What Are the Oaks of Righteousness (Isaiah 61:3)?

When Isaiah speaks about the brokenhearted and how God will comfort those who mourn, he says they will be called "oaks of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:3). But what exactly does it mean to be oaks of righteousness?

Contributing Writer
Published Jul 05, 2022
What Are the Oaks of Righteousness (Isaiah 61:3)?

Trees are one of God’s most frequently used metaphors. Look carefully, and you’ll find trees throughout the Bible. There are trees in the first chapters of Genesis and trees in the final chapters of Revelation. According to Matthew Sleeth, author of Reforesting Your Faith, every major biblical figure is associated with a tree. Trees have a special place with God, so it’s not surprising that He also likens those who love Him to trees, specifically oaks of righteousness.

Trees are vital to life on our planet. They could survive without us, but we rely on them for the very air that we breathe. Trees are so amazing that many are tempted to worship them (and many have), but Christians look to them as wondrous reminders of our incredible creator and as metaphors for spiritual life.

The benefits of physical trees are innumerable. They clean the air of carbon and pollutants, translating it into oxygen. They purify our water and help cool the air. They provide shade, fruit, and beauty. Studies have shown a measurable reduction in violence and crime in city areas with more trees. We get wood from trees as well as medicine. Spending time in a forested area is good for our physical, mental, and spiritual health; this is so clear the Japanese have coined a phrase for it—forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku. As trees age, they continue to provide. Rather than becoming less, trees grow more worthy of admiration and preservation. Even in death, trees continue to contribute to the life of their surrounding environment.

When we consider all the benefits of trees, it should strongly encourage our hearts that God likens followers of Christ to trees. As we sink our roots into Christ (Colossians 2:7), not only should we benefit our souls, but our souls will benefit all those around us.

Where Does the Bible Mention Oaks of Righteousness?

The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 61:3 specifically, refers to “oaks of righteousness.”

“…. to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (ESV).

This prophecy is reminiscent of Psalm 1, where the Psalmist compares the ways of the righteous and the ways of the wicked. The blessed man, the one who chooses righteousness, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:3 ESV).”

Psalm 92 compares the “wicked” or the unrighteous to grass, a short-lived plant, easily cut down and burned. But then describes the righteous as trees saying, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord;  they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (Psalm 92:12-14 ESV).

God tells us much about what it means to live in Christ with His favorite metaphor. He especially references oaks. Why?

Oaks are long-lived trees with over 800 species that grow worldwide. They are slow-growing but resilient and strong. In life, they are useful places of refuge, beauty, and shade. Their acorns provide food for animals and sometimes for humans. Their bark has therapeutic qualities. In death, their wood is useful for building, heating, and providing many useful products (not to mention those that fall and contribute to the ongoing life of the forest).

In John 12:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Consider that when thinking about an oak and an acorn.

Imagine an acorn clinging to its branch, begging to remain where it is so it can enjoy the sun and the rain? Imagine an acorn fearful that that long fall to the ground would only mean darkness and death, when really, locked inside that seed is a mighty oak that can’t be realized without first dying to self. The next time you see an oak, consider what God may have locked inside of you that will be freed once you die to self, like an acorn does when it falls to the ground and is buried.

One special aspect of trees is that even within the over 60,000 varieties, each tree has its own unique characteristics. How true this is, too, of humans!

Are Oak Trees Mentioned Anywhere Else in the Bible?

Abraham, the great father of our faith, is closely associated with the “oaks of Mamre.” The Lord met with him, in fact, by these oaks. Rebekah was Abraham’s daughter-in-law, and when her beloved nurse died, she was buried beneath an oak. (You will find these stories from Genesis 12 to Genesis 35.)

Throughout the Old Testament, oaks were used as points of locational reference or boundaries:

- the “oak of Moreh” in Deuteronomy 11:30

- the “oak in Zaanannim” in Joshua 19:33 and Judges 4:11

- the “oak of the pillar at Shechem” in Judges 9:6

- “the Diviners’ Oak” in Judges 9:37.

There was an “oak of Tabor” in 1 Samuel 10:3, but then there is a significant and ultimately lethal oak in 2 Samuel 18. Verse 9 reads, “Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.” When he was discovered hanging there, Joab murdered him as he hung from the oak.

The ”oaks of Bashan” referenced by several prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah) symbolize the proud and haughty who refuse to worship the living God but instead come against Him with military might. The Lord will prevail. “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan” (Isaiah 2:12-13 ESV).

Who Is the Prophet Isaiah Speaking to in Isaiah 61?

Isaiah was initially speaking to the Jews. But because this passage references the Lord’s anointing, and Jesus referred to Himself when He read these scriptures in a synagogue (Luke 4), we know Isaiah was also speaking prophetically for the Messiah. So, while the original message was delivered to the people of Israel, Jesus opened the door for all people to come to Him and receive salvation. In this way, we all receive this promise of becoming oaks of righteousness when we receive Jesus Christ into our lives.

How Will the Oaks of Righteousness Display God’s Splendor?

Followers of the Messiah will be saved, not only FROM sin but also TO  display God’s splendor. Isaiah 61 describes some of the ways that splendor will be demonstrated. For instance, we will build up and repair what has been destroyed. We will be known as “priests of the Lord” and ministers (confirmed by Peter in the New Testament). We, and our descendants, will be blessed and full of joy.

As many have noted, trees send their roots deep into the earth, soaking up water and spreading their branches high to receive the light God sends. Fruit is a natural by-product of trees growing into their design.

In the same way, as we are rooted in Christ and tap into the Living Water and extend our spirits to receive His light, we will produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. As our souls inhabit their God-given design, just as trees bless the earth, so will all who follow Jesus. We will contribute to the well-being of those around us and demonstrate within ourselves the glory of the Lord.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/bruev

Lori Stanley RoeleveldLori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits. She’s authored six encouraging, unsettling books, including Running from a Crazy Man, The Art of Hard Conversations, and Graceful Influence: Making a Lasting Impact through Lesson from Women of the Bible. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com

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