Lewis, C.S. 1958. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Lewis reminds us that he is “no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am also unlearned myself” (p. 1).
What Lewis does is interpret the Psalms for the layperson in common (for the most part) language. Lewis is a poet and the Psalms were written by different poets at different times, but they used a number of formal patterns or features that were common to all the Psalms: the most prominent one was “parallelism”, “the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words” (3). Sometimes the parallelism is concealed, but Lewis claims that it should not disappear—even in a translation.
This, at the time, was a new genre for Lewis, in that his former works were children’s literature (fantasy) or apologetics. But in this book, as he says, “A man can’t be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it” (7) and Lewis provides a veritable feast.
Lewis begins by talking about “judgement”, the day of wrath that is promised to all humans. But, to the surprise of Lewis “[J]udgement to the Jews is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing” (9). Verses 67:4, 96:12,13, 35:24 point in that direction and contrast with the natural desire for judgement to be revenge.
Revenge is a part of “The Cursings”, the title of chapter three. Lewis cites Psalm 109 as the “worst” example of them. However, he believes that Christians should not discard such Psalms because they are vindictive, with hatred and passion. We need to admit that such Psalms are in the Bible and that “[W]here we find a difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us” (28). And one discovery is “[I]f the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was…at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously” (30). This alone is an important lesson for us and should be applied to wickedness today.
Chapter four concerns “Death in the Psalms” in which Lewis refers to a number of Psalms that one cannot turn to for comforting. The ancient Jew, according to Lewis, did not like to think much of Sheol (not heaven or hell, but the place of the dead) because, for them, it was close to paganism. In fact, Lewis believes, it is not worthwhile for us to think too much about heaven or hell, particularly seeing the one as a compensation, and the other as a penalty. Heaven is union with God and hell is separation from him. A focus on “hell-fire” may work up an individual for a short time, but we should instead consider that “the future life is strong only when God is in the centre of our thoughts” (41).
Lewis then turns to the delights that David expresses in the Psalms and finds that his ecstasy is more like the joy of the pagans for, as he says “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance” (45). He wishes for spontaneity in our lives, rather than the drudgery of going to church and simply saying our prayers. He finds this abandonment in many of the Psalms, such as in 68:24,25 and 27:4, where going to the Temple is something the devout Jews lived for. This is an “appetite” for God such that musicians “itch for the harp” (43:4; 5:9) and clap their hands for joy (47:1). Lewis is not claiming that this gusto should be revived, but he gives us caution against the Anglican tradition of “good taste”, where “[T]here is a tragic depth in our worship which Judaism lacked” (52).
Many of the Psalms are, in fact, “sweeter than honey” (the title of chapter seven) and more to be desired than gold (19:10), although Lewis was puzzled by these metaphors at first. The Jews delighted in the law like a modern scholar might enjoy his or her own discipline. Lewis was happy not to be a theologian because “one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian” (57).
The writers of the Psalms often felt about the Law as they felt about poetry: “exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern” (59). Therefore, David was delighted to study and sing about them, with wonder and excitement. The Laws were the truth and reality, as solid as nature itself. For example, Lewis considers Psalm 19 to be the greatest of the Psalms “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (63).
Lewis tells us that we should also see “Connivance” (the title of chapter seven) in the Psalms. For example, God not only blames people for thievery, but also for condoning it, e.g. in Psalm 141:4-6, and we should realize that genuine problems arise from doing so. It is not that we are too good to associate with such people but, “[I]n a sense because we are not good enough” to cope with the problems and temptations (71). We pray to be delivered from temptations, which may include denying ourselves certain invitations with those we may desire. In fact, the Psalmists “mention hardly any other kind of evil more often than this one”—deceitful and lying lips (12:3; 31:20, for example).
Next, in chapter eight, Lewis discusses the Psalmists’ approach to nature. The Jews were at the time farmers and peasants who believed in God as the maker of heaven and earth. The doctrine of creation was therefore obvious from nature (29:3-5; 18:11; 104:32) to the people.
We think of the Psalms most often in terms of praising God and Lewis dwells on this aspect in chapter nine. He once thought of it in terms of complimenting God or showing approval of him, but points out the obvious spontaneous enjoyment that the Psalm writers express. We enjoy and praise God because it “not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation” (95).
In chapter ten Lewis delves into what he calls “Second Meanings” with the warning that “almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough” (99). He wants to be careful not to read into the Psalms allegorical meanings that were never intended. Nevertheless we should not throw “away all secondary meanings as rubbish” (108).
The instances of second meanings are apparent in the Scripture (the title of chapter eleven. Lewis wisely informs us that “I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous” (109). He regards the book of Job as a story because it is unconnected with any history or genealogy and is about a country relatively unknown in the Bible. (John Calvin also wondered whether Job was history or fiction.)
He believes that some myths are “raised by God” above themselves and serve God’s purposes. This does not mean that the myth-maker may have been conscious of the “Divine pressure”. In the Psalms, even the “cursing” ones, problems of error and wickedness are still there. So we see God using “paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the ‘wisecrack’” (113). It follows that his teaching “cannot be grasped by the intellect alone” and, if we try to read the Psalms like that we will find God an “elusive” teacher.
The cursing Psalms provide us with the voice of God in a way that “a flawless, ethical exposition” might not. As Lewis puts it, “The shadows have indicated…something more about the light” (114). Therefore we read the OT with the meaning of Jesus underlying it and can in this way see how Jesus identified himself as the sufferer of Psalm 22 and with Psalm 118:22 as the stone that the builders rejected.
Lewis continues his theme of “second meanings” in the final chapter (twelve) of the book. He relates various themes about Jesus, e.g. as the sufferer, Lord, priest (Melchizedek), Nativity, the Holy Ghost, the Bridegroom and the conqueror and king, to particular Psalms. He does not believe that any particular spiritual sense was intended by the original writers. Instead, “[O]ur Lord therefore becomes the speaker in these passages when a Christian reads them” (135).
Reading Lewis is a delight, but quoting him is challenging: on almost every page there is a sentence that is so probing that it deserves to be highlighted.
Lewis mentions just over half of the Psalms, some of them several times, and all are all listed in Appendix II. (Appendix I contains a number of selected Psalms, extracts from The Book of Common Prayer.