Jesus, the Apple Tree (2:3)
‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.’
As we noticed when considering previous verses, the couple in the Song are walking together in his garden, with each comparing the other to trees (cedar, fir and apple) and flowers (rose and lily).
The man has described the woman as being like a lily among thorns, meaning that she is marked by features not found in other women, the features of purity in general, and humility in particular. She copies his way of describing her and now contrasts him with the men of her acquaintance when she likens him to the apple tree among the trees of the wood.
In passing, we may note that it is a good method to always copy the way that Jesus does things. Today, we have made a distinction between practice and information, with people learning lots of details that do not affect their behaviour. It was different in the Jewish world, where a teacher aimed to affect a person’s conduct as well as communicate intellectual ideas. We see this in Jesus’ well-known invitation to his disciples to come and learn of him in Matthew 11:28-30. In addition to teaching about the kingdom of God, he wanted to make them gentle and humble, to become like their Teacher. Another example of this method is the occasion when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1), which was not a request for the latest theories on the topic, but a request based on his practice of prayer which they had observed.
The emptiness of human helps
The woman mentions two benefits from the apple tree: shade and fruit. She could not get these benefits from the other sons with whom she contrasts her Beloved. These trees, as it were, gave her no protection or provision. They depict the reality that believers eventually realise, which is that nobody in the world can give these blessings to them. There are all kinds of human solutions to these needs of the soul – politicians, religious leaders, pleasure providers – but they turn out to be broken cisterns as far as spiritual needs are concerned.
The particular tree that is mentioned here is not our apple tree, which is not prominent in Palestine, and in any case does not provide shade. It may be a reference to the citron tree, a tree with rich foliage, which is always producing fruit, so that at any time there is a mixture of new fruit and mature fruit on its branches; yet its fruit is not sweet. Or it could be a reference to orange trees. Indeed Albert Barnes thinks that the term used here may ‘in early Hebrew have been a generic name for apple, quince, citron, orange etc’. Moody Stuart comments that it ‘rather seems as if by this beautiful figure the Church would set forth Christ as the Fruitful Tree amongst the fruitless, combining in itself all variety of excellence, the beauty of the apple, the refreshing juices of the pomegranate and the orange, the cool shadow and the reviving fragrance of the citron.’
From what things do believers need the shade of Christ? I suppose we could approach this imagery from two vantage points. First, there is the sense in which Jesus is a permanent shade from the fury of God’s wrath against our sins. This took place at Calvary, but its beneficial effects are eternal in that all who trust in Jesus will never face the blast of God’s anger against sin. Our experience then can be viewed as the weariness that resulted from fruitless attempts to find salvation by our own obedience to God’s law or by good works. But we discovered that there was in Christ rest for the weary soul.
Second, there is the sense in which Jesus is a temporary shade in a wide variety of circumstances. There are outward afflictions, there are Satanic temptations, there are providential barriers, there is an accusing conscience, there are worldly problems. All these types of things are distressing and difficult for a Christian to bear. They attack his soul. The only defence that the believer has is Jesus. With regard to some of them, the believer has to take the promises that Christ is in control and apply them to these situations. With an accusing conscience, the believer has to take the work of Christ and remind himself how it deals with his sins. Whatever the source of distress, the answer is Christ.
What fruit does Christ provide? The answer is his person and work as well as his promises. Apples are sweet fruits, and everything that Jesus did is sweet to the believer’s taste. They are refreshed inwardly by thinking about various features of his life and death. There is a wide range of apples on the tree which they are expected to eat and receive benefit from. Sometimes they feed on his eternal love; at other times, his humble entrance into the world. There are his gracious interactions with sinners, his words of comfort to his people. The choice is almost limitless.
We can get an insight by thinking of the needs of a weary person and suggesting what benefits they would need. A weary person is thirsty, but Jesus is the water of life. A weary person is sore, but Jesus is the ointment to apply to these wounds. A weary person is exhausted, but Jesus is the refresher of his people. A weary person may be frightened of pursuing enemies, by Jesus is their security.
Picture of faith
The attitude of the woman here is a useful picture of faith being exercised by a believer. I would suggest that the order is important in that believers need to find rest in Christ before they can feed on Christ. They need to sit down and discover afresh the rest of Jesus before they can taste his other benefits. They need to get rid of the distractions before proceeding to his attractions.
We can imagine an harassed believer being distressed by one or more of the things that we mentioned previously. He senses that he needs Jesus but cannot focus his mind on him. He needs to sit down and apply to himself appropriate promises from the Bible. As he does this, a sense of peace begins to develop.
Sometimes, the believer has been so weakened by the harassment that Jesus graciously throws, as it were, apples to the weary saint. As the Christian sits seeking rest from Jesus, he discovers that apples are falling into his lap or around him. Jesus sends to him by the Spirit specific details about himself. In this we see the compassion of Jesus.
At other times, they need to stretch out the hands of faith and choose particular pieces of fruit. Faith at times acts intelligently, choosing appropriate aspects of Christ to reflect on. It also acts innovatingly and attempts to discover new things about Jesus. Such attempts are ways to progress in the Christian life. Faith also acts increasingly because every apple on the tree is hers to enjoy; so faith moves on and picks as many apples as it can. And faith acts incessantly because there are countless apples on this tree.
Weak faith or strong faith is marked by a common attitude, which is delight in Christ. Faith can be studied under different aspects. For example, faith can be viewed as dependence on Jesus, relying upon him alone for what the soul needs. Or it can be viewed as devotion to Jesus, an ongoing attitude of submission to his permanent authority.
In concluding this chapter, I would mention one other feature of the apple tree, which was its fragrance arising from its blossom. When a person spent time in its shade, it was inevitable that when he met up with others they could smell where he had been. Similarly, others will notice when we have spent time with Jesus because we will not only be changed, but transformed into his likeness. As Paul writes of himself and others in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15: ‘But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.’
The obvious lesson from this illustration is that there must be a practical implementation of our knowledge of Christ. Jesus alone can give us contentment, serenity, peace and rest. It also suggests that we need to make time for this experience and turn aside from the pressures of life and linger in his presence.