The prophet Zenos’ allegory of the olive tree seems to provide the common source for Nephi’s and Paul’s olive tree imagery (cf. Romans 11:16–24; 1 Nephi 10:12–14; 15:12–16). The olive tree as a symbol of Israel, together with the fig tree and grapevine, has a long history in the Old Testament (cf. Judges 9:8–13; Hosea 14:6–8; Jeremiah 11:16–17). All three varieties can renew themselves even if they decay and are cut down.
The Lord likens Israel to a cultivated or tame olive tree, which, after growing to full stature, begins to wax old and decay (Jacob 5:3). Israel grew to full stature under kings David and Solomon but from then on declined spiritually and politically. Paul makes another allusion to the tree that decays and waxes old. It symbolizes the old covenant, or testament, which the new must replace (Hebrews 8:13).
Gentiles begin entering the picture with Israel’s exile to Assyria in 722 B.C. and Judah’s exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. and the deportation and resettlement of Israelites in other parts of these empires. Wild branches are grafted into the olive tree when the Gentiles accept the gospel after the Jews reject it (cf. Romans 11:1–27). By that time, many Israelites had assimilated into the Gentile nations so that these too could qualify for the blessings of God’s covenant with Israel by right of lineage.
For a time, under this grafting arrangement, the mother tree bears good fruit, as do three transplants to other parts of the vineyard. The transplants comprise (1) Jewish and Jewish–Christian migrations (Ether 13:11); (2) the Ten Tribes, who, after their exile into Mesopotamia, journey into Eastern and Western Europe (cf. 2 Esdras 13:40–46); and (3) the descendants of Lehi, who possess the land “choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard” (Jacob 5:43; cf. 2 Nephi 1:5; 29:13).
Zenos devotes by far the largest portion of his allegory to the final grafting phase that occurs after “a long time had passed away,” when all four trees have become corrupt (Jacob 5:29–77). This locates the allegory’s main time frame in the last part of the latter days, as also implied by the expression, “the end soon cometh” (Jacob 5:29). By that time, the branches have “overcome the roots . . . taking strength unto themselves” (Jacob 5:37, 48). The servant asks the Lord of the vineyard to “spare it a little longer,” whereupon the Lord commissions him to commence the regrafting process (Jacob 5:50–60).
The phrase, “Begin at the last that they may be first, and that the first may be last” (Jacob 5:63), refers initially to the restoration of the gospel to the Gentiles and, eventually, when these reject it, to its acceptance by the Jews and all the house of Israel (1 Nephi 13:42; cf. Matthew 20:1–17; Romans 11:17–27; 3 Nephi 16:10–11). This end-time process is an exact reversal of when the Jews rejected the gospel and the Gentiles accepted it in the time of Christ and the early apostles.
According to the prophet Ether, the day in which the first will be last and the last first is when the house of Israel will be gathered “from the four quarters of the earth, and from the north countries” (Ether 13:11–12). Moroni, who wants to say more on this subject, is “forbidden.” Instead, he says, “Great and marvelous were the prophecies of Ether; but they esteemed him as naught, and cast him out” (Ether 13:13). Evidently, Moroni can’t say more because the Lord wants to “try the faith” of his people with the words we now have (cf. 3 Nephi 26:9–1).
For a fuller understanding of these prophecies we must rely on the words of Isaiah, who predicts that the Lord will gather Israel and Judah from the four corners of the earth and from the land of the North, at which time they will return in a new exodus to Zion (cf. Isaiah 11:10–12:6; 43:2–8, 16–17; 48:20–21; 49:1–22). On this very subject, Nephi quotes the prophecies of Isaiah after he too is forbidden to say more (1 Nephi 20:20–21; 21:1–22).
Jacob adds that “the day that he [the Lord] shall set his hand again the second time to recover his people, is the day, yea, even the last time, that the servants of the Lord shall go forth in his power, to nourish and prune his vineyard; and after that the end soon cometh” (Jacob 6:2). This prophecy relies on Isaiah’s prediction that the Lord will “set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people.” At that time, the “outcasts of Israel” and the “dispersed of Judah” will be gathered from the “four corners of the earth” and will participate in a new exodus to Zion (Isaiah 11:11–12:6; cf. 2 Nephi 21:11–22:6).
Also speaking of that time, the Prophet Joseph Smith says, “Christ, in the days of His flesh, proposed to make a covenant with them [the Jews], but they rejected Him and His proposals, and in consequence thereof, they were broken off, and no covenant was made with them at that time. But their unbelief has not rendered the promise of God of none effect: no, for there was another day limited in David, which was the day of his power; and then His people, Israel, should be a willing people” (TPJS, 14–15).
The “day of power,” to which both Jacob and Joseph Smith refer, is the day that “the Messiah will set his hand again the second time to recover them; wherefore, he will manifest himself unto them in power and great glory, unto the destruction of their enemies, when that day cometh when they shall believe in him” (2 Nephi 6:14; cf. 1 Nephi 14:13–17).
Zenos’ beautiful allegory of the olive tree may thus be more fully understood in the light of Isaiah’s prophecies of the same end-time scenario. In all likelihood, the allegory is itself an expansion upon Isaiah’s olive tree allegory (cf. Isaiah 11:1).
By linking up with the words of Isaiah each time they predict end-time events, Book of Mormon prophets clearly point us to Isaiah. And each time they do, only one scenario emerges from these combined scriptures, and it is always the same. Lest we esteem the prophecies of Isaiah as naught and cast them out—as the Jaredites did those of Ether—therefore, we might ask, Is understanding the words of Isaiah perhaps the main test we must pass before the Lord reveals more? And second, Is the final grafting of the Jews, the Ten Tribes, and the Lamanites into the olive tree held up until some of us perform this?