The fig tree is common in Palestine and the East, and flourishes with the greatest luxuriance in those barren and stony situations where little else will grow. Its large size, and its abundance of five-lobed leaves, render it a pleasant shade tree; and its fruit furnished a wholesome food, very much used in all the lands of the Bible. Thus it was a symbol of peace and plenty, 1Ki 4:25; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:10; Joh 1:49-51. Figs are of two sorts, the "baccore," and the "kermouse." The black and white boccore, or early fig, is produced in June; thought the kermouse, the fig properly so called, which is preserved, and made up into cakes, is rarely ripe before August. There is also a long dark-colored kermouse, that sometimes hangs upon the trees all winter.
The fruit of the fig tree is one of the delicacies of the East, and is very often spoken of in Scripture. The early fig was especially prized, Isa 28:4; Jer 24:2; Na 3:12, though the summer fig is most abundant, 2Ki 20:7; Isa 38:21. It is a peculiarity of the fig tree that its fruit begins to appear before the leaves, and without any show of blossoms. It has, indeed, small and hidden blossoms, but the passage in Hab 3:17, should read, according to the original Hebrew, "Although the fig tree should not bear," instead of "blossom." Its leaves come so late in the spring as to justify the words of Christ, "Ye know that summer is nigh," Mt 24:32; Song 2:13. The fresh fruit is shaped like a pear. The dried figs of Palestine were probably like those which are brought to our own country; sometimes, however, they are dried on a string. We likewise read of "cakes of figs," 1Sa 25:18; 2Ki 20:7; 1Ch 12:40. These were probably formed by pressing the fruit forcibly into baskets or other vessels, so as to reduce them to a solid cake or lump. In this way dates are still prepared in Arabia.
The barren fig tree which was withered at our Savior's word, as an awful warning to unfruitful professors of religion, seems to have spent itself in leaves. It stood by the wayside, free to all; and as the time for stripping the trees of their fruit had not come, Mr 11:14, it was reasonable to expect to find it covered with figs in various stages of growth. Yet there was "nothing thereon, but leaves only," Mt 21:19.
First mentioned in Ge 3:7. The fig-tree is mentioned (De 8:8) as one of the valuable products of Palestine. It was a sign of peace and prosperity (1Ki 4:25; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:10). Figs were used medicinally (2Ki 20:7), and pressed together and formed into "cakes" as articles of diet (1Sa 30:12; Jer 24:2).
Illustration: Branch of Fig-Tree
Our Lord's cursing the fig-tree near Bethany (Mr 11:13) has occasioned much perplexity from the circumstance, as mentioned by the evangelist, that "the time of figs was not yet." The explanation of the words, however, lies in the simple fact that the fruit of the fig-tree appears before the leaves, and hence that if the tree produced leaves it ought also to have had fruit. It ought to have had fruit if it had been true to its "pretensions," in showing its leaves at this particular season. "This tree, so to speak, vaunted itself to be in advance of all the other trees, challenged the passer-by that he should come and refresh himself with its fruit. Yet when the Lord accepted its challenge and drew near, it proved to be but as the others, without fruit as they; for indeed, as the evangelist observes, the time of figs had not yet arrived. Its fault, if one may use the word, lay in its pretensions, in its making a show to run before the rest when it did not so indeed" (Trench, Miracles).
The fig-tree of Palestine (Ficus carica) produces two and sometimes three crops of figs in a year, (1) the bikkurah, or "early-ripe fig" (Mic 7:1; Isa 28:4; Ho 9:10, R.V.), which is ripe about the end of June, dropping off as soon as it is ripe (Na 3:12); (2) the kermus, or "summer fig," then begins to be formed, and is ripe about August; and (3) the pag (plural "green figs," Song 2:13; Gr. olynthos, Re 6:13, "the untimely fig"), or "winter fig," which ripens in sheltered spots in spring.
tenah, from ta'an "to stretch out" its branches. The Ficus Carica (Carla being famed for figs) of Linnaeus. Under its appropriate covert Nathanael found that solitude and shade which suited his earnest communion with God (Joh 1:48). Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their shame and nakedness; Nathanael to lay bore his soul "without guile" before God. Mount Olivet is still famed for its figtrees as of old. "To sit under one's own vine and figtree" was the proverb for peace and prosperity; so under Solomon (1Ki 4:25); type of the true Solomon, Prince of peace, and of His coming millennial reign (Mic 4:4; Zec 3:10); men will be safe in the open field as in the house. The early ripe fig is "the hasty fruit" (Isa 28:4), Hebrew bikurah, Spanish bokkore. Figs usually ripened in August; earlier ones in June.
Esteemed a delicacy (Jer 24:2; Ho 9:10; Mic 7:1): "when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand, he eateth it up"; it looks so tempting he instantly swallows it; so the Assyrian conqueror Shalmaneser shall not merely conquer, but with impatient avidity destroy Samaria. The unripe fig (pag) hangs through the winter and ripens in the spring about Easter (Song 2:13). Beth-phage, "house of green figs," is derived from it. Figs were compressed into the form of round cakes for keeping (1Sa 25:18), debeelim. They were used as a plaster for boils (Isa 38:21); God can make the most ordinary means effectual. The difficulty in Mr 11:12 is solved thus: the leaves on the "one" figtree, when all others were bore, caught Jesus' eye "afar off"; as the fruit precedes the leaves, naturally He might have expected, for satisfying His hunger, figs from a tree with such a precocious show of leaf, even though the season of figs was not yet come.
It was the unseasonable display of leaves which led Him to come and see "if haply (if as might naturally be expected) He might find anything thereon." Similarly the Jews (for it was an acted parable) had the show of religion before the. general time of religious privileges; but that was all, the fruit of real love which ought to precede the profession was wanting. The "for" expresses the unseasonableness of the leaves. "He found nothing but leaves (i.e. He found no figs); FOR the time of figs was not yet." Mark states why no fruit was found, "for," etc. The reason why it ought to have had fruit is left for us to infer, namely, its abnormal precocious leaves, which Christ had a right to expect would be accompanied with abnormal fruit, for the fig fruit precedes the leaf. Christ cursed it, not because it was fruitless, (for the season of figs was not yet, and if it had been leafless He would not have sought fruit on it,) but because it was false to its high pretensions.
Thomson (The Land and the Book) says that in a sheltered spot figs of an early kind may occasionally be found ripe as soon as the beginning of April, the time of Christ's cursing the fig tree. In Mt 21:19 it is "one fig tree," standing out an exception to all the rest. The Jews' sin was, they were singled out by God from all nations (Am 3:2), and had the Tower to bring forth the leaves of precocious profession but not the will to bring forth the fruit of faith and love. The sheltering hillside of Olivet had protected it, the sunlight had cherished it, and the dews of heaven watered it; but precocious leaves were the only result.
Compare Isaiah 5 as to God's care of Israel; the only result was not merely unfruitfulness but deceptiveness, "the rustling leaves of a religious profession, barren traditions of the Pharisees, and vain exuberance of words without the good fruit of works" (Wordsworth); ostentatious promise of antedating the Gentile church in fruit, without performance; pretentious show and hypocrisy. Fig trees overhanging the road from Jerusalem to Bethany still grow out of the rocks of the mountain which, the Lord said, faith could remove to the distant sea (Mt 21:21). On Olivet too was spoken the parable of the budding fig tree, the sign of coming summer (Lu 21:29-30). The August figs are the sweetest and best.