Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms

August 17, 2009

Reflections on the Psalms
C.S. Lewis (Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958)
151 p.  First reading.

In this small volume Lewis takes up a number of different questions that arise for modern readers of the Psalms.  It is written with his customary grace and insight.

One of the more obvious problems for a modern Christian praying the Psalms is the prevalence of curses, angry outbursts, and the psalmist’s occasional longing for his enemies to meet a violent death.  I normally respond to such passages in one of two ways: first, by admiring the honesty of the psalmist, who does not engage in fruitless evasions to disguise his own ugliness from God; and, second, by associating the “enemy” with my own sinful tendencies, towards which I may licitly express hatred. A problem with the first approach is that the psalmist often seems unaware that he is expressing ugliness; on the contrary, he considers his complaint just.  This is probably why Lewis does not suggest this line of interpretation.  Instead, he asks us to take the psalmist’s rage and vindictiveness as a warning: this is what injustice can wreak in the heart of him who suffers it. He does endorse the second method, however, and gives a memorable application of it to the most violent of the Psalms (137):

From this point of view [i.e. that of moral allegory] I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “You owe yourself some consideration”.  Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best.  Knock the little bastards’ brains out.  And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.

Another issue that arises for Christian readers of the Psalms concerns not so much the Psalms themselves, but the purposes to which they have been put in Christian prayer, liturgy, and theology.  I am referring to the practice of reading certain Psalms, or even just certain verses of the Psalms, as references to Christ.  Lewis calls this the problem of “second meanings”.  Such interpretations sometimes strike the modern reader as capricious or sophistical.  We might be tempted to dismiss the practice entirely, but this Lewis believes is premature, not least because Christ endorsed it in some cases, applying certain passages in the Psalms to himself.

As a starting point, Lewis asks us to imagine two ways that an earlier author might respond to a later attempt to apply his words to a figure or event of which he had no knowledge.  He might say, “That is not at all what I meant!”  An instance of this (I trust) would be the kind of “prophetic readings” we find in The Bible Code.  But he might also say, “Yes, this is just what I meant!”  As an example, Lewis cites Plato’s description (Republic) of the truly just man who, coming to live amid the corruption of human society, finds himself reviled, cursed, and put to death.  Christian readers of Plato applied this passage to Christ, and (says Lewis, and I agree) Plato would likely have approved.  The life of Jesus was the sort of thing he was thinking of.  And, argues Lewis, since Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah whom the psalmist longs for, we ought not to be suprised to find passages in the Psalms that resonate with his life, and to interpret them in the light of his life may often be legitimate.

A variety of other topics are also covered: he discusses nature imagery in the Psalms, how it differs from other ancient sources, and what that difference tells us about the theological distinctiveness of the Jewish people; he reviews what the Psalms teach us about death; he addresses concerns some readers might have about the Psalms constant injunctions to praise God (Does it mean that God is insecure?).  The book is far richer and more thoughtful than this little summary would suggest.

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