The Threatened Death
Genesis 2:16-17
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat:…

Our business in now to consider the import and the extent of this penalty. What are we to understand by this threatened death? What is the true construction of the language: "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die"? Let us first inquire whether bodily death, the dissolution of the physical organization, is embraced in the threatened penalty? Is there good ground to believe, either from the teachings of Scripture, or from any other source, that this is at least a part, if not the whole, of the punishment which was denounced and executed on our first parents? We answer at once that we know of no reason whatever for thus thinking. That corporal death does not include the whole of what was threatened, we suppose that there is little occasion for attempting to show to any here; and I hope to be able to convince the most of you, in the course of my discussion, that there is no evidence that it constitutes any part of the original threatening. I will not say that physical pain and bodily dissolution are not and cannot be, in any case, the fruit of sin and a part of its punishment; but there is force in the allegation, that as sin is the transgression of a moral law, and a moral offence, its proper punishment should first and chiefly be looked for in a disturbed state of the moral feelings and the moral relations. Since the seat of sin is the mind, it is mainly, no doubt, in the mind that its punishment should be sought. We cannot argue from the words in the text — "Thou shalt surely die" — that bodily death forms any part of the evil thus signified. This language may just as well be interpreted of moral or spiritual death, as of corporeal. The terms "die" and "death" are often used in the Bible to denote nothing beyond spiritual death, or that state of mind, that feeling of guilt, condemnation, and misery, which immediately succeeds the transgression of the Divine law. But is there not a reason, in the language of the threatening itself, which unavoidably drives us to the spiritual sense? The terms employed are: "IN THE DAY THAT THOU EATEST THEREOF, thou shalt surely die." Now if we suppose here any reference at all to bodily death, if we consider this idea as in any manner included in the expression, "Thou shalt surely die," we at once involve ourselves in a great and apparently inextricable difficulty. We compromise the veracity of God; we make Him pronounce a sentence which He does not execute; for Adam and Eve did not die corporeally, did not suffer the extinction of their natural earthly life the very day in which they partook of the forbidden fruit, but lived, according to the account which we have of them, hundreds of years after this time. Is there, then, any way of avoiding the conclusion that bodily death is no part of the threatening pronounced against them? I certainly know of none. Let us see, however, what has been offered in order to meet this difficulty. It has been maintained by some, and is perhaps the common view, that although Adam and Eve did not actually suffer bodily death on that day, yet they then became mortal; they underwent a sudden change in their physical organization, which made them liable to death, and rendered it certain that their bodies would ultimately decay and perish. Death, according to this view, then began to work in them, inasmuch as they then became liable to bodily pains and diseases, which, by the appointment of the Creator, end in corporeal death. Now, satisfactory and consistent as this explanation may have been deemed by many, I trust I shall disturb no one in saying, that it is wholly incapable of support. It is, in fact, a mere supposition, invented, I believe, for the purpose of escaping a difficulty; and a supposition in favour of which there is not a particle of evidence. Especially we cannot accept it, when there are against it these two objections; first, that it assigns to the word "die," a meaning which it never has elsewhere, that of becoming liable to die; and hence, secondly, that it assumes that man was created physically immortal, endowed not only with an immortal soul, but with an equally immortal body; since otherwise his sin could not be spoken of as making him mortal. Let us then examine more particularly this assumption, that man had at the beginning a naturally imperishable body. The most that can be said of it is, that it is a mere human opinion, devoid of any precise and express warrant from the Bible. We believe that they received from their Maker a body which was subject to old age, decay, and death; and that their sin produced in them no immediate change in this respect. They were subject from the beginning to the great law of mortality, and had they always maintained their integrity, would, at the proper time, have passed out of their original corporeal life into some higher state of existence. The mere statement of this view is already some evidence of its correctness; for it corresponds in no way with our conceptions of the high dignity and destination of these first sharers of our nature, to suppose them encumbered forever with the shackles of a coarse material body, appointed always to dwell on the earth, and denied any other knowledge and happiness, than what might come to them in this region and under these physical conditions. The garden of Eden was, at best, but the fit receptacle of their infancy; and after a suitable time passed on earth, a period of existence in the body, it must have been the intention of their Maker to take them up, by translation, if not by death, to a nobler sphere. This view recommends itself to us as intrinsically reasonable. It accords with all our best and most natural conceptions. But we have, in favour of the view, something more than this strong internal recommendation, this conformity with our natural ideas of the high destination of man. The Scriptures themselves lend it their decisive confirmation. They teach us that the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; that He gave him for food every herb bearing seed, and every tree yielding fruit; and that He commanded him to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it. This is an account of man, not as affected by sin, but as he was from the beginning. It is the description of his physical origin, of his sustenance, and of his appointment to exist in a succession of generations, till the world should be filled and subdued by his multiplied descendants. Now, can we fail to see, in all these carefully enumerated circumstances, the sure marks and evidences of a law of individual decay and dissolution? Is it not here clearly implied that our first parents were not exempted from any of the physical wants and changes which belong to men in general? Further evidence that man was created mortal is found in the sentence pronounced on him at the time of his transgression. The substantial import of the curse is: While thy life lasts, thou shalt toil for its support, and have experience of sorrow. The words take for granted that the bodily life was limited; but they do not at all intimate that it then became so; that the sin, just committed and now punished, had limited this life. Far less do we find in them any allusion to a suddenly produced change in the physical constitution, by which this, created immortal, was now rendered mortal. On the whole, these intimations in Genesis (and we know of no conflicting statements in other parts of the Bible) lead us to conclude that the bodily constitution of Adam and Eve was, from the beginning, in every respect essentially like our own. They had just such skin and bones, just such muscles and nerves as we have. They fed on similar food, and would just as surely have hungered and died without it. They were placed in like relations to all natural agents and natural laws. A further support to the view here urged is found in the fact that Christ came on earth in a mortal body. As He was wholly free from sin, and an example of the right condition of our nature morally, so we cannot help viewing Him as exempted from any liability to physical sufferings, which were not common also to our first parents before the Fall. If these were created with a body incapable of pain, want, and death, then they were thus far distinguished above Christ, the Lord from heaven. But this is a highly improbable supposition. We add that it did not belong to the design of Christ to save any from corporeal death. Still His salvation must be commensurate with the evils caused by sin; and we hence infer that a liability to physical death is not among these evils. Our Saviour nowhere teaches us to look upon the death of the body as in itself an evil, and to see in it a proof of our guilt. There is no difficulty in admitting that sin may render the prospect of dissolution and of what lies beyond it sad and fearful, while yet it is true that men would suffer dissolution if they had not sinned. Sin may not have brought in corporeal death, any more than it brought in the destination to a continued and endless life after this death; but yet it may have darkened the view and the contemplation of both, and particularly of the latter. Returning, then, to the question, In what consisted the penalty inflicted on our first parents for sin? we have no hesitation in replying, that it consisted essentially in spiritual death, or in a state of condemnation before God, with such superadded physical sufferings, corporeal death excluded, as are traceable to sin. The penalty of their transgression lay emphatically in that state of mind which is always the appointed result of transgression. Adopting this view, we have no difficulty in giving their full force to all the words in the text: "In the day that thou cutest thereof thou shalt surely die." The execution of the penalty thus corresponds perfectly with the threatening. The very day of the commission of the sin is the day of its righteous visitation. A spiritual punishment alights on the offenders, and enters into their very souls. They fear the presence of their Maker, and hide themselves from Him amidst the trees of the garden. This view saves the Divine veracity. It recommends itself to our sense of what is right and proper. It places the main punishment of the sin in the fit place, in the mind and the conscience of the sinner. It maintains the supremacy of the moral, instead of half sacrificing it to the material. Let us learn from what has been said, to regard, not bodily death, but sin, as the great evil which we have to fear. The death of the body, when not caused, and not hastened by sin, is never in itself an evil; but an uncorrected sinful character is always a fearful evil. The state of an unholy soul is as wrong now as it would be seen to be, if suddenly unclothed, and summoned into the world of spirits. It could carry thither nothing but its character, nothing but itself, as its own life education had made it. Let us then all seek to give a wise direction to our thoughts. Let us recall them from the material to the moral, from the perishable to the imperishable, from the accidental to the essential.

(D. N. Sheldon, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

WEB: Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;

The Prohibition
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