Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis
Chapter 1 – Introduction
Lewis starts us off by saying that we must read the Psalms as poetry: “with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperbole, the emotional rather than logical connections which are proper to lyric poetry.” He warns us about the parallelism used in the Psalms and to really dig into the two renderings of the one thought – and not try to make two thoughts out of them.
Chapter 2 – “Judgement” in the Psalms
He then takes the Psalmists to task: Commenting on Psalm 7:8
The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me
he says that: “this represents the fatal confusion between being in the right and being righteous.” We are not to fall into that trap.
Chapter 3 – Cursings
Lewis starts by looking at Psalm 109. This is the prototype of an imprecatory Psalm. Lewis, as do most of us, finds these disquieting at best. We find these “cursings” in the midst of Psalms we love (like Psalm 143 and 139) as well as buried in the most beloved Psalms (preparing a table in the presence of my enemies means to feed me while they have to just look on – according to Lewis).
Lewis calls these “terrible” and “contemptible.” He says we cannot just leave them alone and dismiss them but must find a use for them. We must not explain them away or yield to the thought that because they are in the Bible, “all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious.” We have to admit that “the hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passion in ourselves.”
Here are Lewis’ observations:
- These are feelings that we all know all too well. And we can use these parts of the Psalms to examine if these feelings are in our own hearts. “We are all blood-brothers to these ferocious self-pitying, barbaric men.”
- We can use these rants to see “the natural results of injuring a human being.” We arouse these kind of feelings when we lie about another or put them down or keep them down. “Such hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, by a sort of natural law, produce.”
- “The reaction of the Psalmist to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong.” We cannot say they knew better. The law is clear that the Psalmist is profoundly wrong in wanting the destruction of the babies of our enemies. (Lev 19:17-18; Ex 23:4-5; Prov 24:17; Prov 25:21).
- Lewis does not find this kind of hatred expressed in Pagan authors (Greek, Roman, or Norse). The Psalms are “more vindictive and more vitriolic than the Pagan” writings. Why is that? He explains it by saying that “the Jews sinned in this matter worse than the Pagans not because there were further from God but because they were nearer to Him. They were aware of how bad sin was and thus their emotions were more deeply felt. He recalls a time traveling with a group of soldiers during World War II and hearing them talk about the “supposed” Nazi atrocities. They dismissed them as Allied propaganda to motivate the troops. What surprised Lewis was that they were not in the slightest upset with their authorities for doing this to them. He said that the raw emotion expressed by the Psalmist is better than the indifference of these soldiers to supposedly being manipulated by their superiors. “If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously.”
- Thus “we can still see, in the worst of their maledictions, how these old poets were, in a sense, near to God.”
- “the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God.”
- Thus in these imprecatory Psalms, “His words sounds through.”
Chapter 4 Death in the Psalms
Lewis feels that our Christian ancestors “seem to have read the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament under the impression that the authors wrote with a pretty full understanding of Christian Theology.” He believes this to be a false assumption. One area in the Psalms is the area of death. One is hard pressed to find the promise of the afterlife in the Psalms. Clearly we are not to read them as a counter to the resurrection.
Chapter 5 The Fair Beauty of the Lord
“The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.” This is most remarkable in that “These poets knew far less reason than we for loving God.” We are to allow the love that these poets express towards God to seep into the very fabric of our being. Angels longed to see what we see and what they did not. Yet few extol the fair beauty of the Lord as do these poets.
Chapter 6 Sweeter than Honey
Lewis asks – why is the law seen as so sweet? One approach would be to see that the laws given by God were so much more beautiful and sweeter than their Pagan neighbor’s laws. He says that we can connect with that today. “None of the new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.” Can we see the wonderful beauty and sweet honey of God’s law? Steep ourselves into the rich love of the law by these poets.
Chapter 7 Connivance
Lewis here address the problem where the Psalms view other people as not made in the image of God but really bad people. We are not to learn the ways of the Psalmist in this area.
Chapter 8 Nature
Lewis address how Nature is stripped of its divinity as extolled in the pagan poets but then is made a manifestation of the Divine. Lewis claims that no poetry in any pagan culture praises Nature in this way. “Paganism in general fails to get out of nature something the Jews got.” He only found one instance that is contrary: A poem from the 14th century BC entitled Hymn to the Sun. What is unique is that it is written by a Pharaoh who broke away from polytheism and tried to establish the worship of a single creator God. Is there something about monotheism that enables us to see Nature as a manifestation of the Divine?
Chapter 9 A Word about Praising
In this chapter Lewis addresses the conflict he (and many others) have had with the notion that God demands our praise. It is everywhere in the Psalms. He first addresses the question by speaking about how we deal with inanimate objects like a painting. A beautiful painting should be admired. If one doesn’t admire it, there is something deficient in you. The painting “demands” praise. That is the first sense in which God demands praise.
But Lewis takes us to a second argument. In some mysterious way, “it is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates His presence to men.” He admits that it is a “miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship…” He says, that “even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.”
Then he takes it another level. He says that “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…” We praise so many things when we enjoy them: the weather; a good meal; a good friend and so on. And “praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” People with inner health are expressive when in the presence of beauty or greatness. In areas where or times when we are broken, we miss the marvelous and praise does not flow out audibly
And when we praise something, we inevitably invite others into it. “Wasn’t it glorious?” “The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.” “Praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.”
Chapter 10 Second Meanings
Lewis now goes to a much more complicated question and which therefore requires a much more nuanced argument. There are many things in the New Testament theology that can be read into the Psalms (a classic error for a modern evangelical). Lewis talks about how many fanciful and intelligent and creative things have been read into his writings. Some so “ingenious and interesting that I often wish I had thought of them myself.” Lewis wants us to be quick not to throw out all second meanings “as rubbish.” I will try to do Lewis justice – but it would be best if you read his argument yourself.
Lewis starts with an illustration recounted by a Roman historian. Apparently there was a fire in a town that originated in one of the public baths. There was a patron of the baths who complained to an attendant that the water was not hot enough. The attendant said “it will soon be hot enough.” If the fire was an accident, then clearly the attendant said something with more truth in it than he intended. But “there need be nothing here but chance coincidence” unless the attendant was involved in an arson.
But a stickier wicket is a poem by Virgil written just before the birth of Christ:
The great procession of the ages begins anew
Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn [lost age of innocence and peace] returns,
And the new child is sent down from the high heaven.
“The poem goes on to describe the paradisial age which this nativity will usher in.” This could be poetically a prophetic description of the birth of Jesus. And throughout the Middle Ages was so interpreted. What are we to make of that? Is it the same as the bath attendant and just a lucky guess?
Lewis offers three thought experiments of the imagination adding up to a total of five examples.
- A Spirit-filled man with a track record of accurate prophesy, claims that somewhere in the universe there exists some hideous creature (with specifics). Years later, as space is explored, we find such a creature.
- A sci-fi writer with no religious or scientific background describes a different creature. Years later we find just such a creature.
- A biologist posits through scientific reasoning, that given a particular environment, such and such a creature would exist in that environment. [Something like Dr. Monica Grady has proposed for Jupiter’s moon Europa]. Again, years from now, we find just such a creature in that specific environment.
These five cases all portray a predictive power – ranging from random chance (the bath attendant) to a scientific possibility come true.
Lewis explores something more like the biologists prediction in his final example: Plato. In his Republic, Plato philosophically explores the true meaning of righteousness. And to do so, he strips it of all the positive things a righteous person might receive: honor, popularity, etc. To see true righteousness, we must see a truly righteous man treated as a man as “a monster of wickedness.” How would society treat such a truly righteous man:
They will say that the just person in such circumstances will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with a red-hot iron, and, at the end, when he has suffered every sort of bad thing, he will be impaled [placed on a stick to die or the Persian equivalent to crucifixion], and will realize then that one should not want to be just, but to be believed to be just.
This comparison to what happened to Jesus was not missed by the early church Fathers. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian noted it. But for Lewis, he sees this as a pagan finding truth through common grace. “Virgil …and the slave in the bath almost certainly were, “talking about something else… Plato is talking, and knows he is talking, about the fate of goodness in a wicked and misunderstanding world… If Plato … was led on to see the possibility of the perfect example [of a righteous person], and thus to depict something extremely like the Passion,” it was not by chance or by prophetic gifting but by a knowledge of truth.
All of this plays into how we read the Psalms and how there appears to be so much New Testament theology in them. But that is the topic for the next chapter.
Chapter 11 Scripture
In this chapter, Lewis expresses his view on the authority of Scripture. Frankly, his view was a little higher than I expected it to be. Lewis says the Scriptures are:
- Inspired by God
- “The Oracles of God” (Romans 3:2)
He also doesn’t have a problem with the stories of creation from the book of Genesis to be “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.” He believes that the stories were molded and shaped by “the Father of Lights.” “When a series of such re-tellings turn a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.” He believes that all of the forms of the Old Testament are “taken into the service of God’s word.” He describes God’s influence as a “Divine pressure” on the writers. He uses the way Jesus taught as instructive for how the Old Testament was formed. Jesus did not use didactic rational reasons but stories and allegories and comparisons. “He preaches but He does not lecture.”
He then goes on to explain how this relates to the Psalms:
Certainly it seems to me that from having had to reach what is really the Voice of God in the cursing Psalms through all the horrible distortions of the human medium, I have gained something I might not have gained from a flawless, ethical exposition. The shadows have indicated (at least to my heart) something more about the light. Nor would I (now) willingly spare from my Bible something in itself so anti-religious as the nihilism of Ecclesiastes. We get there a clear, cold picture of man’s life without God. That statement is itself part of God’s word. We need to have heard it. Even to have assimilated Ecclesiastes and no other book in the Bible would be to have advanced further towards truth than some men do.
In the same way, we need to hear the “cursings” of the Psalmist because they show our own heart like no other ethical exposition can.
Lewis also makes an important point about how Jesus used the Psalms. Jesus said that the Psalms spoke clearly about Him and that was most important to Lewis.
Chapter 12 Second Meaning in the Psalms
He tells us that the Psalms present us with two figures: “that of the sufferer and that of the conquering and liberating king.” He relates that the Jews took the sufferer to be Israel and the king the Messiah. From these images, Lewis addresses the fact that much of the second meanings in the Psalms are allegorical. But he warns us that “this does not mean that all the countless applications of [the allegorical] are fruitful, legitimate, or even rational.”