The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents



 Chapter 25 - Biblical Studies

The sadness which had enveloped the mind of our philosopher gave place to a great calm and contentment. Out of the tumult of doubts he had come into the still waters of spiritual certainty. His loneliness was exchanged for rich spiritual associations. Swedenborg no longer felt alone, uncomprehended, but in the society of his own, in another world. What matter that no one here was aware of it? He need not any more consider the attitude of the learned men who saw only as far as their microscopes would take them. He knew now Whose servant he was, and he felt that, beyond most mortals, he had been favored with a great assignment. In place of disturbing dreams he now had open intercourse with spirits and angels, and in these experiences there was ever present the calm assurance of Divine presence and guidance.

Swedenborg approached his new task in his usual methodical manner. To disclose to men the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures called for a diligent study of the Bible; so his first undertaking was to construct a comprehensive Index to the Old and New Testaments. In this he makes no attempt at exposition. His Bible Index [323] is simply an alphabetical list in three closely written folio volumes which occupied him for the remainder of his stay in London in 1745, and afterward, off and on during the next three years, in Sweden and Holland. Swedenborg expressly states that he was not a reader of books on dogmatic and systematic theology,[324] but probably, by reason of his upbringing he was, more than most, familiar with the Bible, basis of all Lutheran instruction. Those were the days when many hours of everyone's week were spent in listening to sermons and pious pursuits, even though many were beginning to lose their faith, for the reason that the Bible was not understood. This misunderstanding was the Dragon that Swedenborg was prompted to slay, in the dream of January 4, 1744, because-it cast doubts upon religion. (See p. 191). "Academists and atheists doubt in one way, true philosophers in another," he remarks.

In order to trace his path it may here be useful to review his early attempts at exegesis. An extensive series of notes, which he had made as a result of his careful subject-studies of words, has now been published under the title A Philosopher's Notebook.[325] Many pages are filled with a comparative study of the concepts involved in such words as good, truth, intelligence, imagination, memory, and hundreds more as defined by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Leibnitz, Descartes, Malebranche, to mention only a few of the foremost philosophers.

His first attempt to build a system out of his study of words as symbols for immaterial ideas was in the manuscript: The Hieroglyphic Key.[326] Various dates have been assigned to this little work, but internal evidence seems to establish it as having been written sometime before October, 1744, while Swedenborg was seeing through the press the last of The Animal Kingdom.[327] The idea of applying his learned accomplishments to the elucidation of sacred texts seems here, for the first time, to have dawned upon Swedenborg, for in his closing statement he declares:

It is allowable thus to interpret Sacred Scripture, for the spirit speaks naturally and also spiritually.

A short paper entitled Correspondences and Representations opens with the same thought, almost identically expressed:

The spirit speaks of natural things spiritually . . . the natural man of spiritual things naturally . . . To speak purely spiritually is not human ... angelic speech is purely spiritual speech, which is not expressed by words, by means of the tongue ...

Those hosts of controversies and sinister interpretations so frequently met with in the explanation of Sacred Scripture, he says, have arisen from ignorance of the signification of words.[328]

In this work, therefore, he was beginning to have some inkling of the method by which such an elucidation of the Scriptures could be arrived at; here for the first time he attempts to find the spiritual equivalents of natural words by a kind of decoding process. He scans the Bible to find words and expressions that are used as allegories or types under which spiritual ideas lie concealed. He finds such allegories and types underlying the story of the serpent in Eden, and Jacob's dream of a ladder to heaven, and in the Apocalyptic account of the Son of Man and the seven candlesticks. Sometimes the correspondences are quite plainly given, he says, as in the statement that "the fine linen is the virtue of the saints." Books like the Proverbs of Solomon are full of correspondences, "but because their sentiments are unadorned with that verbal clothing which is in use in our age we think them to be simple and we despise them in our mind although we say otherwise with our lips." He wonders whether the whole of Seneca is of equal weight with a single saying of David or Solomon, but adds, regretfully:

If anyone at this day should write like David he would be thought a man of no learning, but merely pious and simple. If anyone should write like Solomon he would be thought to be a novitiate moralist who had not arrived even at the threshold of modern wisdom. If anyone should write like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., he would be mocked at as one in phantasies and as a man newly awakened from dreams ... Yea! should one speak like Christ Himself he would be saying things simple and rudimentary in the estimation of moderns . . . [329]

Swedenborg then gives a spiritual interpretation of the Lord's Prayer, phrase by phrase, showing that from first to last it relates to the coming of the Kingdom of God. As religion degenerated God used things that would appeal to our senses such as magnificent temples, sacrifices, altars and rituals. All these, however, are merely representative of the true church, and if we accept such natural things as the essentials of religion, we become idolaters: Representations were employed in order that man might comprehend under them mysteries that are divine and spiritual. They are types under which the Divine Spirit may be grasped by the human mind, types that, in the course of time, have lost their meanings.

All our words ... are like a little chaos which we do not understand, as for instance, when we say the words sun, air, man, . . . mind, body. The mind knows how to give names to all these, but what are they? Until the things that lie within them are explored and searched out - which must be done in due order - they are hidden qualities . . . vain, unreliable conjectures.[330]

Swedenborg's first attempt at a consecutive study of the Bible is found in the short paper, written in the fall of 1745, called The Story of Creation as Related by Moses, in which he makes a verse by verse comparison with his own account of creation in The Worship and Love of God, as mentioned in the foregoing chapter. Toward the end of this treatise he frequently refers to the Messiah who is to come, and who would trample the head of the serpent referred to in Genesis. At the bottom of the last page he makes the notation:

Nov. 17, 1745; began hereto write it out.
Lord Jesus Christ, lead me to and upon the ways whereon Thou wouldst that I should walk . . . Be ye sanctified and endowed with the Spirit of God and Christ, and be ye persevering in justice; this shall be the testimony of the Kingdom of God.[331]

These solemn words seem to indicate that on this Sunday in November Swedenborg, with a fervent prayer, began the large work called The Word Explained,[332] to which he devoted his time until February, 1747.

One might suppose that the solitary scholar was settling down to a labor of purely intellectual gratification, a work of scholastic rather than practical purpose, yet such was not the case. His purpose is set forth in the first paragraph of The Word Explained:

Let us examine the Scriptures, especially with the purpose of searching for the Kingdom of God . . . The Scriptures treat of the Kingdom of God, not here and there, but everywhere; for this Kingdom was the end in the creation of all things both of heaven and of earth:

Even his preliminary treatise, The Story of Creation, had opened with the quotation from Matthew VI, 33: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." His spiritual philosophy looked invariably to a single end - to explore the nature of the Lord's Kingdom on earth, and he saw the written Word as God's own means for providing for the establishment of that Kingdom.

Swedenborg was convinced that the time was at hand for the Coming of the Messiah; he believed that the mysteries of the Scriptures had to be unlocked for that Coming, and he felt that he himself was to be the instrument for the momentous disclosure.

"The Messiah is about to come," he wrote in November, 1746. . . Now is the holy day to be expected when the Messiah will return with His Bride to the Land of Canaan," he wrote in December. "It may be allowable to predict that the time is now at hand," he wrote the following May. Since a grievous and universal famine existed in spiritual things, the time must be at hand for the coming of the Messiah into His glory, which would be fulfilled not literally but spiritually, he thought. It would be a coming to those who acknowledged Him spiritually, in a true understanding of the Word. There were signs that someone had been sent and that he, Swedenborg, was that one!

His enlightenment was gradual. Little by little, he says, he was led into the knowledge of hidden meanings and this came about as a result of diligent study in much the same fashion as his previous researches on anatomy. It came as had come the doctrines of order, of series, of society, of correspondence, in flashes of intuitive enlightenment while he perused and meditated on his subject.

To learn correspondences became his immediate object. He was shown them in dreams and they were "dictated into his thought" - what, for instance, was meant by a messenger, by gold, by silver, by a shoulder. Without revelation such words could never be understood.

In order that Swedenborg might understand the various ways in which inspiration could take place, spirits were sometimes permitted to guide his hand to write as well as to dictate viva voce, as they did to the prophets. But such papers were destroyed.

I have written entire pages, and the spirits did not dictate the words, but absolutely guided my hand, so that it was they who were doing the writing.

Such instances of automatic writing were rare and always specifically noted.

When I was writing they fell silent. It was not allowed to tell anything that was dictated to me orally. When this [oral dictation] was done the writing had to be obliterated, it being allowed me only to tell such things as flowed from God Messiah mediately and immediately.[333]

He later explicitly stated that he was not allowed to take any instruction from the mouth of any spirit or angel but from the Lord alone. It was instruction by conscious inspiration into a mind prepared by the sciences to receive it. It came with careful, patient study of the Bible.

I could see at last that the tenor of the Divine Providence has ruled the acts of my life from my very youth, that I might at last come to this end; so that, by means of the knowledges of natural things I might be able to understand the things which lie deeply concealed in the Word of God, and thus serve as an instrument for laying them bare.[334]

With complete assurance he could address his intended public:

Believe me, O readers, for I speak the truth, that in every jot of an expression that comes forth from the mouth of Jehovah God, there are things most hidden, things so universal as to contain in themselves, and in the present, an infinite series, from eternity to eternity . . . things which are and' which are to be, from the beginning of heaven and earth to their end. For in all utterances whatsoever that Jehovah speaks by His Word and by the Holy Spirit, He Himself is present, and thus what is Infinite.[335]

He regarded Adam not only as the first created man but as a type of the kind of beings that would compose the Kingdom of God, beings in the image and likeness of God. The earthly paradise meant the heavenly paradise. Adam's state of integrity consisted in this, that he lived in a heavenly order, for the life of heaven flowed into him in the superior way, until the time when he ate of the forbidden fruit, that is, when he admitted influx by the inferior way, or through his senses instructed from the world.[336]

The Word Explained covers the five books of Moses and deals primarily with the Jewish Church as prophetic of the Christian dispensation. Swedenborg discerned a deeper symbolism than contemporary scholars; nevertheless, it was not "a spiritual sense" but rather "the interior historical sense," he says. For in this work he is still the student with a style much less authoritative and clear than in subsequent writings. He was frequently in obscurity, at a loss as to the meaning of things. "I cannot well comprehend these words," he says, and "This is as yet obscure." "I cannot understand these words, therefore I pass them by. I have never been so disturbed and in so perplexing a way." The inner sense was seen, though only as it. were "through a screen."[337]

He planned to have the work printed. It would, he thought, prepare men to receive the Lord when He made His Second Coming. Again and again he refers to insertions to be made "when the time comes for printing it." His personal spiritual experiences were not intended to be published, the paragraphs recording them being indented.

From the learned world he anticipated trouble. "They will become indignant, when their sciences are disproved," he prophesied.

Crying they will cry with a loud voice both with their lips and in their writings . . . If such men were merely to hear that there is in man a way opening to heaven, other than through their senses . . . they would reject it as fables ... It is granted [me] to hear and speak with those who are in heaven . . . The speech is exactly like speech with one's associates on earth, but it comes from heaven, from above . . . internally, and it is so plain that it is heard in the same way as speech of the lips but in such manner that none of the bystanders hears or perceives anything of it . . .

Nevertheless he felt no uncertainty as to his part in it, or as to the remarkable experiences he was having.

Lest men reject my statements as fables, I can testify in sacred earnestness that I have been admitted into the spiritual world by the Messiah Himself, and this continually while I was writing these things which now come out in public.[338]

How did these remarkable experiences affect Swedenborg in society? Did his acquaintances notice any change in him, anything that could be interpreted as showing him mentally unbalanced? In January, 1746, he writes:

During the time of my speaking with spirits I was with friends in my own country for five months, and with others in society. Thus I mingled with others just as before, and no one observed the fact that there was with me such a heavenly intercourse.

In the midst of company I have sometimes spoken with spirits, and with those who were about me ... At such times they could think no otherwise than that I was occupied with my thoughts.[339]

I desire to communicate these things which seem so marvellous, in order that men may put faith in me, who for so long a time have been in heaven while at the same time I was on earth among my friends, namely from the middle of April, 1745, to the twenty-ninth of January, 1746 [February ninth by the Gregorian calendar, in use .30n the Continent]; excepting for one month which elapsed while I was on the way to Sweden, where I arrived on the nineteenth of August, old style.

Only twelve times during these two years was Swedenborg absent from his post at the Board of Mines. He discussed the problems of metallurgy, he settled disputes between miners, he passed on appropriations and appointments and frequently, as the senior member, he presided at the sessions in the absence of the councillor. It was therefore not unexpected that, in the spring of 1747, when Councillor Bergenstjerna retired, the Board should unanimously recommend Assessor Swedenborg for the vacant councillorship.

But Swedenborg had other plans. He wrote to the king, asking that another be selected for the honorable post and that he be released from office as he desired again to go abroad and finish the important work on which he was then engaged. For more than thirty years, he reminded King Frederick, he had served as an official of the Board, had made frequent journeys and published many works for which he had never asked any recompense from the country. He therefore requested His Majesty now to grant him the continued use of half of his salary in his retirement, but without the customary honorary title of councillor.

This favor the king so much the more gladly granted as he felt sure that the new work on which Swedenborg was then engaged would, like all his other publications, contribute to the welfare of his country. When Swedenborg handed in the royal decree releasing him from duty, all the members expressed their regret at losing so worthy a colleague, and asked that the assessor continue to attend the sessions until all those cases had been settled in which he had participated. To this he consented and we find him present at five more sessions. On June 17, 1747, on the eve of his sixth foreign journey, Swedenborg took leave of the Royal Board of Mines, thanking all the members for the favors he had enjoyed at their hands during his connection with the Board and commending himself to their continued kindly remembrance.

The Royal Board thanked the assessor for the minute care and fidelity with which he had attended to the duties of his office as an assessor up to the present time, and wished him a prosperous journey and a happy return; after which he departed.[340]

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