The Flaming Sword and the Justice of God
After Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, God "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" (Genesis 3:24). What could this "flaming sword" represent? The Book of Mormon has the key.
Lehi saw a vision of the tree of life (See 1 Nephi 8). He related this vision to his family. Nephi was moved by the dream and "was desirous also that [he] might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (1 Nephi 10:17).
"For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot. And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou? And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw" (1 Nephi 11:1-3).
Nephi then sees, among many other things, the tree of life and its interpretation. He sees a great gulf that separates the wicked from the righteous (Compare Luke 16:26). He also sees a large and spacious building filled with wicked people. He is then told, "And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the sword* of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever" (1 Nephi 12:18. *word is corrected to read sword in accordance with the original manuscript).
This gulf that separates the wicked and the righteous is here referred to as "the sword of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God." This sword could very well be the same sword spoken of in Genesis 3:24. The sword is “the sword of the justice of the Eternal God” and therefore represents God's justice. Adam and Eve, being symbols for all mankind, transgressed the law of God and were therefore prohibited by justice from returning to God's presence and partaking of the tree of life.
Further this sword of justice is equated directly to “a terrible gulf” (see 1 Nephi 12:18). Interestingly, Nephi later equates the gulf God's justice again and uses more imagery from Genesis 3:24—the imagery of flaming fire. "And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God....And I said unto them that our father also saw that the justice of God did also divide the wicked from the righteous; and the brightness thereof was like unto the brightness of a flaming fire, which ascendeth up unto God forever and ever, and hath no end" (1 Nephi 15:28, 30).
Now that man has been cast out of God's presence and justice separates man from God's presence, what is to be done? How can we cross this "gulf" that separates us from God and the tree of life? The Book of Mormon answers that question authoritatively.
Lehi said to his wicked sons: "O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe" (2 Nephi 1:13).
The once wicked but now saved Ammon exclaimed: "Behold, we went forth even in wrath, with mighty threatenings to destroy his church. Oh then, why did he not consign us to an awful destruction, yea, why did he not let the sword of his justice fall upon us, and doom us to eternal despair? Oh, my soul, almost as it were, fleeth at the thought. Behold, he did not exercise his justice upon us, but in his great mercy hath brought us over that everlasting gulf of death and misery, even to the salvation of our souls" (Alma 26:18-20).
"Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name. Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked— And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out" (Helaman 3:27-30).
"And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall" (Helaman 5:12).
As we can see in each of these verses, mercy is juxtaposed to justice. It is by the mercy of Jesus Christ that those who believe on his name and build on his foundation can cross that "everlasting gulf of misery" and be spared from "the sword of the justice of God." It is only after we "wake up" and realize the seriousness of the justice of God that we can be freed from the oppressive powers of Satan and hell.
Further Book of Mormon scriptures on the topic:
"And he said unto them: Behold, I, Samuel, a Lamanite, do speak the words of the Lord which he doth put into my heart; and behold he hath put it into my heart to say unto this people that the sword of justice hangeth over this people; and four hundred years pass not away save the sword of justice falleth upon this people" (Helaman 13:5).
"Behold, I would tell you somewhat concerning the justice of God, and the sword of his almighty wrath, which doth hang over you except ye repent and withdraw your armies into your own lands, or the land of your possessions, which is the land of Nephi" (Alma 54:6).
"And it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that the sword of my justice shall hang over them at that day; and except they repent it shall fall upon them, saith the Father, yea, even upon all the nations of the Gentiles" (3 Nephi 20:20).
"And when ye shall see these sayings coming forth among you, then ye need not any longer spurn at the doings of the Lord, for the sword of his justice is in his right hand; and behold, at that day, if ye shall spurn at his doings he will cause that it shall soon overtake you" (3 Nephi 29:4).
"Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh that he avengeth the blood of the saints upon you, for he will not suffer their cries any longer" (Mormon 8:41).
"Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you, which are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be" (Ether 8:23).