Like thriving palm


I was asked by a friend a little while ago about what palm trees symbolise in Scripture.

This kind of question is very difficult to answer. The Scriptures do not tend to use symbols as mere “synonyms” for other things or concepts. The meaning of a symbol in any given scene or passage has a great deal to do with what that symbol has been associated with previously, and what that established meaning has to do with the present scene.

I don’t think it is possible or desirable to codify a set of rules for this kind of reading of Scripture, and I don't think I could prove in any given passage that This Symbol certainly has This Meaning. However, there is rhyme and reason to the use of symbolism in Scripture.

The best way to explain this is just to show my working. I’ve found what seem to be some significant passages featuring palm trees or palm branches. They each have something to contribute to our inquiry, but not as isolated passages: every passage, in a way, has something to say about all the other passages.

Men like trees

Before considering palm trees in particular, we should start with trees themselves. There is a kind of affinity between trees and human beings, as James Jordan has noted in Trees and Thorns and elsewhere. Trees are brought forth from the earth on the third day; men are formed from the same earth on the sixth day. Trees are seed-bearing plants, bearing fruit after their own kind; likewise, human beings are made to be fruitful and multiply, through their seed.

Therefore, God’s curses to Adam and Eve are appropriately paralleled: on account of Adam, the earth bears the curse and will bring up thorns and thistles; for Eve, her womb bears the curse, and in pain she will bring forth thorny children like Cain.

This association between trees and people is stated perhaps most clearly and notably in the first psalm: the blessed, righteous man is like a fruitful and prosperous tree (Ps. 1:3).


Palm trees first appear in the Exodus, just after Israel crosses the Sea. They grumble for water, so the Lord brings the children of Israel to camp at Elim, where there is an oasis of a sort: twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees (Exo. 15:27).

As is often noted, the numbers twelve and seventy each have significant associations: the number twelve should make us think immediately of the nation of Israel, which is formed of twelve tribes. The number seventy should make us think of the non-Israelite Gentile-nations: we first see the nations counted out as seventy in the table of nations in Genesis 10. Simply by using these numbers, the author invites us to see Israel as springs of water and the nations as palm trees.

Israel has just been rescued from Egypt, and they are en route to Mount Sinai, where the Lord will declare to them that they shall be “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). At this point, it is appropriate to include this symbol of Israel’s vocation and mission. Israel is to channel God’s living water to the dry, thirsty Gentile-nations so that they will grow and flourish.

The Feast of Tabernacles

Israel is commanded to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. For our purposes, it is worth nothing that this feast takes place “when you have gathered in the produce of the land” (Lev. 23:39). Amongst other things, Israel is instructed to use branches of palm trees in their rejoicing before the Lord. They are to dwell in their tents, recalling the era in which they dwelled around the tent of the Lord in the wilderness.

As the Feast of Tabernacles coming at the end of Israel's festal calendar, it does have a kind of Sabbath association. I suggest that this festival symbolises Israel’s vocation to gather in the Gentile-nations in the fulness of time


Jericho is the first city in the land conquered by Israel. It is called “the city of palm trees” in Deuteronomy 34:3 and 2 Chronicles 28:15. Perhaps we should see Rahab and her household as an initial fulfilment of the promise of the Feast of Tabernacles: she is gathered in from amongst the nations.

Deborah & Jael

Why is Deborah sitting under a palm tree in Judges 4:5? This was the most unclear text I looked at, but I have a tentative suggestion that seems to make some sense.

The clue is not in Deborah herself, but in Jael, her female counterpart. Jael is married to Heber the Kenite, the Kenites being those descended from Hobab the father-in-law of Moses (Jud. 4:11). While the Kenites might be presumed to have some allegiance to or affinity with Israel because of this history, Heber seems to have gone rogue and made some kind of alliance with Jabin king of Hazor, a Canaanite enemy of Israel (v. 17).

As Jael performs her masterstroke against Sisera, we should not miss the very significant fact that that she does this in her tent. Deborah sings that Jael is “of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Jud. 5:24).

I think the first passing mention of the palm tree is to clue us into this Feast of Tabernacles theme in the background of this story. Jael lives, as it were, in a perpetual Feast of Tabernacles, and the story seems to be the occasion for her being gathered into Israel.

Solomon's temple

Psalm 92 develops the imagery of the first psalm: righteous men are not simply fruitful trees, but they are fruitful, green palm trees and cedars of Lebanon (Ps. 92:13).

The temple setting of the psalm is important here. We will recall that Solomon’s building of the temple involved actual contribution from and the symbolic inclusion of the Gentile-nations: Hiram of Tyre provided cedars of Lebanon for the temple’s construction (1 Ki. 5:5-6), and images of palm trees were carved into the temple’s walls (1 Ki. 6:32, 35). Solomon’s temple also features an enormous cast metal “sea” resting upon the backs of twelve oxen (1 Ki. 7:23-26) and ten large water basins on stands (1 Ki. 7:38-39).

We should see these elements together as answering to the oasis we first saw at Elim: the Temple is a site of living water to which the Gentiles will come and flourish. Solomon declares the purpose of the Temple in his dedication:

that all people of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee, as do thy people Israel; and that they may know that this house, which I have builded, is called by thy name. [1 Ki. 8:43]

Placing this imagery in a psalm allows the imagery to be more than something that is read or heard about, but actually placed in the mouths of God’s people as they declare this about themselves. By singing this psalm, Israel testified that the Gentiles had a future among them, forming a united house with them.

Solomon's bride

The Song of Songs associates the lover of the King of Israel, the Shulamite woman, with the palm tree (Song 7:7). She is also spoken of as a vine (v. 9), which has strong associations with the nation of Israel elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Is. 5; cf. Ps. 128). She is pomegranates and apples (Song 7:8, 12). She is a fruitful and delightful garden (4:12)!

The association of the woman with a garden should of course draw our minds back to the garden of Eden–and, in the context of this study, it might also remind us of the oasis at Elim. We should also consider the ways in which the temple that Solomon built is analogous to the beloved of Solomon in this Song.

The bride under judgment

The imagery from Song of Songs reappears in Joel—but the bride is under judgment! The vine, fig tree, pomegranate, palm and apple trees are dried up, and so the celebrations and good times have come to an end (Joel 1:12). That this especially relates to the house of God is made clear in the following verse (v. 13). Fittingly, even the bride and bridegroom are implored to postpone their tryst in their chamber to mourn in a solemn assembly (2:15-16).

In these passages, the palm tree is associated not directly with the Gentiles themselves, but more directly with the temple, the house of God.

Triumphal entry to Jerusalem

The triumphal entry is perhaps the thing we first think of when we think of palm trees or branches in Scripture. While all gospels mention branches here, only John’s gospel mentions that these were palm branches (John 12:13).

We might not be surprised to note that, almost immediately after we have seen these palm branches waved around, John brings to our attention that “among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks” (John 12:20, ESV).

It is surely significant that the last time we saw Greeks mentioned in John was at the Feast of Tabernacles. On that occasion, Jesus declared that he was going to his Father, and that where he was going, his hearers couldn’t come. This puzzled his hearers, leading some to wonder aloud whether he intended “to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The palm branches recall the Feast of Tabernacles, and so allude to Christ’s work of ingathering, not only the dispersed Jews, but also the Gentiles with them. Jesus’ death will gather into one the children of God scattered abroad (John 11:51-52). Jesus’ death will be like the dying of a seed, which causes much fruit to be produced (12:24). As Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he will draw all men to himself (v. 32).

A great multitude of all nations

In Revelation, the branches of the palm tree appear one last time, and many of these pieces we’ve seen above come together.

After John sees the 144,000 sealed from the tribes of Israel, John sees a great multitude “of all nations [that is, Gentiles], and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9). It should not surprise us to see this vast Gentile throng before the throne with palm branches: this is the ingathering of Gentiles that Israel has been anticipating since they first celebrated the feast of tabernacles. Fittingly, these saints are promised relief and shade from the sun (v. 16). They are lead to fountains of living waters, like the oasis at Elim (v. 17).

The theme of the union of Jews and Gentile-nations is a mega-theme throughout the New Testament, and no less in Revelation. The Old Jerusalem seduced the Gentile-nations and their kings (Rev. 14:8; 17:2), which we could perhaps see as a kind of false ingathering: not gathering for true worship, but for idolatry. The book of Revelation declares Christ’s judgment on the great harlot city who had pierced him, and his preparing of the pure bride New Jerusalem, who together with the Spirit will welcome the nations and their kings to worship God (Rev. 21:24; 22:7).

The Feast of Tabernacles thus reaches its end-point: the Gentile-nations have been gathered into the people of God, a new Temple-Bride has been formed, and the tabernacle of God is with men (Rev. 21:3).


There is perhaps much more that could be said about this question. If pressed to give a quick answer to the original question, I’d say something like: the palm tree symbolises the Gentiles being gathered into Israel so that together they can form his house.

But I would also want to press in reply that there’s so much more to the symbolism than a pithy statement like the one above can fully express.


The difficulty with a study like this is knowing where to stop. It really began to feel as though I could pull on this thread forever. Here are a smattering of extra things I found along the way:

  • The name Tamar means palm, or date-palm. What might the things we've seen above teach us about the stories of the various characters named Tamar?
  • Balaam compares Israel to palm groves and cedars beside rivers (Num. 24:6). Why would this come on the lips of Balaam? Why at this point in Israel's story?
  • The Greek theme of the triumphal entry seems to go even further. John cites Zechariah 9:9 in his gospel. Verse 13 of that passage goes on to say: “I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior's sword” (Zech. 9:13). Depending whom you ask, there appears also to have been an initial fulfilment of the Zechariah 9 prophecy by Alexander the Great (of Greece!) in 332 BC: after devastating Damascus, Sidon, Tyre and other cities, he came peacefully to Jerusalem to be greeted by priests. Josephus records this remarkable episode in Antiquities bk. Xi, c. 8, s. 4-5.