REFLECTIONS ON THE PSALMS
by C. S. Lewis
The Reflections on the Psalms may be C. S. Lewis’ most forthright attempt at Biblical commentary and theology. In typical understated fashion, Lewis introduces himself to the reader as one unlearned amateur to another. Any seasoned Lewis reader may be tempted to wonder if the author was utilizing tapeinosis to enhance the obvious and foreshadow the literary devices he soon explores. Lewis continues by announcing the work as a non-apologetic, non-instructive discussion among friends comparing notes. The author astutely recognizes the definition of friend may be suspect in a community as dangerous as one labeled theological, and determines it necessary to clarify an expectation of a diverse audience extending from Roman Catholic to Fundamentalist. And with a possible hint of priggery, which he so faithfully opposes, Lewis cleverly suggests his riskiest opposition may be those believers who are not completely believers, but tension is quickly relieved through Lewis’ characteristic self-deprecation.
The Reflections on the Psalms provides a unique perspective by examining several overarching themes of the Psalms and exploring their theological and practical implications through the lens of literary device and background. In contrast, Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms and Derek Kidner’s dual volume Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary present a passage-by-passage interpretation of the text. Hermann Gunkel, however, presents a form critical approach emphasizing genres of the Psalms in his Introduction to the Psalms. A framework for modern Psalms study is provided by Mowinckel with an exploration of various types and connections to ancient festivals in The Psalms in Israel’s Worship. Claus Westermann’s work, Psalms, has provided a foundation of study based on praise and lament. Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton and Answering God by Eugene Peterson both focus on utilizing the Psalms as a tool for prayer, while Tremper Longman’s How to Read the Psalms describes the Psalms’ relationship to Hebrew worship and the rest of the canon. Finally, and potentially most similar to the Reflections on the Psalms is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditations on Psalms which attempts to grapple with the eternal truths of the Psalter and apply them to life.
Like a disciplined child plunging a fork into spinach as soon as his dinner plate lands, Lewis is prompted to begin with the darkest and possibly most difficult topics which include judgment, cursings, and death. The contrast between the Jewish and Christian view of judgment is addressed first using the analogy of a court. Christians perceive judgment as a defendant in a criminal trial fearing the worst, while Jews identify with the plaintiff in a civil case hoping for a large payoff. And although it may be troublesome for modern day Christians to comprehend the excitement and longing for judgment against Jewish enemies, it may also be difficult for them to deeply appreciate God as a champion without a near eastern historical perspective. However, Lewis insightfully highlights the inherent risks associated with the Jewish perspective by recognizing the ease with which it leads to the self-righteousness evident in future Jewish sects.
The difficulty of understanding the hatred in the Psalter may tempt one to ignore the topic altogether. Alternatively, various insightful observations are offered such as the subtlety of Christian hate which is possibly more damaging than the unbridled honesty of the ancient Hebrews. And although Christians may blame Jewish hatred on the ignorance of a Christian moral ethic, it would hold little weight in light of the clear direction of the Torah. Lewis furthers his argument by purporting that Jewish hatred appears at times to surpass the pagans, but quickly explains the reasonableness of the irony by illuminating the seriousness by which the Jews viewed right and wrong. And though Lewis suggests a divine thread of reason within the Psalmists’ hate by extrapolating it to sin and not the sinner, a clear warning of false justification is also announced by proclaiming that, “of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”
The final discussion of the dark beginning reminds the reader that a belief in a resurrected afterlife did not exist in much of the Old Testament. Instead, a belief in Sheol, a dark destination for the dead, was considered unavoidable. However, it appears the Jews’ belief in life after death progressed as the time of Christ approached. Lewis hypothesizes God may have intentionally withheld the revelation of a next life from ancient history to emphasize the complete reliance on God in the present, without risking an unintended diversion of attention to the future.
The dimly lit room appears to brighten significantly as a discussion ensues regarding the beauty of the Lord and the sweetness of honey, but the topic of false worship and the definition of honey soon paint a more serious portrait than what one first expects. First, Lewis references the importance of learning which took place in the synagogues and then highlights the delight of God, comparable to the joy of a child at Christmas, which was experienced in the Temple. However, a warning associated with separating sacrifice from celebration ensues as Lewis explains that God abhors stiff commercial transactions for the sake of compliance at the expense of relational appreciation and desire for God. A sweet discussion of God’s Law soon commences and the possibility of delighting in the Law as a scholar would delight in the subject of history is proposed which, of course, also risks potential condescension and possible contempt for those of lesser educational means. The Law may also be tasty in the sense that it leads one to get things meticulously correct, like the order of a newly cleaned garage or closet. However, the sweetest result of the Law may be likened to the solid footings beneath a house that create a feeling of enormous security in the stability of the structure. But the Law, or rather the lack thereof, can become downright devilish when attempting to procure the wisdom necessary to respond to its absence in modern day celebrities. For the Psalter clearly conveys hate toward the vanity of such individuals, which appears honorable until it naturally morphs into Pharisaism which then tempts the reader to diabolically judge the judger. Alternately, Lewis suggests silence and avoidance are reasonable responses to lawless individuals, not, of course, because we are too good, but “because we are not good enough.” Better yet, an unpretentious disagreement may be an optimal response – if not enjoyed too much.
An optimistic tone finally becomes a reality as the majesty of nature and the topic of praise are confronted. Two aspects of nature are prevalent in the Psalms. First, the Psalmists’ heightened emotional sensitivity, seemingly indigenous to the writer’s agrarian environment, strikes the reader as instinctive as breathing. Secondly, with the exception of Plato, the distinctness between God and nature is illuminated in the Psalms in a way practically nonexistent in the ancient near east. And although nature is not divine, it no doubt exudes the presence of God and is delightfully savored when the adult eye has the courage to lose a few decades of maturity. It would seem at first glance, the majesty of nature would lead one to naturally emit praise, but Lewis observes that in one’s natural self it seems quite challenging even for him. Respect is difficult to maintain when the apparent neediness of an infinite God seems to require praise for the purpose of propping up an omnipotently low self-esteem. But alas, the revelation of misguided logic relinquishes to the type of adoration an adolescent school boy may experience as a goddess with shimmering blonde hair and Abercrombie jeans emerges from a lunch line. Accordingly, not being awestruck by the magnificent Creator of the blonde creature would likely be the most unnatural and potentially ridiculous response.
The finale moves into deeper waters as multiple meanings and the validity of Scripture are examined in Lewis’ fireside chats. The focus now shifts from the original meaning of the Psalter to meanings that extend far beyond the Psalmists’ day; and although mere coincidence is always a simplistic alternative to potentially more penetrating thought, Lewis does not shy away from a challenge. The author concedes the awareness of future meanings may not have originally existed, but contends the truth conveyed by the Psalmists had the power to reach far beyond the moment the words were first conceived. Thus, future events are intimately connected to the original words of the Psalter which Lewis considers holy, inspired, and even enhanced by the miracles which cannot be proved in any historical or scientific sense to be untrue. In fact, the pagan historical influences and potential scientific or historical improprieties of Scripture may actually add to the elusiveness necessary for truth to be conveyed by a God uninterested in tempting creation with black and white rules wholly inadequate for the complexity of the universe he created. Finally, and maybe most importantly, Lewis explains that Jesus himself is the definition of the second meaning, as both Sufferer and King, which is not simply revealed by God’s prompting of thought, but revealed through a fully divine and completely human being. And the Second Meaning is manifested to cure the aching wounds of humanity in “one day” which, according to Lewis, may have the most practical double meaning of current relief from the present and the ultimate relief soon to be experienced in thousands of years of eternity.
The breadth of knowledge and depth of wisdom exhibited by Lewis’ insightful commentary seems to provide Lady Wisdom in a three dimensional view to study like the Cullinan diamond in the center of a heavenly museum. The discerning historical context and penetrating literary backdrop provides a solid framework for the practical theological insights. Furthermore, the strength of argument applied to each individual theme is convincing enough to force the reader to believe the undeniable truth of the polemic just in time to realize the proposition taken to an extreme is no longer wise or true.
Weaknesses may be more difficult for some to identify but are as evident as the strengths to others. Using the words diabolical and terrible in reference to the Psalmists’ cursings certainly concern many readers who consider the Holy Scriptures to be without such characteristics. The reliance on pagan myths and the comfort with human aspects of authorship may potentially be interpreted as a slap in the face to the inerrancy of Scripture. Finally, Lewis’ ability to naturally weave assiduously through complex concepts can confound readers who, after a third reading of the same sentence, are still perplexed. However, upon reviewing the work as a whole, the weaknesses appear to pale in comparison to the strengths.
The tightrope of thematic analysis may perhaps be Lewis’ single greatest achievement as a thinker and author. For instance, he accentuates the importance of judgment at the risk of Pharisaism, the necessity of hate at the risk of obliterating love, the importance of eternity if not too important, and the significance of worship if not undermined by transactional devices. Additionally, he highlights the sweetness of Law though impossible to keep or convince others to keep, the majesty of nature if absent of divinity, the delight in a God who does not need it, the holiness of Scripture if properly elusive, and the emphasis of a primary message overcome only by its secondary meaning. The cohesiveness of sagacious thought and disarming intellect provide a firm God given framework to whom some consider a legend.
. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms: The Celebrated Musings on One of the Most Intriguing Books of the Bible (Orlando, FL: A Harvest Book/Harcourt, Inc., 1958), 17.
. Ibid., 28, 30.
. Ibid., 32.
. Ibid., 40.
. Ibid., 48.
. Ibid., 49.
. Ibid., 71.
. Ibid., 90.
. Ibid., 109.
. Ibid., 120-121.
. Ibid., 137.
Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms: The Celebrated Musings on One of the Most Intriguing Books of the Bible. Orlando, FL: A Harvest Book/Harcourt, Inc., 1958.