What Is the Answer to the “Green Tree” Riddle?

By Wayne Jackson

“What did Jesus mean, when he addressed a group of weeping women, and said, ‘For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?’”

Here is the larger context in which the enigmatic passage is found:

“And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
For behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the breasts that never gave suck.
Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Lk. 23:27-31).

The background of this narrative is this. Jesus was en route to his appointment with the cross. A great multitude of people followed the procession; among these was a group of women who were weeping loudly and flailing themselves in anguish. Women were tenderly drawn to the compassionate Savior. Alfred Plummer commented that there is no example in the Gospels of a woman treating Jesus in a hostile manner (The Gospel of Luke, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1901, p. 528).

Out of concern for these dear ladies, Jesus turned and addressed them as “daughters of Jerusalem,” an expression suggesting they were natives of the city. He urged them to “stop weeping” (so the force of the original) on his behalf. Rather, they should weep for themselves, and for their offspring. The admonition was not one of contempt for these sorrowing women; rather, it previewed a heart-breaking catastrophe that shortly was to come upon the disobedient Jewish nation as a whole.

The Lord stated that the days would come when the women of Jerusalem who were without children would be the blessed ones. This is a very dramatic statement, in view of the great honor generally attached to the bearing of children in Israel. Barrenness was viewed by the Hebrews as a curse from God (Ex. 23:26; Dt. 7:14; Lev. 20:21).

What was the impending disaster to which the Savior alluded? Without question it was the slaughter of the Hebrew nation, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, which was consummated in A.D. 70. So terrible would that judgment from Jehovah be (cf. Mt. 22:7), that the people would much have preferred to be engulfed by the crumbling mountains of the region, Poetically, people of Israel would cry, “Fall on us! Cover us!” The petition would not be for concealment purposes, but for a quick death — instead of prolonged suffering.

But the situation for the stubborn Jews was not to be so easy. The suffering would be extended (cf. Mt. 24:22). The invasion of the land by the Romans actually was from A.D. 66 to 70, and the siege of the holy city was for five, agonizing months. Too, it is not without significance that the conditions were so dire, that Josephus records the horrible incident of a Jewish woman who, in great distress from famine, ate her own baby (Wars 6.3.4).

Now comes the proverbial statement: “For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”

The “green tree” is that which is not appropriate for use as fuel for a fire; “dry” wood, though, is particularly suited for that very purpose. The “green tree” illustrates the precious Son of God, the sinless Savior, who was so very undeserving of the wicked and brutal treatment that the Jews already had heaped upon him, and would bring to a violent conclusion within hours.

The “dry” wood signifies the flammable state of a considerable portion of the Hebrew populous, from whom the “sap” of sacred devotion had dissipated. Alfred Edersheim, himself an ethnic Jew, captured the spirit of the passage in this way.

“For if Israel has put such flame to its ‘green tree’ how terribly would the Divine judgment burn among the dry wood of an apostate and rebellious people, that had so delivered up its Divine King, and pronounced sentence upon itself by pronouncing it upon Him!” (The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, Vol. II, p. 588).

The saying under review, therefore, was a figurative expression designed to highlight the coming destruction that was to be visited upon those who were rejecting and murdering their own Messiah.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.