Behold, . . . a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. . . . Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth. (Ezekiel 31: 3, 5)
The cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) is the most common non-edible plant specifically identified in Scripture. An evergreen pine, it does not lose its dark green needles until new ones have grown. The young C. libani is shaped like a Christmas tree. Its rosettes of inch-long needles are attractive but it makes poor decorations. Unlike popular holiday pines, C. libani drops its needles easily.
Cedars of Lebanon reach 125 feet high. Although taller than most trees, pines in many regions reach twice that height. In the western US, giant sequoia redwoods are triple the height of C. libani. Lebanon’s cedars, however, were the tallest trees Scripture writers would have known.
As it matures, C. libani loses its conical shape. Massive horizontal branches support large shelves of needles and cones. Once mature, trees do not usually get much taller, but they continue to grow in diameter. One C. libani is estimated to be about 2000 years old and has a circumference of 40 feet.
Cedars for Building
The cedar of Lebanon was used extensively in building the Solomonic Temple. David had used Lebanese cedar for buildings and had been stockpiling it for Temple construction. But when the seven-year building project began, Solomon made a pact with Hiram king of Tyre (a sea coast city of Lebanon) to supply the needed lumber. Hiram’s foresters were to be assisted by 30,000 of Solomon’s servants in cutting and moving the trees.
Today, after a tree is felled it is trimmed and milled to standard lumber sizes (2×4, 4×6 etc.) close to where it grew. The lumber is then transported to the building site. In Bible times, however, building materials were not standard and lumber transport was considerably different.
After a cedar was felled for building the Temple, its branches and bark would be removed. A trench would be dug and water added. Using human and animal muscle the tree would be pulled along the muddy rut to a river where it could be floated downstream. Lebanon drops from 8000 ft. high forested mountains to the Mediterranean Sea in about 30 miles.
At the coast, logs would be tied together and floated 100 miles. Moving the logs upstream and in muddy ruts to Jerusalem (30 miles inland and 2500 feet above sea level) took massive amounts of muscle power. Once there, the wood damaged in transit was removed and the lumber cut to fit the building’s needs.
The cedar of Lebanon’s wood is an ideal building material. It is dense, strong, and lacks knots. It is impregnated with chemicals, which make it fragrant and protects it from insects and rotting. The wood is a richly-grained, deep reddish color.
Cedar was not used only for beams and supports. The Temple was lined with wood paneling; not one stone was visible. This was not a smooth, thin plywood-type layer. It was richly carved with cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. Much of the wood was covered with gold, but in other areas some people think the wood was visible and decorated or highlighted with gold (I Kings 6).
The Temple’s porch was made of cedar pillars and roof. Solomon used Lebanese cedar for other building projects. One of his palaces is called “the house of the cedar of Lebanon” because so much of this costly wood was used in building it (I Kings 7:2).
Israel was not the only nation to use Lebanese cedars for buildings. The high quality wood was also used to build boats, chariots, bridges, and other things. In ancient times, when a Lebanese king was threatened by an invading army, he would sometimes buy them off with lumber.
Cedar of Lebanon Today
Although frequently mentioned in the Old Testament there is no reference to the cedar of Lebanon in the New Testament. No reforestation was practiced. The muddy rut-harvesting of trees was hard on the environment. Ecological succession back to a mature cedar forest did not happen. Today large Lebanese C. libani are in patches of only a few dozen trees. The Lebanese government has a reforestation program, but it will be hundreds of years before Lebanon has a mature cedar forest.
Since they are grown all over the world, the cedars of Lebanon are not going extinct. A hundred years ago, it was popular for churches in the southern US to plant two C. libani by the front door. Many of those country churches are gone, but the cedars are doing fine. In many cemeteries, campuses, and gardens C. libani thrive, and a few are reaching their full height, but most have many years to go before they can be considered mature trees.
Symbol of Strength and Security
The cedar of Lebanon is also used in Scripture as a symbol of strength, stability, and security. Consider the parable king Jehoash of Israel sent to Amaziah king of Judah. “The thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying, Give thy daughter to my son to wife: and there passed by a wild beast that was in Lebanon, and trode down the thistle”(2 Kings 14:9).
Amaziah had just won a battle with a weaker nation. Feeling somewhat proud, he sent a challenge to Jehoash: “Meet me in battle, and when you lose—surrender your kingdom to me.” Jehoash had a much stronger army and replied with the cedar/thistle parable. Basically he was saying: “Who are you, thistle, to challenge a cedar tree? We don’t need to get in a battle to see you trodden down; some weaker nation can do that for us. Cedars don’t get upset every time a weed sprouts up.”
References to Spiritual Growth and Maturity
The poetical books of the Old Testament often use the cedar of Lebanon to illustrate spiritual growth and maturity. Psalm 92 begins by telling us to sing God’s praises. Then the Psalmist points out that the workers of iniquity seem to flourish, but they shall perish. In contrast, “The righteous shall flourish . . . he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall bring forth fruit in old age.”
Being in a mature forest causes awe even today. But the massive size, fragrance, expansive branches, and deep shade of a mature forest of C. libani would have been a moving experience. Just being near something that has been growing long enough to reach such proportions evokes reverence. That is the experience about which the Psalmist is speaking.
People can be impressive by wearing certain things, adopting certain styles, being loud and splashy, sporting the latest hairstyle or a tattoo. It’s easy. But such things are temporary. Then something newer and splashier must replace it to keep impressing people. That is how Satan coaxes the world to work and many blindly follow his path.
I have been blessed to have been in the presence of some spiritual giants. They are impressive, but not because of brassy show. In fact, some of them have been demure and not all that attractive. But in their presence you knew that you were with someone who has been walking close to God for a long time.
Trees do not mature overnight—they need slow, steady growth. Likewise, becoming a mature Christian doesn’t happen without patient, steady growth in grace. This will involve making God-honoring decisions repeatedly — not just when you have to, or when you feel like it, or when it is convenient. Only then will a Christian flourish in a way that does not fade. Spiritually, he will be like a tree planted in the house of the Lord, bringing forth good fruit. He shall be like a cedar in Lebanon.
“The righteous . . . shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Psalm 92:12