Sunday, January 1, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - 2 Kings 11:43-12:17
Revelation 11:1-12

. . . a wall, great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and

names written there, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.

Revelation 21:12

Our Old Testament reading told how after the death of Solomon the so-called United Kingdom

came apart. It had been a fragile union all along. Its first king, Saul, had been more

general than king, concerned with fighting the Philistines and not, apparently, with what

we would now call administration or domestic policy. On his death, the southern tribes

chose David as their king, and it was not until the death of Saul's son that the northern

tribes followed suit. They clearly felt that they were entitled to make their own choice

of ruler.

It is quite clear that they still felt that way when Solomon died. Rehoboam became king in

Jerusalem apparently without incident, but this meant only that he was accepted by the

southern tribes. He still had to go to Shechem to be made king over the northern tribes,

and after a little unsuccessful negotiation, they refused. They did not rebel, at least

not in their own minds, because at that point Rehoboam was not their ruler. Presumably

because they were not rebels, their decision was accepted with a minimum of resistance.

The dream of centuries had been realized under David, and had come apart at the seams. It

remained alive in the promises of the prophets, in the visions of a day when, in Isaiah's

words, the mountain of the Lord's house would be exalted above the hills and all nations

would flow to it, when the scattered people would be reunited. The dream was alive in

Gospel days--Luke tells of one Simeon who was "just and devout, waiting for the

consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25).

In those days, though, unity was still only a dream. The territory of the old southern

kingdom, now known as Judea, was the homeland of the Jews. On its northern border was its

bitterest enemy, Samaria, actually the remnant of the northern tribes, claiming to be the

true descendants of Abraham. North of Samaria was "Galilee of the Gentiles," where Jewish

families did indeed live, but whose title speaks for itself. Only in the vision of the

Holy City do we have an image of reunion, and there only in the names of the twelve tribes

inscribed on the gates of the New Jerusalem.

Our theology prompts us to take this as a kind of parable, to see in it issues of our own

inner lives. It takes the geography of the Bible as a kind of map of our own souls, and

offers us the basic thought that, in traditional Swedenborgian terminology, the southern

kingdom corresponds to our will and the northern kingdom to our understanding.

It is in many ways an apt equation. The southern kingdom was tucked away in the mountains,

secluded from the main traffic with the outside world. In contrast, the main route between

Egypt and Mesopotamia, the major forces of the ancient Near East, ran through the heart of

the northern kingdom. This provides a very nice analogy to the privacy of our emotional

lives on the one hand, and to the way in which our thoughts must cope directly with the

world around us. Hidden away within us are our deepest goals in life, while our conscious

thoughts are occupied with finding our way through one situation after another.

Again as in the story of the Old Testament, the span of life in which we feel completely

"together" may seem brief. I would tend to find it primarily in young adulthood at its

most promising, when the dreams of an ideal marriage, a successful career, dreams of

accomplishment and recognition and appreciation, are directly connected to what we are

doing. There is a strong tendency to see our actions, our choices, as secure first steps

toward the fulfillment of our dreams. We have come to refer to this as "the honeymoon

period," whether it refers to the first months of marriage or to some other new situation.

We have also come to take it for granted that honeymoons do not last forever. "And they

lived happily ever after" is one of the biggest and most misleading oversimplifications

imaginable. Sometimes it seems as though there is a built-in mismatch between our dreams

and our circumstances. There are hard choices to make. We discover that we cannot have

everything we want. It may be as dramatic or traumatic as having to choose between our

ideals, our principles, and our jobs.

It feels as though this is a battle with the world around us, as though our inner selves

are besieged from the outside. There is some truth to this view, but it obscures the

extent to which this is actually an inner struggle. Let me take an example. There was a

newspaper column a couple of years ago written by a woman who works as a kind of

consultant to "middle management." She wrote of the dilemma faced by an employee who is

told, "These are the results we need, and there will be no questions asked as to how they

are realized. If you can't achieve them, we'll find someone who can."

Suppose three employees given this message. Each has a house with a substantial mortgage,

car payments to make every month, and a couple of kids in college. Their outward

circumstances, that is, are about the same. But one took the job out of a love of the kind

of work involved and a real desire for achievement in that particular field. The second

took it because it seemed the best offer at the time, and has already begun to suspect

that there may be more suitable opportunities elsewhere. The third simply has no

particular attachment to ethical principles.

The point is that the violence of the inner conflict does not depend not simply on the

pressures from the outside. It depends also on our sensitivity to those pressures. For the

first individual, the pressures may occasion a profound crisis. For the second individual,

the same pressures may provide just the pretext sought for saying goodbye to this job and

looking for another. For the third, the same pressures may look like a golden opportunity

for advancement.

A more recent newspaper column offers an earthier example. A man wrote in to an automotive

question and answer column, saying that he was selling an old car and wanted to make a

list for prospective buyers of everything he knew about it that might make trouble. A

friend of his told him that was stupid--any buyer of an old car had to expect trouble, and

he should just get the best price for it that he could. The one columnist said it was a

pleasure to hear from someone of such evident honesty. The other said, "I feel the same

way. Have your sleazeball friend handle the sale."

We live in a world that is consistently ambiguous. There seems to be a natural tendency to

make a sharp distinction between what is going on inside us and what is going on outside

us. This offers us the opportunity to blame the outside world for everything that goes

wrong, even for the things that go wrong inside us. "That makes me so mad!"

Helen Keller was no stranger to adverse circumstances, and made the point forcefully:

Now I am as much up in arms against needless poverty and degrading influences as anyone

else, but, at the same time, I believe human experience teaches that if we cannot succeed

in our present position, we could not succeed in any other. . . . Unless we can help the

world where we are, we could not help it if we were somewhere else (The Open Door, Garden

City, New York: Doubleday, 1957, p. 44).

Of course circumstances make a difference. If they did not, there would be no point in our

trying to treat each other fairly. Implicit in a Swedenborgian view of providence, though,

is the trust that while our circumstances unquestionably limit the options open to us at

any given time, they never leave us with no choices whatever. If it seems unrealistic to

say that we can always make things a little better, try the flip side of the same

statement, that we can always make things a little worse. It boils down to the same thing,

namely that we do have a choice.

In theological terms, that choice is between higher and a lower values. The difficult

choices are likely to feel like battles between understanding and will, between the part

of us that knows what we ought to do and the part that wants to do something else. This is

our "divided kingdom," and Swedenborg is fond of telling us that while ultimately the will

is supposed to rule, during states of reformation it is necessary that we be led by truth.

In a passage that is too often overlooked, though, he qualifies this.

People believe that the truth enables us to perceive what is good, but this is an

appearance. It is the good which enables the truth to perceive . . . . People believe that

the truth leads us to good when we live according to what the truth teaches us, but it is

the good flowing into the truth that leads us to itself (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 3207).

This is saying that inner conflicts which seem to be between what we believe and what we

desire are in the last analysis conflicts between our loves, our own values. When we "want

to do something we know we shouldn't" or "don't want to do something we know we should,"

the severity of the conflict should tell us that part of us actually wants to do what we

should. If that were not the case, there would be no qualms of conscience. We would do

whatever we felt like doing, and the knowledge of what should or should not be done would

be of no particular interest. To use an example with minimal ethical content, we may know

the rules for using "who" and "whom," but if we don't much care, then the knowledge alone

has no effect on our speech.

If we find ourselves divided against ourselves, then, it is a sign that we care. It is

also a sign that we are in process, because it indicates clearly that something within us

is unresolved. Perhaps the Gospel situation, where the enmity between the Jews and the

Samaritans seems so deep and intractable, is a sign that the division has to become more

severe before it can be resolved. If that is the case, we may take heart in the parable of

the Good Samaritan and in Jesus's obvious care for the Samaritan woman at the well. There

may be much within us that we do not approve of. There is nothing there which cannot be


This is the message of the Holy City. The Bible ends not with a return to the Garden of

Eden but with the descent of a city. It does not turn the clock back or undo everything

that has happened, but brings everything together. When our loves are in their proper

order, with love to the Lord inspiring love to the neighbor, and these loves giving life

to a love of the world and of ourselves, then what were divisions become simply


The Holy City is described as "descending from God out of heaven." That is, it is not

described as having arrived on earth, and we may suspect that it cannot. This world will

always be a meeting place of heaven and hell, an arena of choice between them. But the

image at the close of Revelation is none the less true and important. The Holy City is, so

to speak, the shape of the Lord's effort among us. It is a picture of the unity that

providence constantly works to promote. Above all, it is a picture of the unity for which

we have been designed and created, a unity within our individual souls and among us in

community. If we are divided against ourselves at present, that is only because there are

choices that must be made, distinctions that must be affirmed, if true oneness is to be

realized. For that oneness is not achieved by some romantic blurring of the edges of

things, but seeing clearly the intricacy and beauty of the Lord's intent for us.


contact phil at for any problems or comments