So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way…
Let us try to analyse the spiritual ideas represented by these words of the text: "Life," "Tree," "Way," "Cherubims," "Flaming Sword."
1. What is life? The true life of man is to partake of the Divine life of God. "This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God."
2. The power of the Divine life in its relation to the being of man is here represented by a "tree." A tree represents a germ, a growth, and a fruitfulness. So the Divine life, implanted in the being of humanity as a hidden germ, grows, casting forth branches in the formation of habits and tendencies of character, and brings forth fruits in the energies of a spiritual being reflecting the image of God; that is, "the fruits of the Spirit."
3. Alienation from the life of God, and reconciliation to it, imply a departure and a return. These ideas are here represented by the word "way." The "way" would seem to represent those means of grace, and that mediatorial system, by the power of which alone man is able to reach the realization of the Divine presence.
4. This way is subject to conditions. "The cherubims" keep the way. The winged forms of the cherubims would seem to represent the spiritual supernatural forces which elevate the soul of man out of the earthly, lower life, into the communion of the Most High. The wings of the "cherubims" alone can waft the soul of man into the presence of "The Most High."
5. There is another guardian force represented by the flaming sword. What is the spiritual power symbolized by the sword? The knife, or sword, is the symbol of sacrifice. Our love of any object may be measured by the sacrifices which we are willing to make for it. Now, the life of man stands in the reflection of the attributes of God. The one all-comprehensive attribute of God is love. Therefore the one all-comprehensive duty of man is sacrifice. Sacrifice is the reflection by humanity on earth of the Divine love in heaven. The sword keeps the way of life. But it is the "flaming" sword. The flame would seem to represent the motive spirit of true sacrifice. The cold sacrifice, which is not prompted by the ardour of burning love, is not the power that keeps the way, but the unquenched spirit of fervent love, symbolized by the flame. In all the ages of the Church's life, the access of the human soul to the secret place, in which dwells the eternal life, has been by the same way, and subject to the same conditions. Let us, then, endeavour to trace the same verities, as they are presented under various forms, in successive ages.
I. Where did THE PATRIARCHS, who lived on earth before the flood, find the source of spiritual, undecaying life? In the presence of God. Their souls drew near to realize the image of the eternal life, in order that, gazing on its glory, they might be changed into the same image. In the motions of his consciousness Enoch walked with God, and Noah walked with God. On the other hand, when Cain by transgression lost the higher life of his being, that perdition is described as departure from the presence of God: "Cain went out from the presence of the Lord." In that alienation the tree of life ceased to grow within the reach of his soul, and its spiritual fruits no longer strengthened and gladdened his being. What, then, constituted the "way" of access for these patriarchs? The means of grace which God had ordained. The forms in which the means of grace consisted in those ages are not revealed to us. The spiritual forces which encircled that "way," as the conditions of approach, were essentially the same as in our own and in every age of the Church. The human consciousness cannot realize the presence of God without the revealed knowledge of God and the ordained exercises of devotion. The wings of the eternal cherubims, then as now, in the shadowing power of reverence, and in the elevating power of spiritual aspiration, were the guardian forces, without whose activity the soul could not draw near to the Most High. The other force which keeps the way was also present in the antediluvian Church. The "sword" of sacrifice appears in an early page of religious history. In the religion of Cain and Abel sacrifice is seen. The sword was not wanting in the religion of Cain. Why, then, did he lose the "respect" of the Divine presence? His was the cold sword of a heartless, formal sacrifice, which cost him no self-denial. On the other hand, the soul of Abel had seen dimly the mighty truth of the Cross. In the progress of his soul the sword of sacrifice is seen baptized with the flames of the tongues of fire, kindled by the one eternal Spirit of God.
II. In the Church of THE POSTDILUVIAN PATRIARCHS THE SPIRITUAL LIFE OF MAN WAS QUICKENED AND FROM TIME TO TIME REVIVED BY THE REALIZATION OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD. Again and again in the religious history of the patriarchs we read of remarkable spiritual epochs in their lives. How are these epochs described? In the oft repeated phrase: "God appeared unto Abraham" — Isaac — Jacob. These appearances of God, that is, realizations of His presence, are marked as the points of spiritual illumination and spiritual revival. In each of those manifestations, the tree of the Divine life casts forth branches, and brings forth new spiritual fruit in the patriarch's soul. But, let us ask, how were the souls of these patriarchs entitled to draw near, so that God manifested His countenance to the inward eye of faith in their spiritual consciousness? By the diligent use of the Divinely appointed means. The system of Divine doctrine and worship, as far as its forms are concerned, which prevailed in the Church of the patriarchs, is very dimly revealed to us. But there are many expressions which clearly show that such a system existed. Special seasons, and special places, were evidently consecrated to the pursuit of illumination and the exercises of worship. In that system the soul found the "way" of the tree of life. The spiritual forces, which come forth from the eternal throne "to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation," were ever surrounding the "way of the tree of life" in the history of the patriarchs. In the elevating powers which came in response to meditation, prayer, and praise, the cherubic wings made their presence felt during the waking and dreaming hours of the patriarchs. In the most remarkable passage in the life of Abraham, we also behold the guardian agency of "the flaming sword." As in the New Testament, the incarnate God has taught us that we cannot reach His presence except upon the condition of entire self-sacrifice, in the "forsaking of all," so this mighty principle appears in the trial of Abraham. In the ascent of Mount Moriah he rose to the height of self-sacrifice, and there won the richest promises of life. By the mighty faith of that act he won the smile of the eternal countenance, and inherited the highest blessing vouchsafed to man. His self-surrender proved that burning love of God had absorbed his entire being.
III. IN THE MOSAIC ECONOMY OF THE JEWISH CHURCH, the presence of the Lord is ever represented as the source of the Church's life. The promise of that abiding sacramental presence was given in the words, "There I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee, from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims, which are upon the ark of the testimony." This Divine presence was also realized by the Church in the days of Solomon. At the opening of the Temple, "The glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord." That central presence was the life of the Church. The far-extending and fructifying influences of that mysterious presence in the Church were as the branches of the tree of life. That presence first manifested to Moses in the burning brightness of the tree on Horeb continued to abide in the growing Church, the increase of which the Psalmist sang in these words: "Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river." The "way" of the tree of life was sacramentally represented in the entrance into the holy of holies on the great day of the Atonement. On that day the high priest drew near into the presence of the eternal Life according to the appointed order of access. That order represented "the way." As in the patriarchal Church, the "way" was kept by the guardian forces. The golden cherubims, resting upon the ark of the testimony, cast their shadow over the "way" of approach. Those golden figures, with wings out stretched, as if for mounting into the realms of the Eternal Life of the Most High, and resting upon the ark of the testimony, symbolized the truth that the elevating forces of spiritual worship and aspiration must have as their basis the solid ground of Church witness and dogmatic truth. Thus we find that in the Jewish Church the "way" of access to the Presence was kept by the cherubims. Was the power of the flaming sword also represented in the typical teaching of the Tabernacle? Yes. As a condition of entrance, the high priest was commanded to bear the sword and the fire. "Into the second tabernacle went the high priest alone, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people."
IV. So likewise in the INCARNATION. When the fulness of time was come, the everlasting Son, who is the eternal Word and fountain of life, entered our humanity: "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us In Him was life." In Jesus Christ was embodied the image of the eternal life, for the participation of which man was created. The tidings of His mission are, "The glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God." If we regard the progressive manifestation of the Divine life in the manhood of Jesus Christ, He is also the "tree" of life. The hidden Godhead dwelt bodily in the ungrown form at Bethlehem. The manifestation of the Godhead, according to the conditions of humanity, was gradual: "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." Of His earthly course John the Baptist said: "He must increase." In that increase He appears as the "tree" of life. The holy nativity was the germ, containing within itself the tree, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. The successive glories, or manifestations, of His Divinity were as the branches which the growing tree put forth. By the power of these man is saved. In the ascension the tree of life reached the fulness of its height; and in the coming of the Holy Ghost began to shed upon human nature the fruits of the everlasting life. In His mediatorial power, as opening the Divine life to the human nature, Jesus Christ is the "way" of the tree of life: "For through Him we both have access by one spirit unto the Father." His flesh and blood are the media of access to the invisible eternal life. Therefore Jesus Christ is also the "way" of the tree of life for man, "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way...no man cometh unto the Father but by Me." In the history of the incarnation we also behold the presence and agency of the ministering spirits that were appointed to keep the "way." In the temptation the power of the ministering spirits is seen keeping the "way": "Behold, angels came and ministered unto Him." In Jesus Christ we behold also the spiritual powers represented by the flaming sword. From Bethlehem onwards every act of Jesus was a sacrifice. But the crowning act, which gathered into itself the significance of all His previous acts, was His self-surrender unto the death of the cross. The original life of the unfallen man flowed from the image of the one eternal Life, whose name is Love. The mighty power that redeems man from that unloving self-will, which is the "law of sin and death," is the manifestation of the infinite love. The expression of love is sacrifice, and all love may be measured by the value of the victim sacrificed. Blood is the true exponent of love. In the eternal Being of God, love holds a place analogous to that of blood in the physical being of man. Love permeates the infinite system of God's eternal Being, giving motion and vitality, as it were, to all the other attributes. Power, justice, wisdom, holiness, and all the other attributes of the Eternal, are quickened by His all-circulating love. On Calvary we see the flaming sword, under the strokes of which humanity in Christ found entrance into the secret recesses of the eternal life. Christ "by His own blood entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us."
V. The eternal life, lost by man in nature, is brought near in that "ONE CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH," which is the Body of Christ. Wherein does that life dwell? Where is the throne upon which He is seated? The Presence dwells sacramentally in the holy mysteries. The Divine life, communicated from Christ to the being of man, is a life that grows. The tree of life in the soul of the young communicant may be but a weak and tender plant. As the outward form of flesh and blood in which the eternal Word chose to come into humanity was lowly and feeble to the eye of man, so the sacramental "way" in which the eternal life is communicated to us hath no form or splendour that our natural hearts would desire. The sacramental "way" to the Presence is also guarded by the "cherubims." Unless you have sought the influence of the ministering spirits that elevate and waft the soul from its earthliness into the light and air of the higher life, you cannot realize the presence of Christ. The other condition of access that keeps the "way" is the mighty power of sacrifice. That flaming sword must be known in our personal being, before we can reach the presence of the Life. When you draw near along the sacramental "way," you are commanded to acknowledge and bewail your manifold sins and wickednesses. If that confession be a genuine act of the soul, then you are willing to sacrifice the dearest sins, and, taking the sword, to cut off the right hand, and to cut out the right eye, in order to enter into the hidden life. On that condition alone can you worthily draw near. But whence can we draw the power to wield this sword? We have no sufficient motive power in our own nature. We must draw inspiration by a living faith from the one omnipotent sacrifice on Calvary.
(H. T. Edwards, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.