YEARS OF PLENTY, YEARS OF FAMINE
A Thanksgiving Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn November 26, 1995
“… let them gather all the food of those good years …. Then that food shall be as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine … that the land may not perish during the famine” (Gen. 41:35, 36).
At this season of the year we think of the harvests of the earth. We think of the Lord’s goodness and of His providence. One of the greatest harvests we read about in the Word took place in the land of Egypt in the days of Joseph. It was not one harvest, but seven years of great plenty. We know well that these years were followed by a famine in the land. Joseph had foretold this, and the king of Egypt put him in charge of the tasks of storing grain during the good years and of its allotment in the famine years. Through his foresight and provision, Joseph was able to save not only the Egyptians but his own family in Canaan.
In its inner sense, the account of Joseph’s administration in Egypt is about the Lord, whom Joseph represents, and His foresight and provision in our lives. By the seven years of abundance and the seven years of famine are described in the internal sense the states of man’s reformation and regeneration (see AC 5275). The cycle of plenty and famine in Egypt pictures the secret cycle of human spiritual development. The Lord oversees this development in our lives just as Joseph oversaw it in Egypt.
Joseph counseled Pharaoh to collect a fifth of all the harvest in the good years and store it up in their cities as a reserve supply for the years of famine. Recognizing his insight and wisdom, Pharaoh appointed Joseph himself to carry out this plan, putting him in charge of all the affairs of Egypt. Pharaoh retained only his right as a figurehead; “only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you,” he told Joseph (Gen. 41:40). The Lord is surely in charge of our lives, yet He leaves us the freedom of final decision in our throne of free choice.
The interpretation of Pharaoh’s double dream was about food. The interpretation also has an interpretation, for there are two kinds of food. While the body needs food and nourishment, so does the soul. The Lord said, “Man shall not live by bread alone …” (Matt. 4:4). We need food for the soul. Therefore He taught, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life …” (John 6:27).
In the interpretation of this account, the grain of Egypt signifies a kind of “spiritual food” which “properly signifies the things that nourish the soul …” (AC 5293). Remarkably, we need spiritual food even while living in the body, for “material food does not penetrate to the mind …” (AC 5293).
To better understand the inner meaning of these 14 years in Egypt, we need to explain what it is that feeds the mind or soul. The Lord hinted at the answer when He declared that those are blessed who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6); also, when He said to His disciples, “I have food to eat of which you do not know … My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me …” (John 4:32,34). The Heavenly Doctrine plainly describes spiritual food as “… know[ing] what is good and true … and … will[ing] and do[ing] what is good and true…. These are the things that nourish the angels,” we are told, “and are therefore called spiritual and heavenly food”. (AC 5293).
The Writings go on to show that these same things are what really feed a person inwardly “even while he lives in the body.” “Be it known,” the Writings teach, “that truths and goods and the knowledges thereof make the spiritual life of those who are in heaven, for these are the celestial and spiritual foods with which they are nourished. These foods are given them daily by the Lord …”
The account of Joseph’s management of the grain in Egypt during the years of abundance and dearth is interiorly a parable of the Lord’s marvelous providence in our lives. For each one of us it is the story of how He gives us daily bread, storing up the food we will need for our spiritual growth and development. The Heavenly Doctrine tells us there is a secret in this that few know at this day. The secret is that there are times when we learn spiritual truths and goods with innocence and delight. These are the years of plenty with us. And there are times of desolation and confusion regarding truths. The Lord stores a portion of the plentiful harvest deeply within our spirit; “… unless such things were stored up in man by the Lord,” we are told, “there would be nothing to uplift him in a state of temptation and vastation, consequently nothing through which he could be regenerated …” (AC 5291).
The harvests of goods and truths in this storehouse are called “remains,” a term familiar to people of the church but unknown in the world. Remains are, we are told, “all things of innocence, all things of charity, all things of mercy, and all things of the truth of faith, which from his infancy a person has had from the Lord, and has learned” (AC 661:2). These gifts from the Lord are given to us and stored up in the interiors of our mind where they will remain and serve to moderate our life. “Each and all of these things are treasured up,” we are told, “and if a person had them not, there could be nothing of innocence, of charity, and of mercy, and therefore nothing of good and truth in his thought and actions, so that he would be worse than the savage wild beasts” (AC 661:2). It is from remains or by remains that a human being is human (see AC 1738). “Remains are like some heavenly star,” we are told “… the smaller it is, the less light it gives, and the larger, the more light” (AC 530).
Joseph commanded that a “fifth” part of the plentiful harvest be laid up in the cities from the fields around them. This signifies that truths conjoined with good are to be stored up in the interiors of the natural mind; and when these truths and goods have been stored up there, they are called “remains.” In them, we are told, “the veriest spiritual life of a person consists, and from [them] that person is spiritually nourished in every case of need and want, that is, in every spiritual famine” (AC 5297e), “for in remains alone is there spiritual and celestial life” (AC 560).
In this season of Thanksgiving, we must especially be thankful for the spiritual harvest of remains that the Lord has provided. This gift from the Lord is so important. Without remains we would have no defense against the assaults of hell, no hope of salvation. “The remains in a man are for the angels that are with him,” the doctrine explains, “… wherewith they defend the man against the evil spirits who excite the falsities in him, and thus assail him” (AC 737) “… [D]uring man’s regeneration … he is ruled by means of angels from the Lord by being kept in the truths which he has impressed upon himself to be truths, and by means of these truths in the affection with which they have been conjoined …” (AC 5893).
The Lord foresees our need for a spiritual storehouse – just as Joseph had foretold the needs of Egypt. Without that special harvest of remains stored up during the good years we would have no basis for a spiritual life, or even for being human. Without remains we would have no platform or plane of life on which the angels could stand in our defense.
Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. What is our part in them? Can we increase this spiritual harvest even as the prudent farmer increases his crops? The secret is this, we are told: “from earliest infancy even to the first of childhood, an infant is being introduced by the Lord into heaven, and indeed among celestial angels, by whom he is kept in a state of innocence … When the age of childhood begins, the child gradually puts off the state of innocence, though he is still kept in a state of charity by means of the affection of mutual charity toward those like himself, which state with many continues up to youth, and meanwhile he is among spiritual angels” (AC 5243).
These are precious times, especially in our infancy and childhood, when the good ground of our mind is open to receive gladly the seeds which the Lord sows. These are times of tender innocence when angels are near, sharing their delight with us in the good things of charity and mutual love. These are times of abundant harvest. Storing up the spiritual things for our heavenly development is important, for our life will not always be tender, our loves not always selfless.
Let us add another idea: The spiritual work is not done when the storehouses are filled. We must survive the famine. The years of famine signify human states of life not so tender, not so open, not so full of mutual love. These are years of the awakening of our hereditary self-life. “Then, because a person begins to think from himself and to act accordingly, he can no longer be kept in charity as before,” we are told, “for he then calls forth inherited evils, by which he suffers himself to be led. When this state comes, the goods of charity and innocence that he had previously received … are withdrawn by the Lord toward the interiors and there stored up …” (AC 5342).
Survival in the seven years of famine signifies a stage of spiritual development as important as the multiplication of goods and truths signified by the seven years of plenty. It is not enough that the Lord provides us with remains. Yes, these are absolutely essential for the preservation of our spiritual life, but we must also make something of them. Remember the Lord’s parable of the rich man whose fields brought forth plentifully so that he had filled his barns. When he said he would take his ease, “eat, drink and be merry” because he had so many goods laid up, God called him foolish because he had laid up treasure for himself alone, and was not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
We need to bring out and use the things the Lord has stored up in our soul. The famine gives us the opportunity to experience our desperate need for the Lord’s gifts. We must go to Him in repentance and humility to be fed. This is pictured in the Word by Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt during the famine to buy food. They did not recognize him, yet felt deep remorse for having sinned against him.
It was the famine that brought Joseph and his brothers together again. A spiritual famine can reunite us with the Lord. A full spiritual life is more than a hidden store of truths and goods from the Lord. Remains are to be drawn out from our interiors and applied. We need to pursue a life in which we have conjoined truths with goods in a kind of marriage. Only then are we productive. Our thoughts and actions are to be strengthened by nourishments from spiritual things. Good affections and true thoughts sustain us in this world and in the life to come. This is the new birth called regeneration but it takes place only as we set aside what is from ourselves to receive what is from the Lord. All of this is signified by the seven years of famine.
The Writings teach that “during his reformation a man first learns truths from the Word or from doctrine, and stores them up in the memory…” But this is only the beginning. “The truths he has acquired must be initiated and conjoined with good” (AC 5270).
“… [T]he truths that are insinuated into a person, in the beginning, are indeed in themselves truths,” we are told, “but they are not truths in that person until good is joined to them … Good is the essential, and truths are its forms …. When the sphere of falsity is near, as is the case in the beginning … then truths seem to be banished; but they are laid by for a while in the interior where they are filled with good, and from thence are let back in succession” (AC 5207).
The Writings teach that “truth is conjoined with good when a man feels delight in doing good to the neighbor for the sake of what is true and good, and not for the sake of self or the world. When a man is in this affection, the truths he hears or reads or thinks are conjoined with good” (AC 5340).
That which makes possible our change of heart, our regeneration, are states of despair and desolation that come upon us in the world. Like a famine that causes natural anxiety and distress, these spiritual states of desolation awaken us to a sense of our spiritual inadequacy. The long continuation of the famine in Egypt is said to signify desolation “even to despair.” While no one seeks out despair, despair can have a positive effect on us. Listen to this teaching from the Heavenly Doctrine: “Despair causes those who feel it to acknowledge in an effectual and feeling manner that there is nothing of truth and good from themselves, and that from themselves they are condemned, but that they are delivered from condemnation by the Lord, and that salvation flows in by means of truth and good” (AC 6144). Coming to this humbling acknowledgment softens the hard heart and opens the closed mind. The Writings go further. “Despair,” we are told, “also causes people to feel the happiness of life which is from the Lord; for when they come out of that state, they are like those who have been condemned to death and are set free from prison” (AC 6144).
Let me summarize the spiritual meaning of the harvests of Egypt with this brief final teaching from the Heavenly Doctrine: “The man who is born within the church, from earliest childhood learns from the Word and from the doctrinal things of the church what the truth of faith is, and also what the good of charity is. But when he grows up to manhood he begins either to confirm or to deny in himself the truths of faith that he has learned; for he then looks at these truths with his own sight, and thereby causes them either to be made his own or else to be rejected; for nothing can become one’s own that is not acknowledged of one’s own insight, that is, which the man does not know to be so from himself and not from somebody else; and therefore the truths learned from childhood enter no further into the man’s life than the first entrance, from which they can either be admitted more interiorly or else be cast out.
“With those who are being regenerated, that is, who the Lord foresees will suffer themselves to be regenerated, these truths are greatly multiplied, for these persons are in the affection of knowing truths; but when they come nearer to the very act of regeneration, they are as it were deprived of these truths, for these are drawn inward, and then the man appears to be in desolation; nevertheless, as regeneration goes on, these truths are successively let back into the natural, and are there conjoined with good” (AC 5376). Therefore, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Amen.
Lessons: Genesis 41:25-40; Luke 12:22-31; AC 5576:2-4
Arcana Coelestia 5576:2-4
Hunger in the spiritual world or in heaven is not hunger for food, because the angels do not feed upon material food, which is for the body that man carries about in the world, but it is hunger for such food as nourishes their minds. This food, which is called spiritual food, is to understand truth and be wise in good; and wonderful to say, the angels are nourished by this food, which has been made evident to me from the fact that after little children who die have been instructed in heaven in the truths of intelligence and the goods of wisdom, they no longer appear as little children but as adults, and this according to their increase in good and truth; and also from the fact that the angels continually long for the things of intelligence and wisdom, and that when they are in the evening, that is, in a state in which these things fail, they are so far in what is relatively not happiness, and they then hunger and long for nothing more than that the morning may dawn for them afresh, and that they may return into their life of happiness, which is of intelligence and wisdom.
That to understand truth and to will good is spiritual food may also appear to everyone who reflects that when anyone is enjoying material food for the nourishment of the body, his food is more nourishing if he is at the same time in cheerful spirits and conversing on agreeable topics, which is a sign that there is a correspondence between spiritual food for the soul and material food for the body. And the same is further evident from the fact that when one who longs to imbue his mind with the things of knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom is kept from them, he begins to be saddened and distressed, and like one who is famished, longs to return to his spiritual food, and thereby to the nourishment of his soul.
That there is spiritual food which nourishes the soul as material food nourishes the body may also be seen from the Word, as in Moses: “Man doth not live by bread only, but by every utterance of the mouth of Jehovah doth man live” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4).