There is absolutely nothing arbitrary about the details pertaining to the great works of God recorded in Scripture. From the earliest recorded revelation in the history of redemption, the Lord gave tiny details that were meant to serve as “time-bombs” planted into the field of redemptive history. After one detail was firmly fixed in the mind of the reader, it was meant to trigger other related time bombs as we read through the pages of the unfolding of this glorious redemptive revelation. One of the earliest of these time bombs was the allusion to the flaming sword in the hand of the cherubim placed at the East gate of Eden. As has been noted in previous posts here, Eden was the Garden-Temple where God dwelt with His image bearers. It was, in the fullest and truest sense, the dwelling place of God on earth. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, one of the consequences was that they were exiled from the Garden (Genesis 3:20-24). The fall meant that the Garden-Temple of this world had to be cleansed. The rest of the Scriptures are teaching us how man will again be given access to enter into the Heavenly Temple to dwell in the presence of God. This, of course, will only happen definitely when our sin was imputed to Christ and the Temple of His body was cleansed through the blood judgment that fell on Him at the cross. (For a fuller development of the crucifixion being Temple cleansing see this, this and this). Interestingly, the biblical-theology of the flaming sword and references to the east in redemptive history help us better understand how the way back to God must occur. Here are some of the biblical-theological developments regarding the significance of the flaming sword and the East Gate in God’s work of opening the way for man to come back into His presence to dwell with him forever:
The Flaming Sword of Justice
After Adam and Eve sinned, God “placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” The sword represented the justice of God that would fall on any of Adam’s descendants who sought to find their way back to God and to life by their own efforts. Jonathan Edwards expounded on this when he wrote:
Hence how vain and dangerous are their attempts that are attempting to get eternal life themselves. There are many that, notwithstanding the flaming sword of God’s justice and vindictive wrath that turns every [way], are endeavoring to find out ways to come at the tree of life. Many are bold to come in their own names and in their own righteousness. [There is] no sword for them that come in Christ’s name, but a flaming sword still for them that come in their own names.1
In Moses’ song, we learn again of the sword of the Lord’s justice. This time, it is in reference to what the Lord will do to those who hate and oppose Him. Just before leading them forward to take possession of the Land, the Lord told Israel, “As I live forever, If I whet My glittering sword, and My hand takes hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to My enemies, and repay those who hate Me” (Deut. 32:40-41).
O. Palmer Robertson explains the symbolic significance of this reference to “the sword of the Lord” in light of subsequent references to it in the unfolding of progressive revelation when he writes:
Bound by the oath of the covenant, the Lord must employ his sword to slay all the wicked. This sword of the Lord appears readied in the hand of the captain of the Lord’s host as Joshua contemplates his attack on Jericho (Josh. 5:13). It became the central feature of Gideon’s battle cry against the Midianites (Judg. 7:20). In the apocalyptic visions of the Revelation of John, the one whose name is the Word of God brandishes a sharp double-edged sword that strikes the nations (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21). This eschatological sword joins the “iron scepter” of the messianic king as an instrument for subduing the nations (Rev. 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:9).2
While in all of these places to the Lord executing His judgment on His enemies, there is one significant place in the prophetic literature in which the sword of God’s justice will fall on the Messiah for the salvation of God’s people. Since we all deserve the judgment of God it is only fitting that we would find a passage that speaks of the substitutionary role that Christ would play in taking the judgment of God for us–thrown under the figure of the “sword.” In Zechariah 13:7 we read:
Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd,
Against the Man who is My Companion,
Says the Lord of hosts.
Strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep will be scattered;
Jesus explicitly pointed His disciples to this prophecy at the hour of his betrayal leading to His sufferings. When the chief priests came to take him, Jesus told his disciples, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’ (Matthew 26:31). The prediction of the LORD’s sword falling on His Shepherd/Companion is a prediction of His wrath being poured out on Christ at the cross. Jesus passes through the flaming sword of God’s justice (Zech. 13:7) which was itself represented by the cherubim standing with flaming swords at the east entrance to the Garden-Temple (Gen. 3:24). Each of them takes their place in redemptive history to aid us in filling in the picture of what God was promising to do. The Son of God entered into the battle against Satan, sin and death–bearing the wrath of the flaming sword of God’s judgment–in order to open the way back to the presence of God for us.
Jonathan Edwards noted the significance of reading Genesis 3:22-24 through the lens of the Gospel when he wrote:
Christ undertook to lead us to the tree of life, and he went before us. Christ himself was slain by that flaming [sword]; and this sword, having slain the Son of God appearing in our name, who was a person of infinite worthiness, that sword did full execution in that. And when it had shed the blood of Christ, it had done all its work, and so after that was removed. And Christ arising from the dead, being a divine person himself, went before us; and now the sword is removed, having done its execution, already having nothing more to do there, having slain Christ. There is no sword now, and the way is open and clear to eternal life for those that are in Christ.3
Ann Cousins captured so well what Zechariah was prophesying when she penned the words of her hymn, “O Christ What Burdens Bowed Thy Head:”
Jehovah bade His sword awake;
O Christ, it woke ’gainst Thee!
Thy blood the flaming blade must slake;
Thine heart its sheath must be;
All for my sake, my peace to make;
Now sleeps that sword for me.
East of Eden
There is also a biblical-theological correlation between the reference to the East and the fact that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden-Temple, “east of Eden.” In the development of this theme in Scripture, we find allusive allusions in the history of Israel with relation to the Tabernacle their tribal warfare in conquering the land. After numbering each of the tribes, the Lord told Moses and Aaron to set the tribes around the Tabernacle of meeting, according to each of their respective places determined by the Lord. The men of war from each tribe would position themselves north, south, west and east of the Tabernacle. God Himself would dwell in the midst of His people. This too was a picture of the coming and presence of Christ. When Jesus came the Gospel writers frequently record that He was “in the midst.” Even when He was crucified, He was placed between two thieves. The apostle John puts it this way: “and Jesus in the center.” John also tells us, in Revelation, that Christ (the Lamb) is the center of heaven, as He sits on the throne of God. All the redeemed surround the throne and sing His praises. The Tabernacling Christ dwells in the midst of His people.
When the tribes were positioned about the Tabernacle during Israel’s wilderness wandering, Judah was commanded to camp on the east side of the Tabernacle. In the stepping stones toward the restoration of Eden and the presence of God, the east side (or East Gate) represents the way back (see Gen.28; and 3:24). When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the Garden. Two cherubim with flaming swords were placed at the East of Eden (Gen. 3:24), guarding the way back to the dwelling place of God. Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, is the One who opens that way up again. He is the way to the presence of God, because He is the presence of God. Whenever the east gate of the Temple is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is generally mentioned with reference to Judah’s place.
In Numbers 2:3 we discover that God gave instruction concerning Judah first, and gave the tribe a special placement for the battle: “On the east side, toward the rising of the sun, those of the standard of the forces with Judah shall camp according to their armies; and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be the leader of the children of Judah.” In order for Israel to secure back to the presence of God, they have to fulfill the conquest and establish the dwelling place of God (i.e. the Tabernacle and then the Temple) in Jerusalem. To this end, Judah is the first to go to battle (Judges 1:1-3). This was a picture of the conquest of God’s enemies and the securing of the spiritual inheritance by Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Additionally, the Tabernacle also faced toward the east, the place to the rising of the sun. The alter was the first piece of sacred furniture in the Tabernacle and it was so because the way into the presence of God was not possible without the sacrifice. When the priest came into the Tabernacle for the morning sacrifice, the sun would have shone on the alter on which the sacrifice was being offered to God. There seems to be two reasons for this: The first is that the sun would shine on the very thing that opened the way back to the presence of God; and second, the sun was itself a type of the Sun of Righteousness who is said to “rise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2). This is probably the reason for the Tabernacle facing toward the east.
Just as God placed cherubim at the east gate to the Garden of Eden, so cherubim were sown into the veil that hung in the Tabernacle and Temple blocking the way into the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:31). This was a reminder that they way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest. Whenever the Israelites read about the cherubim sown into the veil of the Temple, they should have remembered the cherubim with the flaming sword place at the entrance to the Garden-Temple, blocking the way back to the blessed presence of God
One of the principle restorative allusions in the OT prophetic literature also has to do with the east side of the Tabernacle and “East Gate” of the Temple. In Ezekiel’s prophecy of the New Temple (Ez. 40-48) the “east Gate” is the prominent focus of the the eschatological dwelling place of God. It is the gate that is shut so that no one but the Prince can enter in (Ez. 46:1-8). The Prince (i.e. a clear reference to the Messiah, see Dan. 9:25) enters with the burnt offering (Ez. 46:12). Once the sacrifice was offered we find that “there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar” (Ez. 47:1). The water is a symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit, as our Lord intimates throughout the fourth Gospel (John 4:10; 7:37-39; 19:34). Judah being at the “east” throughout the OT typifies the Redeemer and His work opening the way into the presence of God (Heb. 6:19-20) for us.
The second Adam, Jesus Christ, passed through the flaming sword of God’s wrath for His people. The veil was torn in two from top to bottom when the veil of His flesh (Heb. 10:10) was torn apart in judgment on the cross. He the stepped out of the tomb to newness of life where His disciples were met by Angels, not holding a flaming sword, but saying, “He is not here. He is risen, and He said.” Jesus has made a new and living way back into the presence of God for all who will believe in Him (Hebrews 10:19-20).
1. Edwards, J. (1999). East of Eden. In M. Valeri & H. S. Stout (Eds.), Sermons and Discourses, 1730–1733 (Vol. 17, p. 346). New Haven; London: Yale University Press. For a further doctrinal and pastoral treatment of the flaming sword see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “East of Eden.”)
2. O. Palmer Robertson TNICOT: The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1990) p. 253
3. Edwards, J. (1999). East of Eden. In M. Valeri & H. S. Stout (Eds.), Sermons and Discourses, 1730–1733 (Vol. 17, p. 347). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.