One of the necessary aspects for Premillennial Dispensationalism to work, is for the prophecy of Jesus spoken on the Mount of Olives, recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, to be understood as a far future event. One of the ways in which they make this far future application is to make what Jesus said about the fig tree sprouting its leaves, apply to a future reconstituted Israel. Therefore, the fig tree must be a representation of Israel. But does it?
After Jesus describes the signs and events that will lead up to the destruction of the temple, occurring at the end of the age, He said this,
32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
In order to make this apply to a far future generation, instead of the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking, they confidently affirm that the fig tree represents Israel. Hence, when the fig tree puts forth its leaves, or when Israel becomes a nation once again (which they say it did in 1948), you know that summer is nigh, or you know that the Second Coming of Christ is near. The generation that sees the fig tree bear its leaves (Israel become a nation again), is the generation who will see all the signs spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 24.
This is how they see and understand this parable of the fig tree, which Jesus gave His disciples. In order for this to be even partially correct, it would need to be proven that Israel is represented as a fig tree in the Bible. Is it? Let’s see.
When we go back into the Old Testament (OT) and look at how many times and where the phrase fig tree is used, here is what we find.
In the OT, the phrase fig tree is found 17 times. Of these, there is not once that we can say with confidence it represents Israel. The one instance that the Dispensationalists point to as proof is found in Joel 1:7.
He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast [it] away; the branches thereof are made white. [Joel 1:7]
Commentators and scholars are quite divided concerning the little book of Joel. There is not much known about the prophet or his writing. However, it is referenced by two apostles, Peter in Acts 2:16ff and Paul in Rom. 10:13. One of the main topics that Joel deals with is a devastation of the land by several waves of pestilence.
Joel 1:4 That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten.
God tells the drinkers of wine and the drunkards to weep and howl, because the new wine has been cut off. The vineyards have been stripped so that there will be no wine to drink (Joel 1:5).
He refers to these waves of pestilence as a nation that has come upon the land, with teeth strong like a lion (Joel 1:6). It is not uncommon to refer to hordes of insects as a collective body or nation, for in Proverbs 30:25, ants are referred to as “a people not strong.” Referring here to locust and the like as a nation, is simply prophetic language to relate that they are “strong and without number.”
Joel then describes the devastation caused by this insect invasion of the land. As already mentioned, “He hath laid my vine waste.” This is no hyperbole. This army “whose teeth are the teeth of a lion,” devoured the vineyards of the land. He then states that they have,
Barked my fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.
Again, there is no symbolism here. The fig trees of the land were literally stripped of their bark, from the trunk to the branches, so that the meat of the tree was laid bare, or white. There is nothing here to make us think that the mention of the fig tree being stripped “clean bare” is anything other than exactly what it says. It is the description of how the pestilences have laid the fig trees of the land clean bare, of fruit and bark. In fact, the land was so ravaged that,
9 The meat offering and the drink offering is cut off from the house of the LORD; the priests, the LORD's ministers, mourn.
10 The field is wasted, the land mourneth; for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.
11 Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen; howl, O ye vinedressers, for the wheat and for the barley; because the harvest of the field is perished.
12 The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.
All of this describes such devastation to the land, that even the priests have nothing to offer the Lord, in the way of food or drink offerings. If the Dispensationalists believe that the fig tree represents Israel, then why not also the pomegranate tree, the palm tree, the apple tree, even all the trees of the field?
The truth of the matter is, there is no reference in the OT where the fig tree represents the nation of Israel or Judah. In case you’re wondering, the other 16 references in the OT to fig tree, are speaking of, well, fig trees. So we can affirm that all 17 references in the OT to fig tree, are referencing fig trees.
In case you want to check this out for yourself, here is a list of all the references in the OT where the phrase fig tree appears.
Judg 9:10; Judg 9:11; 1 Kgs 4:25; 2 Kgs 18:31; Prov 27:18; Song 2:13; Isa 34:4; Isa 36:16; Jer 8:13; Hos 9:10; Joel 1:7; Joel 1:12; Joel 2:22; Mic 4:4; Hab 3:17; Hag 2:19; Zech 3:10
Even in the verse in question, Matthew 24:32, this is a reference to an actual fig tree. When we look at Luke’s account of Jesus' saying concerning this parable of the fig tree, here is what he writes,
21:29 And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees;
30 When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand.
31 So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.
Here it is not just the fig tree that is used as a sign to know when summer is near, but it is “all the trees.” So Luke pretty well puts the uniqueness of the fig tree to rest. He records how Jesus said, “Look at all the trees to see when summer is near. When you see them shoot forth their leaves, you know that it is at hand.”
Jesus is using a natural annual event to illustrate a prophetic truth. Just as you can look at the trees, and tell when summer is near by the fact that their leaves have begun to shoot forth; you can also tell when you see these things I just told you about, that the Kingdom of God is near. That is the extent of the meaning in which Jesus used the fig tree here. In this instance, it is not a symbol for Israel.
To Be Fair
Now to be fair, there are a couple of instances in the gospels where the fig tree could be a symbol for Israel. However, neither of them turn out for Israel's betterment.
The first instance is found in a parable told by Jesus, recorded in Luke 13. He starts out the parable like this.
13:6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
Here, the certain man represents God, the vineyard is His Kingdom and the fig tree is Israel. This certain man, God, came to the fig tree, Israel, which He had planted in His vineyard, His Kingdom, looking for fruit, but found none.
13:7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
The dresser of the vineyard is the Lord Jesus. The certain man tells the dresser of the vineyard, “I have been coming to this fig tree and looking for fruit for three years now, and still have seen nothing. Cut it down, it is a waste of space.” The three years is a reference to the ministry span of Jesus. It had lasted three years up to this point.
13:8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
The dresser of the vineyard, Jesus, requested more time, so that he might dig and fertilize the fig tree. If after the fertilization, it still fails to bear fruit, then it would be cut down.
To “dung it” was to fertilize the fig tree. This fertilization of the fig tree was seen in the death and resurrection of the Jesus, and then the later coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. If after all this the fig tree, Israel, still did not bear the fruit the owner desired, then it would be cut down. Indeed, it was cut down, with the destruction of the temple and devastation of Jerusalem in AD 70.
So this image of Israel as the fig tree, does not turn out to well. The next one is no better.
Before Jesus cleansed the temple for a second time, “He hungered.” He saw a fig tree with leaves while walking along the road. The presence of leaves led Him to believe it would have fruit that He might eat and be satisfied. When He came to the fig tree, and found no fruit on it, He said, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.”
Shortly thereafter, the fig tree died and withered away. If this fig tree represents Israel, then it speaks to its outward show of life, bearing leaves, but the leaves hid the fact of its barrenness. Anyone coming to it, looking for nourishment will be greatly disappointed, for it is void of fruit. Therefore, it is a deceiver. It was not what it appeared to be and deserved to be removed from existence. Jesus cursed the deceptive fig tree, so that, “No fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.” It had ceased to serve its stated purpose.
If you are interested in seeing all of the references in the NT to the fig tree, here they are.
Matt 21:19; Matt 21:20; Matt 21:21; Matt 24:32; Mark 11:13; Mark 11:20; Mark 11:21; Mark 13:28; Luke 13:6; Luke 13:7; Luke 21:29; John 1:48; John 1:50; Jas 3:12; Rev 6:13
In all of the Bible, there is not a positive illustration of the fig tree representing natural Israel. So for the Premillennial Dispensationalists to come to Matthew 24:32, and say that is represents the restoration of a future nation of Israel, is nothing but imaginative malarkey. It is the product of a deceptive interpretation, which is in keeping with the rest of their interpretations.
Well, at least they are consistent.