Recovering the Ancient Inner Sense of Scripture
Swedenborg's eyes were opened into the spiritual world so that he could
tell us about the life after death. But an even more important purpose
was that he should reveal for us the spiritual sense of the Word of God.
Most people recognize that the Sacred Scriptures are intensely symbolic and allegorical, but nobody seems to have had a clear understanding of a consecutive internal sense, giving life to the literal sense as a soul gives life to its body. Only after death do we become fully conscious of this deeper sense; but Swedenborg, with his unique insight into the spiritual world, was able to bring to us some idea of what God's Word is really all about. The inner sense deals exclusively with spiritual concepts, and is primarily intended for the angels in Heaven; thus it is far beyond the capacity of any one of us on earth to comprehend it fully; but Swedenborg has demonstrated the existence of a spiritual sense, and has given us a foretaste of it, which is like sunlight shining through clouds. The many volumes of the Arcana Coelestia touch on the spiritual meaning of every verse of Genesis and Exodus, with thousands of cross-references to other parts of the Word.
Apocalypse Revealed gives the spiritual meaning of the book of Revelation. The "correspondence" of almost every word is stated, as well as the "representative meaning" of many of the Biblical characters and nations. It is now possible, therefore, for a devout reader, with opportunities for research and meditation, to enter into the spiritual sense of almost any passage in the entire Word of God.
Not all the books bound up in our English Bible are "inspired" in the technical sense of having a consecutive spiritual meaning placed in them by God. It is essential for every student of the doctrines of the New Church to be clearly aware of which books are "inspired" in this technical sense, and which are merely human products—good and useful, no doubt, but not actually part of the Word of God. Turn to the list of books at the beginning of your Bible. Take the Old Testament first. Put a cross against Ruth (a delightful story, but not divine). Then put crosses against all the books from I Chronicles to Song of Solomon, with the single exception of Psalms. The books marked with a cross lack a consecutive internal sense. In the New Testament, all the books lack a consecutive internal sense, except the four gospels and the book of Revelation or Apocalypse; so that, according to our definition, only the Gospels and Apocalypse are "inspired" or part of the Word of God. Following is a list of the Inspired Books of the Old Testament:
The Inspired Books
This list agrees fairly well with the canon of the Hebrew Word, or the Scriptures as Jesus knew them when he was in the world. The Hebrew Bible consisted of: "The Law" (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); "The Historical Books" (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings); "The Major Prophets" (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and "The Minor Prophets" (identical with our list). The other Old Testament books which are bound up in our Bible were not included in the original Hebrew canon, but were later added at the end, under the title The Writings or Wisdom Books. This collection, of very unequal value, surprisingly included three inspired books: Psalms, Lamentations and Daniel. Why didn't the Hebrew scholars include these fully-Divine works in their canon? The answer probably lies in the historical fact that the canon or authorized list of books was considered as "closed" when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon in about the year 400 B.C. The book of Psalms, though acknowledged as fully inspired, was still being added to, right down to the second century B.C. Lamentations also contains late material. The book of Daniel was composed in the year 167 B.C. even after Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language! Chapters 2-7 are in Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine at the time of our Lord. Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon all came into their final form long after the canon had been closed in 400 B.C.
The list of books in the New-Church canon, as given above, is to be found in Arcana Coelestia 10,325, also in The White Horse no. 16, and Heavenly Doctrines no. 266. Jesus covered them all when he referred to "the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44)
The omission of the Epistles from the inspired books of the New Testament is rather startling, considering how much the Epistles, especially those of Paul, have contributed to the doctrinal beliefs of Christendom down through the centuries. But please note: Swedenborg does not say they are bad books! He does indeed point out some of the false or misleading teachings contained in the Epistles, but on the other hand he quotes from them freely in confirmation of true doctrine especially in True Christian Religion. As their name indicates, these books are simply "letters" written to the churches by Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude. Though wonderful in many respects, they have no more claim to be the Word of God than any other letters sent by important people in response to contemporary needs. Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and the rest are the words of Paul, not the words of God. The same limitation applies to the book of Acts, which is invaluable as history but lays no claim to divine authorship. This leaves us with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the book of Revelation, as being the Word of God in the New Testament.
The Ancient Word
Before the Hebrew Bible came to be written, there was an earlier Word, called by Swedenborg, The Ancient Word. This has now been lost, except for eleven chapters, which have been preserved at the beginning of our Bible: Genesis chapter 1 to the middle of chapter 11. These chapters deal with the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. There are also a few brief quotations from the Ancient Word in other parts of the Old Testament (as, for example, Joshua 10:13, which is from the Book of Jasher). Its main influence, however, can be seen in the legends of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome (e.g. True Christian Religion 279, Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 102).
The Ancient Word consisted of legends and myths about the early days of life in this world. As presented in Genesis, these legends contain a divine spiritual sense, like other parts of the Word; but unlike the rest of the Bible, they have little, if any, historical relevance. The people mentioned in Genesis 1 to 11 did not actually live as individual men and women; rather, they are representative of types or groups of people of a certain spiritual quality. Adam was not the first man, as is generally supposed. (There had been people on earth probably for thousands of years before Adam: see Genesis 1:26-29.) In fact, Adam represents the first Church. Cain was a branch of that church which held that faith was more important than charity; this "killed" the charity represented by Abel. The Flood was a subsequent inundation of falsity, which brought the first or "celestial" religious epoch to an end. Noah represents the beginning of the second or "spiritual" epoch; and so on.
The Hebrew Word
The actual Hebrew Word starts after the end of the legendary chapter, with the story of Abraham. (Genesis 11:10) It is "real history." Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were individuals, just as you and I are individuals; they were born, lived, and died, and are still alive somewhere in the spiritual world. Needless to say, the narrative describing their lives contains and conveys a divine spiritual sense; but the narrative is, from this point onwards, history and prophecy, whereas in the earlier chapters it was myth and legend.
For example, the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt deals with humanity's slavery to materialism; their 40-year wanderings in the wilderness represent our trials and temptations, until we reach the "promised land" of a settled determination to be God's people. The temple represents the Church; the three kings—Saul, David and Solomon—indicate a development through the three degrees: natural, spiritual and celestial. Assyria represents false reasoning, and Babylon represents pride. So, in this vast arena of history, covering the Old and New Testaments, we get an insight into every aspect of a person's life of regeneration: states of captivity and liberation, temptation combats, defeats and victories, and finally entry into the holy city, which is the heavenly state of blessedness in the presence of God. The human authors were probably quite unaware of the existence of this spiritual sense; it flowed into their minds and their pens as they wrote, without their being conscious of it. That is why we call the Bible, "The Word of God."
The New Testament
The four gospels also have an internal sense, but this is less deeply
hidden than the internal sense of the Hebrew Word. It is nearer the
surface, and more easily seen by us, because here the Lord himself is.
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:14) He tells us plainly of the
Father. Nevertheless, even the gospels cannot be correctly understood
except in the light of their spiritual sense. Without guidance, the
reader can be led into many and great heresies: as, for example, that
the Father and Son are two separate persons, instead of one person only!
The Celestial Sense
Within and above the spiritual sense of the Word, and parallel with it, there is yet another sense, called the "celestial" sense. This deals directly with the Lord himself. It tells how the Divine Human was conceived, formed in the womb, and progressively built up; how the hells assaulted the infirm human nature inherited from the mother; how he drove back the hordes of evil spirits and re-ordered the hells, thus redeeming humanity; and so on.
Note that this account of our Lord's inner life lies within the Old Testament as well as the New, for everything was foreseen from the beginning. In fact, it is to the Old Testament that we must go, to fill in the gaps in our Lord's life left by the gospels.
It is impossible to enter fully into the internal meaning of a passage in the Word without enlightenment from the Lord. Nevertheless, a knowledge of "correspondences" will help. Two things are said to "correspond" if they really are the same thing on two or more different levels. As an illustration, think of the steam coming from a boiling kettle. Superheated steam is invisible. As it cools off, it becomes visible as water-vapor. It settles out on a cold wall as drops of water in a liquid state. If it is winter, these drops may solidify as ice. Steam, vapor, water and ice all "correspond" one to another. Think now of a smiling face: the smile "corresponds" to a happy thought in the mind. The happy thought and the smile are the same thing on two different levels, mental and physical.
In searching for the spiritual sense of any passage of scripture, we must try to see what it means on the spiritual level. For example, the first chapter of Genesis deals literally with the creation of the world. But on the spiritual level it describes the six stages through which a person must pass, in order to be created into an angel.
Coming to details, we notice that, just as the Lord is infinite love and wisdom, and there are two kingdoms of Heaven—celestial and spiritual, so all correspondences can be classified as either having to do with the will on the one hand (affections, love and hate, goodness and evil) or with the understanding on the other hand (thoughts, beliefs, truth and falsity). I think of them as relating either to the heart or to the head.
Unfortunately, everything good can be turned into its opposite evil, and everything true into its opposite falsity. For example, the lion, in a good sense, represents the Lord himself , "The lion of the tribe of Judah," (Revelation 5:4) but in an evil sense it corresponds to the destructive power of Hell, raging to destroy the Word and the Church. The Sea of Galilee corresponds to truth when the Lord was teaching from it, but to falsity when it nearly drowned the disciples. A "mountain" has a good significance when it refers to elevated thoughts and feelings, but a bad significance when it refers to pride and self-importance.
To work out a correspondence, therefore, one must first know whether the object comes under the category of the head or the heart, and then whether it is being referred to in a favorable or unfavorable light. Then you must ask yourself what its equivalent would be on the spiritual plane.
Take the parable of the ten virgins. (Matthew 25:1-13) We know that the "virgin daughter of Zion" represents the Church, so probably these girls stand for our church members. They are awaiting a confrontation with the bridegroom—who is the Lord himself. He comes at the midnight hour: this must surely be the moment of our death and awakening in the spiritual world. (We are half asleep now, but then we shall be fully awake.) How about the lamps and oil? The oil burns in the wick of a lamp, producing light. Oil comes under the heading of the heart or will and light comes under the heading of the head or understanding. The oil that the wise virgins took with them in their flasks evidently represents the goodness of love stored up in our hearts, which produces light in our minds to guide our feet into the marriage chamber (Heaven). The foolish virgins had plenty of light while they were still in this world. As members of the Church, they probably knew all the answers! But when they entered the spiritual world at death, their lights went out, nor had they the resources of oil in their hearts to get their lamps burning again. Their appeal to the wise virgins for oil was useless (we are judged only by what we are ourselves); so they ended up in total darkness (Hell). What a warning to us in our comfortable self-righteousness as good churchgoers!
Now consider the holy city New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21.
This represents the heavenly doctrines of the New Church.
Very well. What is meant by the walls, the gates, the foundations, and
the "streets of gold like glass?"
The Word in Heaven
The inner senses of the Word rest upon the literal sense, as the upper stories of a house rest upon the ground floor. While we on earth read the literal sense, the angels who are with us understand the inner meaning of what we are reading, and think along with us. But each angel only follows the particular level of meaning in accord with his own degree of life: celestial, spiritual or natural.
The celestial angels are interested wholly in the Lord. Their only wish is to love and serve him. Sheer goodness means more to them than truth or activity; their favorite occupation is to meditate on the glorification of the Lord's humanity. Therefore, as we read the Word in its literal sense, the celestial angels bask in those aspects of it which deal directly with the Lord.
The spiritual angels are most interested in "people"—their neighbors who are to be loved. Therefore, as we read the Word, their minds range over all matters relative to human regeneration and salvation, for this is the level of their lives.
The natural angels are nearest to us and (like us) are fascinated by the events in the scripture narrative. However, the actual names of persons and nations cannot, of course, be reproduced in the spiritual world; so even these lowest of angels must reinterpret what we read in terms of psychological states that are in line with their own experience.
To read the Word in its literal sense, as we do here on earth, links us up with all three heavens, and ultimately with the Lord himself, even though we are unconscious of what is being effected. The sole pre-requisite is that we should be aware of the holiness of what we are reading, and should allow our thoughts to pass inwards and upwards into the spiritual dimension. The scholar who studies the Bible from the point of view of linguistics, ancient history, mythology, law or the development of social consciousness, will find a rich and fruitful field of research, but in all probability will have less of an influence on the angels than the simple peasant who may not understand very clearly what he is reading, but who approaches the Bible in humility and awe, believing it to be in very truth the Word of God.
Does it surprise you that there are copies of the Word in Heaven? Swedenborg assures us that this is the case. They differ somewhat in content, from one region to another, because they contain only the level of meaning that those who are using them can understand: the celestial angels possess only the celestial sense, the spiritual angels the spiritual sense, and the natural angels only what we might call the "psychological" sense. Thus the copies of the Word in Heaven are actually less complete than our printed Bibles on earth, which contain all these senses, one within the other. Our sacred scriptures are, therefore, the divine Word "in its fullness, holiness and power."
Copies of the Word in Heaven differ also in form and appearance, according to the expectation of the inhabitants in any particular region. The Jews of old thought of the Word as being a roll of parchment, and so it appears to them in that form in Heaven. (Several of the prophets saw these scrolls when their spiritual eyes were opened.) Christians have always used codices or bound volumes with folding pages, so that is how they see God's Word in Heaven. Probably in some remote regions it is inscribed in clay or on birchbark!
Angels carry small copies of the Word around with them. It is "a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path." (Psalm 119: 105) But there are also large and magnificent copies in their places of worship and instruction, gleaming with precious stones and surrounded by a halo of light.
The Word of God in the spiritual world is immensely powerful; it can split mountains and pulverize rock; it can excavate reservoirs and build cities. "By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made." (Psalm 33:6) If an evil spirit attempts to approach a copy of the Word with intent to do harm, there would be a violent explosion. But for the most part, the angels use it for instruction, and as a source of security, comfort and peace.