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At face value, the Ten Commandments can seem intense and unforgiving. But eighteenth-century scientist and spiritual teacher Emanuel Swedenborg’s understanding of the internal sense of the Bible—spiritual meanings that lie beneath the literal words—can give us a new perspective on these familiar rules.
In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose study the inner meaning of the first commandment:
I am Jehovah your God, who led you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall not have other gods before my face. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, because I am Jehovah your God, God the Zealous, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wickedness on the sons, on the third generation and on the fourth generation among those who hate me; and performing mercy to thousands among those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-6)
To understand this commandment’s internal meaning, Curtis finds a way to safely break this commandment—for educational purposes, of course!
Who is God?
To really understand the commandment, we need to break it down and understand each piece.
I am Jehovah your God symbolizes the Lord’s deified human manifestation as universally sovereign over every single thing that relates to goodness and truth. . . . Jehovah God refers to the Lord’s deified human manifestation, because in the heavens they cannot picture or even sense the divinity that is actually within the Lord and therefore cannot believe in it or love it. They can only picture and sense a deified human being. The concept of God being divine cannot actually be communicated to the angels in heaven, let alone to humans on earth, except through the idea of a deified human being. (Secrets of Heaven §8864)
The important point here is that God is sovereign. But for believers, that’s obvious. What’s the significance of mentioning it here?
For humans, what is universally sovereign is that which can be found within every single one of our thoughts and wishes. It is therefore what constitutes our very mind and life. The Lord must be our sovereign, because it is so for the angels in heaven, of whom we say they are in the Lord. The Lord becomes our sovereign when we not only trust that all goodness and truth are given to us by him but also when we love the fact that this is so. (Secrets of Heaven §8865)
In other words, the Lord being sovereign means that we trust that everything good and true in us comes from the Lord. Truly understanding this is an important component of the angelic mindset. With the right mindset and knowledge, we can be equipped for anything—whether it’s an escape from captivity in Egypt or a bomb defusal video game.
Understanding why sovereignty is important helps to put the statements about what not to do into context. For example, the very next statement in the commandment is “You shall not have other gods before my face.” This sounds pretty possessive, but in fact the word gods here symbolizes what is false. The commandment prohibits us from believing in them because that will take us farther from God. Why? Swedenborg explains:
Truth does not have the Lord within it when we take it from the Word (especially in its literal meaning) and use it to argue in favor of our control over other people or for our own enrichment. Because it comes from the Word, this is actually truth; it is not true here, though, because it is used in arguing for a sinister purpose and therefore is perverted. . . .
Truth that comes from the Lord always remains the Lord’s truth because of its inner aspect. Truth that does not come from the Lord appears to be true only from its outward appearance. It is not true in its inner aspect, because within it is vanity, falsity, and evil. For something to be true, there needs to be life in it; and truth without life is truth we do not believe. Life does not come from anywhere other than being good, that is, through goodness that is given to us by the Lord. If the Lord is not within the truth, it is truth without life and therefore not truth. (Secrets of Heaven §8868)
To acknowledge that truth comes from the Lord is to use truth for its intended purpose. When you’re using truth to do good and be kind—and not to promote your self-interest—you’re respecting God’s sovereignty.
Crafting and Imitating
The next section has to do with idolatry, which doesn’t sound like a common problem today. But it might hit a little closer to home when we see the inner meaning of false gods.
Whatever you love more than anything else, that is your god. (Revelation Explained §950:3)
That might apply to a passion that we pursue obsessively, or even something as serious as addiction. For someone who wants to be rich for the sake of having status and power, money might be their idol.
The warning against carved and cast images have specific meaning as well.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image is symbolic of not relying on our own intelligence. This makes sense, because a carved image is a symbol of something that does not come from the Lord but from our ego. A carved image symbolizes the product of our own intellect, and a cast image symbolizes our own desires. When we regard either the one or the other as our god and worship it, we love whatever comes from ourselves more than anything else. . . . [We] want [our] ideas to be worshipped as though they are divine. (Secrets of Heaven §8869)
In the same way, Swedenborg defines an “imitation” as something that looks divine, but is actually not: for example, someone who quotes a sacred text pretending to want to inspire people, when in fact they only want to elevate their own self-importance. But this can happen with all kinds of truth, from spiritual to earthly.
When someone takes credit for these kinds of images and imitations, at best they’re basically plagiarizing the divine. At worst, they could be misleading people and worshipping their own agenda in the place of God.
From there, the commandment goes on to discuss what happens when it’s disregarded—especially the description of God as jealous or zealous and his anger being visited on future generations.
In relation to people who do not accept the divine truth that comes from the Lord’s divine goodness, a zealous God means evil and falsity. (Secrets of Heaven §8875)
So, for example, if a person loves to control others, then a God who moves people to do the opposite may seem angry or threatening. The zeal here is not God’s anger at people who do wrong, but the way divine guidance might appear to be anger.
Another very difficult part of this commandment says that children will be punished for their parent’s sins. But Swedenborg says that the inner meaning is actually referring to the way falsity can spread through your mind and to others. A person’s thoughts and actions affect others, and that effect can be far-reaching and long-lasting.
If taken far enough, it could result in a complete rejection of the Lord.
Among those who hate me stands for people who completely reject the Lord’s divinity. . . . the more they are influenced by evil and the resulting falsity, the more they not only reject his divinity but also hate it. It is the Lord’s divine nature they are rejecting . . . . They cannot understand what a deified human being is, because they have such an empty and meaningless concept of what divine means. (Secrets of Heaven §8878)
In the wrap-up, we’re reminded that the commandment is really speaking about setting God’s love and wisdom above all your own wishes—and that if we celebrate our own false truths over God’s truth, it could set us down a really dangerous path.
But the commandment ends on a positive note, as do its correspondences.
And performing mercy to thousands symbolizes that they will be permanently blessed with goodness and truth. This is consistent with the fact that mercy is the influence of goodness and truth that comes from the Lord and the subsequent spiritual life, which is granted by means of regeneration. From mercy, the Lord grants us whatever is needed for a life of eternal happiness. A thousand stands for a large quantity, so when it is describing divine mercy, it means it is permanent. (Secrets of Heaven §8879)
Among those who love me symbolizes people who are open to loving what is good. This is consistent with the symbolism of loving Jehovah (i.e., the Lord) as being an openness to loving what is good. . . . We love him when we stop doing evil, because evil gets in the way and repels that good influence coming from the Lord. Once evil is removed, we can receive the goodness that, thanks to him, is always present and trying to enter us. (Secrets of Heaven §8880)
And keep my commandments symbolizes being open to believing what is true. . . . Truth can be learned and stored in our memory, but if we do not agree with it and act on it, it does not become living truth. On the other hand, if it is drawn from our memory and embedded in our will by intellectual activity, that is, if we intentionally make it part of our habits and activity, then it becomes living truth—truth that we believe. This is accomplished by the Lord when we stop doing evil. (Secrets of Heaven §8881)
Do Swedenborg experts feel that he may have been fallible in his understanding of some of his observations, based on his cultural and religious perspectives, and if so, is some level of distortion of the material acceptable? I guess what I’m asking is, does Swedenborg’s interpretation have to be perfect in every aspect, or are allowances made for his biases?
Related Swedenborg and Life Videos
“The Universal Categories of Love” (short video)
“Who was Swedenborg? What should I read?”
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Ten Commandments: The Secrets of Spiritual Growth Found in God’s Principles for Living
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In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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