The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes these words in an exchange with the Pharisees:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “The son of David.”
He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41–46)
What did David mean when he poetically wrote about sitting at the Lord’s right hand? And what did Jesus mean when he quoted David?
Does this really mean—as traditional Christians commonly believe—that God the Father and God the Son are two different people, and that Jesus will literally sit at the right hand of God, like a viceroy sitting to the right of his king?
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) offers a different view.
The metaphorical nature of the Bible
Here are two key principles in the method of Bible interpretation used and taught by Swedenborg:
- Within the literal meaning of the entirety of Swedenborg’s canon of the Bible there is a spiritual meaning, accessed through a system of “correspondences” or particular symbolism of each person, place, object, and event in the literal meaning.
- The literal meaning commonly speaks in terms of human and earthly appearances rather than the way things are in spiritual and divine reality. (See my article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”)
In particular, the Bible commonly speaks about God in terms of human concepts of space and time, directions such as right and left, and various personalities such as Moses, David, and Elijah.
However, time and space are properties of the physical universe, whereas God is a divine being. Therefore any attribution to God of things such as “right hand” or “Son of David” or even “Son of God” are not speaking about literal spatial relations or about biological lineages, but are human appearances and metaphors used to describe various divine aspects of God.
The right hand of God
Although the Bible commonly speaks of God as having various human body parts, such as eyes, ears, nostrils, a right hand, and so on, it should be clear that the infinite core being of God, called “the Father” in the Bible, does not have a physical body or physical form as human beings do, such that someone could literally sit at God’s right hand.
In the Bible, the right hand is commonly associated with power. For example:
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. (Exodus 15:6)
Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)
“But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Luke 22:69)
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. (Ephesians 1:20–21)
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:3–4)
Accordingly, Swedenborg interprets “the right hand of God” not as a literal right hand, but rather as God’s omnipotent power. For example, in interpreting the opening verses of Psalm 110 and Jesus’ quoting of it in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, and Luke 20:42–43, Swedenborg writes:
Anyone who does not know that the expression “right hand,” when used in reference to Jehovah, means almighty power will gather no other idea from the Lord’s words here than that the Lord will sit on his Father’s right hand and have dominion in the way that one sitting on a king’s right hand on earth has. But the internal sense shows what one should understand in those places by “sitting at the right hand,” namely God’s almighty power. Hence also the expressions “sitting at the right hand of power” and “at the right hand of the power of God.” (Secrets of Heaven #8281:2)
Jesus sitting at God’s right hand
In Swedenborg’s understanding of the Bible and of the nature of God, then, Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God” does not mean one figure or person of God sitting to the right of another figure or person of God. Rather, it means God’s core divine nature (“the Father”) exercising its power through God’s human nature (“the Son”). Or another way of saying the same thing, it means God’s divine love, or good, (“the Father”) exercising its power through God’s divine wisdom, or truth, (“the Son”). Swedenborg writes:
The fact that these statements [in Psalm 110:1-2, 5] refer to the Lord [Jesus Christ] is his own teaching in Matthew 22:44. His dominion over the hells is described there by “sitting at the right hand,” for “the right hand” means the power that divine truth springing from divine good possesses. The hells and the evils and falsities coming from them are the enemies that were to be made as his footstool; they are also the enemies in whose midst he was to have dominion. (Secrets of Heaven #10019:5, links added)
And another commentary on Psalm 110 in the same work:
But since the declarations in this Psalm each contain secrets that have to do with the Lord’s conflicts when he was in the world, and those secrets cannot be revealed without the internal sense, let a brief explanation of them be supplied. “Jehovah said to my Lord” means that the subject is the Lord when he was in the world. “Lord” here is used to mean the Lord’s divine humanity, as is clear in Matthew 22:43-45; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-44. “Sit at my right hand” means the almighty power of divine good, exercised through divine truth, the Lord being divine truth at that time, and divine truth being that with which he entered into and won the battle. For the meaning of “sitting at the right hand” as a state of power, and in reference to the Divine as almighty power, see Secrets of Heaven #3387, 4592, 4933, 6948, 7518, 7673, 8281, 9133; and the fact that all the power that good possesses is exercised through truth, Secrets of Heaven #6344, 6423, 8304, 9327, 9410, 9639, 9643. (Secrets of Heaven #9809:3, links added)
In other words, in Psalm 110:1, “Jehovah” or “the Lord” (Hebrew יְהוָה) refers to the Father, or God’s core divine nature, which is divine love, while “to my Lord” (Hebrew לַֽאדֹנִי) refers to the Son, or God’s human nature, which is divine truth—and was Jesus when he was incarnated in our world.
The command to “sit at my right hand,” then, means that God’s divine love acts through God’s divine truth in accomplishing its victory over the power of the Devil, evil, and hell (which are synonymous in Swedenborg’s theology). This phenomenon of the Father acting by means of the Son, who is divine truth, can be seen in various passages in the New Testament, such as:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1–5, 14, 18)
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does the works. (John 14:10)
And Jesus came and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
So it is Swedenborg’s teaching that everything done by the core divine being, which is divine love, and is called “the Father” in the New Testament, is done through the divine humanity, which is divine truth, and is called “the Son” in the New Testament. The Son “sitting at the right hand” of the Father is a metaphorical representation in human physical and spatial language of this relationship between God’s core divinity and divine humanity, in which the one acts through the other to accomplish everything it does.
In concrete terms, Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand means God’s omnipotence acting in and through God’s human presence as Jesus Christ in the world and in the lives of individual human beings.
(Note: This post is drawn from an answer I originally wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading: