So, when Jesus spoke to an audience of Jewish people and told them the kingdom of God was a mustard seed that becomes like a tree so that birds nest in its branches (Matthew 13:31-32), I want to know what the Jews would have thought he meant by such a tree. I want to know what image and meaning Jesus was trying to evoke in his audience, and to understand that I need to understand His audience.
The Jews knew the Old Testament. They were taught to memorize it as children and write it on their doorposts. They heard it recited repeatedly in the synagogue. When Jesus told them the kingdom of God was like a tree, He was using a popular Old Testament metaphor for earthly kingdoms that Jesus knew his Jewish audience would recognize and understand.
In Ezekiel 31 the Lord, referring to the Assyrian Empire calls it a tree “loftier than all the tress of the field” and that “[a]ll the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs” and “all great nations lived under its shade.” (Ezekiel 31:5-6).
In the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar has a prophetic vision wherein the Babylonian Empire is represented as a tree that “grew large and became strong” and the “beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches.” (Daniel 4:11-12).
Then, referring to King Jesus and the kingdom of God, in Ezekiel 17 the Lord, through Ezekiel, says He will take a tender twig from the top of a cedar and plant it “on the high mountain of Israel and that it will “became a stately cedar…And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches.” (Ezekiel 17:22-23).
So, when Jesus told His Jewish audience the kingdom of God would become like a tree and birds would nest in its branches they would have understood He was talking about an earthly kingdom under whose covering the nations of the world would enjoy protection and provision. GS