Reflections on the Psalms

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Reflections on the Psalms
Reflections on the Psalms
By C. S. Lewis
Reflecting on the Palms?
No, it’s
Psalms, not
Speaking of misspeaking . . .
In a Tokyo Hotel: Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please.
If you are not person to do such thing is please not to
read notis.
In a Bucharest hotel lobby: The lift is being fixed for the
next day. During that time we regret that you will be
In an Athens hotel:Visitors are expected to complain at
the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.
In the lobby of a Moscow hotel:You are welcome to visit
the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet
composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except
In an advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist: Teeth
extracted by the latest Methodists.
Two signs from a Majorcan (a Mediterranean island) shop
entrance: English well talking. Here speeching American.
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you
nothing to hope for.
Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: Ladies may have a fit
In the office of a Romanian doctor: Specialist in women
and other diseases.
In a Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags
and send them in all directions.
The Historical Setting
Published in 1958.
First religious work since Miracles (1947).
Influenced by G. R. Driver, Professor of Semitic Philology at
Magdalen College, Oxford (1919-1962).
Lewis’s only book on a portion of Scripture.
Contains his core beliefs about the Bible.
He daily attended weekday Matins at 8 o’clock, which used the
Psalms in every service. Richard Ladborough said that in
Cambridge “the chapel was the centre of his life in college.”
As a result of this book, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited
Lewis in 1958 to become a member of the Commission to
Revise the Psalter with T. S. Eliot and others.
Lewis accepted.
For Lewis:
To write a non-technical book about the psalms to
address issues that ordinary people have when they read
the Psalms.
To help readers enjoy the Psalms as poetry.
For us:
To get a literary perspective on biblical poetry from
someone who knew poetry well.
One unexpected result of reading this book is to gain
insight into the personal piety of C. S. Lewis.
Introductory Chapter
Difficult matters: “ ‘Judgment’ in the Psalms,” “The
Cursings,” and “Death in the Psalms”
Five chapters on the pleasures of the Psalms
Three chapters on interpretation of the Psalms and the
P.S. He relies on the translations of Miles Coverdale
(1535) and Dr. James Moffat (NT 1913, OT 1924).
Not a work of apologetics.
A Disclaimer
“This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no
higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write
for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned
myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for
writing such a book, my excuse would be something like
this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve
difficulties in their work for one another better than the
master can. When you took the problem to a master, as
we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you
understood already, to add a great deal of information
which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the
thing that was puzzling you….”
A Disclaimer (continued)
“… I have watched this from both sides of the net; for
when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer
questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a
minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces
which assured me that they were suffering exactly the
same frustration which I had suffered from my own
teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master
because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to
explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so
long ago that he has forgotten” (p. 1).
Chapter 1, “Introductory”
“Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious
element of pattern, is fortunately one that survives in
translation. Most readers will know that I mean what the
scholars call “parallelism”; that is, the practice of saying
the same thing twice in different words. A perfect
example is “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them
to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision” (2, 4), or
again, “He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the
light; and thy just dealing as the noon-day” (37, 6). If this is
not recognized as pattern, the reader will either find
mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in his
effort to get a different meaning out of each half of the
verse or else feel that it is rather silly” (3).
“the same in the other”
So, what happens to Hebrew parallelism in translation?
Guess what New Testament figure used parallelism in his
For example, “Blessed are . . .” (Matt. 5:3-11)
Or, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
Chapter 2, “Judgment” in the Psalms”
On judgment: “The ‘just’ judge is primarily he who rights a
wrong in a civil case.”
“Indeed what is commonly called ‘sensitiveness’ is the
most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a
lifelong tyranny” (14).
Chapter 3, The Cursings
He talks about “the vindictive passages,” betraying the
typical higher critical view, prominent in Oxford in his day,
that the Old Testament was primitive and not quite as
inspired as the New Testament.
Then he cites Lev. 19:17f. as prohibiting the bearing of
“Every good teacher, within Judaism as without, has
anticipated Him. The whole religious history of the preChristian world, on its better side, anticipates Him. It
could not be otherwise” (27).
“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” (30).
“Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all
created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood
in the immediate presence of God” (32).
In reality, the words “Thy kingdom come,” as we pray in
the Lord’s Prayer, imply both judgment and blessing, both
of which will happen when God’s final kingdom is
Chapter 4, Death in the Psalms
Just one quotation: “It seems quite clear that in most
parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a
future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious
importance” (36).
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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” (45).
On Ps. 27:4, “I suspect that the poet of that Psalm drew
no distinction between ‘beholding the fair beauty of the
Lord’ and the acts of worship themselves” (48).
Lewis writes of “this gusto—if you like, this rowdiness”
Chapter 6, “Sweeter than Honey”
Psalm 119 “is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery,
stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the
subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined
craftsmanship” (58f.).
Lewis disagrees with some people from the past. “There
were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who
held that ‘God did not command certain things because
they are right, but certain things are right because God
commanded them’” (61).
On Psalm 19: “I take this to be the greatest poem in the
Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (63).
Chapter 7, Connivance
Lewis reads the Psalms with twentieth century (and
higher critical) eyes: “Now obviously all this—taking upon
oneself to hate those whom one thinks God’s enemies,
avoiding the society of those one thinks wicked, judging
our neighbors, thinking oneself ‘too good’ for some of
them (not in the snobbish way, which is a trivial sin in
comparison, but in the deepest meaning of the words ‘too
good’)—is an extremely dangerous, almost a fatal, game”
“How ought we to behave in the presence of very bad
people?” (68)
Chapter 8, Nature
In contrast to paganism, “God has no plural” (82).
“Another result of believing in Creation is to see Nature
not as a mere datum but as an achievement” (83).
On nature psalms with their mention of grass, olive oil,
and wine: “Their gusto, or even gratitude, embraces things
that are no use to man” (83)
On lions and ravens in the nature psalms: “They are our
fellow-dependents” (85).
“To us moderns, no doubt, such a simple, enlightened,
reasonable Monotheism looks very much more like the
good seed than those earliest documents of Judaism in
which Jahveh seems little more than a tribal deity” (87).
“For the entrance is low: we must stoop till we are no
taller than children in order to get in” (88).
Chapter 9, A Word about Praise
What seems odd to Lewis: “We all despise the man who
demands continued assurance of his own virtue,
intelligence or delightfulness” (90).
“It was hideously like saying, ‘What I most want is to be
told that I am good and great’” (91).
“… it is in the process of being worshipped that God
communicates His presence to men” (93).
“I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books. Now
that I come to think of it, there are some humans whose
enthusiastically favorable criticism would not much gratify
me” (93).
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“I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same
time most balanced and capacious [i.e. spacious], minds,
praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents
praised least” (94).
“… praise almost seems to be inner health made audible”
People “praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously
urge us to join them in praising it” (95).
“… praise not merely expresses but completes the
enjoyment” (95).
On praise as preparation for heaven: “Meanwhile of
course we are merely, as Donne says, tuning our
instruments” (97).
Chapter 10, “Second Meanings”
“Such a doctrine, not without reason, arouses deep
distrust in a modern mind. Because, as we know, almost
anything can be read into any book if you are determined
enough. This will be especially impressed on anyone who
has written fantastic fiction. He will find reviewers, both
favorable and hostile, reading into his stories all manner
of allegorical meanings which he never intended” (99).
For “fantastic fiction” think the Chronicles of Narnia and
the Ransom Trilogy.
Virgil: “ ‘The great procession of the ages begins anew. Now
the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns, and the new
child is sent down from high heaven.’ It goes on to describe
the paradisal age which this nativity will usher in. And of
course throughout the Middle Ages it was taken that some
dim prophetic knowledge of the birth of Christ had reached
Virgil, probably through the Sibylline Books. He ranked as a
Pagan prophet. Modern scholars would, I suppose, laugh at the
idea. They might differ as to what noble or imperial couple
were being thus extravagantly complimented by a court poet
on the birth of a son; but the resemblance to the birth of
Christ would be regarded, once more, as an accident…. If this
is luck, it is extraordinary luck.” (101).
“But there are other cases in which the later truth (which
the speaker did not know) is intimately related to the
truth he did know” (102).
Plato: “Plato in his Republic is arguing that righteousness is
often praised for the rewards it brings—honor, popularity,
and the like—but that to see it in its true nature we must
separate it from all these, strip it naked. He asks us
therefore to imagine a perfectly righteous man treated by
all around him as a monster of wickedness. We must
picture him, still perfect, while he is bound, scourged, and
finally impaled (the Persian equivalent of crucifixion). At
this passage a Christian reader starts and rubs his eyes.
What is happening? Yet another of these lucky
coincidences? But presently he sees that there is
something here which cannot be called luck at all” (104).
“Plato is talking, and knows he is talking, about the fate of
goodness in a wicked and misunderstanding world. But
that is not something simply other than the Passion of
Christ. It is the very same thing of which that Passion is
supreme illustration” (104).
“Plato probably did not know that the ideally perfect
instance of crucified goodness which he had depicted
would ever become actual and historical” (105).
“For we can pray with good hope that they now know
and have long since welcomed the truth; ‘many shall come
from the east and the west and sit down in the kingdom’”
Chapter 11, “Scripture”
“I have been suspected of being what is called a
Fundamentalist. That is because I never regard any narrative as
unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the
miraculous” (109).
“He [Jesus] preaches but He does not lecture. He uses
paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no
irreverence) the “wisecrack”. He utters maxims which, like
popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict
one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the
intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject”. If
we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of
teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight
question. He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down”.
The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to
bottle a sunbeam” (113).
“The second reason for accepting the Old Testament in
this way can be put more simply and is of course far
more compulsive. We are committed to it in principle by
Our Lord Himself. On that famous journey to Emmaus
He found fault with the two disciples for not believing
what the prophets had said. They ought to have known
from their Bibles that the Anointed One, when He came,
would enter his glory through suffering” (117).
Chapter 12, “Second Meanings in the Psalms”
The Messianic nature of Psalm 110 according to the
words of Jesus
“He found fault with the two [Emmaus] disciples for not
believing what the prophets had said” (117).
Psalm 110 as a Christmas psalm (122).
Psalm 68 for Pentecost (125).
The identifying of the Bridegroom with Christ and the
bride with the Church (128).
Psalm 8 for Ascension Day (132).
Last page (138): “How time flies!” as an argument that we
were made for eternity.
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