Wednesday, January 1, 1996

Last week, I mentioned in passing that there are at least five theophanies-accounts of appearances of

God-in Scripture that follow a particular pattern, ending with a commission. Two of these involve

prophetic calls: the call of Isaiah, found in Isaiah 6, and the somewhat less familiar call of

Ezekiel, found in the first two chapters of Ezekiel. This morning, I want to look only at the first

chapter of Ezekiel, where we are told of the setting, the vision itself, and very briefly, of

Ezekiel's initial response; and I want to attend primarily to its spiritual meaning.

By way of introduction, I would observe that Swedenborg offers some very good advice which he rarely

takes. That is, he tells us that the most natural and effective order of learning is from generals to

particulars (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 18023, 30573, 3810, 4269, 4345, 53392, 6115, 6751)-"For so long as

the generals are not known, the singulars of the same thing cannot fall into any light . . ." (Arcana

Coelestia 4269). In the Arcana, though, he plunges immediately into detail, offering only the briefest

overview in paragraphs 6-13. Such disciples as John Clowes and Henry MacLagan followed suit with

commentaries that proceed verse by verse. I would single out William Bruce as one who took a more

contextual approach, and George DeCharms as one who wrote an exegesis of the entire Old Testament, but

the fact remains that the favored approach has been that of trying to build a larger picture out of

details. This morning, I should like to offer an attempt to follow Swedenborg's advice rather than his


We begin by looking at where the book of Ezekiel comes in the overall story of "the Word." Clearly, it

comes at one of the lowest points. Think for a moment of what has happened. Long ago, there had been a

promise to Abram that his descendants would become a great nation. On the strength of that promise,

Abram had left home; and gradually, over the generations and over the centuries, the promise had moved

toward fulfillment. Finally, under David, it happened. The promised land was occupied, the enemies

were defeated, the capital was established at Jerusalem. The initial promise was replaced by a new

one, that the house or dynasty of David would last forever.

It lasted for over four hundred years-more than twice the age of our own nation-but eventually outer

pressure and inner corruption took their toll and the impossible happened. The city that was to stand

forever and the temple that was the house of the almighty God of heaven and earth were in ruins, and

the people of the land were exiles, captives in the heathen city of Babylon. Ezekiel's book opens with

the statement that he was "among the captives by the river of Chebar . . . in the fifth year of king

Jehoiachin's captivity," conjuring up thoughts of total disaster, of absolute hopelessness. Imagine

that Hitler had won.

It is not difficult to see a general spiritual state reflected in this situation, a state which we

could describe simply as the total failure of a treasured promise. In perhaps the most familiar and

healthy pattern of human development, we begin life surrounded by a sense of promise. Our parents have

high hopes for us, and we have high hopes for ourselves. We enter adulthood with visions of future

happiness and success. Whether we attain our external goals or not, the fact is that external success

cannot satisfy internal needs. The Lord is trying to prepare us for citizenship in heaven, and that

means weaning us away from attachment to material rewards.

We can see people who resist this pressure. We can see people who strive for perpetual youth or cling

to positions of influence, men-and increasingly, women-whose lives lose meaning after retirement, men

and women who cannot let go of parenthood. We can see how futile this is, how sad it is especially in

contrast with the lives of people who accept the message, who grow in affection and wisdom with the


This is reflected in the Biblical story by the fact that the captivity is not a dead end. It does mark

the effective end of the earthly kingdom, but in the Gospels we find the Lord coming to announce the

coming of the kingdom of heaven. In both literal and spiritual senses, then, the captivity is part of

a transition of level. It is, if you will, a kind of darkness between discrete degrees, perhaps

represented by the tunnel many have found in near death experiences, between this world and the next.

It is also a time of turmoil. When we move from the books of Kings to the books of the prophets in the

Bible, we move from reasonably coherent narrative to a welter of prophetic messages. We lose any sense

of sequence. This is entirely appropriate as an image of a total loss of bearings when the security of

material accomplishment seems to collapse, when dreams turn into nightmares. The messages seem to come

at us one after another with no rational connection, no sense of development or direction. We


The Book of Ezekiel comes in the middle of this dark period, after Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations,

before Daniel and the twelve Minor Prophets. In my Teacher's Bible, at the first chapter of Ezekiel

there are one hundred and twenty-five pages back to the first chapter of Isaiah, and one hundred and

twenty-one pages ahead to the end of Malachi. At this midpoint, then, comes a particularly strange and

elusive vision.

To keep proceeding from generals to particulars, we have first the setting, the when and where. Then

we have a description with four main components: the creatures, the wheels, the firmament, and the

throne. Finally, we have Ezekiel's reaction to what he has seen. Let us look at this sequence in

general terms before attending to some of the details.

The setting is, of course, a particular time during the captivity and a particular place, "by the

river Chebar." In his comments on the nature of the spiritual sense, Swedenborg regularly urges

attention to the "series," and he makes it quite clear that the opening of a series sets the tone for

everything that follows (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 88643). What we have already said about the captivity as

an image of being overcome by a sense of failure, then, needs to be underscored. When the opening

verses name this state, we may envision ourselves as facing up to the fact that we are overcome by a

feeling of hopelessness. It is no longer a hidden current in our lives, it has come to the surface and

been named.

The vision stands out all the more startlingly against this gloomy background. The opening tone is one

of intense energy and brightness-a whirlwind full of fire and brightness, that resolves itself into

four quite unearthly creatures. Clearly, the veil of the physical world is pierced through. The

corresponding event in our own experience would have to be some unexpected, striking glimpse of deeper

meaning in the outward events that have been oppressing us. Correspondentially speaking, the focus on

faces points to an awareness of deeper qualities shining through (Arcana Coelestia 358) and the focus

on wings to the raising of consciousness to the level of spiritual truths (Arcana Coelestia 8764).

The next major image is that of the wheels. Swedenborg interprets the wheel as symbolizing what we

might call the motive force of "doctrinal things" (Arcana Coelestia 8215). This is particularly

significant against the background of captivity, that is, at a time when we seem to be floundering,

with no sense of progress. It is not just a matter of motion per se, but of a sense of actual

direction, going "straight forward," which is where the "doctrinal things" come in as necessary

guides. To put it very bluntly, if in this kind of state we begin to understand that we are being

weaned from a preoccupation with relatively external values, then the chaos begins to make sense.

At this point, though, it is not a full fledged interpretation, but only a suggestion of sense.

Ezekiel is having trouble describing what he has seen. He talks about "the appearance" of this and

"the likeness" of that, and even of "the appearance of the likeness." In more colloquial language, he

is telling is that "this is sort of kind of what it looked like." The sense of a complexity beyond

literal description is very accurately caught in an idiom derived from these verses, the image of

"wheels within wheels." We are just beginning to perceive that there is a meaning within the chaos.

It lies deeper than we had suspected, and we are a long way from being able to articulate it.

Above the creatures and the wheels, there is a "firmament"-something solid but, in this case at least,

transparent. There is something there that we can see through but cannot pass through.

Above this is a throne. There is "the likeness as the appearance of a man" upon it, something that

seems to be in human form, but the dominant theme of these descriptions is not so much the human form

as it is the radiance. Beyond our grasp, but not totally beyond our perception, there is a glory, a

glory so potent that our self-concern is obliterated-the prophet falls on his face.

Let us review this sequence briefly before looking at some of the details. We are talking about a time

of profound discouragement. Once we face it, once we name it, the internal chaos begins to brighten.

There is an elusive sense of deeper meaning which suggests that we are actually getting somewhere, and

finally there is a sense that over and above all of this there is a divine being of incomparable

perfection, a being before whom our self-concern seems petty.

How do the details fit into this pattern? There is time only to run through some of them rather

rapidly, but theoretically, when we grasp the generals, we "easily and apparently spontaneously . . .

grasp the particulars of the generals, and the singulars of the particulars, which are confirmatory .

. ." (Arcana Coelestia 18023).

First of all, there are the numbers. The vision came in the thirtieth year. Swedenborg interprets

thirty as a multiple of five, meaning "a little," and six, referring to the labor of temptation combat

(Arcana Coelestia 2276, 5335), so the overall mood, the "year," would be one of low-key struggle. The

"four" of the fourth month could refer either to "conjunction" (Arcana Coelestia 1686) as a multiple

of twos or to "temptation" as a factor of forty (Arcana Coelestia 1856), with the latter seeming the

more probable. The "five" which applies both to the day and to the year of captivity again connotes "a

little," so the whole picture is one of inner conflict and low energy. This happens in "Chaldea," a

state in which an outward order is maintained that is at odds with a dominant inner self-concern, that

is, of "profanation of truth" (Arcana Coelestia 1368).

The whirlwind is a vivid image of the inrush of the spirit, of life energy from an unseen source

beyond ourselves (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 8286). As mentioned, the faces picture the manifestation of

internal qualities and the wings picture the elevation of our thoughts. It is intriguing that the

first perception of quality is of "straight feet," like a calf's foot, with the color of brass. This

pictures the awareness that there is a foundation of simple outward goodness (Arcana Coelestia

101322), that the effort to behave decently is critical to the successful negotiation of this life


The creatures themselves present a kind of catalogue of the qualities which the process is designed to

nurture. First and foremost is the human face, the image of God. Then on the right there is the face

of a lion, picturing the power of love when it operates through a genuine understanding of what is

going on (Arcana Coelestia 6367); on the left there is the ox-a grown-up calf-of outward reliability

(Arcana Coelestia 2781); and finally, presumably behind, there is the eagle of rational acuity (Arcana

Coelestia 3901). The latter three are components of the first. We can imagine a kind of diagnosis, an

identification of the particular attributes that need to be emphasized at this juncture. There are

underlying good intentions, and they can be effective if they are united to honest perceptions. We do

need to maintain an adult practice of responsibility, and we do need to look at our situation as

clearly as we can, from as lofty a perspective as we can attain.

Perhaps we can get a sense of the import of this if we think again of the state of captivity. When

everything we have worked for seems either to be escaping our grasp or losing its worth, there can be

any number of responses. We may try to keep up appearances, we may look for scapegoats, we may search

for programs that offer solutions, we may resort to one or another of the countless forms of escapism

that our affluent society offers. Chaldea might be interpreted as a state of feeling sorry for

ourselves. Ezekiel's vision pictures a time when we stop looking outside and down and start looking

within, and above.

The climax of this section of the vision comes with the statement that the creatures are moved by the

spirit, and that the color of the whole scene is that of coals of fire. As regards "the spirit,"

Swedenborg's first reference to it is in Arcana Coelestia 19, in connection with the spirit that was

hovering over the surface of the primal deep, and it is taken as symbolic of "divine mercy." More

broadly, the spirit is life, with a particular emphasis on life as nurtured by divine truth (Arcana

Coelestia 9987). When we add the meaning of "coals of fire" as "the heavenly quality of love," we are

being told that the whole tone of the experience is one of beauty.

Again, the significance of this may stand out only by contrast with possible alternatives. Sometimes

the vision of what we ought to be seems impossibly remote, sometimes it seems forbidding. This is a

time when it appeals to our hearts, when it evokes thoughts of appreciative understandings and loving

relationships. The flashes of lightning and the comparison with lamps suggest particular insights,

fleeting hints of clarity.

The next section focuses on the wheels. As noted, these suggest an awareness that the process is

actually getting somewhere. It may be fanciful, but I cannot help thinking that wheels combine two

features of the state of captivity. One is the feeling of going around in circles, and the other is

the actuality of progress. "When the living creatures were lifted up, the wheels were lifted up": that

is, as we begin to value, to "elevate," the qualities that make us truly human (that is, angelic), the

circles become spirals.

There is another dimension of this section, though, that I think is equally important. The image of a

"wheel in the middle of a wheel," like the tone of the section in general, suggests a complexity, an

elusiveness. There are things going on within the things that are going on. The process is more

intricate than we had suspected. We seem to have a little glimpse of what is happening behind the

scenes, and we find it radically interactive.

Here we might look at contemporary "chaos theory," which is really misnamed. What chaos theory deals

with is the discovery of order within events so complex that they seem random. For example, a very

simple pattern superimposed on itself time after time after time can generate a picture that looks

surprisingly flowing and natural. The bewildering complexities of the sound waves of human speech can

be resolved into simple sine waves, again superimposed on each other.

In the case of Ezekiel's vision, we are not talking about that kind of clarity, about reaching a

mathematical analysis of a complex situation. We are talking, though, about enough of a glimpse of

order that we are convinced that the experience makes sense, coupled with a realization that the sense

it makes is too intricate for us to grasp with any real confidence.

This may serve to bring us to the next feature, the firmament, the color of "terrible crystal."

"Crystal" occurs especially in the vision of the Holy City as a symbol of divine truth shining through

(Cf. The Apocalypse Revealed 897). Sometimes spiritual meaning shines through the literal sense of

Scripture-a passage lights up for us. A connection that may be more to the point, though, comes when

we look at the states we pass through after death as described in Heaven and Hell. What happens is

that we gradually lose the ability to keep up a facade, that we ourselves become transparent. There is

certainly a scary aspect to this: it is in some ways a "terrible crystal." On the other hand, it

represents an ultimate deliverance from the terrible necessity of keeping up a pretense and from the

constant insecurity of not knowing what is going on under the surface.

The transition from the firmament to the throne above the firmament is intriguing in that we shift

from the visual to the auditory. The noise of the wings, like the noise of great waters or the noise

of an army, presumably ceases when the creatures let down their wings, and a voice is heard from above

the firmament.

In Arcana Coelestia 60154, Swedenborg comments on a mention in Jeremiah (47:3) of the "noise of

wheels," interpreting it as an image of "sensory things and their fallacies." The noise of the wings

of the four creatures, then, would refer to the outward confusion, the unintelligibility of sensory

signals that we recognize once we begin to grasp what is going on internally. We have been trying to

organize our lives around relatively materialistic values, pushing things to make them fit, trying to

convince ourselves that what we needed was some particular measure of recognition or prosperity (the

"honor and gain" of the Standard Edition). Now we begin to hear those signals as the meaningless

static that they actually are; and once we stop listening to them, we can hear the voice, the

intelligible message, of a higher truth.

The passage then returns to visual imagery, probably signalling a shift from the relatively emotional

sensation of hearing to the more intellectual one of seeing, and what is seen is first of all a throne

resting on the firmament. The throne, as a symbol of royal government, is an apt symbol of "the divine

truth that proceeds from the Lord and makes heaven" (Arcana Coelestia 68324). In other words,

everything is under control, under a single, central control. The sapphire quality of the throne is a

symbol of translucence, of deeper meaning shining through, and then (to use the KJV), "upon the

likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it."

As has often been the case recently, I think of the accounts of near-death experiences in which there

is an encounter with a "being of light" who is felt rather than seen to be human. It is significant, I

think, that Ezekiel's description does not dwell on this human appearance, but turns immediately to

the color, the fire, the brightness, the rainbow. All of these are images of intense love and radiant

truth. The rainbow in particular is a marvelous image of the beauty of spiritual truth when it shines

through the clouds of literalism. This. Ezekiel tells us, was "the appearance of the likeness of the

glory of the Lord." He fell on his face, and heard a voice that spoke: that is, our self-concern is

annihilated, and we become receptive to what the Lord wants to tell us.

I want to close by returning to generalizations. The overall pattern is one of deeper meaning breaking

through to our consciousness in a time of "low energy struggle" which nowadays might be labeled

"sub-clinical depression." There is a gift of grace, a glimpse of the power and beauty of spirit. The

clear intent of this gift is to call us out of our captivity to outward appearances-as the second

chapter will make awfully clear, to name and to face our actual enemies, the enemies within.

What strikes me particularly about this vision, though, is the elusiveness of the human aspect of the

Divine. Our theology has a lot to say about "the Divine Human," and Swedenborg insists that the Lord

came in human form because we need an intelligible object of worship. The Divine as it is in itself is

beyond our comprehension. Ezekiel's vision seems to portray a time when a sense of this

incomprehensibility is particularly strong, when the finite human image is almost, but not quite,

obliterated by the radiance of the infinite. Perhaps this is "the Divine" of the opening sections of

Divine Love and Wisdom, a reminder that there is an invisible God within and beyond the human figure

we worship.

contact phil at for any problems or comments