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Dreams, Vision and Sleep 2

The Dreams and Visions of the Most Ancients

by Rev. Frederick L. Schnarr

We ... turn our attention to the nature and use of dreams and visions in the churches prior to the Lord's First Advent. We will not here go into all the uses of such a study of dreams and visions; but we would note that the Lord used dreams and visions in giving a great part of the Sacred Scriptures. Indeed, we find upon examination that about one-half of the Word is composed of dreams and visions. Swedenborg was prepared, largely through dreams and visions for his work as revelator of the Lord's Second Coming. And we find in the Writings themselves, countless experiences recorded wherein dreams and visions play a part, or where they are actually part of the doctrine on a certain subject. From these considerations alone, it is evident that the understanding of dreams and visions, is important, if not essential, to the understanding of the form and nature of the Word Itself.

The Writings tell us that revelation was made in many different ways, and while it is not our purpose to examine here all these different ways, it is useful that we have them in mind before proceeding to the particulars of our subject. Six modes of giving revelation are listed:

1) by dreams.
2) by night-visions.
3) by day-visions.
4) by speech within a man.
5) by speech outside man from angels that were seen.
6) by speech outside man from angels that were not seen. (AC 6000, 4682)

These are the general modes employed by the Lord in giving revelation, and we will in this series, consider some examples of each from the Word. But we would note that each of these methods has many varieties within itself; for example, there are many kinds of dreams - prophetic, instructive, representative, and fantastic.

Before commencing our look at the Most Ancient Church we would also note the general distinction which the Writings make between dreams and visions. Dreams occur when the corporeal, the body, is asleep, and visions when the body is awake. (AC 1975) We will not comment here on further distinctions since these will become evident as we proceed.

In Most Ancient times the Lord taught man entirely through speech with angels, dreams, and visions. There was no written Word. And there was no need of one, for the state of man's life on earth was in such a Divine order that the angels could be closely present with him in everything. The goods and truths of heaven were received by him with delight. He desired them as the most precious and important things of his life, and in so doing granted freedom for the Lord to approach and lead him through the media of the heavens. It is true that the children and young adults received instruction from those who were older and more fully in the sphere of heaven, and in this sense were not immediately and always instructed through dreams and visions, or by conversations with angels. But even so, all the knowledge of the Lord and of heaven which the elders had, came through dreams and visions, of such conversations. The dreams and visions of the younger people would confirm the instruction they had received. Undoubtedly at times, particularly when the Most Ancient Church began to fall, the instruction given, because deliberately false, would not be confirmed through the dreams and visions received by the younger people. (We will speak of this again later.)

There are two things that must be kept in mind in understanding the great difference in the use of dreams and visions in the most ancient times, and that of succeeding times. In most ancient times instructive and confirming dreams and visions were received by everyone. The sleep of night was filled with importance and beauty therefore, and dreams and visions were cherished as the intimate presence of the Lord and His angels. In succeeding ages this was not to be true. Instructive dreams and visions would be received by few, and then only for the purpose of giving a Divine Revelation in permanent written form to man. Certainly everyone would still receive dreams and visions from heaven, but their instruction or representative form would not be understood. Evil and falsity, ignorance and externalism, would obscure and becloud this means of heaven being present with man.

The difference in how the Most Ancients received revelation through dreams and visions from that of succeeding ages is made clear in the following passage from the Arcana Coelestia:

In regard to revelations being either from perception, or from speech with angels through whom the Lord speaks, it is to be known that they who are in good and thence in truth, and especially they who are in the good of love to the Lord, have revelation from perception; whereas they who are not in good and thence in truth, can indeed have revelations, yet not from perception, but through a living voice heard within them, and thus through angels from the Lord. This revelation is external, but the former is internal. The angels, especially the celestial, have revelation from perception, as also had the men of the Most Ancient Church, and some too of the Ancient Church, but scarcely any one at this day; whereas very many, even those who have not been in good, have had revelations from speech without perception, and also by means of visions and dreams. Such were most of the revelations of the prophets in the Jewish Church; they heard a voice, they saw a vision, and they dreamed a dream; but as they had no perception, these were merely verbal or visual revelations without any perception of what they signified. For genuine perception comes through heaven from the Lord, affects the intellect spiritually, and leads it perceptibly to think as the thing really is, together with internal assent, the source of which it knows not. It supposes that it is in itself, and that it flows from the connection of things; whereas it is a dictate through heaven from the Lord, following into the interiors of the thought, about such things as are of the spiritual world or of heaven. (AC 5121)

This passage does not mean that the Lord did not also speak with the Most Ancients through angels, for He did; and indeed angels instructed men openly through speech, but the speech was not in the form of a fixed word-for-word revelation as with the prophets, and it was according to the state of the man, for the interiors of their minds were open to the Lord. Thus we read concerning the men of the Golden Age that because they "acknowledged the Divine under a human form, that is, the Lord, they talked with the angels of heaven as with their friends, and angels of heaven talked with them as with their friends; and in them heaven and the world made one." (HH 252) Concerning how this mode of speech took place with them we read: "The speech of an angel or spirit with man is heard by him as audibly as the speech of man with man, yet by himself only, and not by others who stand near; and for the reason, that the speech of an angel or spirit flows first into a man's thought, and by an inner way into his organ of hearing, and moves it from without. Evidently, then, the speech of an angel or spirit with man is heard within him; but as the organs of hearing are thus equally moved, the speech is equally audible." (HH 248)

Can we say that the most ancients were in a state of vision when their conversations with angels took place? Under the widest possible use, such form of speaking with angels might be classified under the term 'vision.' Normally, however, the Writings do not use the term vision in this sense, and neither will be in this study.

We have noted that conversations with angels, visions, and dreams, all formed part of the means whereby the Most Ancients received instruction from heaven. How knowledges were ordered with them, and what kind of instruction they received is made clear also. Through these means we have mentioned, they were first given "a general knowledge of what was good and true; and after they had acquired a general knowledge, these general leading principles . . . were confirmed by things innumerable, by means of perceptions; and these innumerable things were the particulars or individual things of the general principles to which they related. Thus were the general leading principles corroborated day by day; whatever was not in agreement with the general principles they perceived not to be so; and whatever was in agreement with them they perceived to be so. Such also is the state of the celestial angels. The general principles of the Most Ancient Church were heavenly and eternal truths, - as that the Lord governs the universe, and all good and truth is from the Lord, that all life is from the Lord, that man's own is nothing but evil, and in itself is dead; with many others of similar character. And they received from the Lord a perception of countless things that confirmed and supported these truths.( AC 597; cf. AC 125)

Dreams and visions were the main means whereby the general truths they learned were infilled and confirmed. With the churches following the Most Ancient, this use and function of dreams and visions in confirming truths was to perish. Today, there is scarcely the least vestige of it remaining.

In speaking of the nature of the dreams and visions of peoples in the Golden Age the Writings seem to make no clear distinction between visions and dreams. Certainly there is not the clear distinction present as is the case in the time of the Israelitish and Jewish Churches. (AC 1975) But this comparison we will consider later.

Both the dreams and the visions of the most ancients were significative and representative. Everything they saw in their dreams and visions had a meaning, and they knew the meaning from perception. The beautiful paradisal scenes which they saw in their dreams where actual views of the forms of heavenly life, the trees, the flowers, the animals, the mountains, rivers, etc. They were seeing in their dreams the true representative appearances of heaven. You will recall the teaching that every angel is surrounded in heaven by those forms that correspond to and represent the nature of one's inmost love and all its associate lesser loves and affections. In one's surrounding therefore one sees his character and quality represented. And these representations are called the real appearance of heavenly forms; they are substantial and do not change. They do not change, that is, in some sudden and mysterious manner. They change somewhat as man's loves are more and more perfected. There are certain societies in heaven and in the world of spirits, who love to introduce these paradisal dreams into man even now, even though they know that man will not be aware of anything significative or representative therein. Swedenborg was allowed to experience how these angels (probably from the first heaven) introduce such dreams into man.

I was put to sleep, and I dreamed that a ship came laden with delicacies and savory food of every kind. The things in the ship were not seen, but were stowed away. Upon the ship stood two armed guards, besides a third who was its captain. The ship passed into a kind of arched dock. So I awoke and thought about the dream. The angelic spirits, who were above in front to the right, then addressed me, and told me that they had introduced this dream; and in order that I might know with certainty that it was from them, I was put into a state as of sleep and at the same time of wakefulness; and they introduced in the same way various things that were pleasant and delightful; for instance, an unknown little animal which was dispersed in a likeness of blackish and shining rays, that darted with marvelous quickness into my left eye. They also presented men and also little children adorned in various ways; and other things besides, with inexpressible pleasantness, about which I also spoke with them. . . . The angelic spirits who are at the entrance to the paradisal scenes, are they who insinuate such dreams; and to them is also entrusted the duty of watching over certain men when they sleep, lest they should then be infested by evil spirits. They perform this duty with the greatest delight, so that there is rivalry among them as to who shall be present, and they love to affect the man with the enjoyable and delight things which they see in his affection and genius. . . . They said that they do not know whence such things, and representatives so beautiful and pleasant, come to them in a moment; but it was said that it was from heaven. They belong to the province of the cerebellum; for, as I have been informed, the cerebellum is awake in time of sleep, when the cerebrum sleeps. From this source the men of the Most Ancient Church had their dreams, together with a perception of what they signified. (AC 1977; cf. SD 3380-3382)

Besides these dreams of the scenery and activity of the spiritual world, there seemed to be also dreams or visions, I know not which, which were purely representative and significative; that is, dreams or visions of those forms and activities which are not a normal or regular part of the paradisal scene. Such were the kind of representations seen also by the prophets when their spiritual eyes were open; Daniel's sight of the four beasts rising from the sea; John's sight of the woman clothed with the sun, and of the holy city, and so on. These were temporary representations in the heavens and in the world of spirits, the purpose of which was instruction. Concerning the source of such representative temporary visions a great deal of instruction is given in the Writings. Every heaven has such visions, although they most commonly appear in the natural heaven and the world of spirits.

In the world of spirits various representatives are presented to view, and withal animals are often presented before the eyes of the spirits there, such as horses variously caparisoned (in different trappings), oxen, sheep, lambs, with other animals of various kinds, sometimes such as are never seen on the earth, but are only representative. Such animals were also seen by the prophets, as described in the Word, and were from the same source. The animals that appear in the world of spirits are representative of affections of good and truth, and also of evil and falsity. Good spirits know perfectly well what they signify, and thus also gather from them what the angels are conversing about; for the speech of angels, passing down into the world of spirits, is sometimes presented in this way. For example, when horses appear, they know that the speech of the angel is about the things of the understanding; when oxen and bullocks, that it is about natural goods; when sheep, that it is about rational goods, and integrity; when lambs, that it is about goods still more internal and innocence; and so on. (AC 2179)

Much of the same might be said about the representative appearances in the natural heaven; this is where many of the beautiful representations Swedenborg saw appeared. (AC 9457, 1790; AE 369) In the beginning the purpose of the appearance of such representative scenes was not only as a means of delighting and instructing good spirits and angels in the lower heavens, but also of instructing men. Through their dreams and visions the Most Ancients also saw these things, and knew their meaning. This was the marvelous way in which the science of correspondences and the knowledge of representatives was given to man on earth. (AC 2179, 1977) From this knowledge the Most Ancients saw all the forms of nature in symbolism, every animal, plant, mineral, and other form, signified something of the goods and truths of heaven. So keen was this knowledge with them, we are taught, that they paid scarcely any attention to earthly and worldly things as mere objects of external sensation. Their delight in nature was in seeing the things of nature as ultimate images and reflections of heavenly things. (AC 1122)

When we look at the churches following the Most Ancient Church, we see the use of dreams and visions changing from that of instruction and confirmation with the individual to that of prophecy with a few. Instruction was still part of the use, but it too was given to individuals. Indeed so much does prophecy form a part of the dreams and visions of man after the Most Ancient Church, that we wonder whether there were prophetic implications in the dreams and visions of the Most Ancients as well. Not too much is said concerning this. Certainly we would believe that when the Most Ancient Church was in a state of integrity there was little need for a prophetic use to dreams and visions. There might have been some minor prophetic things, as there is, for example, with the inhabitants of Jupiter who are in something of the same state as was the Most Ancient Church on our earth. There we learn, that they have a vision or dream of a particular kind of bald head, and that this is a sign to them that they will die within a year. (AC 8850)

The appearance of prophecy as a major function of dreams and visions seems to have arisen when the Most Ancient Church began to fall. Concerning this period we read, that "as soon as that Church began to fail, the Lord foresaw that the Celestial Church would completely perish from the world, and therefore a prediction was at once made concerning the Advent of the Lord into the world. (AC 2661: 2) 14We learn from the revelation concerning the people of other planets, that they receive warnings through visions and dreams as to their general states. All of these are of course first representatively given in the world of spirits and in heaven, before they are received from the spiritual world by man on earth. In any case, by the time the Most Ancient Church had fallen, dreams and visions had become the main means of prophecy, and usually carried awesome warnings of judgments to come, mixed with veiled and obscure messages of hope, of mercy, and salvation to the good.

The Lord in the fall did everything He could to preserve the means of instructing man through visions and dreams in the things of heaven. When states of evil had arisen to mingle with the good, and when the hells had been formed and were pouring out horrid dreams of phantasy and evil, the Lord gave signs as to whether the dreams and visions of night were to be accepted as true or not. We are not told in detail what signs the Lord used, but undoubtedly they were similar to those used on other planets where similar states exist. For example, on the sixth earth in the starry heaven an angel in white garments appears at the bedside just before the time of full wakefulness from sleep, if the instruction in the dreams and visions is true. If not, the angel does not appear. (AC 10833)

It seems terrible that the conscious companionship of spirits and angels with man, with their warmth, their joy and happiness, should not be scarcely more than a lovely story of far gone ages. It seems terrible that the delightful and peaceful paradisal scenes and activities of heaven should no longer bring to man the sweet and beautiful sleep that the Lord willed to accompany him through the watches of the night. And yet, although we can not now enjoy those provisions of the Lord's love, we can see in them something of the Lord's great desire and mercy, to lead, comfort, and protect man. We can, too, more fully understand His promise that He will bring us dreams and visions of Divine order, of comfort, beauty and delight, when we have given Him the freedom to do so in the life of heaven.

-New Church Life 1980;100: 349-355

Next in Series


What the Bible Says about The Bible's Inner Meaning
Dreams and Visions
How Miracles Worked: Introduction


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The Most Ancients

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