T = Trees in the House of God – Part 1: when the churches you love are betrayed

It’s not only bombs that destroy a church.

White-anting also happens from within. When there is no acknowledgement of the King of Kings, the people determine what is right in their own eyes.

The Bible may be paraded in the pulpit and even studied diligently, but judges sit in the polycarbonate chairs, stand behind the perspex lecterns, and speak through the pulp-mill of publishing houses. They weigh and filter which truths are acceptable in our age. A gospel of forgiveness is preached without a call for holiness. Faith may be ok, but obedience now is a dirty word.

On the other hand, retaining a veneer of “right theology”, some local churches leaders inject their own fragile egos into everything. They seek to expand God’s kingdom, but have forgotten the words that follow: “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).  And so, instead, their kingdom comes, and their will is done. And they protect their daily-bread for themselves.

The sheep also bite each other. Breathtaking bitterness, small-mindedness and un-forgiveness reigns. Ex-volunteers and ex-employees of Christian organisations multiply with untended wounds. The institution might protect itself, but not its people. And lies hurt so much from people who are meant to speak the truth of Jesus.

What hope can we offer someone in that situation?

One approach points across the road, where people do not treat each other that way. They remain faithful to God’s word and muzzle their own egos. They are broken and forgiven sinners who love the Lord Jesus with an undying love. They pass the ultimate litmus test. They want him to return. Come and see them.

But that approach may just be a band-aid. Until someone hurts, someone is offended, someone is betrayed.

But here is another way. If the church is under physical attack from a hostile force or white-anted from the insider, see yourself as a tree planted in house of God. More than that, be that tree.

David saw himself as a fruitful olive tree in God’s House even in the face of betrayal and slaughter (Ps. 52).

When King Saul murderously hunted him, young David turned to the priestly house of Nob for refuge (1 Sam. 21:1-9). Jesus referred to this sanctuary as “the house of God” (Mt. 12:3-4; Mk. 2:25-26; Lk 6:3-4). Surely this would be a physical place of refuge in the storm.

And so it was for a short time. The priest Ahimelech gave David and his men the holy bread of God’s Presence, as well as the sword of Goliath, stored behind the Ephod (1 Sam. 21:4-6, 8-9). In God’s hand of providence, these otherwise forbidden provisions and hitherto forgotten arms seemed to be stored in God’s house, for such a time as this.

But a rat was sniffing around.

Doeg the Edomite, or Doug as Australians prefer to call him, was watching everything, and told Saul. In unhinged rage, the king slaughtered eighty-five priests who kept God’s house, together with all the inhabitants of the town of Nob, the city of priests (1 Sam 22:11-23 cf. Mk 2:25-26). One arm of government destroyed the other.

David’s response to this betrayal and massacre are preserved for us. “A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech” (Ps. 52:0).

Psalm 52 begins with a curse of judgment on the wicked and proud liars whom God will certainly destroy, but ends with this testimony of David’s confidence. (Ps. 52:0-4)

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (Psalm 52:8-9)

It is astonishing that David would see his safety in God’s house, when the guardians of that house had been brutally murdered.

Having already experienced God’s anointing, protection and table set before him, David’s longing to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, is now spoken in our Psalm in realised language (Ps 23:6; 52:8-9).

He is now absent from the physical building, but enduringly present with the Lord. Yet he lives there, like a green olive tree, by faith and not by sight.

Green here does not mean young and naive, but is the same word used elsewhere for leafy, healthy and flourishing foliage. The word is very commonly used for pagan worship. The Israelites were tempted to worship other gods under “every green tree” rather than the central place God calls for worship (Dt. 12:2-5). But here David worships God as the green spreading tree in the house of God.

The olive tree planted in the temple evokes both the liquid of Messianic anointing and the fuel that keeps the temple lamps burning. Both are joined together in the promises to David, especially when it comes to the place God has chosen. There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.” (Ps. 132:17 cf. 1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19)

The prophecies of Zechariah and Revelation also take up the rich imagery of Messianic Olive Trees in the temple and develop them in their own unmistakable style (Zech. 4:1-14; Rev. 11:4). When all else is abandoned or trampled, God’s olive trees will remain.

But look and see what this tree grounded in God’s house produces. Rooted in the steadfast promises of God, he trusts. He waits. He thanks his Lord always (Ps. 52:8-9). This is where David will remain, whatever others do and whatever they do to him.

Being an olive tree in God’s house might feel lonely for a while, but in the end this will be the place where all the godly will be found. And furthermore it will be where God will arrive for the faithful waiting of his people. He who is coming will not delay.

Can you see the power of this approach for us? If all the people we trusted have been slaughtered, we can still stay with the Lord and grow. If our church is burned to the ground and children are killed, and we are tempted to hate, despair or become numb in pain, we can stay with him and be thankful.

Wherever David went, he would stay firm in the house of the Lord.

If others abandon Christ’s way, water-down his gospel and grow cold on personal obedience, if our church feels hard and discouraging, we can stay in God’s house. The footprints poem could also be shaped to say that as we looked back at the footprints of our life, we notice that as they went forward, they also stayed in the same place, with God.

When Christ was born, this was the position of the elderly Simeon and Anna, who trusted in the presence of the godly, in the house of God, waiting for God’s name to arrive (Ps 52:8-9; Lk 2:25-38)

We’ll look at many other passages in the second part of this article, and show the surprising extent of the garden imagery inside the temple, but for now let us turn to Christ.

We don’t worship in a physical building but in Spirit and in truth. But trees still belong in the true temple. We should see ourselves as a fruitful tree in Christ Jesus himself even in the face of deception, lies and false teachings.

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col. 2:6-7)

Here is a better way than just finding strength in the face of disappointment, ego and apostasy. Rather than just looking for the better people across the road (which sometimes is necessary), we need to be built on Christ, a planting of the Lord.

All of our energy and strength comes from Christ; and our place is with him. This might be lonely at points, but it where all the godly wait for him, full of faith and gratitude.

But remember, David does not abandon God’s people. Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” Sometimes Christians say this too. But David longs to stand with those who are truly godly, who as we’ll see in the next half of this article, are also trees in the house of God.

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (Psalm 52:8-9)

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Andrew Barry serves Christ with his people at Jannali Anglican Church. He is married to Ruth. They live with five of their children and eagerly wait to see their other son when Jesus returns.