HOW GOOD ARE THY TENTS: DIVINE ORDER IN THE NATURAL PLANE OF LIFE
A Sermon by Rev. Lawson M. Smith Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland, December 20, 1987
“How good are thy tents, 0 Jacob! thy dwellings, 0 Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)
These words are a beautiful prophecy of the peaceful state of heaven. The pattern of the camp of the Children of Israel, Divinely ordained on Mount Sinai, is an image of the orderliness of heaven. This heavenly order is the basis for all peace and happiness and protection from the curse of the hells. The Lord was born into the world in order to secure this peaceful order for heaven, and to establish it for the human race on earth as well.
As beautiful as the literal sense is, from the spiritual sense we can appreciate even more deeply the Lord’s love and His purpose in coming into the world. We can therefore resolve more firmly to follow where He leads, so that He may fulfill this prophecy for us.
The Lord caused Balaam to utter these words as he stood on the mountains of Moab overlooking the Children of Israel encamped in the plains of Moab below. Each of the twelve tribes had its place around the tabernacle. The twelve tribes represent the whole church, as to every good of life and every truth of faith, and the marriage of doctrine and life. Each one of us has a somewhat different approach to living a useful life. We have various occupations and various groups of people who count on us in many ways. Each of us has a somewhat different idea of the Lord and what He expects of us in this life. But everyone who is sincere in trying to do what is right according to the Lord’s will is represented in the camp of Israel, and in heaven. The Lord makes the center, drawing all of us into a unity.
Within each person’s life a host of different loves and motives each seeks its place. Some loves are nearer to the Lord, some more remote, and some do not belong in the camp at all. We struggle with the question of how to fit in all the things we would like to do or feel we ought to do, and what to cut out. The Lord wants us to respond to these challenges as if from ourselves, yet only the Lord can teach us how to arrange our priorities and set our lives in order.
In general, He teaches us that eternal things should rule the temporary things of this life, and He guides us to see the greater and lesser degrees of the neighbor to whom we should exercise charity. Judah, or love to the Lord, must be straight ahead, to the east. Reuben, or faith and enlightenment from the Word, should be to the right or the south. Specific applications, represented by the camp of Ephraim, will always be spiritually behind, to the west, in relative obscurity compared to the goals and the principles; yet the more we apply the truth to life, the clearer the truth and the warmer our love will become. And to the north is the camp of Dan, representing the most basic foundation truths on which our whole life rests.
The more carefully we reflect and the more earnestly we pray and try to obey, the more clearly we will perceive how the Lord would have us order our lives, and the greater sense of peace and security we will feel. In this way the Lord sets all the loves of our lives in their proper places, in relation to Himself and in relation to all others (see AR 349, AE 341:1,11- 12, AC 3858, AC 3703).
The camp of Israel was an army, though it included the women and children. The reason Balak, King of Moab, was so frightened of the sons of Israel was that they had just completed a successful campaign against two mighty kings of the Amorites, Sihon and Og, and had utterly destroyed them and taken possession of their land. This display of military power was what induced Balak to call Balaam so urgently to come and curse the Children of Israel.
But the camp of Israel represented the order of heaven itself, the Grand Man. This order comes from the influx of the Lord’s Divine Human with the angels, for the Lord’s Divine, inflowing and received by the angels, is what makes heaven, just as the Lord makes peace and order in our lives. The camp of Israel thus represented the order of creation, the pattern of the universe, reality itself. In the pattern of the camp was an image of the intrinsic, necessary relationships between love and truth, and between higher and lower loves, between the Creator and creation. The spiritual gravity of the Divine love that draws all together toward itself, the source of life, yet allows each one of us to find his own distance from the Creator in freedom, is represented in the arrangement of the various tribes and families around the tabernacle, from the Levites at the center to the last families in the circumferences of the camp.
In such order there is all power, for it is the way things really are. The Lord’s commandments are another expression of such power. They are not arbitrary rules to test our obedience. They are the laws by which men and women become happy or sad, by drawing nearer or withdrawing from the Source of life and happiness. So Balaam described the camp as being like a lion: “There is no sorcery against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel. Now it must be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘Oh, what God has done!’ Look, a people rises like a lioness, and lifts itself up like a lion; it shall not lie down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain” (Numbers 23:23,24; cf. Num. 24:8,9; AC 6367:6).
Describing the camp, the Arcana Caelestia comments, “This camp, or this order, is such that it cannot possibly be broken by hell, although hell is in a constant endeavor to break it. Hence also this order, or heaven, is called a [military] ‘camp,’ and the truths and goods, that is, the angels, who are arranged according to this order, are called ‘armies’ [or 'hosts'] … It is this very order, and thus heaven itself, which was represented by the encampment of the sons of Israel in the wilderness, and the dwelling together itself in them according to tribes was called the ‘camp'” (AC 4236:1).
Such an army or heavenly host announced the Lord’s birth to the shepherds on the night the Lord was born. They knew how much they depended on the Savior who had been born to preserve the order and peace among them, which makes the heavenly state. We too depend on the Lord’s order to provide peace and freedom in our lives. The Lord enables us to see when and to what degree we must subordinate our interests and ambitions to the greater neighbor, when to assert our knowledge and skill, and when to defer to someone else. The Lord’s order provides for the greatest usefulness and happiness possible for each person in His kingdom, that is, for everyone willing to be guided by His laws.
Against this order the powers of hell cannot prevail. Think of the example of a man who dedicates himself to living an active, useful life. His mind is thereby limited and circumscribed as within the walls of a camp, and within this focus his mind is progressively coordinated into a form that is truly human. He does not have time or interest for the insanities of scortatory lust, because his mind is focused on the uses of his life. The orderliness of his life is like a wall, protecting him from the hells, whereas people who are idle and slothful have no such restraints and protections (see CL 249, TCR 423).
The tents of Jacob and the dwellings of Israel have a special, celestial connotation. A tent stands for all the doctrine of the church and worship from it. A life according to doctrine is true worship. In particular, tents stand for the holiness of love to the Lord. The reason is that in most ancient times, all who belonged to the church dwelt in tents, which they also took on their journeys. We read, “for at that time, they were mostly feeders of sheep, and the father of the family taught those who were born of his house the precepts of charity, and thence the life of love, in tents, as they later did in temples … And because such was the quality of the church among the most ancient people, and the doctrine of love to the Lord was taught in their tents, … therefore tents were loved by the Lord more than temples. And so by command of the Lord on Mount Sinai, a tabernacle was built in which the Israelitish nation might perform holy worship. And afterwards, [when they had settled in the land of Canaan,] the feast of tabernacles was instituted in memory of the most holy worship in the tabernacles [of the most ancients]” (AE 799:1,2).
In another passage we read, “Because the Most Ancient Church was the Lord’s beloved more than the churches following, and because in those times people used to dwell alone or in their own families, each celebrating holy worship in his own tent, tents were considered more holy than the temple, which had been profaned” (AC 414:4). So Balaam, by the spirit of the Lord, spoke these words: “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him; there! a people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations” (Numbers 23:8,9).
Here is an ideal for us today. While we live in the world and serve others as well as we can, nevertheless each family should look to the Lord as of itself, celebrating holy worship at home, with as little regard for the ways of the world as possible. Church societies should not be regarded as a crutch, taking over the place of the family, but as a support for each family in turning to the Lord as a family, strengthening each one’s sense of responsibility, freedom, and love to the Lord. Each family can have a unique, precious way of looking to the Lord and a love for the uses of life that is different from every other family’s. This vision and love are a gift from the Lord to them and to all their neighbors. Let’s encourage each family to cultivate its own special life and worship. Let our fathers be strong in teaching their children the precepts of charity and the life of love, and never allow others to usurp that privilege. The strength of our church, our school, and our country depends on the strength of our homes in looking to the Lord, each one by itself.
The peaceful picture of the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel, the good of life according to truth, is completed by the image of gardens planted in the valleys, with aloes and cedars, well watered. The valleys represent the natural man, the lowest part of our nature, while the gardens represent the intelligence and wisdom of the celestial man, like the garden of Eden, and like the trees of life in the holy city. Gardens have this meaning because a tree corresponds to a man, growing from seed, putting forth limbs, adorning itself with leaves and flowers as a man does with natural and spiritual truths, and finally bearing fruits, as a man does the goods of use (see Coro. 27). Spiritual heat and light make us grow, as natural warmth and light give life to plants (see AR 90). And as trees need water, so too our spiritual life withers away without the understanding of truth. The aloes or sandal trees stand for the life of the natural man, while the lofty cedars stand for rational perceptions, both of which are fed by the streams of Divine truth (see AE 518:12,13).
The Lord was born into the world in order to bring celestial love and wisdom down into even the natural plane of life, and to make the natural plane capable of becoming celestial. In the highest sense the valleys planted with gardens by the river represent the Divine Love and Wisdom in the Lord’s Natural Human nature when it had been glorified. The Lord, by coming into the world, gave us rivers of water, streams of knowledge accommodated to the perception of our natural and rational minds, yet capable of being filled with infinite love and wisdom. Such paradises of peaceful, heavenly life can flourish even in this natural world, as far as we stay within the camp of the Divine order which He teaches us. There we are safe, beyond the reach of the curse of hell.
We sense the peaceful, calm sphere of the Lord’s omnipotent order in the Christmas stories, and we know it even more clearly in the Writings of His second advent. Let us invite the Lord to dwell with us in our homes so that His prophecy may be fulfilled for us: “How good are thy tents, 0 Jacob! thy dwellings, 0 Israel! As the valleys are they planted, as gardens by the river, as the sandal trees which the Lord hath planted, as cedar trees beside the waters” (Numbers 24:5,6) Amen.
Lessons: Numbers 24:1,2,5,6,9b, 10- 17, 25; AC 4236
Arcana Coelestia 4236
And Jacob said when he saw them, This is the camp of God. That this signifies heaven is because the “camp of God” signifies heaven, for the reason that an “army” signifies truths and goods (n. 3448), and truths and goods are marshalled by the Lord in heavenly order; hence an “encamping” denotes a marshalling by armies; and the heavenly order itself which is heaven is the “camp.” This “camp” or order is of such a nature that hell cannot possibly break in upon it, although it is in the constant endeavor to do so. Hence also this order, or heaven, is called a “camp,” and the truths and goods (that is, the angels) who are marshalled in this order are called 44 armies. ” This shows whence it is that the “camp of God” signifies heaven. It is this very order, and thus heaven itself, which was represented by the encampments of the sons of Israel in the wilderness; and their dwelling together in the wilderness according to their tribes was called the dicamp. ” The tabernacle in the midst and around which they encamped represented the Lord Himself. That the sons of Israel encamped in this manner may be seen in Numbers 1: 1-54; 33:2-56 as also that they encamped around the tabernacle by their tribes – toward the east Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; toward the south Reuben, Simeon, and Gad; toward the west Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin; toward the north Dan, Asher, and Naphtali; and the Levites in the middle near the tabernacle (Numbers 2:2-34).
The tribes signified all goods and truths in the complex (n. 3858, 3862, 3926, 3939, 4060). It was for this reason that when Balaam saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the spirit of God came upon him, he uttered his enunciation, saying: “How good are thy tabernacles, 0 Jacob, thy dwelling places, 0 Israel; as the valleys are they planted, as gardens by the river” (Num. 26:5, 6).
That by this prophecy was not meant the people named Jacob and Israel but that it was the heaven of the Lord that was represented is very manifest. For the same reason their marshallings in the wilderness, that is, their encampings by tribes, are called “camps” in other passages of the Word; and by a “camp” is there signified in the internal sense heavenly order; and by “encamping” a marshalling in accordance with this order, namely, the order in which goods and truths are disposed in heaven.
That the “camp of God” denotes heaven may also be seen in Joel: “The earth quaked before Him, the heavens trembled, the sun and the moon were blackened, and the stars withdrew their brightness, and Jehovah uttered His voice before His army, for His camp is exceeding many, for numerous is he that doeth His word” (Joel 2: 10,1 1). In Zechariah: “I will encamp at my house from the army, on account of him who passeth by, and on account of him who goeth away, lest the extortioner should pass over them” (Zech. 9:8). In John: “Gog and Magog went up over the plain of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about and the beloved city; but fire came up from God and consumed them” (Rev. 20:9)