It is the season of olive branches. At least, it is the season of metaphoric olive branches, of people offering peacemaking gestures, though whether these are genuine or opportunistic remains to be seen. My interest is more in the expression than the gestures themselves because this is yet another neat little idiom that is derived from the Bible. We offer olive branches because of a very important olive branch in a very important story in the most important book.
The news is packed full of olive branches this week in the aftermath of a long, divisive presidential election. Most of these branches are being handed, or offered, at least, to Donald Trump. Canada’s CTV news says that President Obama has extended an olive branch to President-elect Trump: “President Barack Obama is set to welcome his successor, Donald Trump, to the White House, extending an olive branch.” Senator Elizabeth Warren is also reaching out to Trump: “In a statement published on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren offered an olive branch to President-Elect Donald Trump in a rare and hopeful show of bipartisanship.” Bernie Sanders, Jeff Bezos, and Susana Martinez are all doing the same. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even appeared to offer one to the entire nation. All of this in just one day’s headlines.
In every case, these olive branches are gestures or even pledges of goodwill. They are pledges by one party to pursue reconciliation with another. Olive branches exist where there is conflict but a desire for peace, where there is alienation but a desire to work together. To hold out the branch is to make an offer and to receive it is to accept.
The phrase “extend an olive branch” is derived from the Bible, from the well-known story of Noah and the worldwide flood. God has created humanity, but they have rebelled against God. Their rebellion has become so great that God can say, “the every intention of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually.” There is only one man who finds favor in God’s eyes. God determines he will punish the world with a great flood but save this one man and his family. He warns Noah of the coming flood and Noah prepares by building the great ark. Now the flood has come and gone and the water is subsiding. Noah sends out a dove to learn whether or not the land is once again habitable. “And the dove came back to him in the evening, and in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth” (Genesis 8:11).
The olive branch shows that God will fulfill his promise to save Noah and his family. It is proof that life will once again flourish on the earth. Ultimately, it is an expression of God’s covenantal faithfulness through which he will honor his promise to bring a Messiah from the line of Adam (Genesis 3:15).
The flood was God’s righteous judgment on rebellious people. The flood shows that God is a God of both wrath and mercy. He acts in wrath toward those who defy him but in mercy toward those who love him, who are loved by him. Noah had safely passed through this judgment. He had been loved by God and warned by God, he had responded to God in faith and obedience. God had rescued him. This olive branch was a symbol of God’s love and favor.
The flood was a historic event but also a symbolic one. It represented the judgment that must befall all rebels while also representing the salvation that can be theirs. I can’t say it better than Timothy Cross: “Jesus is God’s olive branch. If our faith is in Him, the judgment we deserve is over. We have eternal peace with God. We enjoy eternal life—fellowship with God our Maker, both here and hereafter. In Christ, then, God holds out an olive branch to a condemned world. The imperative responsibility of the sinner is to take it. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus christ, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). ‘Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. 6:2). Jesus is God’s olive branch, and the cross of Christ is our ark of safety from the divine judgment we deserve.”
This is truth to sing about! Why not sing along with Saints and Citizens with their fantastic rendition of Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angel Sing.” The song says, “Hark! The herald angels sing, / ‘Glory to the newborn King; / Peace on earth, and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled!’
Or perhaps “Hallelujah, What a Savior.” I enjoy this rendition from an old Resolved conference. “Guilty, vile, and helpless we; / Spotless Lamb of God was He; / “Full atonement!” can it be? / Hallelujah! What a Savior!”