Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2009.
by Lisa Hyatt Cooper
All parts of the Word contain an orderly sequence of thoughts, but the actual sequence cannot expose itself in its true nature when each word is explained by itself. Such an explanation makes the words seem disconnected and breaks up the continuity of meaning.(Secrets of Heaven 2343:2)
Secrets of Heaven is Emanuel Swedenborg’s exploration into the Bible books of Genesis and Exodus, and what makes the above quotation from it remarkable is that the explanatory method of which it complains is precisely Swedenborg’s own method. Is it an implicit confession of failure?
At the point where Swedenborg makes this statement, he is discussing Genesis 19:3: “And [Lot] pressed [the angels] very hard, and they turned aside to him and came to his house. And he made them a banquet and cooked unleavened loaves, and they ate.” The setting is the city of Sodom, which God intends shortly to destroy. The angels have come to warn Lot and to help him and his family escape the cataclysm. When the angels arrive in Sodom on their errand, Lot takes them to his house and serves them food.
In his exegesis Swedenborg examines in turn the verse segments pressed them very hard, turned aside, house, banquet, unleavened loaves, and ate. For banquet and unleavened loaves, the explanation is particularly detailed and involves reference to other Bible verses containing the same terms, along with separate explanations of some of those passages. Undeniably the minute care with which Swedenborg unfolds every detail of the text “makes the words seem disconnected and breaks up the continuity of meaning.”
And this is his usual manner of explanation. He starts his chapters by quoting an entire Bible chapter, then divides it into portions of several verses each and divides each verse into individual phrases. Finally, from each phrase he picks out individual words for which he offers an inner meaning and sometimes illustrative quotations from other parts of the Bible.
In §2343, though, after completing his examination of Genesis 19:3, Swedenborg does something unusual: he pulls all the threads of the extended exegesis back together. After reviewing the meaning of the separate elements—that the angels symbolize the Lord’s divine humanity and holy influence, that turning aside to Lot means making a home in us, that coming to his house means being strengthened in goodness, that making a banquet means living together, that cooking unleavened bread means being purified, and that eating means making it our own—Swedenborg weaves them into a coherent fabric:
These words present the whole process of reformation and rebirth for individuals who become part of the church—individuals represented here by Lot. To be specific, they first sense a measure of struggle, but when they persist and overcome, the Lord makes a home with them and strengthens them in goodness. He gathers them to himself, bringing them into his kingdom, and lives with them. There he purifies and perfects them, giving them goodness and happiness as their own. This he does through his divine humanity and holy influence.
“The sequence becomes clear,” Swedenborg adds, “only when we embrace all the words in a single view or perceive them all in a single glance of the mind.”
Rather than confessing failure, I believe, Swedenborg is instructing the reader in the proper use of the information he offers. These are only the building blocks, the raw materials, he seems to be saying; put them together to construct your own building. A similar message appears in Secrets of Heaven 1756:1:
When every last word is explained according to its symbolism, the actual train of thought and its beauty cannot be seen as well as it would be if the whole were captured in a single mental image. When all of it is grasped in a single idea, then scattered particulars are seen to cohere and connect in a beautiful way.
The situation resembles that in which we hear someone talking and focus on the words. We do not pick up on the idea of the speaker as well as we would if we ignored the words and their definitions.
Scripture offers us the words, and Swedenborg offers definitions, but then he asks us to ignore both and listen for the meaning behind them, for the message of the divine speaker.
Why, then, does Swedenborg concentrate more on the words than on the larger message? Why does he prefer supplying the lumber to doing the carpentry? If he has seen a vision of the final edifice, why would he stop halfway in its construction?
Perhaps the answer is that he cannot perform that part of the task for the reader. Enlightenment is an individual experience, and in at least one place Swedenborg indicates that the revelation leading to enlightenment needs to come from within. Concerning his own revelation Swedenborg testified that he received it not “from any angel but from the Lord alone while I read the Word” (True Christianity 779), and elsewhere he explains:
A belief exists that we could be more enlightened and wiser if we received revelation by talking with spirits and angels, but the opposite is true. Enlightenment through the Word comes by an inward route, but enlightenment through direct revelation comes by an outward route. The inward route goes through the will into the intellect; the outward through the ears into the intellect. (Draft of Sacred Scripture 13)
Not only is enlightenment regarding the inner meaning of the Bible an individual experience, it is also an emotional experience, and this too might explain why Swedenborg leaves its discovery to the reader. In Secrets of Heaven 5466, after a fairly barebones exegesis of one set of verses, he excuses himself for not explaining them more fully, then adds:
Still, it is important to know that the passage contains inexpressible secrets, and in the heavens those secrets shine from every word, even though not one of them is visible to people on earth. The awe we sometimes feel when we read the Word holds many of the secrets inside it, because countless ramifications that do not openly expose themselves to us lie hidden in the awe that moves us.
What Swedenborg offers in his exegesis then, I would suggest, is not the Bible’s inner meaning but a kind of lexicon to that meaning. Our job is to become familiar enough with the spiritual vocabulary that we can start to discover the rules of the grammar for ourselves. As we learn to read the new language, we will come to grasp the concepts behind the words and eventually find ourselves not only enlightened but moved. With that emotion will come new insights in a never-ending cycle—insights that can fairly be called secrets of heaven.