Reflections On The Psalms

“Psalm 19: I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world" – C. S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms was published in 1958. Lewis writes about the difficulties he has met or the joys he has gained in reading the Psalms. He points out that the Psalms are poems, intended to be sung, not doctrinal treatises or sermons. Proceeding with his characteristic grace, he guides readers through both the form and the meaning of these beloved passages in the Bible.

An excellent blog on the books of C.S. Lewis recently had a posting by Christopher Assenza in which he wrote in part:

Many Christians can undoubtedly remember their discomfort upon first encountering invective language in the Psalms, their incredulity at the occasional self-righteousness of the Psalmists, or a general sense of confused wonderment at the Old Testament and how it is interpreted by the Church.

Despite the wide range of reasonable explanations available to them, some Christians nevertheless often wonder how the apparent short-comings they perceive in the Old Testament can be reconciled with their deeply held belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. C.S. Lewis experienced the same difficulties. Although not everyone will agree with his approach, Lewis's response to these difficulties is characteristically honest, intelligent, accessible, and, in many ways, comforting. Lewis almost certainly recognized the risk of writing an analytical study of the Bible. This risk, however, is not a deterrent for Lewis, who does not shy away from offering pointed criticism of the Psalms.

In the chapter on cursings, for example, he uses words like “diabolical,” “terrible,” and “contemptible” to describe passages from Psalms 109 and 143 that valorize vengeance, infanticide, and other cruelties (20-1). Most readers who object to this description, however, would be hard-pressed to refute it. Those who do not object and are troubled by its accuracy are likely tempted, as Lewis initially is, to “leave them [the cursing Psalms] alone” (22). Yet, Lewis deftly argues that we cannot deny the malice of these curses, nor can we justify or agree with them because they are in the Bible; instead, we can learn from them about our own inclinations towards hatred, the moral effect our actions can have on others, the distinguishing moral character of the Jewish people that allowed them to experience the temptation to hate (i.e. “they took right and wrong more seriously”), and God's righteous intolerance for sin (20-33).

Why, however, might some object to this reading and others not? The answer is bound up in how Christians understand and relate to the Bible. The “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” a doctrinal statement by an assembly of Protestants written in 1978, describes the Bible as “infallible” and “inerrant,” the latter of which means “the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says much the same thing: “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” Both of these documents speak at length about the central, undeniable authority and importance of Scripture in the Christian life, revealing precisely why criticism of the Bible may be threatening to some.

Lewis's assertion that the Old Testament sometimes displays “[n]aïvety, error, contradiction, even... wickedness” quickly dispels any notion that he might have believed the entire Bible to be inerrant in a doctrinal sense, but throughout all of his writing Lewis does affirm the Bible's divine inspiration, its importance, and its authority (111). Lewis's view of Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, rests on many of the core ideas that span his writing, most important of which is his understanding of myth and its role in Christian revelation. Too large a topic to address in detail here, it is enough to say that Lewis saw in the old pagan myths a divinely inspired foreshadowing or anticipation of Truth that is actualized by and through Christ's historical experience on Earth.

Thus something originally merely natural—the kind of myth that is found among most nations—will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served. Generalising this, I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature—chronicle (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God's word. ... The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message. (111)

Lewis shows that this practice of divine “up-grading” is a recurring theme in God's interaction with mankind, manifest most significantly in the Incarnation, when “human life becomes the vehicle of Divine Life” (116). In the same way the “Old Testament is a literature thus 'taken up,' made the vehicle of what is more than human” (117). Understood in this context, the “shadows” of the cursings, when “taken up,” reveal “something more about the light” than any systematic explanation of morality could, confirming, rather than refuting, the divine purpose at work behind the Scriptures (114). Although Lewis was not a strict inerrantist, his views on Scripture have far more in common with traditional, orthodox beliefs than with any modern, liberal notions that deny the Bible's sacredness, divine inspiration, or authority. If nothing else, he uniformly affirms that the spiritual Truth conveyed by the Bible is without error.

In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis proves this conviction by presenting a way of reading Scripture that accepts the human aspects of its authorship without diluting its inherently divine nature and purpose.

The Psalms - Mere poetry or human authors divinly inspired ?

Posted March 22, 2010


Michael N. Hull said...

I found several interesting observations in this book and had a lot of trouble with the logic in the last three chapters on ‘Second Meanings’.

1) The chief formal characteristic of the Psalms being “parallelism”; that is the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words. For example: “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision” (2,4)

2) That the ancient Jews thought of God’s judgment in terms of an earthly court of justice while the Christian sees judgment as a criminal case with himself in the dock. The Jew pictures judgment as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.

3) In the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious importance. The word translated “soul” in our version of the Psalms means simply “life”; the word translated “hell” means simply “the land of the dead”, the state of all the dead, good and bad alike, Sheol. The Greek Hades is the most familiar example to modern people. Hades is neither Heaven nor Hell; it is almost nothing.

4) We assume that some clear doctrine of creation underlies all religions: that in Paganism the gods, or one of the gods, usually created the world; even that religions normally begin by answering the question, “Who made the world?” In reality, creation seems to be a surprisingly rare doctrine. In the Pagan myths when the curtain rises there are always some “properties’ already on the stage and some sort of drama is proceeding. You may say they answer the question “How did the play begin?” Asked by the man who arrived ten minutes late it would be properly answered, say, with the words, “oh, first three witches came in, and then there was a scene between an old king and a wounded soldier.” That is the sort of question the myths are in fact answering. But the very different question: “How does the play originate? Does it write itself? Do the actors make it up as they go along? Or is there someone – not on the stage, not like the people on the stage – who caused it to be? It was Judaic thought that asked the latter question. To say that God created Nature, while it brings God and Nature into relation, also separated them. What makes and what is made must be two, not one. Thus the doctrine of Creation in one sense emptied Nature of divinity.

5) What does ‘praising’ God mean? It is a form of admiration. For example, a great piece of art or music “deserves” or “demands” admiration. Admiration is the correct, adequate and appropriate response to it and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers. In this way many objects both in Nature and in Art may be said to deserve, or merit, or demand, admiration. It is in this way that God “demands” praise. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their loved ones, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside.

6) Incomprehensible to me is the argument in the last three chapters on Second Meanings that even Pagan thoughts about dying and rising Gods in some way was the God of the Jews and Christians preparing the way for the ‘actual’ dying and rising of Jesus. And if pagan utterances can carry a second meaning we should expect the Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often.

DH said...

   Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the C. S. Lewis book on the Psalms. I found the book fascinating.  Lewis is an entertaining, even brilliant writer and presents an ingenious, though often sacrilegious view of the Bible, particularly the OT.  At times I’m inclined to think he is deliberately writing with tongue in cheek to cause a fuss, generate a discourse, with his critics, his scholarly and/or religious readers. For a man of his intellectual eminence to claim that he is an unschooled  layman just like the average biblical student reading the Psalms  is a bit disingenuous and sounds like some kind of literary inside joke. Also I suspect that he is somewhat anti-Semitic and that colors his view point, particularly when discussing the Old Testament.  

DH said...

    I think that Parallelism is a useful poetic format used by the Hebrew writers to enhance the rhythm and flow of the verse and to put emphasis on key points.  I don’t believe there is any hidden meaning or mysterious intent in their poetic repetitions.
              I had never thought before of the concept of plaintiff versus the accused in relation to our appearing before God on Judgment Day. It’s an interesting thought. I suggest perhaps that in the major monotheist faiths, their fundamental difference in philosophy is that the Jew looks for justice, the Christian for mercy and the Muslim for equity.
            The Old Testament doesn’t seem to spend much time on the hereafter whereas life after death is central to Christian doctrine. There is no OT equivalent of Christ’s statement that He going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s mansion. The Roman Catholic Church has over the years amended their somewhat complicated concept of what happens to the soul when we die and I’m not sure what they currently believe to be our heavenly fate. The Muslims are said to have a very dramatic future for the soul in the after life.

DH said...

  Lewis’s treatise on the creation is confusing to me and I don’t think his conjectures, while interesting, add anything of consequence to the creation story. I don’t much care for his primate “taking up” theory of evolution and the coming of man.
              His candid, unconventional treatment of praise, which is at the very heart of the Psalms, is little shocking on first reading, a little too irreverent for me. The whole debate seems to be about language and forms of expression,  and Lewis seems to be almost deliberately distorting the rather simple, natural  and beautiful relationship which both man and God hope for between man and the infinite righteousness of his Creator. However, in a very convoluted, round about way, Lewis seems to finally arrive at a more plausible position - “ In commanding us to glorify Him , God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” Praise is inherent in both Judaic and Christian worship and was a powerful component of Hebrew thought as reflected over and over again in the Psalms and Lewis imperils his religious credibility by his denigration.

DH said...

In the Second Meaning chapters Lewis is exercising his creative literary genius to develop a coherent link between pre Judaic thought, Judaic philosophy as it evolved over the centuries and finally,the transition to an end point in the emergence of Christianity and the Redemption of mankind.
I can’t offer any insight on his deductions on Second Meanings, but in my humble view, if we fail to comprehend his conclusions about the nature of man and God we will be little the poorer for our seeming ignorance. 
              Lewis’s book was an entertaining read and I gained some useful thoughts about the Psalms.  However it served to convince me I would tend to give a new seeker a copy of the Gospels, and highlight the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the Psalms to read as an introduction to God’s word.  For all my doubts about Lewis’s real position on Christian faith, I do agree with him that the Psalms can be a pretty scary read of a seemingly vengeful God for the uninitiated.