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 east 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 this see 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.
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).