Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89)
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 that 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. (John 1:1–4, 14)
The Word as presented in these Bible passages is vast, eternal—a cosmic being or presence that exists beyond all the created universe as its source and as the instrument of its creation. In its essence, it is above human comprehension. The words of the Lord through Isaiah the prophet come to mind:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
Seeking the Eternal Word
Through the ages, saints and prophets, seers and mystics have sought this eternal Word, this very Form of God. Yet even in their deepest ponderings and most ecstatic experiences they have barely penetrated its surface, let alone plumbed its depths. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord answered him:
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19–20)
The Lord did pass in front of Moses; but while he was passing by, he hid Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him with his hand. Only after the Lord had passed by was Moses able to look, seeing him from the back as he receded.
Experiencing God by looking the infinite divine Being in the face would be like learning the nature of the sun by flying straight into its surface; the experience would be so intense that it would destroy us. Similarly, to know the eternal Word on its own terms would be to know the very essence of God—and our human minds can no more comprehend the infinite, eternal essence of God than a teaspoon can hold the world’s vast oceans.
God reaching out to us
If it were up to us—if it were the job of our finite minds to bridge the gap between humanity and God, the task would be hopeless. There is no ratio between the finite and the infinite. Even when our finite minds had traveled the greatest distance we could ever conceive of, we would be no closer to reaching the infinite than when we had taken our very first step. There would always remain an infinite distance between us and God. It is as impossible for us to reach God as it would be for even our greatest engineers to build a suspension bridge to the sun.
That is why God, out of infinite love, has chosen to bridge the gap from the other end. The finite can never attain the infinite, but the infinite can reach out to the finite, touch it, and draw it toward itself. And the Lord has chosen to reach out to us, touch us, and lift us up—if we are willing—toward the infinite love, wisdom, and power that is God. As the Lord said through the prophet Hosea:
I led them with human cords, with ties of love. I was to them like one who took the yoke off their jaws. I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:4)
We cannot reach up to God, but God reaches down to us through love; the Lord loosens and removes from our jaw the yoke of mere human speculation and philosophy, and feeds us with the true, spiritual food of divine goodness and truth.
We cannot reach up to the eternal Word, but the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God reaches down to us. In the words of the Psalm, “He bent down the heavens and descended” (Psalm 18:9). The Lord, with mighty power, penetrated all the layers and barriers separating finite human beings from the infinite, and became present to us. In person, God did this as the Lord Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh. In the written word, God did this as a book that we call the Word of God, namely, the Bible.
Seeing the Lord in the clouds
The Bible is not infinite, divine truth as it is in itself. If it were, we would not be able to comprehend it. Rather, the Bible is divine truth that has clothed itself in the clouds of human understanding. The Bible is a reflection of the infinite divine truth that has been adapted to the limitations and even the fallacies of the finite human mind. It is not the sun itself, which we could not survive if we were to come into contact with it; rather, it is rays from the sun that have traveled millions of miles to us, thinning out as they go, and have then been further moderated and adapted by their passage through the atmosphere.
We know that if we were exposed to direct sunlight, even as it exists above our atmosphere ninety-three million miles away from the sun, we could not survive it long. The intense radiation would kill us even if the vacuum of space didn’t. Our travelers to the moon must wear spacesuits, not only to provide an atmosphere, but to protect them from the solar radiation that hits the moon’s surface without the benefit of an atmosphere to moderate it on its way down. The ozone layer that environmental scientists were worried about is just one of the layers that protects us from overly intense elements of the sun’s rays.
That atmosphere is not part of the sun, but part of the earth. It forms a very thin envelope around the earth—just a few miles thick, compared to the eight thousand mile diameter of the earth. And yet that thin, fragile envelope of atmosphere is what adapts the sun’s rays to our small, fragile bodies so that we can not only survive the sunlight, but thrive in its warmth and light.
The literal meaning of the Bible provides the same atmosphere, with all its clarity and its cloudiness, for the Lord’s eternal Word. The Bible’s literal meaning adapts infinite, powerful divine wisdom to the finite level of our human minds, so that instead of destroying us with its intensity, it becomes a life-giving source of enlightenment and understanding. Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) explained it:
Since the Bible is a divine revelation, every single part of it is divine. Anything that comes from the divine could be no other way. Everything that comes from the divine goes down through the heavens all the way to people on earth. In heaven it is adapted to the wisdom of the angels there, and on earth it is adapted to the understanding of the people there. So the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning for angels and an outer, material-level meaning for people on earth. That is why our connection to heaven happens through the Bible. (The New Jerusalem #252)
The literal meaning of the Bible, like the atmosphere, is drawn from things of this earth. It does not surround the sun—who is the Lord; rather, it surrounds the earth, and is made of the finer elements of earthly material. The literal meaning of the Bible is drawn, not directly from the mind of God, but from the human mind, from human culture, from human experience. Like the clouds in our sky, it consists of earth-bound ideas that have been lifted up into the sky. The divine light does not come from the clouds; rather, it shines through them, moderated and adapted to our minds here on the surface of the earth.
Darkness and light in the Bible
Once we understand this, we can begin to appreciate why the Bible is written the way it is; why there are so many things in it that seem so far from the infinite divine. Why there are murders and wars, adultery and polygamy, cruelty and butchery along with the sublime, spiritual passages that we love to quote. Like the sky, the literal meaning of the Bible is sometimes clear and bright, sometimes partly cloudy, and sometimes swathed in a thick cloud cover that lets through only a dark and stormy version of the divine truth. And yet, the storms are things of the earth, not things of the sun. It is expressed this way in the Psalms:
Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. (Psalm 104:1–4)
“He makes the clouds his chariot.” The clouds of human understanding, derived from the earth of the human mind, become, in the literal meaning of the Bible, vessels to carry divine truth to our minds, like a chariot on which the Lord rides to cross the gap between the infinite and the finite.
There is no need to rebel against the dark and cloudy passages of the Bible, nor is there a need to think that they represent the personality of God as it is in itself. The sun remains a vast untouched sphere of heat and light even when it shines through the darkest clouds and looks to us like threatening darkness and devastating lightning. The darkness and lightning reflect the fallacies and conflicts in the human mind, set in motion by the influence of the sun’s rays, in a process that eventually leads to clarity and new life.
As we read the narrative of the Bible, we can think of the Lord riding in the cloudy chariot of human ideas, conception, and culture, adapting them to serve as messengers of a divine truth that is deeper, higher, and clearer than the human stories and images in which they are clothed. As Psalm 78 expresses it:
O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old. (Psalm 78:1, 2)
The Psalm goes on to narrate, in poetic fashion, the history of the Israelites from their wilderness wanderings through their battles and their entry into the Holy Land to the time when they were settled in the land under king David. All of this, says the Psalmist, is a parable, providing the teaching of the Lord, enfolding “hidden things, things from of old.” And of the Lord while he was on earth it was also said, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34).
A very precise relationship
Though the Lord speaks to us in parables, the relationship between infinite divine truth and finite human conceptions is anything but arbitrary and haphazard. The same divine law by which the Lord created the universe and everything in it out of the substance of divine love, and the same law by which God continually sustains and renews the world of nature, is the law by which the Sacred Scriptures are written. There is a definite relationship between each and every finite being, object, and phenomenon in the universe and the infinite Source from which it comes. Just so, there is a definite relationship between every person, place, animal, object, and event in the Bible story and the infinite Love and Wisdom that this divine narrative serves to adapt and deliver to finite human minds.
The wars of the Bible are not about physical wars, but about spiritual ones; they speak of the battles between good and evil, truth and falsity, that continually rage both in our own souls and in the wider human world around us. When the sun shines and the rain falls in the Bible, it is not about physics and biology, but about the Lord’s life-giving love warming our spirits, and the refreshing rain of spiritual truth renewing our minds. It is the Sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2), and it is the Lord saying to us:
Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, Like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. (Deuteronomy 32:1, 2)
The Word of God is now opened
The Lord Jesus said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” And later, after his resurrection, he walked with two of his followers, unknown to them, and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), adding that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44).
The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms—the entirety of the Word of God—is one great divine parable, telling us about the Lord and about the Lord’s saving, healing work throughout the ages. And the key to that divine parable has now been given to us. “Now,” as Swedenborg wrote, “we may enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith” (True Christian Religion #508). Now the eternal Word has been opened to our vision. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).
(This post is a lightly edited version of a talk originally given on February 2, 2003.)
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