Main explanation(s) from Swedenborg's works:
The Inner Meaning of the Prophets and Psalms 251
Other references by Swedenborg to this story:
True Christian Religion 468
Bible Studies:The Lord Knows the Way
By Rev. Jeremy Simons
A Tree Planted by the Water: What we can learn from trees about spiritual life.
(From a sermon by the Rev. Jeremy F. Simons, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, August 23, 2015)
The very first psalm has this beautiful metaphor for a spiritual person:
“He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3).
One of the things that people love about living in Pennsylvania is the abundance of trees. The maples, oaks, ash, beech, sycamores, apple trees and cherry, white pine, hemlock, cedars, willow and dogwood that we all see on a daily basis are an important and beautiful part of our environment.
It is interesting how frequently the Word compares people to trees, with hundreds of references in the Old and New Testaments. The Writings say:
“The representative likeness that exists between a fruitful tree and a person who is being regenerated is so great that one may learn from a tree about regeneration, provided that something is known first about spiritual good and truth.” (Arcana Coelestia 5115).
People are also compared with various animals and birds, from sheep and goats, to eagles and doves, lions and serpents. But none of these come up as frequently as trees do, and there is no statement similar to this about any animal – that we can learn from a tree about regeneration. What can we learn about regeneration from trees?
One example of what we can learn is the explanation of the passage above, from Psalm 1, and this similar one, from the prophet Jeremiah:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river.” (Jeremiah 17:8).
At one level, the message of these verses is so obvious and clear that they hardly need an explanation. But the details of the message do have aspects that are not so obvious, and which tell us about regeneration by comparing our lives with the lives of trees. There is a double comparison in these verses. A person is compared with a tree, and a blessed person is contrasted with the wicked.
Let's look closely. The passage from Jeremiah begins this way:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:8)
Another translation, by the British New Church composer C. J. Whittington renders it this way:
“Blessed is the man who confideth in the Lord, and the Lord is his trust.”
The word that has been translated as “trust”, “hope” and “confideth” is the same Hebrew word, referring to the idea that a good person places their confidence in the Lord, relying on Him, believing in Him and obeying Him.
The parallel verses in Psalm 1 expand on this same idea:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 1:1
Here the Psalmist is describing trust in the Lord.
In Swedenborg's work, The Apocalypse Explained, he notes why the Psalm mentions walking, standing and sitting:
“Here the expressions "to walk," "to stand," and "to sit," are used as following one another. For "to walk" pertains to the life of thought from intention, "to stand" to the life of the intention from the will, and "to sit" to the life of the will, thus it is life's being [esse].” (Apocalypse Explained 687).
In other words, someone who does not walk, stand, or sit in evil ways and intentions is someone who trusts in the Lord. This trust is then specifically described as his delight being the “law of the Lord,” in which he meditates day and night. This is an important addition, because “trusting in the Lord” can be taken as an attitude of passive acceptance rather than a life of active obedience. The Psalmist makes it clear that the Lord is the source of our direction in life. We gain access to Him through His Word and doing as it teaches.
This, then, sets up the comparison with a tree, and gives us an idea about what it teaches us about regeneration. In Jeremiah, the next sentence is this:
“For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river.” (Jeremiah 17:8)
And in the Psalm:
“He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.” (Psalm 1:3)
We find similar imagery in many places in the Word, such as in Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers:
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob!
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like valleys that stretch out,
Like gardens by the riverside,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedar trees beside the waters.” (Numbers 24:5-6).
The beautiful imagery of a tree by a river is the key to the appeal and brilliance of this whole series.
Sometimes it may seem as though the Word’s persistent comparisons of people with trees are less apt than comparisons with animals would be. Trees lack mobility, body parts such as legs and heads, and anything even resembling free will. But what trees do have are roots. The concept of tree roots is especially valuable as something that teaches us about regeneration. Roots are a tangible representation of something that is intangible with us.
The tree stands by itself as a seemingly autonomous life form. But beneath the surface its roots invisibly form a connection with the moisture and the minerals that sustain it. The tree is beside the river, seemingly apart from it, but its roots join it to the source of its life.
All of us are similarly connected to the Lord as our source of life. But this connection is invisible, intangible, difficult to understand, and easy to deny or simply forget about. We are all seemingly autonomous, standing apart on our own, like a tree. The imagery of tree roots, however, reminds us of our utter dependence on the Lord. We are told that,
“There is one only fountain of life, from which all live both in heaven and in the world… Life from the Lord flows in with angels, spirits, and people, in a wonderful manner.” (New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 278)
This goes on continually, and,
“Unless the Lord were preserving everybody in every fraction of a moment, humanity would perish.” (Arcana Coelestia 694)
This may be hard to understand and accept on a moment to moment basis, because the appearance of our independence and self-life is so strong. The idea that He is sustaining us every instant can seem beyond us. But we are told that,
“The chief of the wisdom and intelligence of the angels consists in perceiving and knowing that the all of life is from the Lord.” (Arcana Coelestia 4318)
This is why the comparison with a tree is so appropriate and useful. So much depends on a tree’s source of nutrients and water. Similarly in our lives everything depends on our connection with the Lord. The Writings describe this as the issue with atheism:
“People who cut themselves off from the church and from heaven by denying the existence of God close their inner selves on the side of the will and shut themselves off from its positive love.” (True Christianity 14)
It is not something that is apparent to us. The real connection, though, is not so much about our ideas as about what we love:
“The order is this: From the Lord comes everything heavenly… That which is heavenly is love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor. Where there is no love, the chain is broken and the Lord not present. For He flows in solely by way of that which is heavenly, or by way of love.” (Arcana Coelestia 1096)
If we lack this love, then, we compromise our connection with the source of life. Since we have this love by obeying the Lord’s Word, the person who is like this tree is one who loves the law of the Lord, and lives by it. He is the tree, according to the Psalmist,
“That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.” (Psalm 1)
And again, in Jeremiah:
“And he shall not fear when heat comes; but his leaf shall be green, And he will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will he cease from bearing fruit.” (Jeremiah 17)
Everything here depends on the stability and reliability of the source. This stability affects three things noted in these verses: our anxiety or fear, our leaves, and our fruit. Each one is important. No one likes to be anxious. Drought conditions cause a lot of anxiety about dying crops and wildfires. Even in a drought, however, a tree planted by a strong river will do well. Similarly, a person who has a strong confidence in the Lord, based in a loving and useful life, is connected to Him. The connection will better enable them to bear up under difficult circumstances, and not be overcome with anxiety.
Just as important as our state of anxiety is the state of our leaves. Are they withered? Are they green? The leaves are the things that a person knows, and the fact that they are green means that they are “made alive by truths” (Apocalypse Explained 481). Our connection with the Lord enables us to recognize the truth, and our trust in the Word as the source of truth gives us access to it.
Then, finally, the fruit, the purpose of this whole process, is the happy result. Trust in the Lord benefits everything. Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah call this person “blessed” but the word “happy” works just as well, being the same word both in Hebrew and Greek. This is how to have a happy life.
Both Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 also describe the opposite scenario – the person who is cursed and unhappy. They trust in themselves, or in other people, and struggle like a shrub in the desert, or like the chaff which the wind drives away.
There are numerous other parallels between our spiritual life and lives of trees, but we will mention just one more aspect of the comparison. This is that while it may seem that the things said about trees are just a pleasing illustration, their reality and importance are greater than we would think.
In a passage from the Coronis, we read that people are like trees, and that in the course of their life they repeatedly bring forth the spiritual equivalent of flowers, fruits, seeds, and from them more flowers fruits and seeds, on and on, over and over again. The actions of their life, therefore, surround every person with their own unique spiritual garden – a garden made up from everything that they have thought and done over the course of their life. The passage then says:
“And if you are willing to believe it, that same garden remains with the person after death; he dwells in it, and is delighted daily with the sight of it, and with the use of its fruits. It is such a person who is described in David by these words: He shall be like a tree planted beside the rivers of waters, which shall bring forth its fruit in its season, and its leaf shall not fall.” (Coronis 7)
In other words, the garden is real. It is not just words on a page. The tree planted by the water is there in your life, and becomes visible in heaven.
Finally, the Lord came into the world to create this garden and to raise these trees. We need to trust in Him. He said in Isaiah:
“The LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted; …that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61)