Under Our Own Vines And Fig Trees

By Mia Gradick

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

A few weekends ago, a friend and I ventured to George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Upon arrival, I reflected on what I knew about the legendary President and General from past constitutional law classes and history books. Almost instantaneously a few words popped into my mind: Revolutionary War hero, Founding Father, First President, and Mount Vernon estate owner to name a few. Something that I soon realized that I left off of this very non-exclusive list was his proud role as a farmer and his resignation of power after his term as the First President. 

Needless to say, when we learn history we often learn about foundational events which occur to truly build the historical narrative… we remember what someone “goes down in history for.” For instance, in history classes in grade school, we are taught about a great commander named George Washington who, through his strategy and tactics at battles like Trenton, aided American Revolutionaries to victory and freedom from domineering Great Britain. However, that is only one side of the story. The other side suggests that we must consider the man himself apart from victory and celebrate the qualities that deem him memorable and laudable.

Here, my aim is to illustrate the depth of Washington and of the history surrounding him. Memorable as an account of a person’s heroism, but also as a faithful and humble servant-leader who ultimately chooses to glorify the Lord in a cultural moment of chaos.

To exemplify this, let’s take a journey back beyond Washington’s Founding era to Ancient Rome. George Washington embodies what I call the “American Cincinnatus.” Back in the days of Ancient Rome, the most distinguished general and patrician in the Roman Army named Cincinnatus enjoyed retirement on his farm after his service; that was until Roman representatives enlightened him about a grave threat to the Eternal City: the Aequians. Cincinnatus quickly left his farm and led the Romans to a decisive victory. After assuming the role of Roman Dictator, Cincinnatus selflessly resigned his power after ten days and chose to return to his farm, to his home. 

The parallels between Cincinnatus and General Washington are striking. Washington, who was also called from retirement to organize and lead the Continental Army, resigned his commission and dramatically returned to Mount Vernon once the young America claimed victory. Both Cincinnatus and General Washington had every opportunity to become military dictators or in Washington’s case, the first “American king.” But why did Washington choose to resign power and place citizenry over personal gain? I believe it is because he desired to “lay under his own vine and fig tree,” treasuring the growth of the soul when we trust in God’s divine Providence.

Micah 4:4 illuminates this. The prophet Micah, writing in a biblical period of cultural turmoil and uncertainty, refers to the liberty of a farmer unbound from the military oppression of the state. In his beautiful proclamation, he states “everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree… no one shall be afraid,” a simple and plentiful life flowing from faith in the Lord’s goodness and from seeking that which comes from above. We live in a modern, innovative, broken, and complicated world. But we also live in a place filled with a need to slow down, quiet ourselves for a moment from our career-oriented tendencies and cultivate our hearts as we navigate cultural orthodoxy by standing for what truly matters: the pursuit of the Good, of God. 

Washington thought so too. In nearly fifty of his writings, he cites the phrase “under their own vine and fig tree,” signifying an important truth in the great general’s life: he yearned for the simple life during the tumultuous times in which he served, and for a return to tending his literal garden, Mount Vernon, to which he retired at the end of his commission. One could infer that he also desired to tend to his spiritual garden, to grow his soul in the pursuit of virtue, which ultimately honors Christ. In a letter to George Mason in 1776, General Washington wrote:

“I fancy myself…at Mount Vernon,—May God grant us a Return of those halcyon Days; when every Man may sit down at his Ease under the Shade of his own Vine, & his own fig-tree…, becoming Men determined to transmit to our Posterity, unimpair’d, the Blessings we have received from our Ancestors!”

Note how Washington writes that Mount Vernon is where “every Man may sit down under the Shade of his own Vine, & own fig tree.” General Washington was onto something. He utilized this phrase fifty times in his writings. Fifty times! He found a peaceful purpose in nurturing his estate; that’s where he could find physical and albeit spiritual rest.

Could the great general have been suggesting that in the face of polarization and revolution, the only constant we have is cultivating our own vines and fig trees, which may be similar to cultivating the soul as we seek the Divine?

In a world dominated by cultural orthodoxy, Washington understood and teaches the ever-so-timely lesson that we cannot look to the state or society for eternal fulfillment. We often look to our careers, school, or even to politics or culture for identity or purpose. However, freedom is found when we take a step outside ourselves and look into the mirror. When we do this, we reflect on what is inwardly blossoming. We will find that our internal flourishment is not due to a set of accolades or what a history book deems as worthy, but in our purpose we have in this life: glorifying the Lord in our hearts and most importantly through our actions. Clearly, there is an eternal weight to this.

For Washington, this eternal obligation started and ended at Mount Vernon, where he lived out his best and final days under his own vine and fig tree. Washington clearly embodied America’s agricultural growth and self- sufficiency during the time of the Revolution. Accounts indicate that he almost revered his role as a farmer more than his role as a heroic revolutionary figure. He understood that he was not simply growing crops at Mount Vernon, he was planting virtuous seeds in the minds of the citizens who followed him, displaying God’s infinite faithfulness and goodness through our actions. For Washington, that looked like stepping aside. This truly is the Platonic good life: seeking of true, the good, and the beautiful.

With all that said, we have much to learn from Washington. Not simply from his heroic acts, but in his noble servant-leadership. By resigning his commission, the general understood and proudly promoted that sometimes leading itself may look a look like following… it’s how we can sit under our own vines and fig trees, trusting that the Lord is sovereign even throughout the radical tides of life.

Returning to Mount Vernon for me this past week was a sweet gift, one that I will never take for granted. We often look at historical places in terms of events, what happened there. Going to General Washington’s wondrous estate reminded me that we can use history and our Founders as a guide, the history lives and we should look at the character of the players as we pursue the good life. Standing in the fields of Washington’s beautiful country and overlooking the Potomac River, I found myself realizing that I desire to grow my own vine and my own fig tree and be bold in His constancy in a mutable world. Ultimately, I desire to leave this place  better than I found it. Maybe that looks like attending church more frequently, investing in my co-workers, finding a meaningful way to spend my time, reading more of General Washington’s writings, or most importantly for myself: listening to others more than talking about myself. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we will find that, much like Washington, being told “well done my good and faithful servant” is eternally more meaningful than admirable career goals off some bucket list. Yes indeed, admirable and worthy, but so is finding ways to refresh the soul in a demanding and career-oriented world. This is coming from a young woman with lofty ambitions, such as practicing religious liberty law one day. Ironic, right? I, like the rest of us, get caught up in it, too. Nevertheless, like Washington, I want to stand under my own vine and fig tree one day and not be afraid about the future He has in store for me. I believe this life-giving goal can start today in the way I serve others in any setting, but ultimately as a wise person once told me, “We serve Him, to serve others, who then serve Him.”

Mia Gradick is an ISI Honors Scholar at Baylor University. She writes for the college’s Standard newspaper.

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