A Sermon by Rev. Grant H. OdhnerPreached in Rochester, Michigan October 31, 1993
What is it that makes us remember a friend and pick up the phone to call the person? What stirs us to overcome our inertia and find the words to support someone, or set him or her at ease, or lift his burden? As we go about our daily jobs, what makes us responsive to the real uses at hand, the real human needs of the people we serve, the real needs of the people with whom we work? What is it that gets us to notice that our thinking has become self-serving or unfair or indulgent, and to resist?
It’s remarkable how we can go through the motions of our lives, interacting with people, doing our tasks, accomplishing things, and yet not be spiritually awake. We can have a set of principles that we hold that is quite developed. We can be very knowledgable and able to talk about faith issues. We can show dedication to our church by our attendance and involvement in a church group. And yet at the same time we can be amazingly unmoved by real love and charity. So all of a sudden, sitting in church, we may reflect that we can’t remember the last time we thought about anyone else with any feeling of caring; or we can’t remember the last time we did something unselfishly, apart from our habitual routine of courtesies and social responsibilities. We have all experienced this, haven’t we?
There are spiritual forces that set in at times, that have this effect on us, that deaden our faith, even while leaving it outwardly intact. The Philistines, the enemies featured in our story from Samuel today, stand for this kind of spiritual force.
In the stories of the Old Testament the Israelites’ enemies represent our spiritual enemies. The symbolism here is not arbitrary. The nations around Canaan were all different. Their spiritual meaning rests in their various characteristics as people, in the physical characteristics of their lands, and in the roles that they played in the drama of Israel’s history.
The Philistines were the nation that lived in the lowlands, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (the Great Sea, as it was then called). They enjoyed the “abundance of the sea.” It offered them fish, and the flat land along it gave them some easily cultivated farmland. And trade brought not just material goods but also knowledge, technology, and culture to their land.
The Philistines picture a part of our minds that is spiritually “cultivated” and “wealthy” rich in know-how, skill, opportunity. They represent a developed faith, a developed understanding of what’s true, a knowledge of what the Lord requires, a knowledge of how one should live in the world. Obviously this kind of faith is a good thing. That’s why the Philistines’ territory was given by Yehowah to Abraham and his descendants: it was regarded as part of the promised land (which represents a state of heaven).
But the Philistines as enemies of the Israelites represent a developed faith that is empty, soulless, deprived of its essence, which is love and charity. They represent a state of mind in which we continue to go through the motions of a good life, but are not living for others but for ourself and for worldly things. We may find religion convenient, even a source of pride, comfort and delight. We may enjoy certain rituals or the intellectual challenge of discussing and reflecting on religious issues. But we are not really responsive to religion. Religion seems alive and well, but in reality it has become oppressed and powerless in us. True religion has been driven up into the hills of our minds and kept there. We draw wealth from it (as the Philistines drew taxes from the Israelites), but our religion is not in charge of us, not directing our life; it merely serves.
One of the characteristics of the kind of faith that the Philistines respresent is that it’s “barbless”; it has no “sharp edge” to it. The Philistines during this period controlled the blacksmiths in Canaan and made sure that the Israelites’ iron tools couldn’t be forged and sharpened into weapons (see I Sam 13:19ff). This pictures a mental state in which religious truths are in our minds, but we don’t allow them to have any impact on our life. We don’t allow them to chasten us. We don’t allow them to stop us from indulging our selfish pleasures. This is why the Philistines were often called “the uncircumcised.” Circumcision stands for the willingness to let truth remove from us the selfish element in our pleasures, in our lives (a process that can be painful!).
In our story the force that is opposing the Philisitines is led by David. David, the newly anointed warrior king, represents spiritual truth that is empowered by unselfish love (olive oil, used to anoint, stands for heavenly love). This kind of truth is living and responsive to the Lord. It seeks to have an impact on us; it seeks to extend its influence into every corner of our life, just as David’s efforts eventually widened Israel’s sphere of influence to include all the territory promised by Yehowah to Abraham.
The dead faith represented by the Philistines finds quite a contrast in David. David is so full of zeal and idealism, so full of eagerness, so careful to consult the Lord! Shortly before today’s episode, David returned to his home town to find that the Amalekites had raided it and carried away captive all his wives, children and worldly belongings. David stopped to ask the Lord, “Shall I pursue?” (I Sam. 30:8) After Saul died, he asked the Lord, “Shall I go up to any of the cities of Judah? … Where shall I go up?” (II Sam 2:1) And as we read today, when the Philistines came up to fight, he asked, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will You deliver them into my hand?” (II Sam 5:19)
David’s repeated inquiring of the Lord through the ephod pictures a responsiveness to the Lord. It pictures an attitude of prayerful turning to the Lord through His Word, since the Word is especially where we can find Him. (The ephod stands for the Word.)
Our lives are continually changing. We learn and grow every minute. Our circumstances change. Our needs change. We come under new mental influences. We can’t just store up knowledge from the Word and expect it to help us in time of need. We need “bread” daily. And no amount of food stocked in the pantry can do away with our need to actively seek out and choose this or that item and prepare it to satisfy our needs. Going to the Word and prayer are the best ways to “access” spiritual food, to gain spiritual energy and inspiration to meet our changing needs.
I have noticed that when I just rely on my memory of what’s true, that truth can sometimes seem lifeless, inadequate, powerless. But when I see it fresh in the Lord’s Word, when I approach that truth in a prayerful way, it comes to life, it seems different, it answers me differently. In our story this morning the Philistines came up to the valley of Rephaim twice to wipe out David. The circumstances seemed the same, but each time David inquired of the Lord. It was a good thing he did, because the Lord told him he needed to do something different the second time. Part of our responsiveness to the Lord needs to be going to Him in His Word to be fed and led, each “day.”
But our responsiveness must be more than this. We can’t be consulting our Bibles every other moment to get the light we need in our daily lives. We must rely on our conscience. Conscience is the Lord speaking to us from within through our feelings and perceptions, joined with a remembrance of truth. Our conscience is kept alive and healthy by our going to the Word, but it is “accessed” on a daily basis by prayer, or (more generally) by an attitude of openness to the Lord’s input and leading. In our story the Lord’s working through conscience is pictured in the wind passing through the upper leaves of the Bechaim trees. David had to listen for that sound. And when he heard it, he was to gird himself and act. The Lord told David, “When you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the Bechaim trees, then you shall stir yourself. For then the Lord will go out before you … ” (II Sam. 5:24).
Human beings are often compared with trees in the Word (” … for he shall be like a tree, planted by the waters … “). The different parts of a tree mirror the different aspects of the human mind. For example, the seed from which a tree grows is like the love of a person’s life that strives to make something of itself. From this primitive urge, love gathers to itself knowledge and experience. Like a growing tree it strives to develop all the means that are necessary to its bearing fruit: branches, twigs, buds, leaves, flowers, fruit.
From this we can see what the “tops of the Bechaim trees” refer to. This is where the Lord’s sign would appear. At the top or crown of a tree we find the smaller branches, the tender, flexible, growing ends. This is the part of the tree where we see seasonal changes most dramatically. Here buds form, and shoots and flowers blossom. Here fresh new leaves appear, and later the fruits become noticeable. Here also insect and bird life flourish.
This dynamic part of the tree refers, symbolically, to our natural mind: the center of all our conscious mental activity while we are in this world, which is at the same time surrounded by spiritual influences of all kinds. Here we are constantly sensing, learning, growing. Here is where we bring what we know to bear on the tasks before us. Here we consider, plan, become aware of our intentions, and begin to carry them out. Especially, this is where the principles of the Word can come to light, and where we can experience insight, hope, new possibilities, inspiration, renewal of purpose.
We actually entertain many levels of thinking here: some noble, some base, some lively and beautiful (like some birds), and some noxious and dangerous (like others). Our higher thoughts all appear to us in our conscious natural mind. But we don’t notice the higher thoughts and feelings unless we are sensitive to them.
David was told to wait and listen for the sound of a going (or marching) in the tops of the trees.
The Lord’s working in our lives is often depicted as wind or spirit (the same word in ancient languages). This working is called the Holy Spirit. This “wind” is a subtle thing. It does not intrude on us very noticeably even though it is present and working. The Lord loves our freedom. And this freedom consists in the fact that we appear to live from ourselves and think from ourselves. And we choose among the spiritual influences that surround us.
In a way, choice is the only thing that we have that is our own. The Lord is the force within our choice, but He cannot choose for us. He cannot make us listen for His presence or respond to His presence with us. He can teach us ideas, but He cannot reach us through knowledge alone. Knowing does not make us responsive; it cannot deliver us from our spiritual enemies; it cannot make us spiritual people. We must choose to watch and to listen and to act on what we hear, to hearken to what the Spirit says to us each day. In this way only do we allow the Lord to enter our life more fully. In this way only can He fight our battles, and free us, and bless us with His Divine life.
“Let it be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the Bechaim trees, then you shall stir yourself. For then the Lord will go out before you … ” (II Samuel 5:24). Amen.
Lessons: II Samuel 5:17-25; Luke 12:35-48; AC 6466-6467, 6469
Arcana Caelestia 6466-6467, 6469
At the end of the preceding chapters it was shown that each life with a human being, namely, the life of his thought and the life of his will, flows in from heaven, and this through the angels and spirits who are with him. But by flowing in from heaven is meant that it flows in by means of heaven from the Lord, for the all of life with the angels is from the Lord, which they themselves unanimously confess, being also in the perception that it is so. And since the all of life with the angels is from the Lord, the all of life with man is also from the Lord. For man is directed by means of angels and spirits in particular, and by means of heaven in general by the Lord.
From this it is evident that no person has life from himself, and therefore neither can he think and will from himself, for the life of a person consists in thinking and willing. For there is one only life, namely, that of the Lord, which flows into all, but is variously received, and this according to the quality which a person has induced on his soul by his life in the world. Hence with the evil, goods and truths are turned into evils and falsities; but with the good, goods are received as goods, and truths as truths. This may be compared to the light which flows into objects from the sun, which is diversely modified and variegated in the objects in accordance with the form of their parts, and hence is turned into colors either sorrowful or gladsome, thus in accordance with the quality. In a similar way, while a human being lives in this world he induces on the purest substances that belong to his interior person a quality, according to which the Lord’s life is received. Be it known that the life from the Lord is the life of love toward the universal human race.
It has also been given me to perceive by influx the sweetness which the angels perceive from the fact that they do not think and will from themselves but from the Lord. From this they have tranquillity, peace, and happiness. And when angels have inflowed so that I perceived it, the presence of the Lord has been plainly observed, a sign that they are in the Lord’s life. This it has been given to know from much experience. Once also when I was thinking of the influx of life from the Lord, and was revolving some doubts, it flowed in from heaven that no attention should be paid to thousands of objections and reasonings from fallacies.