THE TREE OF LIFE

" 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." GENESIS iii. 24. 

THE recent discussions about, and criticisms of, 
the first chapters of the Book of Genesis have left a 
certain vague and uncomfortable feeling in the minds 
of many men. Not a few people, probably, think 
in a dim sort of way that geology, or something else, 
has made those chapters of very doubtful worth. 
The worst part of this feeling is that it robs the 
early story of our race of the spiritual power that it 
possesses. Apart from the question of its historic 
character, the account of man's origin which is 
given in Genesis is profoundly true to man's spiri- 
tual experience, and its imagery is representative of 
perpetual and universal truth. Among its images 
one of the most prominent and striking is this one 
of the "Tree of Life." Let us try, with the beauti- 
ful words of the Genesis-story fresh in our minds, to 
see if we can get at the meaning of it, and under 
stand what is meant by the history of the tree of life 
which runs through all the Bible. 

Let us briefly recall the story. In the garden 
where God first placed man, the scene of his earliest 
experiences, it is said that God, his Creator, planted 
two trees. There were many others, but these two 
were noticeable and distinct. One of them was the 
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the 
other was the Tree of Life. There they stood side 
by side, both beautiful, both tempting. But on one 
of them the most tempting a prohibition is laid. 
Of the tree of knowledge man must not taste. But 
man rebels, willfully, independently, against God's 
word, and does eat of the tree. The consequence 
is that he is not allowed to eat of the other tree. 
He is driven out of the garden where it stands, and 
is forbidden to return ; and his return is made im- 
possible by "cherubims, and a flaming sword which 
turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of 
life." 

Thus begins the long career of humanity. Man 
is forced to undertake the work and drudgery of 
living. The centuries, laden with wars and pains 
and hopes and fears and disappointments and suc- 
cesses, start on their slow procession. But no more 
is heard of the tree of life. It is not mentioned 
again in the course of the Bible. It is left behind 
the closed gate and the flaming sword, until we are 
surprised, at the extreme other end of the Bible, the 
New Testament, to see it suddenly reappear. In the 
book of St. John's Revelation, where the promises 
of the world's final glory are gathered, this promise 
stands among the brightest: "To him that over- 
cometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is 
in the midst of the Paradise of God." The long- 
lost tree is not lost after all. God has only been 
keeping it out of sight ; and at last He brings man 
to it and tells him to eat his fill. "In the midst of 
the street of it and on either side of the river, was 
there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of 
fruits, and yielded her fruit every month ; and the 
leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 
Into this glory the angels of God are to bring His 
people at the last. 

This is the story. And now, what does it mean? 
Certainly nobody can read it and not be sure that 
the element of allegory is very large in it. What 
ever literal events may correspond to it at the be 
ginning or at the end of the human history, certainly 
that losing and finding again of the tree of life may 
be taken to represent the course of man's career in 
spiritual things, the way in which the race and the 
individual are trained and punished and rewarded. 
That interpretation, at least, is open to us, because 
that meaning of the story finds its commentary in 
our own experience, and in all the history of man 
kind. If we can understand that meaning, we have 
reached some idea of the purpose for which the reve- 
lation of the Book of Genesis was given. 

And that meaning is not hard to find. The tree 
of life evidently signifies the fullness of human exist- 
ence, that complete exercise of every power, that 
roundness and perfectness of being which was in 
God's mind when He made man in His own image. 
It represents not mere endurance, not merely an 
existence which is going to last forever. It repre- 
sents quality more than quantity, or quantity only 
as it is the result of quality. To eat of the tree of 
life is to enter into and occupy the fullness of hu- 
man existence, to enjoy and exercise a life absolute 
and perfect, to live in the full completeness of our 
powers. We can feel, I think, how this luxurious- 
ness and fullness is naturally embodied under the 
figure of a tree. In many myths of many races, the 
tree has seemed the fittest symbol of the life of 
man; and the tree perfect in God's garden is the 
truest picture of man's whole nature complete under 
His care. 

On the other hand, the tree of the knowledge of 
good and evil represents that mottled and mingled 
experience of life by which men's lives are formed, 
their understandings opened, their characters de- 
cided. To eat of the tree of knowledge of good and 
evil what is it but to go through just what you and 
I have gone through ever since we were children? 
It is to deal with life ; to come, by contact with the 
world, to judgments of what is good and what is 
bad ; to form habits of thinking and ways of feeling 
about men and women and about their actions. In 
one word, to have had experience is to have eaten 
of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The 
little, irresponsible child has never tasted it. It is 
its savor in the grown man's mouth which gives his 
face its soberness, and oftentimes its bitterness. 

What, then, is the truth about these trees? He 
who willfully and rebelliously, in his own way and 
not in God's way, eats of the tree of knowledge, he 
shall be shut out from the tree of life. He who 
wantonly, selfishly, and by the dictates of his own 
appetites, uses his powers and wins his experience, 
shall not come to the fullness of those powers, nor 
get the best out of life. He who insists on knowing 
things or doing things away from God, shall not rise 
to the completest capacity of skill or strength or 
knowledge. Wilfulness, selfishness, independence, 
self-confidence, shut man out from the perfection of 
his life. 

And one point more. Adam and Eve being thus 
driven out from the tree of life, who were the guards 
that stood to hinder their return? Cherubims, and a 
flaming sword which turned every way. And the 
cherub in Scripture is a being with a certain sym- 
bolic character. He is ordinarily represented as a 
composite creature-form, as a winged man or a 
human-headed beast a way to represent that com- 
bination of intelligence and force which was also ex 
pressed in the Egyptian sphinx and in the winged 
bulls and lions of Assyria. The essential idea of the 
cherubims seems to have been that they represented 
the forces of nature as the servants of God. "The 
Lord sitteth between the cherubims, be the earth 
never so unquiet," says David, and in another 
psalm, "He rode upon a cherub and did fly." 
These forces of nature, these things of the world 
about us, these objects and circumstances, made by 
God to assist in the pleasure and culture of man 
kind, these same things they are which, when man 
is rebellious and selfish, stand between him and his 
fullest life. Those objects and circumstances which, 
if a man were docile and humble and lived his life 
with and under God, would all be developing and 
perfecting him, making him stronger, making him 
happier, all those things, just as soon as a man cuts 
himself off from God and insists on getting know 
ledge and doing work by himself, become his ene- 
mies. They hinder him instead of helping him ; they 
are always pulling him down instead of lifting him 
up; making him a worse and smaller instead of a 
better and larger man. 

Now, follow on with the parable. Man has been 
driven out, and the cherubims are keeping guard. 
The tree of life disappears from man's sight, but it 
is not lost. Man is driven out of the garden where 
it stands, but immediately the education begins 
which, if he will submit to it, is to bring him back 
at last to the Paradise of God where the tree of life 
will be restored to him. And all the training that 
comes in between is of one sort. Everything from 
Genesis to Revelation has one purpose, to teach 
men the hopelessness, the folly, the unsatisfactori- 
ness, of a merely wilful and selfish life ; to bring men 
by every discipline of sorrow or joy to see the noble 
ness and fruitfulness of obedience and consecration. 
When that is learned, then the lost tree reappears. 
Hidden through all the lingering centuries, there it 
is, when man is ready for it, blooming in the Para- 
dise of God. 

Is not the meaning of that symbol plain? Is not 
the truth it teaches worthy of a revelation? The 
highest, fullest life of man has ceased to be actual 
upon the earth. You cannot find one man who is 
living it, not one who, in some part of his nature or 
his conduct, is not pinched and meagre, missing the 
completeness for which he was made. But the pos- 
sibility of that highest life never has been lost. It 
is waiting till man is able to reclaim it. And man 
shall reclaim it just as soon as he is completely in 
harmony with and obedient to God. 

One other point comes in, not very clearly, but 
with a suggestion that completes the picture. Again 
and again in Scripture we read of the angels as God's 
agents in the restoration of His people to their long- 
lost glory. "The reapers are the angels," in the 
mighty harvest. The beggar Lazarus, after all his 
waiting and wretchedness was over, was carried by 
the angels into Abraham's Bosom. And the angels 
are said to watch with joy as each new repentant 
sinner claims forgiveness and, being forgiven, re 
turns into harmony with God and into his possibility 
of perfectness. It is not clearly said, but if, among 
these rescuing and helping angels, there are found 
the cherubims who were set to guard the gate of the 
first Paradise against the unhappy man's return, 
then, the whole story is complete. It is by those 
same forces of nature which are now his hindrances 
that man is finally to overcome. Not by a new dis- 
pensation, not by a new world of things, but by 
these same things, these very same old things which 
have so long stood between him and his highest, he 
is finally to reach his highest. The cherubims who 
so long shut him out from, are at last to bring him 
back to, the tree of life. 

This is the story of the world then, and the story 
of man as the Bible tells it the story of the lost 
and refound tree of life. There is something broad 
and primal in that universal figure of the tree. It 
is interesting, I think, to turn to the New Testa- 
ment and see how, when Jesus Christ came, the 
story which He had to tell of man's condition and 
prospects was just the same with this old story of 
the tree of Genesis. Take the parable of the 
prodigal son how different it is! how quiet and 
domestic and familiar! how homely in its quaint 
details ! But if you look at it, you will see that the 
meaning is the same. There, too, there is a first 
native possibility, the place in the father's house to 
which the boy was born. There, too, that possi- 
bility ceases to be actual because of the wilfulness 
of him to whom it was offered. "Give me the por- 
tion of goods that falleth to me " ; it is exactly 
Adam and Eve over again. There, too, the possi- 
bility is not destroyed, but stands waiting, out of 
sight of the wanderer, but always expecting his re 
turn ; the father's house from which the son goes 
out, and which stands with its door open when long 
afterwards he comes struggling back. There, too, 
the instant that submission is complete, "I will 
arise and go to my father," the lost possibility is 
found again, for, "While he was yet a great way off, 
his father saw him and ran and fell on his neck and 
kissed him." The story of the tree of life and the 
story of the prodigal son are the same story. Drawn 
with such different touch, colored in such different 
hues, they set before us still the same picture of the 
life of man. 

It might be well to look at that picture as it repre- 
sents the world's life, and as it represents the life of 
the individual. I shall only undertake to do the 
latter. Of the other let me merely remind you in a 
few words how true a conception, how complete an 
explanation, of the state of things which we see 
everywhere around us is this great Bible conception 
of the hidden tree of life. It is not lost, not totally 
destroyed forever, not taken out of man's hope 
that better possibility of man, that full condition of 
humanity, in which every act has its most perfect 
motive, and every motive its most perfect act. It 
is not lost, but it is hidden; hidden where the 
powers of the world will not let men get at it, but 
where men feel that it exists, live otherwise than 
they would live if they knew that it had perished, 
and never give over the hope of reaching it some 
day again. 

Could any picture more completely describe this 
mixed state of the world we live in? The alterna- 
tions of hope and despair, the way that generosity 
and meanness by turns take possession of the world, 
the wars and tumults, the eagerness for progress and 
the dreary clinging to old sins, the history of the 
world for any one week, the passions that agitate 
the breast of any ruler, the motives and feelings 
that contend in a political convention, where is 
there any theory of man that takes them all in more 
perfectly than this Bible theory of the tree of life ; 
lost but not destroyed, blooming somewhere still 
behind the cherubims, never quite forgotten, and to 
be made visible again when man shall have become 
able, by long education, to enter in and take of its 
fruit and eat? 

But let us leave this larger view, and turn to see 
how, in the life of each of us, the story of the tree 
of life finds its fulfillment. Every man has his tree 
of life, the full completeness of life for him, the best 
that those powers which he has, that special combi- 
nation of qualities that he is, is capable of being. It 
gives a dignity to every human being to think this 
of each. It breaks the herd and sets the individual 
before you. Walk down the crowded street some 
day, and think of it. They all look so alike, these 
men and women, such hosts of them, with the same 
narrow, vulgar, greedy faces ! They sweep by you 
as little distinguished as the drops in the stream that 
goes hurrying and whirling past your feet. 

But think of them again. Every man and woman 
of them has a tree of life a separate completeness 
of character, a possibility which, if he could fulfill it, 
would stand a distinct and perfect thing in the uni 
verse, the repetition of no other that ever went be 
fore, and never to be repeated by any that shall 
come after. Take out the meanest and most sordid 
face that passes you, the face most brutalized by 
vice, most pinched and strained by business ; that 
man has his tree of life, his own separate possibility 
of being, luxuriant and vital, fresh, free, original. 
4 How terribly he has missed of it," you say. In 
deed he has. A poor, undistinguishable thing he is, 
as wretched as poor Adam when he had been driven 
from his tree of life, and stood naked and shivering 
outside the Garden, with the beasts that used to be 
his subjects snarling at him, and the ground begin- 
ning to mock him with its thorns and thistles. That 
poor man evidently has been cast out of his garden, 
and has lost his tree of life. And is it not evident 
enough how he lost it? Must it not have been that 
he was wilful? Must it not have been that, at the 
very beginning, he had no idea but for himself, no 
notion of living in obedience to God? Do not say 
that that is a false and artificial explanation, a mere 
ministers sermon explanation of how this insignifi- 
cant creature on the street lost all his chance of a 
strong, vital life. Tell me, nay, ask yourself, if he 
had realized God, if he had known and been glad to 
know from the beginning that his life belonged to 
God, if he had really tried to serve God, could he 
have come to this? If consecration could have saved 
him, is it not the absence of consecration that has 
ruined him? 

And he is only a single emphasized and recogniz- 
able example. All the failures of men are of the 
same sort. What makes the scholar's life a failure? 
What makes him sigh when at last the books grow 
dim before his eyes, and the treacherous memory 
begins to break and lose the treasures it has held? 
He has been studying for himself, willfully, not 
humbly, taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge. 
What makes the workman turn into a machine? 
What makes us feel so often, the more his special 
skill develops, that he is growing less and not more 
a man? What shuts the merchant up to his drudg- 
ery, making it absolutely ridiculous and blasphemous 
to say of him, as we watch the way he lives and the 
things he does from the time he rises till the time 
he goes to bed, "That is what God made that man 
for "? What makes every one of us sigh when we 
think what we might have been? Why is every one 
of us missing his highest? Why are we all shut out 
from our trees of life? There is one word, one uni 
versal word, that tells the sad story for us all. It is 
selfishness selfishness from the beginning. If we 
had not been selfish, if we had lived for God from 
the beginning, if we had been consecrated, we know 
it would have been different ; we should have had 
our Eden inside and not outside; we should have 
eaten in God's due time of our tree of life, and have 
come to what He made us for, our fullest and our 
best life. 

And then add to this sense of exclusion, this con- 
sciousness of having missed our best, the other sym- 
bol of the cherubims. What is it that keeps us from 
our tree of life to-day? What is it that, when we 
have once lost it, keeps us shut out from the dream 
and pattern of our existence? Behold, it is those very 
forces, those same circumstances which ought to and 
which might have taken our hands and been our 
guides, to lead us to our highest possibilities. If 
you are a student who scoffs and is irreverent, what 
has made you so? That very study, that very 
science, which might have led you to a profound and 
thoughtful and tender awe of God. Or you are a 
working man or a working woman, and your work 
has made you bitter and discontented, that very 
work which was sent to make you happy and 
healthy. Or you have lived a life of society and 
you have grown frivolous and selfish by that contact 
with your fellow-men which might have made you 
earnest and self-forgetful. Or you have been rich, 
and your riches have made you proud instead of 
humble. These are the powers which ought to 
make us good, and do so often make us bad ; whose 
mission is to bring men's souls to God and to their 
own best attainment, but which our obstinacy so 
often compels to stand between us and God, and 
shut us out from Him. These are the cherubims 
with flaming swords that keep us from our tree of life. 

I cannot set before you as I wish I could that uni- 
versal tragedy of human existence, the conscious 
ness of every man living that he has not found his 
best. I can only rely on what I know is in the 
heart of every one of you giving confirmation to 
my words. The lost tree of life! we were driven 
out from it before we tasted it, and we have lived in 
exile from it all our days, the most successful and 
the most unfortunate of us alike. How little is the 
difference of our success or our misfortune, after all ! 
we have all together failed of the best that we were 
made for, failed of the fullness of our life. 

So true is the beginning of the Bible to our con- 
tinual life! so in our own experience we find the 
everlasting warrant of that much-disputed tale of 
Genesis ! But, thank God ! the end of the Bible is 
just as true. As true as this universal fact of all 
men's failure is the other fact, that no man's failure 
is final or necessarily fatal; that every man's lost 
tree of life is kept by God, and that he may find it 
again in God's Paradise if he comes there in humble 
consecration. 

Let us put figures and allegories aside for a mo- 
ment. The truth of Christianity is this : that how 
ever a man has failed by his selfishness of the fullness 
of life for which God made him, the moment that, 
led by the love of Christ, he casts his selfishness 
aside and consecrates himself to God, that lost pos- 
sibility reappears ; he begins to realize and attempt 
again in hope the highest idea of his life ; the faded 
colors brighten ; the crowding walls open and disap- 
pear. This is the deepest, noblest Christian con- 
sciousness. Very far off, very dimly seen as yet, 
hoped-for not by any struggle of its own but by the 
gift of the Mercy and Power to which it is now 
given, the soul that is in God believes in its own 
perfectibility, and dares to set itself perfection as the 
mark of life, short of which it cannot rest satisfied. 

And when this change has come, when a soul has 
dared again to realize and desire the life for which 
God made it, then also comes the other change. 
The hindrances change back again to their true pur- 
pose and are once more the helpers. That, too, is 
a most noble part of the Christian's experience, and 
one which every Christian recognizes. You prayed 
to God when you became His servant that He 
would take your enemies away, that He would 
free you from those circumstances which had hin 
dered you from living a good life. But He did 
something better than what you prayed for. As 
you looked at your old enemies they did not disap- 
pear, but their old faces altered. You saw them 
still, but you saw them now changed into His ser 
vants. The business that had made you worldly 
stretched out new hands, all heavy with the gifts of 
charity. The nature which had stood like a wall 
between you and the truth of a Personal Creator, 
opened now a hundred voices all declaring Him. 
The men who had tempted you to pride and passion, 
all came with their opportunities of humility and 
patience. Everything was altered when you were 
altered. The cherubims had left their hostile guard 
above the gate, and now stood inviting you to let 
them lead you to the tree of life. This is the Fall 
supplanted by the Redemption. This completes 
the whole Bible of a human life. 

This, then, is the truth of the tree of life, its loss 
and its recovery. We turn to the only human life 
in which it was never lost, the life of Jesus Christ. 
We own in Him the perfection of humanity every 
human power at its best used for its best. With 
Him there was none of this brooding dissatisfaction 
that there is with us. Many a time His hard and 
heavy work weighed on Him, and once He cried to 
be released ; but never is there any word of bitter 
regret as He looks back, never in all the Gospel one 
self-reproach that He had fallen short of complete 
ness either in character or work. Oh, below all the 
pain, what a satisfaction there must have been in 
that tried and tortured heart ! Who would not feel 
that any pain were easy if one could be as free as 
Jesus Christ was from self-reproach, if one could 
say as He said, "I have finished the work that thou 
gavest me to do," and at last, with one more "It is 
finished," lay a life that had completely succeeded 
back into the Father's hand? 

Yes, Christ always lived to His fullest, and as we 
read His story we know why. The secret is not 
hard to find. It is in that one clear power of con- 
secration that runs through all His life. It is be 
cause He is living to God from the beginning to the 
end that He lives so completely. And where His 
obedience is most manifest, the completeness of His 
life is most manifest, too. We see that in the Cross. 
He was never so alive as when He was dying there. 
There, where He reached the consummate obedience, 
He reached the consummation of life, too. The 
Being most alive, the Being whose life is running 
out into most vast and stupendous consequences, 
is He who hangs expiring there. The Cross is His 
Tree of Life. 

And so with us, my friends. If we do really give 
ourselves to God, whatever cross that consecration 
brings us to will be our tree of life. It may seem 
as if, in making ourselves His, we strip our lives 
of their richness ; we give up friends, we give up 
amusements, we give up easy days, we give up our 
own will to be the Lord s. It looks like death. It 
looks like emptying the precious wine of life away, 
and breaking the precious vase that held it. But 
as you go on in your sacrifice, behold ! the memory 
of Eden is revived, and the prophecy of Paradise is 
fulfilled. The cross on which you stretch yourself 
sends its strength and abundance into you ; and it is 
not dying, but living. No matter what men call it, 
you know that it is living. Your cross is your tree 
of life. 

And yet again, the Cross of Christ may be not 
merely His Tree of Life, but ours. If it imparts its 
power to us; if, loving Him because He died upon 
it, we grow eager to give ourselves to Him and to 
our brethren ; then that old wood on which they 
crucified Him becomes the source and fountain of 
our life. It is not merely that He never was more 
alive than when He hung there, but our life also is 
revived when we come nearest to it. The power of 
our self-sacrifices is in that self-sacrifice of His. 
Our crosses are cut out of that one inexhaustible 
Cross of Calvary. 

Behold, then, for every man there are not two, 
there are three trees of life the tree in Eden, the 
tree on Calvary, and the tree in the Paradise of God. 
For every man there is God's first design, and there 
is God's final salvation; but between the two there 
is Christ's Redemption. We lose our life; we find 
it in our Saviour; we keep it unto Life eternal. 

Where do we all stand? Behind us is the loss; 
we have sinned and come short of the glory of God. 
Have we recovered our life at the Cross? If we 
have, then, by obedience springing out of gratitude, 
the way is open for us into the eternal life of God. 
"Blessed are they that do his commandments," 
that they may have a right to the Tree of Life, and 
enter in through the gates into the city.