Reflections on the Psalms
Reflections on the Psalms By C. S. Lewis Reflecting on the Palms? No, it’s Psalms, not palms! 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 unbearable. 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 Thursday. 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 upstairs. 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. Purposes 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. Outline 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 Bible 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 teaching? Jesus! 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 grudges. “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 realized. 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). 15 of 30 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” (52). 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” (66). “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). 21 of 30 “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” (94). 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’” (108). 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.