PROPHET VS. POLITICIAN: LETTER AND SPIRIT
Wednesday, January 1, 1996
Location - FNCA 1996
There has been, over the centuries, a lot of argument about the Bible. Often, it has involved a
perceived conflict between claims that the Bible is a divine revelation, the Word of God, and the
experience that much of what it actually says seems embarrassingly human, not divine at all. In
current liberation theology, for example, there is immense discomfort with the main theme of the book
of Joshua, where God is portrayed as mandating a war of conquest, the virtual extermination of
Canaanites whose only sin was fidelity to the "wrong" religion. There are serious proposals that what
"actually happened" was a relatively peaceful uprising of oppressed peasants. One contemporary
introduction to the Old Testament sees the period of the Judges as the ideal time, portraying it as a
kind of egalitarian cooperative society. It actually labels the monarchy as "Israel's
It seems awfully clear that while the motives for such interpretation may be laudable, the
interpretation itself amounts to a rewriting of Scripture. What emerges is not the picture given by
the text, with all its violence, but a sanitized story of noble people striving for lofty goals. I'm
coming to think of this as the Horatio Alger school of Biblical scholarship, in which the primary need
is seen to be for inspiring stories in which the good guys are really good, and in which they win.
Surely, though, there is at least a remote possibility that the Word of God might portray human nature
and behavior more realistically. People have believed that God was calling them to wars of conquest.
They still do. The Crusaders went forth in the spirit of Joshua. Hitler believed that in his effort to
annihilate the Jews, he was bringing to a triumphant conclusion the process that Jesus had started.
Christian missionaries saw it as their duty to wipe out the heathen practices of native Americans, and
it is not that long ago that any Indian ritual ceremony was in violation of Federal law. Century after
century gives evidence of our genius for believing that our will is the will of God; so perhaps we
should not fault the Bible for illustrating that so clearly.
What I am suggesting is that we regard the Bible as recording the efforts of human beings to cope with
their world, and that the inspiration of the Bible rests in the fact that those efforts were
"inspired"-that is, animated-by the Lord. Those efforts were inspired just as ours are because both
our ability and our will to understand are gifts from the Divine. What is special about the Bible is
that the story leads to the coming of the Lord and on to the descent of the Holy City. It is a story
of change, with some profoundly distressing episodes along the way. The Lord's intentions are at times
radically misunderstood-and the Lord never gives up.
All this is by way of preface to a proposal that what we find reflected in the prophets is a major
reinterpretation of Israel's history, in the literal sense, and of our own life histories in the
spiritual sense. In fact, of course, most of the prophets lived during the period covered by the books
of Kings, but as we read Scripture consecutively, they follow that period. What I want to do, then, is
to look at standards of good and evil in the books of Kings and contrast them with standards we find
in the prophets.
It needs first of all to be said that the focus of the books of Kings is on the behavior of the kings
themselves. Most of the time, not much is said about the people, except as their behavior directly
affects the king. Then it needs to be noted that beginning with the divided kingdom, the reign of
almost every king is evaluated at its close-something which is not done, incidentally, for Saul or for
David or for Solomon. The kings of Judah, the southern kingdom, are a mixed lot, with Hezekiah,
Azariah, and Josiah coming in for particular praise and Rehoboam and Abijam, for example, receiving
nothing but censure; but none of the kings of the northern kingdom, Israel, is faultless.
The prime focus of the judgments passed is on purity of worship. Hezekiah is praised because he
"removed the high places and broke the images and cut down the groves and smashed the brass serpent
that Moses had made, for in those days the Israelites were burning incense to it." Amaziah of Judah
"did what was right in the Lord's sight," but did not live up to David's high standard because "the
high places were not taken away, people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places." Much
the same is said of his son Azariah, the "Uzziah" whose death is associated with Isaiah's call. It
takes a full chapter, though, to recount the virtues of Josiah. He repaired the temple, destroyed all
the vessels used for the worship of Baal, deposed the priests who were burning incense on the high
places, destroyed the high places themselves, destroyed the altar that Jeroboam had erected at Bethel,
executed the priests of the high places of Samaria, and "put away" the mediums and the magicians, just
to offer a quick overview. Nothing is said about domestic or foreign policy, though these clearly
involve decisions where the Lord's will should be sought and obeyed.
When we turn to the kings of Israel, we find a repeated theme centering in the same criterion of
purity of worship . It is particularly obvious in the case of Jehu, the king anointed by Elisha. Jehu
overthrew the dynasty of Omri, the dynasty that had introduced the worship of Baal, and slaughtered
the whole royal house. He called a great festival of worshipers of Baal, and then slaughtered them.
However, we are told, "from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin, Jehu did
not depart," and in this he followed the example of all his northern predecessors.
"The sin of Jeroboam," according to the twelfth chapter of First Kings, was to set up golden calves at
Bethel and at Dan so that people would not go up to Jerusalem, where worship included an insistence
that God had chosen the house of David to rule forever. There is no suggestion that these altars at
Bethel and Dan were altars to Baal or to any other god, and in fact it is abundantly clear that Jehu,
for example, was a loyal worshiper of the Lord. His one problem, the one blot on his record, was that
he worshiped the Lord in the wrong place. This is the issue raised in Deuteronomy-and only there.
It is worth noting that the temple in Jerusalem was not without images. In addition to the cherubim,
the great laver in the outer court stood upon twelve brass oxen, and there were lions and oxen and
cherubim carved on the capitals of the columns. Clearly, the command not to make any graven image of
anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth was understood as a
prohibition of idolatry rather than as a prohibition of religious art. The essence of "Jeroboam's sin"
was much more political than it was iconographic or devotional.
When we turn to the prophets, things are different-startlingly so. Bear in mind that in the books of
Kings national security is seen to depend on the centralization of sacrificial worship in the temple
at Jerusalem, and listen to some familiar words from the first chapter of Isaiah.
" What is the point of all your sacrifices to me?" says the Lord. "I am full of burnt
offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. I have no delight in the blood of
bullocks or of lambs of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required
this of you in order to tread my courts? Bring no more pointless offerings. Incense
is an abomination to me. I cannot stand your new moons and sabbaths, the calling of
assemblies. Away with them! Even the most solemn gathering is iniquity. My soul
hates your new moons and your appointed feasts. They are a vexation to me, I am tired
of putting up with them.
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. When you make many prayers, I will not
So much for the effort of all the "good kings," for the reforms of Josiah. Isaiah goes on to declare
where the emphasis should be:
Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your deeds
from before my eyes. Cease to do evil; learn to do well. Seek judgment. Relieve the oppressed, judge
the fatherless, plead for the widow.
The seventh chapter of Jeremiah offers the same message with equal intensity. The prophet is told to
stand at the entrance of the temple and proclaim it to the people who are coming in to worship the
Do not trust in lying words, saying "This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The
temple of the Lord!" If you thoroughly amend your ways and your actions, if you thoroughly ensure
justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger or the fatherless or the
widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place or walk after other gods to your own detriment,
then I will cause you to dwell for ever and ever in this place, in the land that I gave to your
Behold, you are trusting in lying words, words that can do you no good. Will you steal, murder, and
commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do
not know, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say "We are
licensed to do all these obscenities?" Has this house which is called by my name become a hideout for
robbers in your eyes?
The contrast with the books of Kings is not absolute. Haggai, who prophesied after the return from
exile, could be cited as an exception. He berated his listeners for neglecting the rebuilding of the
temple in order to put their resources into building their own houses. The condemnations of idolatry
and of the worship of other gods occur frequently in the prophets. In the books of Kings, Ahab and
Jezebel are condemned not only for their sponsorship of the worship of Baal but for their abuse of
power in the murder of Naboth and the theft of his vineyard. However, justice is a very minor theme in
the historical account of the Divided Kingdom; and in the prophets, the centralization of worship in
Jerusalem is for the most part either a non-issue or liability, a red herring.
In fact, of course, these conflicting views were simultaneous. They were as different as are the views
of the left wing and the right wing in our own times, and if we stop and think a moment, it should
come as no surprise to find that Israelites were not unanimous in their diagnosis of what was wrong or
in their programs for solving their problems. The fifty-fifty political split in modern Israel may
well have Biblical precedent. I might mention in passing that the Ebionites, the early Jewish
Christians, believed that Jesus was the second Moses foretold in Deuteronomy eighteen, and that he had
come to purify the law. This meant abolishing a temple which had from the beginning been nothing more
than a concession to Israel's penchant for idolatry, and refocusing Judaism on the ethical principles
which they saw as its heart and soul.
As I mentioned earlier, though, as we read the books of the Word in the order in which Swedenborg
lists them (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 10325), we do not experience these conflicting views simultaneously.
We move from a picture in which the centralization of worship is the dominant issue to a picture in
which ethical living is the dominant issue. In view of Swedenborg's insistence that the spiritual
sense is consecutive and that we should attend to the series of events (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 88643), I
believe this sequence must reflect something about the pattern of our own regeneration.
Looking at the overall pattern of the Biblical narrative, it makes sense to regard the establishment
of the monarchy as our own arrival at adult "independence," which would apply the period of the
Divided Kingdom to the years in which we find our idealism strained by the demands of the world we
live in. It would be idle to pretend, especially nowadays, that in most people's lives this is a
period when church attendance is regarded as the essential virtue. "The temple" of the Old Testament
must then represent whatever we attach supreme value to, the functional focus of our worship.
To be perhaps unforgivably blunt, I would suggest that the prime candidate for this position is our
very real and natural need to believe in ourselves. To make clear what I do and do not mean by this,
let me sketch three patterns of behavior which I believe will be recognizable. People with an
underlying feeling that they are worthless tend to react either by working overtime to prove to
themselves and others that they are worthwhile, or by destroying everything and everyone that
threatens to expose them. People with an underlying feeling that they are worthwhile tend to live
decent, constructive lives on the assumption that they are decent, constructive people. This
assumption is what I would propose as "the temple."
In reading the stories in the books of Kings, then, we can see reflections of a very healthy and
necessary effort to stay focused or "centered" on the best that we know. That is the task that is
before us, to be faithful to our ideals. Our need to believe in ourselves is simply an aspect of our
human condition. Together with our need for the affection and respect of others, it is a powerful
support for responsible and responsive living.
Under the surface, though, there is a strong counter-current. We know that we have a "dark side," that
we have thoughts and impulses of a very different quality. We resist them, but we do give in to them
from time to time, usually with care that they do not do perceptible harm to others. We do not want to
believe that this is the real person, so in one sense we do not really want to know who we are. There
is not the underlying feeling of worthlessness mentioned earlier, but there is and underlying
When the Lord sees that it is time, this uncertainty takes center stage. We hear the voice of the
prophet challenging the value of the structure we have built. The language of the prophet can be
violent. It is characteristically uncompromising. The fact is, of course, that if we want to
accomplish anything in this world, we do have to compromise. We drive cars that waste fossil fuels.
We subject our children to imperfect medical treatment because that is all that is available. We
support churches that are imperfect, obey laws that are imperfect-the list could go on ad infinitum.
The prophet has plenty to work with.
But this is where the years of doing our best begin to pay off. We may have been motivated more than
we realized by a belief in ourselves, but we have formed basically healthy patterns of living that are
actually fairly sturdy. The contentment of self-esteem may have evaporated, leaving the behavior
patterns empty of the satisfaction they once had, but the patterns themselves do not collapse. We may
be only going through the motions, but we tend to go through them faithfully. The tasks are done, the
bills are paid, the kids are cared for.
We are on the threshold of a major discovery, namely that what our theology calls the life of charity
is not good because it brings us the rewards of a clear conscience or a warm glow when we think about
it afterwards. That is like being given a cookie for emptying the wastebaskets, a reward that has no
intrinsic relationship to the deed. The life of charity is inherently good.
Conversely, evil is not bad because we will get caught and punished for it. The whole image of hell as
a place of punishment betrays a belief that evil would be great if we could get away with it. No, hell
is simply a place of evil, and evil is evil because it is bad for us whether we "get away with it" or
not. The question of the eternity of the hells is not, for us, really a question about the nature of
God. It is a question about ourselves, whether it is possible for us actually to prefer evil forever.
We know all too well that we can prefer it on occasion.
One of my favorite images is that of the women going to the tomb to anoint the corpse of Jesus. They
went to serve him knowing that he could do nothing for them-and they were the first to discover that
he had risen. The Lord is working to bring us to the point where we do what is right simply because it
is right, not because we couldn't live with ourselves if we did wrong, not because it is what we
expect of ourselves, not even because "we know we should," not out of any sense of self-sacrifice, but
simply for its own sake. The act itself has worth.
It is this that I would see reflected in the words of Isaiah about seeking justice and in the words of
Jeremiah urging obedience to the Ten Commandments. They are urging us, with all the forcefulness at
their command, to face the fact that righteous living is the Lord's will for us, and that the Lord's
will for us is good.
In my second lecture last week, I cited Arcana Coelestia 7038, "true worship consists in the
performance of uses, thus in the exercises of charity." We could arrive at this conclusion through a
simple syllogism. "Worship" is the ascription of supreme value. What we worship is what we value most
highly. If we worship the Lord, then in our own lives we attach supreme value to the Lord's will for
us, and that will is that we lead "lives of charity." We demonstrate our regard for the Lord by
reflecting his values in our lives. This is a recurrent theme in the Gospels. "Why do you call me Lord
and not do what I command you?" "If you love me, keep my commandments." "Anyone who loves me will keep
Perhaps the correspondence of the shift from the political to the prophetic can be best explained by
reference to the very simple observation found in our theology that whatever we love, we call "good"
(Cf. Soul-Body Interaction n. 7). When we feel as though the Lord's will runs counter to our own, our
worship is divided. The best we can do is try to be faithful to the best we know, to centralize our
worship, to keep resisting the desires that set up "high places," rival values.
A brief digression. A casual reading of the books of Kings might leave the impression that welfare of
the nations depends on loyalty to the temple in such a way that there is prosperity under "good" kings
and difficulty under "evil" ones. In fact, this seems rarely to be the case, and in the many instances
when it is not, there is a standard form of explanation. An evil king may prosper because the Lord
remembers the faithfulness of his father or grandfather, or even the promise to David. A good king may
meet with disaster because even his virtues cannot make up for the evils of one of his forebears. One
of the "worst" kings, Jeroboam the second, reigned for forty-one years and virtually restored the
empire to its Davidic borders. One of the "best," Josiah, was killed in battle at the age of
This reminds me of our own tendency to try to figure out why things happen to us. When problems come,
we wonder what we have done wrong. When things go well, we feel as though we must be on the right
track. When we realize that the Lord's providence is not simply reacting to what has happened but is
focusing on opening possibilities for us, we move beyond the simplistic moralizing that is so often at
odds with the actual course of events.
But back to our main theme. If the political interpretation represents a state of divided worship, a
time when we are divided as to what is good," then the prophetic interpretation represents the dawning
of the realization that the apparent goodness of evil is a sham. The appeal of self-inflation and
self-gratification rests on a lie. The "temple" of belief in our own goodness can carry us only so far
and no further. As a kind of illustration, we might think of the "righteousness" of the oppressed
which seems to vanish as soon as they come into power, the phenomenon that led Lord Acton to conclude
that power itself corrupts.
Swedenborg suggests that we might pay serious attention to how we would behave if no one were
watching, if there were no consequences attached to our choices. The prophets can be taken as imaging
what happens when the word of the Lord begins to get through at that level, when behavior that used to
appeal to us in secret begins actually to look as selfish as it is.
Lastly, it needs to be observed that this is only a beginning. The prophets are preparing us for the
Gospels, and the "incarnation" that the Gospels tell of will leave us looking back at the
"enlightenment" of the prophets with wonder at its darkness.