It’s striking that there are relatively few executions by “hanging on a tree” in Scripture. Deuteronomy gives this as a possible means of execution, only stipulating that the body be taken down at sundown, since public hanging on a tree is accursed and would defile the land if left out overnight (Dt. 21:22-23).
In Joshua, during the conquest, the king of Ai is hung on a tree until evening before being buried under a pile of stones (Josh. 8:29) and the five kings that attack Gibeon are likewise hung on five trees until evening before being buried in a cave (Josh. 10:26). The only other references to such an executions in the Old Testament are in Genesis 40:19 and Esther 2:23 when plots against Pharaoh and Ahasuerus are uncovered and the perpetrators are put to death.
Then in Acts there are two references to Jesus: “The God of our fathers raise up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree” (5:30). “And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree” (10:39).
Of course Galatians refers to this as well: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'” (Gal. 3:13).
Peter also references the same thing when he writes: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
The relative infrequency of death by hanging on a tree seems to underline the curse of this form of execution. It was a form of execution meant to highlight the shame of the crimes committed. In Joshua the executions are clearly meant to be warnings to all the kings of Canaan. Joshua, in effect says, so it will be done to all who resist and plot against us. Just prior to the execution of the five kings, Joshua actually has the leaders of the tribes come and put their feet on the necks of the five kings saying, “Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the Lord do to all your enemies against whom ye fight.” Paul seems to be saying something similar in Romans: “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20).
I also can’t help but think about the inscription that Pilate put on the cross: King of the Jews. Of course Romans used crucifixion routinely, but thinking in terms of the biblical narrative and the typology of the crucifixion, crosses are always for kings or those who plot against them. Jesus truly became that curse. He took the shame of a failed king, a mere upstart, our Lord of Glory.
If Acts is the New Testament Joshua, the book of the beginning of the conquest of the world by the greater Joshua, it’s interesting that both conquests begin with references to kings executed by hanging on a tree. Only instead of pagan kings being executed and hung on trees, the apostles are proclaiming the death of Israel’s king. But whereas the old pagan kings were buried under piles of stones and in caves, Israel’s King did not stay in His grave. God has raised Him from the dead.
Lastly (for now), it’s impossible to talk about death at a tree without thinking of the Garden and the first sin and the curse that fell on the world at that tree. Every hanging on a tree points back to Adam, the first failed and rebellious king. He betrayed his Lord and attempted to claim authority for himself, and so every death on a tree points back to that shameful death. So the conquest of the world by our King needed to begin with the conquest of that curse itself. And so He became that curse for us, and having exhausted it all, He broke the curse and freed all those who look to Him in faith.
Now that tree on Calvary is a tree of life, a tree of blessing. And this is partly why we plant trees in our living rooms during this time of year. A tree that has been cut down, a tree that has no business being fruitful and lively, is decorated with lights and fruits and ribbons because our King has destroyed the curse. We hang tokens of victory and life on the tree where our King fought for us and won. And when we proclaim this good news, the kings of the nations fall to their knees. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.