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online, based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg
1 The Law Against Graven Images
Thou shalt have no other gods before my face. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them...
In the ark of the covenant - the inmost shrine of Israel - there lay, face to face, two tables of stone. The first table contained the first three commandments which recounted the duties of man toward God and thus the conditions under which the Lord God could be present among men. On the second table were written the rest of the precepts, which related man's duties to his neighbor and thus indicated what the Lord, if present, could enable man to do in order to be conjoined with the Lord.
The first requirement, in order that the Lord may draw near to us so as to conjoin Himself with roan, is given in the first precept: that we must have no other gods before His face, and must make no idols or images to worship.
The revelation that there was but One God came to the shepherd people of Israel when they had fled from the temple-filled cities of idolatrous Egypt. History testifies to this religious revolution as a most epoch-making event. For in those days the representative spiritual church of the Ancients had long been corrupted and the whole world was steeped in idolatrous worship of many gods and had confused the image with the God in gross superstition. It was hardly conceivable that anyone at that day could claim his god to be the only one - to be a jealous god who would permit no rival!
But the world changes. Who, at this day and in this civilization, would make idols to worship? or bow down to stone or wood with fear and reverence? Yet the commandment is not obsolete. Even to us in these latter days, the Lord must needs speak this warning against idolatry which is as fatal to the soul now as of yore. For human nature is always prone to take the symbol for the reality - to worship the image, and put its foremost faith in material things and natural forces; and to divide that love which should belong only to the One Divine among many finite and fallible human objects. This tendency is shown in the story of Judaism despite its proud adherence to the philosophy of a One God and its strict rejection of external images. It is shown in the gradual development within Christianity, of the idea of three separate Divine personalities within the One God, and in the introduction of saints and relics into Christian worship. It is shown in the spreading modern idea - the supreme blasphemy - that man is not created into the image of God, but that mankind has created its god or gods into the image of man! Nay, the same tendency is shown in the story of all our individual lives, in that we tend to idolize whatever reflects the image of our own desires.
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In the obvious and literal sense, the first commandment teaches that no man, dead or alive -no spirit, no angel, no demon - must be worshipped, but only Jehovah, who is the Only God, known to the Israelites as the Creator and revealed on Mount Sinai as their Redeemer from the bondage of Egypt.
Vaguely, the Jews thought of their God as being in a human form, and speaking to their prophets through an angel. But they could comprehend only a God who, like themselves, was vengeful and jealous, fickle and arbitrary, and who was moved by the love of power and self-glory. They could therefore not penetrate to see the spirit which lay within the First Commandment.
To reveal the spiritual meaning of this remarkable precept, and thus make clear that God is Love and Wisdom itself, Jehovah descended into the world of human life in and as the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus revealed His Divine Humanity, so that men might know God. By His resurrection and glorification, all that was not Divine was put off and He was united with Jehovah in absolute identity of Person and Essence, even as the Body and Soul of the One God. The testimony to His sole Divinity was the simple message of all the apostles, who were not yet confused through sophistries and theological speculations, but who knew that in Christ "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily," (Col.2:9), and who said of Him, "This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols." (I John 5:20, 21).
In man's eternal thought, which is the conscious thought of his natural mind, he can entertain false ideas concerning God, and also can think of many gods, or of God as merely the interior force or impersonal blind energy within nature, thus as an invisible God with whom there is no conjunction of love; yea, he can even deny that there is any God. But man's internal thought, which is the thought of his spiritual mind, is incapable of conceiving of God except as the Divine Human. Such is the angelic conception about the One God - since in the angelic mind the thought of time and space perishes, and the Divine Human, or God-Man, can thus be perceived without the limitations of gross earthly ideas.
Even the eyes of angels are unable to see God - the Divine Human - apart from finite accommodations. The Divine Man is visible before them through the finite appearances of their own minds, thus more fully or profoundly, according to their degree of wisdom. Yet by rational acknowledgments they enjoy a deeper sight - or insight - from which they see the Lord as infinite and eternal. To them, it would be a breach against the First Commandment to confuse anything finite and created with the Divine! or to worship what is but the garments of God as the Lord Himself!
And therefore we are taught that the celestial or inmost sense of the first precept is that the Lord is infinite and eternal, the First and the Last, omnipresent and omniscient and omnipotent: that He is Love and Wisdom in their very essence and origin! that His substance is infinite Love and His form is infinite and eternal Wisdom; thus that He is Life itself. It is so that we may understand that He is the source of all human qualities, and therefore is the Only Man whose gifts of life can alone make us human.
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Man, despite his human soul, is born in captivity, in bondage to self-love, vanity and hereditary passions. We are held in the Egypt of spiritual indifference, preferring the indulgence in natural delights to the freedom which the Lord offers those who would be led by Him. It is frequently imagined that man can by his own will-power and prudence free himself from the bondage of his faults and evil habits. But the truth is that we cannot be liberated from our proprium, our self-consciousness, and self-importance, which are the centers of our lives, by any effort which originates in our old will. However we cultivate and refine our natural affections or polish our behavior, any self-discipline which orginates in our old will would progress in circles back to our love of self, it is the Lord who alone can do the work of liberation, and His first condition is that we must assume Him, not ourselves, as the center of our lives; that we shall have no other gods before His face; that the evils which we flee from shall be shunned because they are evils against Him, not merely because they are inconvenient to us or make us appear ugly in the eyes of others.
It is thus the Lord who shall teach us what is good and what evil, what is true and what false. Our regeneration must commence in our understanding of His will and His ends, His ways and His means. For this cause He gives us His Word and His Commandments, and endows us with an understanding, a memory, an imagination, and a rational mind. And the power of a man to free himself from his evil proprium or from the bondage of his hereditary evils, depends on his not permitting the evil passions and delights of his old will to overtake and overpower his understanding, in which the Lord - through the truths of His Word - is seeking to establish and give to man a new and regenerate will.
In the Arcana Coelestia, the internal sense of the First Commandment is therefore stated to be, "that truths must not be thought of from any other source than the Lord"(AC 8867). That this is the internal meaning and thus the universsal idea within the precept against idolatry and polytheism, may not at once appear, unless we reflect on the fact that no 'truth' about anything is true unless it shows the relation of that thing to the Lord and to His purpose as it works itself out in the universe. If it blinds a man to the Lord's presence and purpose, it is not a truth that enlightens but a fallacy or appearance which misleads. Thus human learning, however factual, may lead men into increasing mental darkness. A truth must be a statement of the relation of a part to the whole. We recognize this when we dismiss some statement as a half-truth or as 'mere propaganda'. And the whole truth cannot be seen except from the Lord. Even the best knowledge of the laws of the universe is mere idolatry - worship of Nature - unless thought of as the laws of the Lord's wisdom and mercy.
And this is true also of those truths of civil and moral and spiritual life which are contained in Divine Revelation. They become fallacies unless seen in the light in which the Lord presents them in His Word, fallacies if taken apart from the Divine purpose. Literal statements from the Word - such as the recital about the creation of nature's kingdoms in six days - can be turned into dangerous errors and stumbling blocks if treated merely as scientific laws apart from the spiritual message which they symbolically express. The revealed truth concerning the existence of another world can be profaned and degraded if regarded as a spur to human curiosity instead of as a means by which the Lord seeks to operate for man's redemption from the evils and false appearances of our corporeal life. To seek material confirmations of the presence of spirits by consulting mediums; and if convinced, to regard the spiritual world as a wonderful discovery of man's; or to rest one's faith in God and the soul on mere reasonings -- on a 'natural theology' which does not credit a Divine revelation: all this is quite apart from any religious value. The convictions so formed are merely gods of the flesh, of whom the Lord says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before my face."
In the spiritual sense, "gods" mean truths, or falsities which are supposed to be truths. Every falsity is the perversion of a truth and often bears the external aspect of truth. And in the mind and on the lips of man there may be truths from the Word which are used by man's prudence for purposes quite other than those for which the Lord revealed them, and which are thus not thought of from the Lord. Of such truths the Writings say that they "are in themselves truths" but are then "not truths in their internal form." They are closed within. The Lord is not in them, nor do they lead to the Lord or bring the presence of heaven, for they have not the Lord's love of salvation in them (AC 8868).
The most sublime truth becomes the merest idol if viewed apart from the Lord. The truth that God is One, if divorced from the idea of the Lord as a merciful Savior, becomes a philosophical quibble - a term devoid of any religious meaning. Any teaching of the Church becomes an empty, closed idea, an idol, a false, misleading god, if - stressed by human pride or taken to confirm some evil of life - it becomes dismembered from its organic connections, from its place and use in the structure of Divine Doctrine. If seen apart from its purpose as a means of Divine redemption, it becomes a thing of the memory only. This is indeed the reason why the Writings of the Church contain so many repetitions. Each new truth which we learn must be seen from the Lord, not from the passing states of our intellectual fancy. The truly pious reading of our Revelation and of the Word in its letter in a sphere of worship, whether public or private, directs our affections to the Lord and has the peculiar power of conjoining man to heaven and the Lord because truth is then seen not as man's wisdom but as the Lord's.
Man's self-intelligence and natural delight of confirming what is agreeable to his vanity, are indeed tools by which truths are hammered and fashioned into "graven images," or moulded by the flame of our cupidity into a "molten image." It is so that every false doctrine is raised up as a rival to the One God, and its adherents come to worship the spirit of evil and of deceit.
But the Divine command continues: "Thou shalt not make unto thee ... any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the waters under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." To the Jews this was a severe but necessary restriction, ostracizing the plastic arts. But the purpose with this precept was to warn against deception, persuasion and hypocrisy, which are a magic and an idolatry that can survive as enemies of God long after primitive superstitions have lost all religious significance.
To "make a likeness" means to deceive others or, by excuses and reasonings deceive ourselves. To make a likeness of anything in the waters beneath means to deceive by things of science or to throw doubt upon the laws of charity by the fear of appearances or of material force. To make a likeness of the things on earth, means to deceive, and lead into evil, through hypocritical pretensions or through the lure of sensual delights or by the spell of insincere persuasion. And to make a likeness of what is in the heavens above, is to deceive and mislead by falsifications of the doctrine of spiritual truth.
The mind of man - ever centered and concerned in self - is prone to bow before such pretences. And that which comes to rule inmostly, is his god. That which man fears the most, is most afraid to lose, becomes his god. Civilized man does not worship gold or fame; but he bows down to these as mediate ends, thinking of self as the real god to be served. We worship the world, if - distrusting the Divine Providence - we submit to having the world's opinion or the world's allurements, rule us, rather than the laws of God. We worship self, and thus bow before the evil spirits of hell, if we allow the spirit of self to order our lives.
But truly, these interior idolatries lose their fair aspect in the other life, for then hypocrites will fashion the image of their fantasies in monstrous and depraved forms for others to behold. Led by their passion to counsel others to worship these gods which they insanely serve, they finally must bow down, as cringing time-servers, to whomsoever among them can make his will prevail.
In the heavens it is not so. For there the angels know that beside the Lord in His Divine Human there can be no other god. And that only the Lord God is worthy to be loved, and in men only what is from Him. None there can accept worship for himself or bow down to any human merit. But from this first law of heaven, the neighbor is loved according as he is a willing medium for the Divine uses which the Lord performs for the perfection of angelic happiness.