I recently had the opportunity to lead a discussion on the topic of Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) 88 in which we delved into the subject of the multiple kingdoms of glory as they are described in that section. That discussion reminded me of some material I had posted on Heavenly Ascents a few years back. I went back and reread that post and thought it would be nice to revisit it here.
D&C 88 discusses the idea that God has filled his Creation with various “kingdoms” that can be inhabited by his children. Verse 37 states:
37 And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
This declaration suggests that the cosmos is somehow divided up into various kingdoms and that within these kingdoms are subdivisions that constitute smaller kingdoms within the larger ones. The revelation describes how these are categorized by their degree of glory — celestial, terrestrial, telestial, or no glory — and how God’s children become assigned to a specific type of kingdom based on their adherence to the laws designated for each type. In verse 47, the revelation states that all of these kingdoms, although they be inhabited by mankind, are subject to God.
47 Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
Although God himself reigns over all of the kingdoms as King of kings and Lord of lords, He has prepared these kingdoms for his children to inherit. The revelation presents the example of the Earth and declares that it will be sanctified and “celestialized.” Inhabitants that live the law of celestial glory will, when they have been resurrected and obtained that glory, inherit the celestial Earth.
26 Wherefore, it shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it.
27 For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body.
28 They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened.
29 Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
The ideas presented in D&C 88 reminded me of a concept found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (and elsewhere) which concerns the idea that there are several levels of heaven and that each level has an appointed chief or guardian who rules over it. This is actually a fairly common theme in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical literature (See, for example, the Jewish Hekhalot literature or the Jewish/Christian Ascension of Isaiah). As one ascends to the throne of God in the highest heaven, one must pass first through the several (usually seven) firmaments or “sub-heavens” before reaching the highest, where God is present. Each level is generally inhabited by a different class of angels, and in many texts, there is a principal angel or guardian who guards the door to the next level and who sometimes is depicted as having his own throne.
Before I get into some more specific details regarding how this motif is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I want to share another latter-day parallel to this ancient type of thinking.
This following “Diagram of the Kingdom of God” was done by early LDS apostle Orson Hyde for the church published Millenial Star in England (January 15th, 1847; 9:23-24).
The above diagram shows the order and unity of the kingdom of God. The eternal Father sits at the head, crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. Wherever the other lines meet, there sits a king and a priest unto God, bearing rule, authority, and dominion under the Father. He is one with the Father, because his kingdom is joined to his Father’s and becomes part of it.
The most eminent and distinguished prophets who have laid down their lives for their testimony (Jesus among the rest), will be crowned at the head of the largest kingdoms under the Father, and will be one with Christ as Christ is one with his Father; for their kingdoms are all joined together, and such as do the will of the Father, the same are his mothers, sisters, and brothers. He that has been faithful over a few things, will be made ruler over many things; he that has been faithful over ten talents, shall have dominion over ten cities, and he that has been faithful over five talents, shall have dominion over five cities, and to every man will be given a kingdom and a dominion, according to his merit, powers, and abilities to govern and control. It will be seen by the above diagram that there are kingdoms of all sizes, an infinite variety to suit all grades of merit and ability. The chosen vessels unto God are the kings and priests that are placed at the head of these kingdoms. These have received their washings and anointings in the temple of God on this earth; they have been chosen, ordained, and anointed kings and priests, to reign as such in the resurrection of the just. Such as have not received the fulness of the priesthood, (for the fulness of the priesthood includes the authority of both king and priest) and have not been anointed and ordained in the temple of the Most High, may obtain salvation in the celestial kingdom, but not a celestial crown. Many are called to enjoy a celestial glory, yet few are chosen to wear a celestial crown, or rather, to be rulers in the celestial kingdom.
While this portion of eternity that we now live in, called time, continues, and while the other portions of eternity that we may hereafter dwell in, continue, those lines in the foregoing diagram, representing kingdoms, will continue to extend and be lengthened out; and thus, the increase of our kingdoms will increase the kingdom of our God, even as Daniel hath said: “of the increase of his kingdom and government there shall be no end.” All these kingdoms are one kingdom, and there is a King over kings, and a Lord over lords. There are Lords many, and Gods many, for they are called Gods to whom the word of God comes, and the word of God comes to all these kings and priests. But to our branch of the kingdom there is but one God, to whom we all owe the most perfect submission and loyalty; yet our God is just as subject to still higher intelligences, as we should be to him.
…These kingdoms, which are one kingdom, are designed to extend till they not only embrace this world, but every other planet that rolls in the blue vault of heaven. Thus will all things be gathered in one during the dispensation of the fulness of times, and the Saints will not only possess the earth, but all things else, for, says Paul, “All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come: all are yours, and ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s”
(Orson Hyde, “A Diagram of the Kingdom of God,” Millennial Star 9 [15 January 1847]: 23-24).1
For Orson Hyde, whose speculations may have been based on D&C 88 and other similar teachings, our Heavenly Father’s kingdom is divided up into a hierarchy of sub-kingdoms, each having “a king and a priest” presiding over them, under the direction of the King of kings and God of gods. The rulers over these lower divisions of heaven are called gods and reign over their own kingdoms. They are one with the Father because their kingdom is part of the Father’s.
Going back to the similar idea in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I want to consider primarily the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a set of liturgical texts found in Cave 4 of Qumran and elsewhere. The Songs are portrayed as a description of the angelic worship that goes on in the heavenly temple. It is set up as a sort of cultic drama that would lead the earthly participants through the various levels of heaven, moving inwards/upwards with each song until they reach the throne room of God in the highest heaven. That is a very meager description of the rich detail presented in these songs, but that is the main idea. Each song is to be presented on one of a series of thirteen sabbaths so that each sabbath the priestly participants move to a new stage of the ritual.
In his study on the liturgical works found at Qumran, James Davila attempts to reconstruct how those who performed these rituals would have seen the structure of the heavens:
A possible reconstruction is that seven firmaments are envisioned, each of which has its own sanctuary containing its own inner chamber (holy of holies) and administered by its own high-priestly chief prince. Multiple chariots and thrones are mentioned as well (e.g., XI 4Q405 20ii-21-22:2-5; XIII 11Q17 x:7), so perhaps each sanctuary has one of these, presumably ridden or occupied by its chief prince.
The final inner chamber, the central throne room [is] inhabited by God himself. In this room we find the structure of the throne-chariot located above the firmament of the cherubim. It may be that the heavenly sacrificial cult is carried out in the tabernacle of the exalted chief (VII 4Q403 1ii:10), perhaps the angelic priest and warrior angel Melchizedek, who sits on a seat like the throne of God’s kingdom (XI 4Q405 20ii-21-22:2)((Davila, James R. Liturgical Works. Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 84)).
If I understand Davila’s description correctly, the idea is that there are multiple levels of heaven under the highest heaven. Each sub-heaven is modeled after the highest, each having its own god-like ruler who sits on his own chariot-throne in a holy of holies similar to the Most High God’s.
Interestingly, the Songs depict a secondary exalted/angelic figure who is in charge of the rituals/sacrifices that are being performed in the highest heaven. Davila suggests that in the Songs this figure was likely seen as “the angelic priest and warrior angel Melchizedek.” This head of the heavenly cult is depicted elsewhere as Enoch/Metratron, Michael, and, in Christian literature, as Jesus Christ.
Later, he expands more on the idea of this latter idea, suggesting that there are “secondary princes” that rule under each of the chiefs of the sub-heavens, as well. After comparing the notion of the rulers of the lower heavens to similar themes in the Jewish Hekhalot literature (which depict chiefs of the gates of the lower heavenly palaces), he concludes:
Perhaps in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice the seven chief princes and seven secondary princes preside together over the seven priesthoods (VIII 4Q403 1ii:20, 22) in the seven sanctuaries (VII 4Q405 7:7), although the reconstructions in the last three references are not certain ((Davila, 121)).
So, in each lower “kingdom,” there is a god-like ruler and each of these has a secondary high priestly figure under him. In other words, perhaps we could say that each level has a god and a christ.
All this talk of multiple gods and sub-gods may sound very uncharacteristic of the monotheistic Judaism that most people are familiar with. That is the wonder of these discoveries of the Judaean desert! There was much more to Judaism, or certain sects of Judaism, than is attested to in the later Rabbinic version of the religion. In certain texts found at Qumran, the term elohim is used very broadly, both to refer to God and also very often to other divine beings, whom we would usually refer to as angels.
The Most High God (God the Father), while sometimes called Elohim, is more often referred to as El in the Qumran literature. But frequently elohim is used as a plural, referring to angelic beings. Many scholars recognize this distinction and have often translated the term into English as “divinities” or “gods” instead of angels2.
Besides being a common term for angels, many texts seem to suggest that the chiefest among the “gods” are actually exalted human beings. The text termed the “Self-Glorification Hymn” appears to depict a human author who claims to have been exalted above the angels and allowed to sit on a throne in heaven in the council of the gods.
Furthermore, the “secondary prince” of the highest heaven, the chief of all angels, is often seen as an exalted human. As mentioned before, some later texts see this figure as Enoch, who is exalted and transformed into the angel Metatron. Enoch/Metatron is given his own throne in heaven and guards the entrance. The transformation/exaltation of Enoch, Levi, and others are noted in documents found at Qumran. The figure of Melchizedek is mentioned as an exalted angelic figure, although it is difficult to know if this is the same Melchizedek as is mentioned in the book of Genesis (Davila seems to think it is).
The parallels between D&C 88 (also D&C 76, 132, and others) along with Orson Hyde’s conceptualization of the hierarchy of the heavens and the multi-tiered heavens of ancient Jewish and Christian literature are very interesting. Although Joseph Smith was dealing with a much larger conception of the extent of the cosmos than were the early Jewish and Christian thinkers, and there are many differences in the details, the similarities in the dynamics of how each of those heavens is governed and how each is a different degree of glory is pretty amazing.