Main explanation(s) from Swedenborg's works:
Inner Meaning of Prophets and Psalms 160
Other references by Swedenborg to this verse:
Arcana Coelestia 149
Bible Studies:The Horrowing of Hell
By Rev. Edward Craig Mitchell
In its degenerate condition, the church among men on earth is dead, in evils, falsities, and sins, because it is no longer receptive of life from the Lord. But the Lord, in His merciful love, provides a new church, in which there is life, because men are instructed in spiritual truths, and are thus enabled to re-open their minds, and to receive spiritual life from the Lord.
THE LITERAL MEANING.
The text has long been supposed to refer to a general resurrection, at some distant time, when men should awake from death, and re-enter their old physical bodies. But the text carries its own evidence that it does not refer to any such physical resurrection, but that it is a prophetic vision, intended, literally, to encourage the Jews in their existing condition of distress, on earth.
Ezekiel, the prophet, was among the captive Jews, exiles in a foreign land, whose hopes of returning to their former home were fast dying out. And the text expressly declares that the Lord would cause them to return to their own land. Held in bondage, and their dead buried in a foreign land, they despaired of reaching their old home in Judea. And they were thinking of themselves, in this world, and not of any general resurrection at some future time. In fact, many of them, with the Sadducees, did not believe in any life after physical death. And none of them had any conception of a distinctively spiritual life, or of a spiritual world, apart from the life of the natural world. And even those of them who believed in a resurrection expected to return to life in the natural world.
And, in the second place, no such general physical resurrection, or return to the material body, ever took place, or ever will occur. The physical body is formed of the material substances of the physical world; and it is adapted to use on the physical plane of life. And it cannot enter into any other world. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God," i.e., the spiritual kingdom. The death of the physical body is the end of the man's physical existence. And the material body then decays, and loses its organized form and identity.
The resurrection is not the rising of the dead body, but the rising of the living man, the spirit, from the dead body, and into the more advanced life of the spiritual world. The resurrection-body is not the old dead body revived, but it is the spiritual body, the body of the spirit of man, an inward body, in which the man was born, and which existed within his material body, while he lived on earth. But natural death takes away the outward and physical body, and allows the man to live in his inward and spiritual body, which is formed of spiritual substance, and adapted to his life and uses in the spiritual world.
But natural-minded men, who do not think spiritually, but only in the light of their natural senses, insist upon interpreting everything according to natural appearances, and from a natural-minded standpoint. And yet, even those who believe in a physical resurrection, often have a general understanding that our text refers, also, to the inward and mental resurrection from the spiritual death of evil and sin, to the new life of regeneration and righteousness.
THE SPIRITUAL MEANING.
But, in its spiritual meaning, our text illustrates the subject of regeneration. Natural death is the rejection of the lower nature of man, the external part, including the impurities of the body. And, in the resurrection of regeneration, there is a death and rejection of the impure and lower things of the natural mind.
The prophet was given a vision of a valley full of dry bones. The earth, in its form, and in its conditions, is a symbol of the mind of man. On the earth's surface, mountains are the high places, representing the higher states of mind, higher levels of affection and of thought; while valleys are the low places, representing the lower states of mind, lower levels of mental life. Comparatively, the natural mind is like a low place, a valley, and the spiritual mind is elevated, as a mountain. Human life begins on its lowest level, its valley; and it needs to be opened upward and inward, into the higher things of more advanced manhood.
In the mental valley, our natural thought sees things as they appear before the natural senses; but, on the higher levels, things are seen as they are, in the light of spiritual truth. And so, in the progress of regeneration, our Lord is constantly calling to us, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob. And He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths. For the law shall go forth from Zion, and the Word of Jehovah from Jerusalem" (Micah 4:2).
It requires constant and considerable work to climb from the valley up to the mountain-top. And the steady climbing represents the constant effort of the regenerating man to reach higher mental levels, And this climbing is done by rejecting, and leaving behind us the lower ways of the senses, and adopting a clean and orderly life, in feeling, thought, and action. "Who shall ascend into the mountain of Jehovah ? Or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart" (Psalm 24:3-4).
In the physical body, the bones have the least life, as compared with the other parts, especially the vital organs, the heart, the brain, the lungs, etc. And so the bones represent those things in the mind which are least receptive of life, and furthest removed from the centers of life. The bones represent the external natural mind, as compared with the internal and spiritual mind. In a particular sense, the life of the intellect, as compared with the life of the will, is like the bones, necessary and useful, but not full of life, until made alive by the inflowing loves of the will, which act upon, and within, the intellect, to use it for the work and purposes of the heart.
A bone cannot do anything, in the way of action, but it is acted upon by the muscles and nerves. And yet the bony framework affords a means by which the muscles can do their work. So our intellectual life, of itself, is cold and dead, until it is warmed by our heart's love, and put to work for our heart.
At first, we hold the truths of the church intellectually, as doctrines, which may be put to use, when our heart feels the need of them, in our practical life. But, before they are put to use, the life in them, as our mind holds them, is such life as is in the bones, very remote from the centers of life. But, as our heart puts these doctrines to use, in learning how to love goodness and truth, and to practice them in our conduct, then representatively, these bones begin to live; they begin to be clothed with flesh and nerves, and covered with skin, and thus built into a complete mental body, ready for the uses of life. The building up of the body, on its bony framework, represents the building up of the mind, in the process of regeneration, beginning with the knowledge of doctrine, and gradually covering that mental framework with the living things which make up a full man.
In the prophet's vision, the bones were seen to be very dry, i.e., very dead, very far removed from life. And so, in the unregenerate mind, even the mere knowledge of truth is very dead, because it is not intimately connected with any living principle.
In the vision, the bones were separated, and scattered about, and not even associated as a skeleton; representing the condition in the unregenerate mind, in which truths are not associated and arranged as a complete system, but are merely detached and separate notions, not brought into actual use. And, in this case, the question properly arises, "Can these bones live?" Can there be any genuine spiritual life brought into these detached notions, lying dead in the natural memory? Can there be any spiritual life in the mere knowledge of doctrines, scattered about in the memory, but not brought into use in the hearts life?
We have seen young men and women who were brought up in the Sunday Schools, and instructed in the doctrines of their churches, and in the words of the Scriptures; and we have seen these young persons bury their knowledge in the dust of sensuous life, or scatter it, like dead bones, in the valley of a low and selfish life, without any spiritual thought or noble aspiration. "Can these bones live?" No, not in their present condition.
But our Lord, who is life, itself, can fill them with life, if they will turn to Him, seeking life. And the way in which the Lord gives life to the bones of dead doctrine, is represented in our text. He builds them up into a full body. The application is both general and individual. At the end of every general church, or dispensation, men sink into very external conditions of mind; and even their knowledge of truth lies in scattered and dead pieces. But the Lord then establishes a new church, a different condition of the church, with such persons as can be induced to be regenerated. The Divine Truth is brought to such persons, in a different form, so that it will reach their minds, and arouse their attention. And then the old knowledges of doctrine will serve, like bones, for a framework, on which the Lord can build up the full man, with spiritual flesh and nerves; and to whom He can give spiritual life.
The prophet, prophesying to the dead bones, represents the Word of the Lord, coming to the dead mind, i.e., the unregenerate mind, with new light and life. The Lord causes breath to enter into our dead minds, when He gives us a consciousness of the spiritual quality of regenerate life, in which we can spiritually breathe the atmosphere of Divine Truth.
In the Hebrew, the words for wind, breath, and spirit are all derived from the same root-word. Breathing is a sign of life. When a man dies, we say that he expires, or breathes. out. And thus, the coming of the breath represents the coming of spiritual life into the dead mind.
Sinews (or nerves) are then given to the skeleton; for the same Hebrew word (gid) covers both sinews and nerves. The nervous system is the means of extending the brain throughout the whole body, representing the means by which the truth is carried throughout the whole mind, from the interiors of the spiritual mind, through all degrees, and to the outward natural mind. In the natural body, when there is no nerve-force, there is paralysis and deadness. And so, in the mind, the living force of living truth must circulate through all parts, or they cannot have spiritual life.
THE FLESH, ETC.
And the flesh is given. The flesh here represents the good, which comes into the will, or heart. Thus, while the nerves represent the intellectual part, the flesh represents the affectional part of the mind. And these two are necessary to any spiritual life. Putting flesh upon the bones thus represents rebuilding the spiritually dead man, by revivifying his heart, so that it may receive the regenerate life.
This is the meaning of the bread used in the holy supper, which there represents the flesh of the Lord, which means the Divine Goodness, which is the Divine Love, adapted to our reception.
When the nerves and flesh are provided for the body, it still needs to be covered by the skin, which has very important uses, in protecting all the body. The skin is exceedingly sensitive to all kinds of impressions, of heat or of cold, of danger or of delight; while, at the same time, it acts as a cleanser of the body, in carrying away the accumulating impurities.
The skin, as the external covering of the whole body, represents the outward life of conduct, the practical doings of our daily life, in which all our inward principles are carried into action; and by means of which all our mental impurities may be recognized, and rendered harmless, by being cast out, and not allowed to become a part of our actual conduct. And, as the healthy skin completes the usefulness and the symmetry of the body, so a good and useful practical life completes the manhood, whose interior life is in a good heart and a clear understanding.
And, as the skin needs constant care and cleansing, in order to protect the whole body from disease, so the cleanliness and health of our outward life are absolutely necessary in order to protect our spiritual life.
And our text declares that the resuscitated men shall know the Lord, when they are revived; representing that the man who is spiritually made alive by the Lord, then first truly knows the Lord.
The text describes the bringing together of the different parts of the body. "There was a noise" and "a shaking." The noise is the mental sound of the disturbance of the old conditions of the mind, and the clashing of the old dead states against the influence of the new life now beginning to operate. The shaking, or trembling, is the agitation of the mind, when made to loosen its hold upon old things, and to receive the new life.
"And the bones came together, bone to his bones" i.e., the scattered ideas of doctrine, which were lying in the memory, without cohesion or system, began to come together, into a general system of truth, covering all parts of the mind and life, and applicable to all our action. The mind perceived that all things are related and associated. This was a necessary preliminary condition, before the nerves and flesh could be added to the skeleton; i.e., before spiritual wisdom and love could be given.
And yet, there was no breath in the body, until the Lord gave it; i.e., even with good and true principles, we have no spiritual life in these things, until we recognize that they are from our Lord, and that they are the Lord's presence in us; and that they are not inherent in ourselves, nor procured by any power of our own.
THE FOUR WINDS.
The breath, or spirit, was called to "come from the four winds," to give life to the dead bones. The four winds, literally, are winds from the four points of the compass, North, South, East, and West. But, spiritually, they represent the four general states of human life, the natural understanding and the natural will, and the spiritual understanding and the spiritual will. These different phases of life are the aspects of life from four different mental standpoints, differing in quality and in degree. And, to meet the wants of men on these four different standpoints, or mental conditions, there are four different gospels in the New Testament, each peculiarly adapted to men in one of the four mental conditions. A similar idea is conveyed by the fact that the holy city, the New Jerusalem, is to be built square; i.e., with four sides.
That the breath, or spirit, is to come from the four winds, means that it is to come from all the quarters of the spiritual world, from external truth and from external good, and from internal truth and from internal good; to bring spiritual life in all its aspects, to reach and supply all forms of mind; i.e., to bring all the good and true principles of heaven, for the use of the church.
And when they received life, the bodies "stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army;" i.e., the regenerate mind begins at once to stand upon its new principles, in practical life: and, doing so, it finds such principles applicable to all the multitude of human actions. And then the regenerated mind is seen to be "the whole house of Israel," a spiritual church, looking to the Lord. Thus our Lord restores Israel to his own land, spiritually, by restoring men to a regenerate state.
Set before you a human skeleton of dry bones. And set beside it a living human body, in full health and vigorous operation. And then consider the great contrast between the two objects. And recognize the fact that there is as great a parallel contrast between yourself if unregenerate, or regenerate; if, spiritually, a mere skeleton of a man, or a full and living man, in vigorous spiritual health, and in loving, intelligent, and orderly activity. And then we shall understand what the Lord means, when He says to us, individually, "He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25). For He will open the old graves of our dead hearts, and raise our souls into spiritual life. And, in this, our Lord will fulfil, spiritually, the promise of our text, "O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel."