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…
I. THE TREE OF LIFE GUARDED. When mankind were driven out of paradise, the tree of life was not removed nor destroyed, but still left there: to show that there was still immortal life left for man, though out of his reach. To this our own nature bears witness; for there lies at the bottom of the heart of man the inextinguishable desire for happiness and immortality; and that desire still implanted within us proves that it is not altogether lost. Thus Aristotle inferred from this universal desire in the very constitution of man's nature, that there is a happiness for which he is born; and that though it be never attained, yet it must in some way be attainable by man. The principle must exist, though every access to that life is closed to mankind; or, in other words, is guarded by the sword which turns every way.
II. THE CHERUBIM OF SCRIPTURE. Of the different figures we may observe, that in the holy of holies they are at rest; in Ezekiel in motion; in St. John in adoration. Over the ark they seem to indicate inquiry; in the prophetic vision judgment; in the Church of the redeemed thanksgiving. In the holy place they seem as if inquiring of each other, and at the same time as if the subject of their inquiry was the propitiation or mercy seat. Thus it is said to Moses, "their faces shall look one to another, toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be." To which St. Peter is supposed to allude when he says that the angels "desire to look into the things" of our salvation. And thus the two angels were seen by Mary Magdalene, "the one at the head and the other at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain," which is the true mercy seat. But the four cherubims afterwards are described as "full of eyes," instinct with knowledge, and adoring wonder. Again, in the holy of holies not only are they entirely withdrawn from sight by the veil, but even when the High Priest entered once a year within that veil, they are hid from view by the smoke and the cloud of incense; but in the Apocalypse all is open, and they are glorifying God, for the gospel is then manifested. It appears then from all these passages, that by the term cherubims we must understand some symbols or representation of the incarnation. So was it in the holy of holies; so was it in the prophet Ezekiel, and in the Apocalypse; and therefore we may conclude that the same is meant in this place in the garden of Eden.
III. THEIR FORM AND CHARACTER. We may further infer, that not only did those cherubims which appeared in the beginning in Eden bear the same kind of significance with those which are introduced in the rest of Scripture, and at the close in the Apocalypse, but also are of a similar form and character. Now these in the latter instances were expressly composite forms of animal life, or creature combinations, and in all probability those in the temple were likewise of the same kind. The compound figures keeping the entrances of Assyrian and Egyptian temples or palaces, so utterly inexplicable on any other grounds, were probably derived from some tradition of the cherubims that kept the gate of paradise. To these might be added mythological fables, as that of the brazen-footed bulls breathing fire, that kept the golden fleece. And what was that golden fleece but some record of that clothing of God, some memory of that mystery of great price, in Eden guarded by cherubim?
IV. SIGNIFICATION OF CHERUBIMS. It will then be granted that by the cherubims were signified some manifestation of Christ. And it has always been considered that the four cherubims of Ezekiel and St. John had reference to the four Gospels or Evangelists; for it is they that bear the manifestation or knowledge of Christ throughout the world; they may be said to bear His throne as seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or to encompass it as by St. John. In like manner the two cherubims in the Temple have been considered by St. to mean the two Testaments. We may therefore infer that the cherubims in Eden had the like intent. But though they may have been afterwards seen and partially fulfilled in four Evangelists, yet this does not explain the meaning of such appearances; they must have some peculiar signification in themselves in addition to, or independently of, the four Gospels. For we may ask, Why should figures of this kind be chosen? And what do their curious shapes imply? What are they? They are in some sense angelic, inasmuch as they bear messages of God, and the only way we can represent angels is by some form of human youth in a spiritual body; yet they are not angelic, for they are human and animal. They are not human, because there are among them the countenances of animals; they are not animal, for they are full of knowledge; the very name implies multitude of knowledge, as also do their many eyes; and they bear in their hand a sword; they are human as well as animal; they are spiritual as well as human, as their spiritual movement indicates. They are called by the prophet and by the evangelist "the living creatures," — not, as improperly translated, "beasts," but living creatures — creatures gifted with excessive life, "the living ones." But we may observe, that though that which is animal and spiritual he mixed up with these appearances, yet the prevailing character is man; the basis, so to speak, of all these symbolic figures is man. They seem to represent the perfection of animal life, yet gifted with a spiritual body, as to be found in the new man, the last Adam, who shall reinstate again in paradise; man by the manhood of Christ reconciled unto God, and admitted into union and fellowship with God, wherein is eternal life. It is therefore the pledge and covenant of the seed that should come, admitting again to immortality, by union of God with man, the life of life, spiritual life, in the perfection of the creature united with the Creator.
V. THE ANIMAL CREATION RESTORED. See Romans 8:19, 21, 22; Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 3:14; Revelation 5:13; Isaiah 11:5-6; Isaiah 65:25. The animals partake of the sentence passed on man of labour; they labour and suffer for us and with us, sharing our toil and relieving it in their lives, and in their deaths sustaining our frail bodies, setting forth the atonement, and thereby our deliverance from death. Thus they are connected both with our death by sin, and with the promise of that better life which is in God. It is then through animals that God clothes fallen man; it is through animals slain that He receives a sacrifice in Abel; and both these as setting forth Christ; — "the secret of the Lord" which "is with them that fear Him." It is not therefore inconsistent with this that something of an animal character should also be found in these cherubims, which kept the way of the tree of life, and which must in some sense be symbols of Christ's incarnation.
(I. Williams, B. D.)
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.