingly, the chief priests and the scribes did not react immediately and directly to his actions. Perhaps, deep down they knew that Jesus was doing the right thing.
This event may be seen as God’s way of checking the fruitfulness of Israel (Luke 13:6). Tragically, no fruit was found. Even though Israel had all the external indication of a nation practicing their religious obligations, it was judged by Jesus and he did not find what he was looking for. The end result was a curse, a pronounced judgement, that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the temple. It was eventually destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans and was never rebuilt again.
For the people of God today, we can also easily fall into this trap of having any outward appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5). Do we claim to know God, but our lives are devoid of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23)? May the Lord help us to examine our lives and to renew our commitment to trust Him in all things in faith that leads to prayer (Matt. 21:21-22).
Dn. Mervin Lin