God using the balsam tree to give David victory over the Philistines is described in 2 Samuel 5:17-25 and 1 Chronicles 14:8-18.
When the Philistines discovered that David was anointed king over Israel as well as over Judah, they went out in force to search for him. During the seven years David was king over Judah at Hebron, the Philistines were not too concerned about his kingship. For them the problem occurred when Israel (northern tribes) asked David to be their king. The Philistines cities were in the lands of the northern tribes; they feared David would wage war against their cities. The Philistines entered the Valley of the Rephaim, located on the border between Judah and Benjamin on the west and southwest sides of Jerusalem. There they raided and plundered the inhabitants who were mainly Israelites. David responded to the Philistine’s raids and at Baal Parazim David and the Israelites fought a battle with the Philistines. The Philistines were routed. When they fled, the Philistines abandoned their idols. Following Mosaic law, David burnt the idols (Deuteronomy 7:5, 25).
Perhaps outraged by the previous defeat and David’s destruction of their idols, the Philistines raided the Rephiam Valley a second time. David asked God if he should attack the Philistines. God’s answer was “yes;” but David’s army should not go straight at the Philistines. Instead, the Israelite army should circle around the Philistines and attack them in front of the balsam trees. The signal for the Israelite army to attack was the sound of God marching in the tops of the balsam trees. The marching sound meant that the Lord went in front of the Israelites to strike the Philistines.
In the Rephiam Valley balsam trees grew in groves. God made the wind blow through the tops of the balsam tree so that leaves rustling and branches rubbing against each other and created a sound like men marching. The sound was so loud that the Philistine army thought that a huge Israelite army was advancing toward them. Terrified they fled the valley. David’ army pursued and struck down the Philistines from Gibeon to Gezar, a range of about 15 miles. At the time of this battle, Gezar was not a Philistine city; it was held by the Egyptians (Joshua 10:33). Apparently, the Philistine soldiers were so frightened that they fled to the powerful Egyptians for safety. The episode concludes with, “so David’s fame spread throughout every land, and the Lord made all the nations fear him” (1 Chronicles 14:17).
The balsam tree is a species of aspen, most likely the Populus euphratica, which is believed to be native to Israel and Middle Eastern countries. The balsaam is also called the Euphrates popular and salt poplar. In Israel the tree grows throughout the country; it grows well in rocky and hilly soils and in brackish water. The balsaam tree grows as tall as 45 feet and has spreading branches. On older branches bark is thick, olive green to gray-brown, and roughly striated. Branches are bent and almost always forked. The balsaam’s flower is called a catkin because it resembles a cat’s tail and droops from the stem. In mid-summer, the P. euphratica produces a green to reddish brown fruit which is a 2-4 valve capsule. Seeds are minute and enveloped in silky hairs which aid wind dispersal.
Symbolism: God’s people
Balsam trees are associated with the word “people.” The word Populus in the name Populus euphratica is derived from the trees ancient Latin name arbor populi which means “the people’s tree.” When God identified the Israelites as his chosen people, God told them that he would dwell with them, walk with them, and protect them (Leviticus 26:12; Deuteronomy 11:22-25). In the Valley of Rephiam, God gave his chosen people victory through the sound of an army (people) marching in the tops of balsam trees. Israel’s victory was so decisive that David’s fame spread to people of every land; the Lord made people of every nation fear David.
In the Old Testament, God took a people for himself who were of one race. In the New Testament, Christ directed his disciples to take the good news of the gospel to all his creation (Mark 16:15). Over 2000 years later, people of all races believe in him. Despite Christ’s welcome and guaranteed love of all people, the Bible cautions, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). What does such an ominous verse mean to people?
The writer of Hebrew’s elaborated by saying if people keep on sinning after they receive the knowledge of truth, no sacrifice for sin is left; only a fearful expectation of judgment (Hebrews 10: 26-30). The writer compared the Old Testament Jews rejection of the Law of Moses to an individual who rejects the truth of Christ after they know it. His argument was if Old Testament Jews who rejected the Law of Moses died, then how much more will individuals who trample the Son of God deserve punishment? The latter individuals insult the Spirit of grace because they show contempt for the blood of Christ who sanctifies them. The Lord lives with his people, protects them, and loves them. In addition, the Lord judges his people.
Reflection. In the battle where God marched in the tops of the balsam trees, David counted on God rather than his army to protect the people of the Rephiam Valley and Israel. In a later story, we learn that David took a census of eligible fighting men in Israel rather than trust God to protect the people (2 Samuel 24:10). Do David’s actions have any parallels to our own life? Do we believe that God will protect his people?
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright December 7, 2011; carolyn a. roth