Deborah - Conscience
A Sermon by Rev. J. Clark Echols, Jr.
“And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).
The New Church idea of conscience is very different from the popular conception. One might expect conscience to be portrayed by such stories as the inner voice that tells Abram to go into the desert to worship God by sacrificing his son. Or perhaps conscience is to be illustrated by the prophet Nathan who comes to David and, by means of a story about a poor man and his only lamb, exposes David’s sin in having Uriah killed in battle so that he could have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Or people may think that Peter’s despair at not acknowledging Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house is the pang of conscience.
These stories do not reveal the spiritual principles about conscience. They are all about the various aspects of temptation, not the elements of conscience. Temptation is the combat between evils from hell infesting the externals of our mind, and the goods insinuated in the interiors of the mind through the angels from the Lord. If we are to be regenerated, we must come into these combats, for they are the only means whereby the Lord may purify us of our evils and protect us from further infestation. The Lord is able to give us this protection when we turn to Him in His Word, and there learn the truths and goods of doctrine. When this faith, which is conscience, is applied to our life, the hereditary evils within us rebel. The evil spirits, which have their abode with us in the natural degree of our mind, try to prevent the goods and truths from leading us. There is a struggle for supremacy between the hells and the heavens. This is spiritual temptation, and is represented by the battles between the children of Israel, led by Deborah and Barak, and the Canaanites, led by Jabin and Sisera.
After the land of Canaan had been divided among the tribes of Israel, and after Joshua had died, there was a succession of leaders, each raised by the Lord to deliver the people out of the hands of an enemy. The book of Judges is the account of these leaders, of which Deborah was the third, and only woman, judge. The Lord provided for circumstances that would allow Deborah to come to be considered a prophet. Her rare sensitivities gave her the ability to give people information that were clearly messages from God. And so the people of the tribe of Ephraim would come to this woman, who could be found sitting under a specific tree–which would come to be called the “palm tree of Deborah”-–for her “wise judgments” (Judges 4:5).
And then the good King Ehud dies, and the children of Israel again do evil in the sight of the Lord. Because of their apostasy, He allows them to be oppressed by Jabin, King of Canaan, and his general, Sisera with his nine hundred iron clad chariots, which tells us that his army includes thousands of men who are very well equipped. So the Lord calls Deborah to be the new leader, the hero, to rescue the people.
In what must have been an unusual scene, Deborah sends a message to a man named Barak, that he is to come to her to receive a message. And in a message through her, the Lord calls Barak to be the general of an army to be raised from the tribes of Naphtali and Ephraim. She delivers a strong message of great, good news: that the Lord would deliver Sisera and his army into the hands of the Israelites led by Barak. But Barak balks. How could they ever defeat nine hundred ironclad chariots? He would not go into battle unless Deborah went also. Perhaps he wanted her there in the role of a talisman, a good luck charm. Or, he is wary of this woman prophet and judge. Or, he is not the kind of man who avails himself of seers. Perhaps she is making this up, using a trick of psychology to get the people stirred up enough to do something about the oppression of Jabin and Sisera. He wants her to put her life on the line as well. We can see this as cynical, but maybe he was practical.
In any case, Barak’s faith in the Lord is weak. He does not trust that the Lord would rout the enemy. He wasn’t alive in Joshua’s day, when that was a common experience. Perhaps his father fought with Ehud, eighty years before, when Jehovah last helped them in battle. Barak announces that he would not go into battle without the actual presence of the Lord’s prophetess. Deborah quickly and easily agrees to go. But, because of his cowardice, she says, Barak would not receive the honor of killing the enemy’s general.
The battle that ensues pits Sisera’s huge army of nine hundred chariots of iron against ten thousand poorly equipped Israelites. Emboldened by Deborah’s brave encouragement, and having the huge advantage of agility, the lightly armed Israelites charge down from the high ground, the Canaanite army turns and flees, and is picked off one by one, like sick animals separated from their herd. The Israelites win the battle because the Lord routs the Canaanites. By this complete victory, Israel is no longer oppressed by Jabin and the Canaanites, and there follows forty years of peace and prosperity.
Every battle in the Old Testament tells in the internal sense of a certain temptation. In our story today, Jabin, Sisera, and the Canaanites, represent evils and falsities that infest the mind. The Israelites represent goods and truths that the Lord uses to fight against what is evil and false. The Israelite General Barak represents the natural degree of our mind, the seat of our consciousness and the battleground of temptations. Deborah represents the spiritual degree of the mind and its conscience, given to us by the Lord when we read the Word and form our life according to the goods and truths of teachings from the Word. By looking closely at the literal and internal senses of our story, we can learn a particular lesson concerning the role of conscience in our regeneration.
In general, the Canaanites represent our hereditary evils. Because we are born with these evil inclinations, evil spirits from hell are able to infest our mind, oppressing us with negative thoughts about ourselves, about the Lord and about others. Those thoughts find a home, they find reception in our love of ourselves and the world, and then exalt those desires out of their proper place in our lives. Jabin and Sisera represent these evils and falsities that come forth into our thoughts, words and actions. And they represent all the false doctrines, the fantasies produced by the evil spirits, which are brought forth to justify our evils and make them appear true and intelligent. They make what is false appear to us as the only reasonable doctrine to be held.
The oppression of this evil is not evident to us at first. It is just the way things are. We have ongoing complaints, like how our spouse treats us, or how stupid people can be. Or we may not read the Word because it is too old fashioned. So we have our normal way of being that is comfortable, if not perfect. We need an inspiration, a leader, something to guide us, before we will recognize and fight against the evil loves and false ideas running our lives. Literally, we do evil in the sight of the Lord, and, like the Israelites, are ruled by the Canaanites–our hereditary inclinations.
The evil spirits bring us to this state because they are able to work themselves into our thoughts and affections by cunning means. We are not conscious of any oppression. We do not feel otherwise than that our evil delights are good delights. We do not know otherwise than that the falsities we have imbued are truths. This is a hard saying. But by ourselves, without the Word, we cannot know right from wrong, evil from good. Until Deborah spoke up, no one saw any need to do anything.
The Canaanite army represents the power of this falsity of hereditary evil. When this falsity is lived, it wars against any truths we have applied to our lives. In this way, the hells not only stir up our evil desires and thoughts, but also lead us to apply them in our acts. The hells are able to accomplish this by convincing our natural man–our conscious mind–that these falsities justify our evil loves. Their arguments are ironclad promises of happiness and satisfaction. And so it is that the army of hell and its chariots invade our consciousness, blocking the highways of our minds. The influx of the Lord is obscured and perverted, leaving us only with the light of the world to make the important, spiritual judgments of our lives. If this natural light was all we had, we could do no otherwise than cast ourselves into the slavery of hell.
To break this fall, and begin the rise to heaven, there must be a battle, a temptation. All temptation takes place on the natural degree of the mind. The combat takes place there because it is the plane receptive of both spiritual and natural things. The natural mind is the meeting place of the influxes from both heaven and hell. The natural mind is our conscious mind. Here the spiritual flows into the natural, and thereby makes thought possible. Yet the natural degree of the mind is in natural light, the light of the sun, and has only obscure spiritual light available to it. Because of this, a merely natural person, who does not attend to the things enlightened by spiritual light, is not capable of seeing clearly what is good or evil. Without the help of the Lord and His spiritual sun and its light, evil spirits would so insinuate themselves into our consciousness, that we would be blind as to what is good and true, and so could not be saved. We would have no strategy, no encouragement to do anything about what we have come to experience as the status quo.
Now the truth that can exist in our conscious mind, our natural mind, is represented by Barak. Barak is the leader of the Israelite army in its battle against the Canaanite army. He represents, therefore, the truth that fights against falsity; the truth which, when it is victorious in battle, condemns and dispels the falsity. Barak represents the truth as it is seen and understood by us; he represents truth in its applications to our life. So Barak is the antithesis of Sisera in both the literal sense and the internal sense, for they are the leaders of their armies and represent respectively truth and falsity in our consciousness.
We are able to recognize evil and falsity only when the truths we know are enlightened from within, from the spiritual degree of the mind. We must have an inner sight, giving us a sight of reality from above. Barak would not go into battle unless Deborah went also, because he knew that she had to be there for strategic reasons and for her prophetic voice, which the men would respond to. Deborah represents the spiritual light necessary to make the truth of the natural degree of our mind powerful and effective. She represents the truth of good, and in particular, the truth of our spiritual mind. It is the influence and presence of this spiritual truth that gives the natural truth represented by Barak the motivation and power to fight against the evils and falsities reigning in the natural degree of our mind, and so in our life.
We must gather and hold the knowledges of good and truth upon which all our faith is established. At first, these goods and truths are merely of the memory; they are merely intellectual. This natural faith does not motivate us to change our natural inclinations; for our natural loves are from our heredity, they are part of our make-up from birth, and are evil. The truths we gather, however, may be raised into the light of heaven, and given life by the heavenly conviction that they are true and are to be lived. In this way, the truths of the natural degree of our mind may be stirred to activity by the goods and truths of the spiritual mind. And then begins the battle within us between our hereditary inclinations, and the spiritual truth we see in the light of heaven; between the evils stirred up by the hells, and the conviction from within that these evils must be shunned. And we then feel the pang of conscience.
This conviction is our conscience and is represented by Deborah. Conscience is the good and truth from the Word established in our internal man. It is a faith in the Lord that is acquired from the Lord, and not from our own thoughts and desires. And it does not come from any innate goodness, but can only be acquired by learning and living the truths of the Word. As these matters of faith are implanted in our spiritual mind, the Lord gives us conscience that then protects the good and truth of faith we possess by giving us a desire not to go against our conscience. Conscience is then a dictate of what ought to be done, and in this way it governs our acts.
Conscience is an aspect of our intellect. When this intellect, or understanding, is raised into the light of heaven, the truth is perceived. This can be accomplished quite apart from our will. An evil person can understand the truth, but his climb into the light of heaven is only temporary. In such a state of enlightenment, the evil will, the hereditary will, is made quiet. Its urgings are dampened, its force lessened. Then, the truth of good, represented by Deborah, reigns in our spiritual mind. The light of heaven brings this enlightenment, and it brings the Lord’s presence. The hells that wish to flow in cannot abide this presence of the Lord, and so they rebel. They attack and try to pervert the truth in our natural consciousness, so that we will not obey our spiritual conscience. Sisera marshals his army, and the battle is begun.
This attack is felt in our conscience as a pain, a sting of conscience. The pain of conscience arises when our natural mind, with its lusts, is stirred up by the hells. We then feel in our conscience that we have thought or acted against our faith, in that we have thought or acted uncharitably. The hells produce an affection for evil in our consciousness, which is opposed to the good and truth from the Word we have already learned. The hells hold our thoughts in some falsity or failing we perceive in ourselves, and lead us to identify with what is evil in us. We see only that we are faced with an unbeatable enemy, whose strength is far greater than our own. In reality, we need not despair of our failings, and we can remember that the evil is from hell. But under this attack, our conscious mind, the natural degree, rises up against the spiritual degree and our conscience. This is spiritual temptation.
There is something of irony here, in that there would not have been this combat if we had not acquired a conscience. People without conscience have no worries, no anxieties. But they are empty of life, and often must be separated from society. And what is more, only by continuing to adhere to the dictates of conscience do we allow the Lord to defeat the hells we noticed in ourselves only because we have conscience. In our story, Deborah was used by the Lord to inspire the people to revolt against the tyranny of Jabin. It therefore rightly fell upon Deborah to insure the Lord’s presence with the people by going into battle with them. With her there, the Lord was present and so able to defeat Sisera and his army by the hands of the Israelites.
And so it is with us. Conscience is formed from a knowledge and acknowledgement of the goods and truths of faith from the Word. The conscience given to us is a knowledge of what ought to be done. As we seek to obey the dictates of conscience, the hells will oppress and attack us, perverting and clouding the truths of our conscience. The hells will bring despair upon us, and try to break us of our convictions. If we rely solely on our natural understanding, on our own deliberations as to what is good and true, our view of the situation in our lives will be that which the hells have formed in us. We will be subtly and with cunning, turned from the true path of charity. But if we turn to the faith and love from the Word which is our conscience; when we are guided by this internal dictate; we are actually being led by the Lord who gives us strength to withstand the despair of temptation’s battle. He will rout the enemy. In this way we humble ourselves and our conscious thoughts and actions to the ordering truth of the Lord. And He will rout the evil, breaking their attack. The pain of our conscience subsides, and a new peace follows. We all would benefit from reading Deborah’s victory song in chapter 5 of Judges. We can join Deborah in her chant when she sings: “Let all Your enemies perish, O Lord; and let those who love You be as the sun when it comes out in full strength.” (Judges 5:3l)
Lessons: Judges 4; True Christian Religion n.666: "Conscience regarded in itself is not any distress, but is a spiritual willingness to do what religion and faith dictate. Thus it is that those who enjoy a conscience live in tranquil peace and inward blessedness when they act according to conscience, and in some unease when they act against it. The mental distress you thought was conscience is not that, but is temptation, the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. When temptation is spiritual, it draws support from conscience.
"All who have a conscience speak from the heart when they speak, and act from the heart when they act; for they have their minds undivided, speaking and doing according to what they understand and believe truth and good to be. From this it follows that a more perfect conscience is possible for those who excel others in their possession of the truths of faith, and have a clearer perception, than for those who are less enlightened and have only dim perception. It is in true conscience that a person's actual spiritual life resides, for there his faith is linked to charity."