By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 2, 2002
The river watering Eden
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was
separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is Pishon; it winds
through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land
is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there. The name of the second river is
Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is
Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the
The river of life flowing from
Then the angel showed me the pure river of the water of life,
as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the
middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree
of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the
leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be
any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his
servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their
foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp
or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will
reign forever and ever.
The angel said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true.
The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his
servants the things that must soon take place."
"Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the words
of the prophecy in this book."
Apocalypse Revealed #932
The symbolism of the river of
"And he showed me a pure river of water of life, as clear as
crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb." This symbolizes
Revelation now opened and explained in its spiritual meaning, where the Lord
reveals abundant divine truth for those who will be in his new church, which is
the New Jerusalem. "The pure river of water of life, as clear as crystal"
symbolizes the divine truth of the Bible in abundance, translucent from its
spiritual sense, which is in the light of heaven.
Then the angel showed me the pure river of the water of
life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down
the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the
tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And
the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1,
Here we are at the end of another church year. It doesn't seem
so long ago that we were at the very beginning of the Bible, studying the
creation story in Genesis. And now we are at the very end of the Bible,
in the last chapter of the last book: Revelation. This book has been mysterious
and perplexing throughout the nearly two thousand years since it was first
written. There have been many attempts to explain its symbolism. And the mere
fact that its language is so obviously symbolic has helped to keep alive the
idea that there are deeper meanings in the Bible through a very literalistic
period of our spiritual history.
Today, the reigning view throughout most of Christendom is that
the primary meaning in the Bible is the plain meaning of the words--what we
Swedenborgians call the "literal sense." Many people on the conservative end of
the Christian spectrum even go so far as to flatly deny that there is any
deeper, spiritual meaning in the Word of God. They insist that the Bible is
literally true as it stands, and must be read and believed in literally. Yet
even they have a hard time maintaining this hard-line literalist stance in the
face of many of the symbolic images used in the book of Revelation--as I have
discovered in various conversations with evangelical Christians.
What they probably do not realize is that this literalistic
view of Scripture is a relatively late arrival on the Christian scene.
Throughout most of the history of Christianity, up to the time of the Protestant
Reformation, it was simply assumed that there were deeper, spiritual meanings in
the Bible. The question was not whether such meanings existed, but how to
get at them. And the arguments were over various different interpretations put
forward by various Christian teachers.
The problem was that no one came up with a consistent and
convincing method of interpretation to arrive at the spiritual meaning of the
Bible. Also, the idea of allegorical meanings different from the literal meaning
became increasingly abused by some theologians to justify certain Catholic
doctrines and practices that the Protestant reformers came to see as contrary to
genuine Christian faith and life.
Unfortunately, in seeking to purify the church from these
wrongs, the Reformation theologians threw the baby out with the bathwater,
altogether rejecting the idea of spiritual meanings in the Bible. The current
literalism that exists in a large segment of the Christian Church is the result
of this over-reaction to the misuse of symbolic interpretation of the
Scriptures. And though the literalists claim that theirs is the only true way to
read the Bible, it developed as a serious alternative to spiritual
interpretations only in the last five hundred years of Christianity's two
thousand year history.
In other words, Biblical literalism has no historical claim to
being the original and true way of interpreting the Bible. Just the opposite. In
reviving the belief that the Bible has a spiritual meaning, Emanuel Swedenborg
was simply returning the Bible to its original high status as a book that
reaches up to God through many levels of meaning.
What Swedenborg added that had been missing throughout all the
centuries of Christianity was a consistent, reasonable, and universal means of
interpreting the Bible to arrive at its deeper meanings. Swedenborg's
interpretations of Scripture--and of the world of nature as well--rest on a
system of symbolism that he called "correspondences."
Rather than being arbitrary and based on guesswork, as previous
methods of Bible interpretation had been, Swedenborg taught that these
correspondences were based on a living relationship between the physical and the
spiritual worlds, and between the spiritual world and God. The universe, he
said, is an expression of the nature of God, and every single thing in it
expresses some particular attribute or aspect of God. So when we look out at the
world of nature, we are looking at a physical manifestation of the Creator.
Correspondences are the key that unlock the relationship between the physical
world and the spiritual world, and enable us to see what each thing in the
physical world says about its Creator.
If this is true of the world of nature that God has created,
how much more must it be true of the Word of God! Every Christian recognizes
that the Bible is where God tells us who he is and what he is like. Swedenborg
simply brings this belief to its logical conclusion, stating that every chapter,
every verse, every word of Scripture, in its spiritual meaning, reveals
something specific about the nature of God. We no longer have to grope in the
dark to understand why the Bible contains all those wars, strange rituals of
animal sacrifice, mysterious prophecies, and many seemingly irrelevant stories.
All yield to us deeper meanings that are spiritual, personal, and practical at
the same time.
This very knowledge of the deeper meanings of Scripture is,
Swedenborg says, "the pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God."
We are living in the times described by the book of Revelation.
The battles that take place in that book are not literal battles, but spiritual
ones. The entire vision was seen by John not in the material world, but in the
spiritual world. And the battles of truth versus falsity, good versus evil are
going on all around us in the world today. Materialism is battling against
spiritual values--which, in turn, are defending God and spirit against the
onslaught of materialism and secularism, seeking to lift humanity up to a higher
Good and evil are also battling it out within the very walls of
the Christian Church. Our news media gives us continual revelations of evil and
destructive practices in various branches of the Christian Church. Evils that
had in some cases been going on for centuries, the knowledge of which was
suppressed or denied by the church, are now coming out into the light of day.
And the battles to overcome those evils are taking place in the courtroom as
well as in the organization of the church.
Yet in the midst of all the conflict and turmoil of our times,
something beautiful and clear is flowing. Whether we realize it or not, the
river of life is already flowing from the throne of God into our world. In fact,
the river of clear, spiritual understanding and truth that is flowing more and
more strongly into our world is the underlying source of our society's ability
to penetrate more and more deeply into the true nature of humanity and all its
institutions, exposing ancient evils so that they can be faced and overcome.
We can fight against and overcome the evils of humanity only
when we see them. And though the evening news may seem depressing with its
continual litany of conflict, war, greed, and oppression, the very knowledge of
those wrongs in our society begins to put the tools in our hands that we can use
to overcome them.
The same is true in our individual lives. We often hear it said
that "people are so materialistic these days," and "this is the Me generation."
Some have argued that this is the most selfish and materialistic culture that
has ever lived. And yet, haven't these twin evils been in the human heart since
the dawn of recorded history? Our history is the history of human conquest and
oppression, of greed and lust for power. And all this history is simply the
aggregate of millions of individuals who have lived for themselves rather than
for their neighbor. Though the outward forms of politeness have held through
some parts of our history, when push came to shove, people went for their own
power and gain, and their governments expressed that through making war with
those who stood in the way.
This is not the most selfish generation. But perhaps it is the
first generation in which the external restraints on our behavior have been
relaxed enough so that what was really in the human heart all along is finally
showing its ugly head. Human technology has advanced our ability to control
nature and generate wealth to an extent that has never existed in the history of
human civilization. It used to be that only the minuscule part of the population
that happened to be the ruling class could aspire to great wealth and luxury.
Now anyone can aspire to that. There are more "self-made millionaires" alive
today--many of whom came out of very humble circumstances--than there have ever
been before. And in our culture, even ordinary middle-class people can aspire to
greater income and physical luxuries.
It is not the human heart that has changed in our culture.
Rather, it is the ability of the human heart to go after its desires. And now we
are seeing more clearly what has been in the human heart all along. Complaining
about the selfishness and materialism of our culture is beside the point. Of
course humans are selfish and materialistic; they have been throughout all
recorded history. What is new is that we are now clearly realizing that.
And further, we are gradually coming to the conclusion that it is not
good to be selfish and materialistic--that there are higher values that we
humans could and should strive for.
Those higher values are the river of the water of life, clear
as crystal, flowing out from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The crystal
clear water of divine truth is flowing out into our world in a way that has
never existed before. As it does so, it is showing the true nature of human
society and the human heart. It is showing what has existed spiritually all
along, but our eyes were too dim to see it.
This is not something to be lamented, but something to be
celebrated! At last the scales are falling from our eyes, and we are seeing our
true situation! At last we can see clearly, and make a thoughtful, intentional
choice about which way we wish our culture, and our individual lives, to go. At
last we can decide our future, rather than simply following the inexorable
course of human history. The clear water of divine truth puts the power in our
hands to make our future different that it otherwise would be. It gives us the
insight and the strength to face the evils in our society and in ourselves, and
to overcome them with the greater power of God's divine truth.
For us as Christians, the most concentrated form of that divine
truth is found in the Word of God. And for us as Swedenborgians, that
fountainhead of divine truth, which has been stopped up so long by human
materialism and corruption, has now been broken open through the revealing of
the deeper, spiritual meaning of the Bible. Swedenborg's writings are not a new
edition of God's word. Rather, they are a message sent from God through the mind
of Swedenborg to open up what has been in the Bible all along, but was hidden
from our eyes because we were too focused on material things to look for it. As
Helen Keller said in her book My Religion, (now re-edited and in print as
Light in my Darkness) Swedenborg "did not make a new Bible, but he made
the Bible all new!"
The effects of Swedenborg's writings have suffused themselves
throughout our culture, raising the level of spiritual thinking everywhere
through many brilliant and influential people who read Swedenborg and had their
minds shaped by it, and, in turn, reshaped our society. We in this church have
the great privilege of having direct access to the source of that new
enlightenment. We have available to us the key that unlocks the floodgates that
have been blocking the flow of the divine river of life for so many
But this is much more than a privilege, with the exclusivism
that word implies. It is a responsibility. Once the truth has flowed into
our minds, it becomes our task and our mission to put that truth to work in
our lives. Truth means nothing if it is mere intellectual knowledge. It has
meaning only when it changes our lives. It has meaning only when we become
better, kinder, more loving and thoughtful people from knowing it.
Planted by the river of life is the tree of life,
bearing its fruit every month. We who are planted by that river must also
continually bear fruits of love and kindness. Amen.
Memory of Trees by Enya