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The Internal Sense of the Word

Before contemplating the substance of this chapter, please read the Seventy-eighth Psalm, and the Twenty-fourth chapter of Luke, verses Thirteen to Twenty-seven.

The Seventy-eighth Psalm gives a brief account of the memorable journey of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, and its history up to the time of David. The story is lucidly written in the literal sense, yet the Psalmist introduces it with the words, "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old." Why then should it be called a parable? Without question the Old and the New Testaments claim to be the Word of God a message of the Divine Mind to mankind. But if so, what kind of inspiration do they claim for themselves? The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses, and in these five books many chapters begin with the words, "And the Lord spake to Moses"; so that you might say that the chapter is a direct quotation of what the Lord said to Moses, and Moses so recorded it. Consequently the books come under the category of Sacred Scriptures or the Word of God. All through the prophetical books we frequently read, "The Word of the Lord came to me, saying". This furnishes abundant evidence in the Old Testament that it claims for itself the title of "The Word of God."

*In preparing this chapter and the two following chapters I have made abundant use of that great New Church classic, The Plenary Inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures. It is a truly inspiring book, and much of my thought has been channeled by my contact with it. I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to its author, the Reverend Samuel Noble.

In the New Testament, the Lord, while on earth as the Word made flesh sets forth the idea that "the Law and the Prophets", that is the books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, Kings, the four major Prophets, the twelve minor Prophets, and the Psalms are indeed the Word of God, and, in His own language while He was on earth, He so calls them. It occurred when the Lord was reasoning with the Scribes and Pharisees, and He said that they made the Word of God of none effect through their tradition. He clearly called the laws of Moses the Word of God. (Mark 7:10-13)

Again when the Lord had said, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30) and the Jews had picked up stones to stone Him, He said, If he called them gods unto whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken; say ye of Him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" (John 10:35, 36)

Note what He said. He is referring to Moses and the prophets, who had received, by Divine inspiration, the word of God. And He notes that the Scripture cannot be broken because it is of Divine authority. In those two passages, the Lord clearly upholds the idea that the Old Testament, as it existed in His day, was the Word of God. The same Divine authority is given to the whole of the law and the whole of the prophets when He says, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:19)

It may be objected that the term "Word of God" can only be applied to such parts of the Old Testament as actually use the term "The Word of God." For example, the chapters in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and also all the prophets that use that expression; yet Paul says, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." (II Timothy 3:16) And he is referring to the Old Testament, because at that time the New Testament as we know it had not yet been compiled. Peter, one of the Lord's own disciples, said that "For the prophecy came not in the old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (II Peter 1:21)

On the basis of all this, I am going to assume that the Word as we have it is a Divine document; that it is in fact what it claims to be; that it is the Word of God. Many other reasons and arguments may be advanced to arrive at this conclusion, but we will rest the case here and see what happens to our thinking if we assume that the Old and New Testament are, in very truth, the Word of God. For if they are the very Word of God they must contain in their bosom infinite truth, infinite wisdom.

God, we say, is infinite and omnipotent. That is, He has all knowledge and all power, and when He speaks He does not speak with any finite limitations such as those with which man speaks. Man speaks with the best knowledge of the past which he has, and the best prognosis of the future that he can muster, but man's mind is very, very limited. His past goes back only a few years, and his knowledge of the future is at best most hazy. In contrast to man, the Lord has infinite wisdom and His knowledge of the past goes back forever, and His knowledge of the future is also a knowledge to eternity, so that what He writes has no limitations of time and space.

It must be possible for the Lord's knowledge to be opened even to infinity, if we could reach back to the very source from which it sprung. When we say that this body of Scriptures is the Word of God, we do not mean merely that it is a holy book, but we assert that it must be infinite; and it will be our task to try to understand as deeply as possible how it can be infinite; wherein the infinity in the Word resides, and the way that it can lead our minds back to God Himself.

The Contents of the Old and New Testaments

Let us glance at the contents of the Old Testament. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are an allegory stories that are written purely for their spiritual meaning. With the twelfth chapter, which begins the story of Abram and his descendants, real history begins. This history is then traced in the inspired books all the way down to the fall of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian captivity about 600 B.C. Interspersed with the history is the account of the prophets, together with their messages to the people, and many beautiful songs which are the Psalms of David and others. This is the contents of the sense of the letter of the Old Testament.*

The letter of the New Testament is made up of the four accounts of the Lord's life Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Book of Revelation.**

The history is clear enough in its direct meaning. The historical parts and most of the Psalms are also clear, but there are many passages in the Prophets which are apparently meaningless in the letter. We can read them over and over again and derive no natural sense from them; and these passages would lead our minds inescapably to believe that if they are the Word of God they must have a deeper sense, otherwise God would not have given them as our means of salvation.

* The Old Testament contains additional books of Jewish history and proverbs, which are usually bound up with the Old Testament without being part of the Divine Word.

** The other books commonly bound up with the New Testament are the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles which the Apostles wrote to the various groups which they visited in the infant Christian Church

Why an Internal Sense?

The difference between the Word and human writings must be the difference between the works of God and the works of man; that is, the writings of man have an exhaustible meaning. If we study the works of a human philosopher intently and earnestly, we can plumb them to their depths and understand them completely because they are of human origin; whereas we can never reach the inmost sense of the Word of God. We are taught that even if we study it to eternity we can never reach its inmost meanings which are above the understanding of the highest angel.

So we say that the Word of God must be to the word of man as the works of God are to the works of man. Take a machine, for example. No matter how complicated it is, it can all be taken apart down to its least part. Not so with the creations of God. As we examine them we can see ever more minute things within the smallest dissection that we have made. Viewed from without, the Word of God appears like the word of man, but unlike the word of man, it can be opened up inwardly until we come to infinite wisdom itself.

If we use a bit of philosophy, we might well assume that man has speech even in the spiritual world, when he becomes an angel; but the speech of angels is concerned with the interests and the problems of angels and does not concern itself with the things of this world, and consequently their speech is on a higher plane than our speech in this world, and the spiritual sense of the Word is written for angels. In one of his spiritual experiences Paul was caught up to the third heaven and he said that he "heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." (II Cor. 12:4) Swedenborg, on many occasions, had similar experiences. He would come from a higher heaven to a lower heaven and when he would come from the presence of angels into the presence of men, he would be unable to utter in worldly language the things that had been clear to him when he was in the higher state of the angels.

If the words of angels are unspeakable, what must the words of God be as they proceed from the mouth of God Himself? His word could not come down to earth the Lord could not speak directly to man. Infinite wisdom could not be directly intelligible in this world; any more than the Lord could appear in this world without a long process which we call the Incarnation. When the Lord wanted finally to appear in this world, He bowed the heavens and His life descended through the heavens was prepared in heaven to cause conception within Mary. In the same way He comes as the Word on earth. For the Word descends through the heavens in order to come down into the world. Let us conceive of it in this way: The Divine Truth comes from the Lord above the heavens. First it comes to the celestial or highest angels, who perceive it in its inmost sense the highest perception of inmost truth that human beings can have. The Divine Truth proceeds next to the spiritual heaven where it is still further clothed or accommodated; and lastly it descends to the natural heaven. From the natural heaven the Divine truth is breathed into the mind of the inspired writers who wrote the letter of the Word in this world, so that in its bosom, the Word in this world contains a series of truths on different planes. When we read the Word on earth, these inner truths are the perpetual nourishment of the angels, who, through their innate inner senses, are delighted and affected thereby because they are in the understanding of the superior internal degrees of the Word.

To conceive that the holiness of the Word resides solely in its letter would be like believing that the skin of man that encloses all his vital organs is the whole man; whereas, the truth is that it is just a covering of the man. And when we study the organs that are contained within the skin the brain and the heart, the lungs, the organs of digestion, and all the other wonderful viscera we see that the deeper our penetration goes the more complex, subtle, and wonderful creations do we behold, so that in modern medicine we have doctors who spend their whole lives becoming specialists in the study and treatment of just one human organ. So it is with the Word. The literal meaning of the Word is easy to see, but the depths within the letter of the Word are unfathomable and can lead us always back to the infinite, always back to the Divine. I have endeavored to show from philosophical reasoning that if the Word of God is to the word of man as the works of God are to the works of man, then, because it is the Word of God, it can be opened up to the Divine itself.

Deeper Meaning of the Gospel

The next point that I want to establish is that the Word of God exhorts us to seek for an understanding of its deeper meanings, rather than rest content in the mere statement of the letter. The Word of God urges us to look deeply into it. What can the Psalmist mean when he says: "Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law"? (Psalm 119: 18) If he were convinced that in the letter of the law the complete Divine meaning was given, it would not be necessary to pray to the Lord that his eyes be opened so that he could see wondrous things out of the law. But David, from his inspiration, knew that the letter was but the skin, the covering, the outside, into which were gathered all those higher senses. Therefore he said, "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law."

And now let us turn back to the opening sentence of the Seventy-eighth Psalm, referred to at the opening of this chapter. "Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old." (1,2) With that introduction we could well expect to be regaled by some deep and mysterious parable even some story like the Garden of Eden, or the creation story in Genesis, or the Tower of Babel but instead of a parable or some story that is not at all clear as to its literal meaning, the Psalmist proceeds in the seventy verses that follow to tell us the plain history of Israel, beginning with the plagues on Egypt up to the time of David. Where, then, do the dark sayings of old come in? Why is it a parable? It is a parable because that story of Israel as contained in the Word of God is the outside, it is the skin, it is the containant, first of the story of man's regeneration, and then of the story of how the human of our Lord was glorified.

In the literal sense the Seventy-eighth Psalm is a story. Canaan represents heaven, and the wilderness represents all the trials and temptations that each one of us has to go through in order to get to heaven, in order to regenerate, in order to form a heavenly character. It is our life story, and that is why it is a parable. It is really not about the Israelites at all. It is not about Sinai. It is not about the Red Sea; it is not about thirst for water; but it is about our famishing for truth and it is about the giving of truth through Moses, that is the Divine Law when he struck the rock. The rock represented the Lord the stone which the builders rejected which became the head of the corner. And the manna like the bread of the Holy Supper represents the Divine goodness through which man's character is formed. So, when we enter into the story of that wilderness journey, we see that it is indeed a parable, that it is indeed a dark saying of old, but not in the letter. He could not possibly have meant that it was a dark saying of old in the letter!

There are many other passages in the Old Testament which might be brought forward, but let us hasten to see what the Lord Himself says in the New Testament about seeking for a deeper meaning in the Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, when He had called his disciples unto Him overlooking the Sea of Galilee, He said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matt. 5:17)

The word "fulfill" has changed its meaning in the three hundred years since the King James scholars translated it. If I say that I will meet you tomorrow morning at ten o'clock, and I meet you that morning at ten o'clock, I have fulfilled my promise to you. That is what we usually think of when we say the word "fulfill". But the word here that the Lord uses in the Greek, and is translated "fulfill", means to fill it up to the very brim, to fill it as full as possible that is, to fill the letter full of a spiritual sense. The forms of the law and the prophets were hard and unyielding. For example: "Thou shalt not kill", "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", "Thou shalt not commit adultery." These statements had become narrow and inflexible, and they meant just one thing, and that was the literal meaning. The Lord said, "I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill." The ten commandments were not to be abrogated or abolished, but He came to fill them full of a new meaning, a meaning which was in them already from the beginning, but which man no longer could see.

The Lord said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, 'Thou shalt not kill' . . . But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment." He put anger and all hatred, all unfriendliness and unkindness as included in the fuller meaning of the word "murder" or "killing". Again He said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." In this way He makes unchastity to be of the heart, and of the thought. He makes the commandment not just a literal injunction but He fills it full of a spiritual meaning.

Again He says, "Ye have heard that it bath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." (Matt. 5:38-41) Here He fills the old Hebrew concept of crude justice with a loftier meaning, showing with His own words how there is a spiritual sense in the words that He quotes from the Old Testament.

In the Gospel of Luke we read of those two disciples who were walking along the road with Jesus unbeknownst, and thinking that it was strange that this traveler did not know what had happened at Jerusalem, how Christ had been crucified. But as they moved along the road, the Lord, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, unfolded into their wondering ears the things in all the Scriptures concerning Himself. We often wonder why this priceless conversation was not recorded. We would love to have heard it. But I think that in the New Church we can say that it was recorded; because throughout the Arcana Coelestia, in the internal sense in the highest sense, the inmost sense it does tell us all the things in the Word concerning the Lord. And it is told of these disciples after He had left them, that their hearts had burned as He talked to them by the way and opened the Scriptures before their wondering eyes; showing what was contained within the literal sense. He withdrew the veil and let them peer within, just as the veil of the temple had been rent in twain at the time of the crucifixion. For everything from Moses through the Prophets in its inmost sense dealt with His glorification!

Before His crucifixion the Lord had said to His disciples, "Verily I say unto you, many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things that ye see and have not seen them, and to hear those things that ye hear, and have not heard them." (Matt. 13:17) "Why do ye not understand my speech?" He asked the Pharisees, "because ye cannot hear my word." (John 8:43) They heard His words quite clearly, but they did not see anything in them beyond the literal meaning. When He had stood up in the synagogue in Capernaum, after He had fed the five thousand, He said to the Jews, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." (John 6:53) It was just too much for His hearers. They said, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" (John 6:5 2) "This is a hard saying who can hear it?" (John 6:60) And they turned their backs on Him. This great multitude that He had fed in the wilderness the day before, deserted Him when He told them that His flesh was meat indeed, and His blood was drink indeed.

We too are turning our backs if we think that there is nothing but a literal sense to the Word. For the Lord did not and could not give His disciples His Palestine flesh to eat, nor His Palestine blood to drink, but He gave them what was represented by His flesh, which was Divine Goodness, and what was represented by His blood, which was the Divine Truth. The Lord was speaking according to correspondences, and in such a way that His words could not be understood unless the spiritual sense was seen in them.

And the Lord went on to say, "It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63) Here He Himself interprets the real meaning. His "words" were His very blood that they were to drink and they are spirit and they are life. Paul later said, "The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life." (II Corinthians 3:6) There are many passages from Paul's Epistles that show that he insisted to the early Christians that the Scriptures were to be taken spiritually. To give one or two examples, Paul said that Abraham had two sons, one born of a bondwoman, Hagar, namely Ishmael, and the other born of a freewoman, Sarah, namely Isaac. And Paul explained, "Which things are an allegory." (Galatians 4:24) An allegory is a story with an inner meaning. This was an allegory, for the son born of the bondwoman was the Jewish Church and the son born of the freewoman represented the Christian Church. Paul shows also that to be truly a Jew one must have the principles of Christianity, and to be really circumcised was to have the heart circumcised that is to make the sacrifices necessary to a Christian life. Thus, in his own way, he points to the spiritual meaning of those things in the Old Testament.

Let us look now at the last Book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, called the Apocalypse. If it did not have a spiritual sense, it would be quite meaningless. However, if we search the Church fathers beginning in the Second Century of the Christian Era, we find that men often admitted that there was a spiritual sense and searched for it. The famous scholar, Mosheim, was opposed to the idea of a spiritual interpretation, but as a historian he had to admit that many early church fathers and other scholars all the way down the ages to the time of the Reformation by Luther believed in a spiritual interpretation.


In this chapter I have set forth: First, that the Word calls itself the Word of God. Second, that this Word is to the word of man as the works of God are to the works of man, consequently infinite in its inner implications. Third, that both the Old and the New Testament exhort us to look for a deeper sense, and this is followed by the exhortation of the Apostles and later by the early Church fathers to look for an early return of Christ. In the next chapter I shall endeavor to show that there is a Divine law by which the spiritual sense is to be found that the search for it need not be a guessing game or a puzzle. To illustrate: truth corresponds to water. The correspondential meanings are not merely attributes assigned by Swedenborg through clever surmise, but they have been revealed to him through Divine inspiration.

In the chapters which follow I hope to show you that there is a law which emanates from the Lord as the spiritual sun, and which is as fixed, as unchanging, and as dependable as the laws ruling the natural world which emanate from the sun of the natural world. Just as the sun of the natural world with its heat and light are the origin of all the forces of nature, so the sun of the spiritual world with its love and wisdom are the origin of all of the forces of the spiritual world.

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