Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: The Symbolism of the Psalms, A Spiritual Commentary

I recently authored a book, The Symbolism of the Psalms, which is a comprehensive spiritual commentary on Psalms 1-41 based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. It is also a new translation of the Psalms based on modern Biblical research, which affects the interpretation of certain passages. I have been waiting for the right moment to publish volumes 2 and 3, but I am currently involved in investigating some secret numerical codes hidden in the Psalms which I discovered by analyzing Hebrew poetic structures of the Psalms, and it is becoming a completely separate work in itself (thus the lack of blog posts). A reader of this blog, David Deaton, decided to write a book review, and after several attempts at finding an avenue for publication I suggested I could post it here on this blog.  Here is the full review, unedited, although I am tempted to explain the hidden meaning behind the book cover [hint, read the back cover]:

Book Review-

The Symbolism of the Psalms: A Spiritual Commentary
Volume 1 (Psalms 1-41)
Theodore D. Webber
Apocryphile Press, 2017, 557 pp.

It’s hard to believe that one of the greatest achievements of New Church collateral literature has just been made by a person with no extraordinary academic qualifications or even formal affiliation to the organized New Church, but the proof is in the reading...

Those who are curious as to the author’s background may know that Theodore D. Webber has a degree in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley and has made his living these last twenty years as an IT director at a large financial firm in New Jersey. During his off-hours, Webber maintains an eclectic, religiously-themed blog called “Spirituality, Dreams and Prophecy,” which can be visited at:

In brief, Webber has done for the book of Psalms what Emmanuel Swedenborg, has done for the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Revelation, in providing a detailed exegesis of Sacred Scripture, using the very system of correspondences revealed to Swedenborg. When Webber’s work is published in full, it will comprise three stout volumes of textual analysis, most of which is drawn directly from the Writings themselves. References scattered over thirty volumes of the Rotch Edition will be gathered into one easily accessed collection. “This work brings together this information to create a comprehensive spiritual commentary for each Psalm,” writes Webber. “In this manner, scripture is used to systematically explain scripture.”

In his excellent introduction “The Spiritual Meaning of the Psalms,” Webber poses this challenge to any prospective reader who may never before have heard of the Writings. “Most who read the Bible take it on faith, or on the basis of church authority and tradition, that it is Divinely inspired. But what about a systematic proof, using internal evidence from the text itself, to demonstrate that it is indeed Divinely inspired?”

Webber answers his own challenge by deciphering the variously authored Old Testament liturgy known as the book of Psalms to show its internal consistency. For each and every Psalm, he provides his own fresh translation, a terse summary taken straight from the treatise informally known as Prophets and Psalms (contained in Posthumous Theological Works, Vol. 2), and then an exhaustive exposition proceeding line-by-line, sometimes word-by-word, replete with copious biblical cross-references. There’s everything here but the sheet music! (Not available to us, anyway.)

Webber does more than collate scattered references to the Psalms into one harmonious whole. The man can write as surely as he can edit, and, when the text demands greater clarity, he thinks for himself. Below is a brief example of Webber’s editorial grappling, which, whether one agrees with it or not, demonstrates that one can have an independent mind and still be (to use an old-fashioned term) a true New Churchman:

But You have made him a little lower than God,
And have crowned him with glory and grandeur.  (Ps. 8:5)

The word for “God” is mistranslated as “angels” in most translations to make this Psalm refer to mankind in general. However this is a prophecy concerning the coming of the Lord, who lowered Himself to become incarnate in human form and is thus described as “a little lower than God.” The elevation of His human form to Divinity is then described as being crowned, which also signifies a state of wisdom from love. [Scriptural citations follow.] To give glory and grandeur means to ascribe all truth and good to the Lord.

Let it stay moot just which translation of the word Elohim is the more accurate. Webber’s observation is clear and concise, and does not distract from the rest of his commentary, solidly based on the Writings. What else matters? It isn’t often that Webber asserts himself over received opinion and conventional translation, but he never does so without providing just cause and due diligence. In such instances, it’s exhilarating to see familiar material explored by an original mind.

I learned something profoundly new when I read Webber’s analysis of the much loved 23rd Psalm, especially his parsing of “Your rod and staff comfort me.” I was made to realize that rod (often made of iron) corresponds to truth while a staff (usually made of wood) corresponds to good, both of which we receive from the Lord when we allow Him to shepherd us. Maybe these correspondences have been expounded elsewhere, but it was Webber’s explanation that finally unfolded the meaning of this familiar line to me. I’m still pondering the heartening implications of the word, “comfort,” which I learned means “to protect.” Now apply the same meaning of that word to the mysterious Divine function sometimes referred to as “The Comforter.” Consider that with the Lord’s Glorification, in which He assumed Divinely Human power, He can protect us that much more. What a comforting thought! Such insights fulfill Webber’s promise at the outset of his tome: “Once one’s mind becomes abstracted from the literal sense, it is lifted up towards higher concepts of love and truth, and the most obscure passages become relevant to one’s everyday life.”

We in the New Church know that beyond everyday life, the Psalms refer to the greatest—indeed the only—life ever lived. Were it not for the Writings, we might never guess at the genuinely merciful spirit behind the so-called “vengeful Psalms,” of which even their composers were apparently unaware. It is no mere background information to be apprised that “David” represents the Lord as to His Divine Human—God become man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Some readers have been put off by David’s all-too human failings, which can make his apparent self-righteousness expressed in the Psalms that much more insufferable. It helps us to know that what may appear as self-pitying complaining or vindictive score-settling reflects a deeper reality of the Lord’s direful spiritual combats against the hells. While David was fighting for his life and reputation, the Lord on earth was fighting to rescue the human race from total damnation. So severe were the Lord’s spiritual struggles (known to us by the mild term “temptations”), only the highly charged language of the Psalms can give us some idea of what He suffered on our behalf. Keeping this thought in mind raises even the most bloody-minded Psalm into a higher dimension. The personal becomes metaphysical.

Elaborating on this point, Webber produces a list of prophecies recorded therein that Jesus literally fulfilled while on earth—but then draws up a list of prophecies seemingly not fulfilled by Him. How are we to understand the latter? “Many now” he relates, “assume these will be fulfilled in the future when He returns in the Second Coming. But is this the proper way to interpret these prophecies, that God will come in anger to judge the world, destroy the wicked by fire, and rule over the kingdoms of the earth?”

This is no idle question when one ponders the vast popularity of the Left Behind fiction series or such “apocalyptic” works as The Late Great Planet Earth, whose author, Hal Lindsey, was invited to lecture on the imminence of Armageddon to high-level personnel at the Pentagon. Only a deeper, more spiritual understanding of Scripture may save us from the designs of a Military-Eschatological Complex. It can only be hoped that Jewish apocalypticians, who have great influence on the government of Israel, may yet become acquainted with a more enlightened interpretation of the Psalms. They are still focused on religious and geo-political conflict, rather than spiritual warfare. Some zealots have taken Psalm 83 in particular as a literal, Divinely-mandated prescription for all-out war on each of Israel’s neighbors. When the world understands that our real enemies are not those of other nations, but the evils and falsities of own selfish nature, it will become a safer place—and not a moment too soon!

While there is so much to say in praise of Webber’s magnificent work, no author’s book is perfect, especially one that seems to be one notch above being self-published. At the risk of appearing petty, it must be noted that his manuscript could have benefited from the oversight of a keen copy-editor: typographical errors abound. Not to call it an error, but it takes some getting used to Webber’s reference to Heavenly Arcana, which seems like a compromise between the Latin title Arcana Coelestia and the New Century Edition title Secrets of Heaven. I prefer the old familiar titles, and so does Webber, apparently, with this exception. If only for the sake of consistency, it’s too bad he didn’t stay with the titles listed in the Rotch Edition, which would have enabled him to use abbreviated titles for the Writings, a real space-saver.

It must be said that in its ambition to be as compendious as Pott’s Concordance, there occurs some unnecessary repetition of material from the Writings. Textual redundancy can give this opus the feel of a generalized cut-and-paste job, which is all but inevitable with a one-man publishing project. O for a professional editor, who knows just when and where to prune!

Here’s an example of what I mean:

From your rebuke, Jehovah,
From the breath of the spirit of Your nostrils. (Ps. 18:15)
A pithy commentary follows (scriptural references removed): “The rebuke of Jehovah is the punishment of evil; wind or breath of the Lord signifies Divine influx of the truth into the lower regions which punishes the falsehood of evil; spirit signifies Divine truth.”

Well said. But since some words have not yet been expounded (i.e. “breath”), there follow four more pages of biblical citation, quotation, and explication for just this one verse. Untried readers of the Writings may feel they’re being subjected to expository overkill. Sometimes less is more. When Webber has completed his multi-volume exegesis of all 150 Psalms, he might consider publishing a single condensed commentary of their internal sense, which may have wider appeal for first-time and even well-versed readers.

Finally, there is the question of the book’s cover. It’s a lovely picture, to be sure, but what is it doing on a staid reference text?

All of the above are quibbles, however, compared to the magnitude of Webber’s achievement. There is nothing said here in the way of criticism that can’t be fixed in a second edition, which surely deserves to happen.

New Church scholars may have stronger objections other than those raised here. If so, they should make their suggestions to the author while it is still a work-in-progress—or publish something of comparable scope and depth. For now at least, especially given its inspired content, this rendition of the Psalms stands above all others. This is a noble work, a labor of love, and a worthy addition to any New Church library.

Whether or not it is noticed by mainstream theological schools, The Symbolism of the Psalms deserves to be recognized as a major contribution to biblical hermeneutics. Here is an opportunity for those unacquainted with the Writings to learn the language of correspondences, whereby even more challenging portions of the Bible can become understandable to them. Imagine the thrill of realizing that the Symbolism of the Psalms, far from being an arbitrary interpretation, reveals a code of such surpassing ingenuity, it can only be Divine—and it applies to all of the rest of the Lord’s own Word, making it at last an open book for humanity!

We in the New Church cannot be so thrilled. The Symbolism of the Psalms is old news to us.
But this book is new—brand new—and should give cause for gratitude and wonder to anyone who reads it.

David Brooks Deaton

Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments, questions, corrections and opinions welcome...