Saturday, July 26, 2014

Illustrated Summary of Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Although C.S. Lewis was a scholar, in Reflections on the Psalms he writes not as a scholar on the Psalms but as a worshiper and admirer on the difficulties he met there and the insights he gained that he hopes will help other non-experts (the majority of us). Here I summarize and illustrate his 12 chapters of personal reflections on the Psalms: 1. Introduction, 2. Judgement in the Psalms, 3. The Cursings, 4. Death in the Psalms, 5. "The Fair Beauty of the Lord," 6. "Sweeter Than Honey," 7. Connivance (Conniving with Evil), 8. Nature, 9. A Word about Praising, 10. Second Meanings, 11. Scripture, and 12. Second Meanings in the Psalms.

1. Introduction

C.S. Lewis begins, "This is not a work of scholarship. I am 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 [teacher] can. When you took the problem to a teacher, 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. 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 teacher 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. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren't.

"In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might...interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readings. I am 'comparing notes', not presuming to instruct.... The thoughts it contains are those which I found myself driven in reading the Psalms; sometimes by my enjoyment of them, sometimes by meeting with what at first I could not enjoy. The Psalms were written my many poets and at many different dates....

"The Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung.... The Bible cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood.... Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.

"Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern, is fortunately one that survives in translation...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' (Psalm 2:4), or again, 'He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light; and thy just dealing as the noon day' (Psalm 37:6).... If we have any taste for poetry we shall enjoy this feature of the Psalms. Even those Christians who cannot enjoy it will respect it; for Our Lord, soaked in the poetic tradition of His country, delighted to use it. 'For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again' (Matthew 7:2). The second half of the verse makes no logical addition; it echoes, with variation, the first. 'Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you' (Matthew 7:7). The advice is given in the first phrase, then twice repeated with different images.... By giving to truths which are infinitely worth remembering this rhythmic and incantatory expression, He made them almost impossible to forget.... Humanly speaking, He would have learned this style from His Mother: 'That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant' [Mary's Magnificat from Luke 2]. Here is the same parallelism."

2. Judgement in the Psalms

"If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles, it is the thought of God's judgement. The 'Day of Judgement' is 'that day of wrath', 'that dreadful day'.... It was therefore with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgements of God. They talk like this: 'O let the nations rejoice and be glad, for Thou shalt judge the folk righteously' (Psalm 67:4), 'Let the field be joyful...before the Lord, for He judge the earth' (Psalm 96:12-13). Judgement is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it: 'Judge me, O Lord my God, according to Thy righteousness' (Psalm 35:24). The reason for this soon becomes very plain. The ancient Jews, like ourselves, think of God's judgement in terms of an earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or...pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages."

Jesus, in His Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge in Luke 18, represents the Jewish point of view in that there is no danger of appearing in this judge's "court against against your will: the difficulty is the opposite—to get into it. It is clearly a civil action. The poor woman has had her little strip of land...taken away from her by a richer and more powerful neighbour... And she knows she has a perfectly watertight case. If once she could get it into court and have it tried by the laws of the land, she would be bound to get that strip back. But no one will listen to her, she can't get it tried. No wonder she is anxious for judgement. Behind this lies an age-old and almost world-wide experience which we have been spared. In most places and times it has been very difficult for the small man to get his case heard. The judge (and, doubtless, one or two of his underlings) has to be bribed. If you can't afford to...your case will never reach court. Our judges do not receive bribes. (We probably take this blessing too much for granted; it will not remain with us automatically). We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgement.... In Psalm 9 we are told that God will 'minister true judgement ', and that is because He 'forgetteth not the complaint of the poor'. He 'defendeth the cause (that is, the 'case') of the widows' (Psalm 68:5)....

"The just judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice; they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer.... It supplements the Christian picture in one important way. For what alarms us in the Christian picture is the infinite purity of the standard against which our actions will be judged. But then we know that none of us will ever come up to that standard. We are all in the same boat. We must all pin our hopes on the mercy of God and the work of Christ, not on our own goodness. Now the Jewish picture of a civil action sharply reminds us that perhaps we are faulty not only by the Divine standard...but also by a very human standard.... Almost certainly there are unsatisfied claims, human claims, against each one of us.... It will be noticed, however, that I make the Jewish conception of a civil judgement available for my Christian profit by picturing myself as the defendant, not the plaintiff. The writers of the Psalms do not do this....

"Nearly always the Psalmist is the indignant plaintiff. He is quite sure, apparently, that his own hands are clean.... 'If I have done any such thing'...then let so-and-so 'tread my life down upon the earth' (Psalm 7:3-5). But of course I haven't.... This...has its spiritual danger. It leads into that typically Jewish prison of self-righteousness which Our Lord so often terribly rebuked.... However, I think it is important to make a distinction: between the conviction that one is in the right and the conviction that one is righteous.... Probably all of us at one time or another are in the right about some particular issue. What is more, the worse man may be in the right against the better man. Their general characters have nothing to do with it. The question whether the disputed pencil belongs to Tommy or Charles is quite distinct from the question which is the nicer little boy, and the parents who allowed the one to influence their decision about the other would be very unfair.... We need therefore by no means assume that the Psalmists are deceived or lying when they assert that, as against their particular enemies at some particular moment, they are completely in the right. Their voices while they say so may grate harshly on our ear and suggest to us that they are unamiable people. But that is another matter. And to be wronged does not commonly make people amiable."

3. The Cursings

"The vindictive Psalms, the cursings...have made the Psalter largely a closed book to many modern churchgoers.... In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace.... One way of dealing with these terrible...Psalms is simply to leave them alone...but...if we still believe that all Holy Scripture is 'written for our learning' or that the age-old use of the Psalms in Christian worship was not entirely contrary to the will of God, and if we remember that Our Lord's mind and language were clearly steeped in the Psalter, we shall...make some use of them.... I feel sure...we must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious.... Seeing in them hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being.... Within Judaism itself the corrective to this natural reaction already existed. 'Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart...thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,' says Leviticus (19:17-18).... 'Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth' (Proverbs 24:17)....

"The absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom" of apathy and amorality in modern times. "The Jews cursed more least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim.... Sometimes it comes into the foreground, as in Psalm 58:9-10: 'The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the that a man shall say...Doubtless there is a God that judgeth the earth.'" The danger, however, is this tempts "a man to think that his own worst passions are holy. It encourages him to add, explicitly or implicitly, 'Thus saith the Lord' to the expression of his own emotions or even his own opinions.... The Supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities both of good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility; the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal.... If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. 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.... Against all this the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that hateful to God. In that way, however dangerous the human distortion may be, His Word sounds through these passages too."

4. Death in the Psalms

In this chapter C.S. Lewis wonders why not much is said about life after death in the Psalms. He believes it is "possible that when God began to reveal Himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim upon them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything He can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with [more than hints] of future Beatitude or Perdition. These are not the right point to begin at. An effective belief in them, coming too soon, may even render almost impossible the development of (so to call it) the appetite for God; personal hopes and fears, too obviously exciting, have got in first. Later, when, after centuries of spiritual training, men have learned to desire and adore God, to pant after Him 'as pants the deer', it is another matter. For then those who love God will desire not only to enjoy Him but 'to enjoy Him forever'.... It is by that door that a truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of Hell can enter, as corollaries to a faith already centred upon God.... Most of us find that our belief in the future life is strong only when God is in the centre of our thoughts."

5. "The Fair Beauty of the Lord"

"David, we know, danced before the Ark. He danced with such abandon that one of his wives (presumably a more modern, though not a better, type than he) thought he was making a fool of himself. David didn't care whether he was making a fool of himself or not. He was rejoicing in the Lord.... The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance. I am...comparing it with the merely dutiful church-going and laborious saying our prayers to which most of us are, thank God not always, but often, reduced. Against that it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read.... I want to stress what I think that we (or at least I) need more: the joy and delight in God which meet us in the Psalms, however loosely or closely...they may be connected with the Temple. These a longing for Him, for His mere presence, which comes only to the best Christians or to Christians in their best moments. They long to live all their days in the Temple so that they may constantly see 'the fair beauty of the Lord' (Psalm 27:4). Their longing to go up to Jerusalem and 'appear before the presence of God' is like a physical thirst (Psalm 42).... They crave to be 'satisfied with the pleasures' of His house (Psalm 65:4).... One day of those pleasures is better than a lifetime spent elsewhere (Psalm 84:10).

"I have rather—though the expression may seem harsh to some—called this the 'appetite for God' than 'the love of God'. The 'love of God' too easily suggests the word 'spiritual' in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired. These old poets...are glad and rejoice (Psalm 9:2). Their fingers itch for the harp (Psalm 43:4), for the lute and the harp—wake up, lute and harp! (Psalm 57:9).... Let us have clashing cymbals, not only well tuned, but loud, and dances too (Psalm 150:5).... I am not saying that this gusto—if you like, this rowdiness—can or should be revived.... [Some of us] have a terrible concern about good taste. Yet even we can still exult.... All Christians know something the Jews did not know about what it 'cost to redeem their souls'. Our life as Christians begins by being baptised into a death.... There is thus a tragic depth in our worship which Judaism lacked.... But this does not in the least cancel the delighted debt which I, for one, feel that I owe to the most jocund Psalms. There...I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real. What I the faces of these old poets tells me more about the God whom they and we adore."

6. "Sweeter Than Honey"

"'More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb' (Psalm 19:10). One can well understand this being said of God's mercies, God's visitations, His attributes. But what the poet is actually talking about is God's Law, His commands.... This was to me at first very mysterious. 'Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery'—I can understand that a man can, and must respect these 'statutes', and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate.... A fine Christian and a great scholar to whom I once put this question said he thought that the poets were referring to the satisfaction men felt in knowing they had obeyed the Law; in other words, to the 'pleasures of a good conscience'.... The difficulty is that the Psalmists never seem to me to say anything like this. In Psalm 1:2 we are told that the good man's 'delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law will he exercise himself [study it, pore over it] day and night'.... Thus part (religiously, the least important part) of what an ancient Jew meant when he said he 'delighted in the Law' was very like what one of us would mean if he said that somebody 'loved' history, or physics, or archaeology....

"The Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection.... It is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are...synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet.... It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery...through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship. Now this, in itself, seems to me very important because it lets us into the mind and mood of the poet. We can guess at once that he felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry: both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern.... It may be the delight in Order, the pleasure in getting a thing 'just so'.... The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His 'delight' is in those statutes (16); to study them is like finding treasure (14); they affect him like music, are his 'songs' (54); they taste like honey (103); they are better than silver and gold (72). As one's eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (18). This is...the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers....

"On three occasions the poet asserts that the Law is 'true' or 'the truth' (86, 138, 142). We find the same in Psalm 111:7, 'all His commandments are true'. (The word, I understand, could also be translated 'faithful', or 'sound'; what is, in the Hebrew sense, 'true' is what holds water', what doesn't 'give way' or collapse.).... In the Law you find the 'real' or 'correct' or stable, well-grounded, directions for living. The Law answers the question 'Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?' (Psalm 119:9). It is like a lamp, a guide (105). There are many rival directions for living, as the Pagan cultures all round us show. When the poets call the directions or 'rulings' of Jahweh 'true' they are expressing the assurance that these, and not those others, are the 'real' or 'valid' or unassailable ones; that they are based on the very nature of things and the very nature of God.... They know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is 'righteous' and commands 'righteousness' because He loves it (Psalm 11:8). He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth: 'truth', intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature.... Sweeter than honey; or if that metaphor does not suit us who have not such a sweet tooth as all ancient peoples (partly because we have plenty of sugar), let us say like mountain water, like fresh air after a dungeon, like sanity after a nightmare.

"The best image is in Psalm 19. I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world. There are six verses about nature, five about the Law, and four of personal prayer.... First [King David, the poet] thinks of the sky; how, day after day, the pageantry we see there shows us the splendour of its Creator. Then he thinks of the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west. Finally, of its heat...the cloudless, blinding, tyrannous rays hammering the hills...'there is nothing hid from the heat thereof'. It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardour. Then at once, in verse 7 he is talking of something else, which hardly seems to him something else because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine. The Law is 'undefiled', the Law gives light, it is clean and everlasting, it is 'sweet'...luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant.... This poet is wholly free from self-righteousness as the last section is concerned with his 'secret faults'. As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in every nook of shade where he attempted to hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all the hiding-places of his soul.

"In so far as this idea of the Law's beauty, sweetness, or preciousness, arose from the contrast of the surrounding Paganisms, we may soon find occasion to recover it. Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time.... Many ignore all individual rights...some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and 'sweet reasonableness' of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted."

7. Connivance (Conniving with Evil)

"Every attentive reader of the Psalms will have noticed that they speak to us severely not merely about doing evil ourselves but about something else. In Psalm 26:4-5, the good man is not only free from 'vanity' (falsehood) but has not even 'dwelled with', been on intimate terms with, those who are 'vain'. He has 'hated' them. So in Psalm 31:7, he has 'hated' idolaters. In Psalm 50:18, God blames a man not for being a thief but for 'consenting to' a thief.... The Psalmist of 139 asks, 'Don't I hate those who hate Thee, Lord?... Why, I hate them as if they were my enemies!' Now obviously all dangerous. It leads straight to 'Pharisaism' in the sense which Our Lord's own teaching has given that word...but we must not be Pharisaical even to the Pharisees. It is foolish to read such passages without realising that a quite genuine problem is involved.... It may be asked whether that state of society in which rascality undergoes no social penalty is a healthy one; whether we should not be a happier country if certain important people were pariahs.... 

"I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful and so forth. Not because we are 'too good' for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces. The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks and laughter, to 'consent'.... Of course, even if we do not seek them out, we shall constantly be in such company whether we wish it or not. This is the real and unavoidable difficulty.... Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose.... Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party; or from more than one, till we discover that those who were [silent dissenters] were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

"There comes of course a degree of evil against which a protest will have to be made, however little chance it has of success.... If it can't be done without seeming priggish, then priggish we must seem. For what really matters is not seeming but being a prig. If we sufficiently dislike making the protest, if we are strongly tempted not to, we are unlikely to be priggish in reality.... Though it is very bad to be a prig, there are social atmospheres so foul that in them it is almost an alarming symptom if a man has never been called one.... What makes this contact with wicked people so difficult is that to handle the situation successfully requires not merely good intentions, even with humility and courage thrown in; it may call for social and even intellectual talents which God has not given us. It is therefore not self-righteousness but mere prudence to avoid it when we can. The Psalmists...described the good man as avoiding 'the seat of the scornful' [Psalm 1]....

"Closely connected with these warnings against what I have called 'connivance' are the protests of the Psalter against other sins of the tongue.... The Psalmists mention hardly any kind of evil more often than this one, which the most civilised societies share. 'Their throat is an open sepulchre, they flatter' (Psalm 5:10), 'under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity,' or 'perjury'... (10:7), 'deceitful lips' (12:3), 'lying lips' (31:20), 'words full of deceit' (36:3), the 'whispering' of evil men (41:7), cruel lies that 'cut like a razor' (52:3), talk that sounds 'smooth as oil' and will wound like a sword (55:22), 'pitiless jeering' (102:8). It is all over the Psalter. One almost hears the incessant whispering, tattling, lying, scolding, flattery, and circulation of rumours. No historical readjustments are here required, we are in the world we know."

8. Nature

"At other periods what we call 'the country' is simply the world, what water is to a fish.... The Psalmists...give us...the very feel of the weather—weather seen with a real countryman's eyes, enjoyed almost as a vegetable might be supposed to enjoy it. 'Thou art good to the earth...Thou waterest her furrows...Thou makest it soft with the drops of rain...the little hills shall rejoice on every side...the valleys shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing' (Psalm 65:9-14). In 104:16, 'The great trees drink their fill'. The Jews...believed in one God, maker of heaven and earth. Nature and God were distinct; the One had made the other; the One ruled and the other obeyed.... The same doctrine which empties Nature of her divinity also makes her an index, a symbol, a manifestation, of the Divine. I must recall two passages...One is that from Psalm 19 where the searching and cleansing sun becomes an image of the searching and cleansing Law. The other is from Psalm 36:4-5: 'Thy mercy, O Lord, reacheth unto the heavens, and Thy faithfulness unto the clouds. Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains, Thy judgement are like the great deep'. It is surely just because the natural objects are no longer taken to be themselves Divine that they can now be magnificent symbols of Divinity....

"The doctrine of Creation leaves Nature full of manifestations which show the presence of God.... The light is His garment, the thing we partially see Him through (104:2), the thunder can be His voice (29:3-5). He dwells in the dark thundercloud (18:11), the eruption of a volcano comes in answer to His touch (104:32). The world is full of His emissaries and executors. He makes winds His messengers and flames His servants (104:4), rides upon cherubim (18:10), commands the army of angels.... Another result of believing in Creation is to see Nature not as mere data but as an achievement. Some of the Psalmists are delighted with its mere solidity and permanence. God has given to His works His own character of emeth: they are watertight, faithful, reliable, not at all vague or phantasmal. 'All His works are faithful—He spoke and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast' (33:4, 9). By His might 'the mountains are made firm and strongly fixed' (65:6). God has laid the foundations of the earth with perfect thoroughness (104:5). He has made everything firm and permanent and imposed boundaries which limit each thing's operation (148:6).... In Psalm 136 the poet passes from God's creation of Nature to the delivering of Israel out of Egypt: both are equally great deeds, great victories....

"In the great Psalm devoted to Nature...104, we have not only the useful cattle, the cheering vine, and the nourishing corn. We have springs where the wild asses quench their thirst (11), fir trees for the storks (17), hill country for the wild goats and 'conies' (perhaps marmots, 18), finally even the lions (21); and even with a glance far out to sea, where no Jew willingly went, the great whales playing, enjoying themselves (26).... In 104:21, the point about the lions is that they, like us, 'do seek their meat from God'. All these creatures, like us, 'wait upon' God at feeding-time (27). It is the same in 147:9; though the raven was an unclean bird to Jews, God 'feedeth the young ravens that call upon Him'. The thought which gives these creatures a place in the Psalmist's gusto for Nature is surely obvious. They are our fellow-dependents; we all, lions, storks, ravens, whales—live...'at God's charges', and the mention of all equally redounds to His praise.... In the Psalms, a certain kind of poetry seems to go with a certain kind of theology."

9. A Word about Praising

This chapter opens with a disarmingly funny observation: "It is possible (and it is to be hoped) that this chapter will be unnecessary for most people. Those who were never thick-headed enough to get into the difficulty it deals with may even find it funny. I have not the least objection to their laughing; a little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be. (In my own experience the funniest things have occurred in the gravest and most sincere conversations.)

"When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should 'praise' God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.... Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy. Nor were matters mended by a modern author who talked of God's 'right' to be praised. I still think 'right' is a bad way of expressing it, but I believe I now see what that author meant. It is perhaps easiest to begin with inanimate objects which can have no rights. What do we mean when we say that a picture is 'admirable'?... That admiration is the correct, adequate, or appropriate, response to it, that ... if we do not admire we shall be ... great losers, we shall have missed something. In that way many objects both in Nature and in Art may be said to deserve, or merit, or demand, admiration.... God ... is that Object to admire ... or appreciate which is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all. The incomplete and crippled lives of those who are tone deaf, have never been in love, never known true friendship, never cared for a good book, never enjoyed the feel of the morning air ... are faint images of it ....

God Does Not Fish for Compliments
"The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him, is implicitly answered by the words 'If I were hungry I would not tell thee' (Psalm 50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don't want my dog to bark approval of my books.... But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.... I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read. The healthy and unaffected man, even if luxuriously brought up and widely experienced in good cookery, could praise a very modest meal: the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all.... Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible....

"I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn't she lovely? Wasn't it glorious? Don't you think that magnificent?' The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.... The praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment...the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with....

But how if one could really and fully praise ... utterly 'get out' in poetry or music or paint the upsurge of appreciation which almost bursts you? Then indeed the object would be fully appreciated and our delight would have attained perfect development. The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be.... Heaven is a state in which angels now, and men hereafter, are perpetually employed in praising God. This does not mean ... that it is like 'being in Church'. For our 'services' both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship....  We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls ... far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what this doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression.... The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever'. But we shall then know that these are the same thing.... Meanwhile of course we are...tuning our instruments.... But the duty exists for the delight. When we carry out our 'religious duties' we are like people digging channels in a waterless land...that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready.... There are happy moments, even now, when a trickle creeps along the dry beds; and happy souls to whom this happens often."

10. Second Meanings

"Hitherto we have been trying to read the Psalms as we suppose ... their poets meant them to be read. But this of course is not the way in which they have chiefly been used by Christians. They have been believed to contain a second or hidden meaning ... concerned with the central truths of Christianity, with the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and with the Redemption of man. All the Old Testament has been treated in the same way. The full significance of what the writers are saying is, on this view, apparent only in the light of events which happened after they were dead. 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.... The field of self-deception, once we accept such methods of interpretation, is therefore obviously very wide. Yet in spite of this I think it impossible ... to abandon the method wholly when we are dealing, as Christians, with the Bible. We have, therefore, a steep hill before us." C.S. Lewis devotes the last 3 chapters of his Reflections on the Psalms to ascending this hill by first discussing Second Meanings in classical literature, then Scripture itself, and then Second Meanings in the Psalms specifically.

Virgil: Both Poet and Prophet?
"I begin far away from Scripture and even from Christianity, with instances of something said or written which later takes on a new significance in the light of later events.... The non-classical reader needs to know that to a Roman the 'age' or 'reign' of Saturn meant the lost age of innocence and peace....  It roughly corresponded to the Garden of Eden before the Fall.... Virgil, writing not very long before the birth of Christ, begins a poem thus: '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.... Modern scholars would, I suppose, laugh at the idea. They might differ as to what noble ... 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 ... as an accident. To say the least of it ... if this is luck, it is extraordinary luck. If one were a fanatical opponent of Christianity one would be tempted to say, in an unguarded moment, that it was diabolically lucky....

Plato's Startling Insight
"We are ... considering how we should regard those second meanings which things said or written sometimes take on in the light of fuller knowledge than their author possessed.... Different instances demand that we should regard them in different ways. Sometimes we may regard this overtone as the result of simple coincidence, however striking. 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; so that, in hitting out something like it, he was in touch with that very same reality in which the fuller truth is rooted. Reading his words in the light of that fuller truth and hearing it in them as an overtone or second meaning, we are not foisting on them something alien to his mind.... We are prolonging his meaning in a direction congenial to it. The basic reality behind his words and behind the full truth is one and the same.... Plato in his Republic is arguing that righteousness is often praised for the rewards it brings—honour, popularity, and the like—but that to see it in its true nature we must separate it from all these.... 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.

"There! What did I tell you?"
"Virgil, in the poem I have quoted, may have been ... talking about ... some matter other than that of which [his] words were most importantly true. 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 the supreme illustration. If Plato was in some measure moved to write of it by the recent death—we may almost say the martyrdom—of his master Socrates then that again is not something simply other than the Passion of Christ. The imperfect, yet very venerable, goodness of Socrates led to the easy death of the hemlock, and the perfect goodness of Christ led to the death of the cross ... for the same reason: because goodness is what it is, and because the fallen world is what it is. If Plato ... from his insight into the nature of goodness and the nature of the world, was led on to see the possibility of a perfect example, and thus to depict something extremely like the Passion of Christ, this happened not because he was lucky but because he was wise. If a man who knew only England ... observed that, the higher a mountain was, the longer it retained the snow ... were led on to suppose a mountain so high that it retained the snow all the year round ... if that man ever saw the Alps he would not say 'What a curious coincidence'. He would be more likely to say 'There! What did I tell you?'

"And what are we to say of those gods in various Pagan mythologies who are killed and rise again and who thereby renew or transform the life of their worshipers or of nature? The odd thing is that here those anthropologists who are most hostile to the Christian faith would agree with many Christians in saying 'The resemblance is not accidental' .... The Christians would fall into two schools of thought. The early Fathers (or some of them), who believed that Paganism was nothing but the direct work of the Devil, would say: 'The Devil has from the beginning tried to mislead humanity with lies. As all accomplished liars do, he makes his lies as like the truth as he can; provided they lead man astray on the main issue, the more closely they imitate truth the more effective they will be. That is why we call him God's Ape: he is always imitating God....' Other Christians who think, as I do, that in mythology divine and diabolical and human elements (the desire for a good story) all play a part, would say, '... In the sequence of night and day, in the annual death and rebirth of the crops ... in the strong, if half-articulate, feeling ... that man himself must undergo some sort of death if he would truly live, there is already a likeness permitted by God to that truth on which all depends. The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun's reflection in a pond, or that between a historical fact and the somewhat garbled version of it which lives in popular report."

"If I think (as I cannot help thinking) about the birth of Christ while I read that poem of Virgil's, or even if I make it a regular part of my Christmas reading, this may be quite a sensible and edifying thing to do. But the resemblance which makes such a reading possible may after all be a mere coincidence (thought I am not sure that it is).... But when I meditate on the Passion while reading Plato's picture of the Righteous One, or on the Resurrection while reading about Adonis or Balder, the case is altered. There is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and meant and what I believe to be the truth. I know that connection and they do not. But it is really there. It is not an arbitrary fancy of my own thrust upon the old words....  Thus, long before we come to the Psalms or the Bible, there are good reasons for not throwing away all second meanings as rubbish." It was said of the Pagan poets, ''Thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given."

11. Scripture

"If even pagan utterances can carry a second meaning ... because ... they have a sort of right to it, we shall expect the Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often. We have two grounds for doing so if we are Christians. First, these writings are 'holy' ... 'inspired'... or as St. Paul says, 'the Oracles of God'. But this has been understood in more than one way, and I must try to explain how I understand it.... I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous.... I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen. I have to decide on quite other grounds ... whether a given narrative is historical or not.... The whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature—chronicle ... poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God's Word. Not all, I suppose, in the same way. There are prophets who write with the clearest awareness that Divine compulsion is upon them. There are chroniclers whose intention may have been merely to record.... There is (and it is no less important) the work ... of preserving and canonising just these books.... On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not ... all need have been conscious....

Can't Pin Down Jesus
"We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings ... and when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He 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 ... like trying to bottle a sunbeam.... Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best. It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted. It may be indispensable that Our Lord's teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematising intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself....

"Certainly it seems to me that from having had to reach what is really the Voice of God in the cursing Psalms ... I have gained something I might not have gained from a flawless, ethical exposition. The shadows have indicated (at least to my heart) something more about the light. Nor would I (now) willingly spare from my Bible something in itself so anti-religious as the nihilism of Ecclesiastes. We get there a clear, cold picture of man's life without God.... The Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God's Word into a literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God's Word.... If the Old Testament is a literature thus 'taken up', made the vehicle of what is more than human, we can of course set no limit to the weight or multiplicity of meanings which may have been laid upon it. If any writer may say more than he knows and mean more than he meant, then these writers will be especially likely to do so. And not by accident.

"The second reason for accepting the Old Testament in this 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. He then explained, from 'Moses' ... down, all the places in the Old Testament 'concerning Himself' (Luke 24:25-27).... He accepted—indeed He claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture. We do not know ... what all these passages were. We can be pretty sure about one of them. The Ethiopian eunuch who met Philip (Acts 8:27-38) was reading Isaiah 53. He did not know whether in that passage the prophet was talking about himself or about someone else. Philip, in answering his question, 'preached unto him Jesus'. The answer, in fact, was 'Isaiah is speaking of Jesus'. We need have no doubt that Philip's authority for this interpretation was Our Lord.... We can, again, be pretty sure, from the words on the cross (Mark 15:34), that Our Lord identified Himself with the sufferer in Psalm 22. Or when He asked (Mark 12:35-36) how Christ could be both David's son and David's lord, He clearly identified Christ, and therefore Himself, with the 'my Lord' of Psalm 110—was in fact hinting at the mystery of the Incarnation by pointing out a difficulty which only it could solve.... In Mark 12:10 He implicitly appropriates to Himself the words of Psalm 118:22 about the stone which the builders rejected. 'Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell, neither shalt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption' (Psalm 16:11) is treated as a prophecy of His Resurrection in Acts 2:27, and was doubtless so taken by Himself since we find it so taken in the earliest Christian tradition—that is, by people likely to be closer both to the spirit and to the letter of His words than any scholarship ... will bring a modern."

12. Second Meanings in the Psalms

"In a certain sense Our Lord's interpretation of the Psalms was common ground between Himself and His opponents.... Probably all instructed Jews in the first century saw references to the Messiah in most of those passages where Our Lord saw them; what was controversial was His identification of the Messianic King with another Old Testament figure and of both with Himself. Two figures meet us in the Psalms, that of the sufferer and that of the conquering and liberating king. In 13, 22, 28, 55, or 102, we have the Sufferer; in 2 or 72, the King ... the [descendant] of David, the coming Messiah. Our Lord identified Himself with both these characters." Psalm 110 further adds that this King will also be "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek," who in Genesis 14 "comes from nowhere, blesses in the name of 'the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth', and utterly disappears.... He assumes without question ... a superiority over Abraham which Abraham accepts ... far earlier that the Jewish priesthood which descends from Aaron.... For a Jewish convert to Christianity this was extremely important and removed a difficulty. He might be brought to see how Christ was the successor of David; it would be impossible to say that He was ... the successor of Aaron. The idea of His priesthood therefore involved the recognition of a priesthood independent of and superior to Aaron's. Melchizedek was there to give this conception the sanction of the Scriptures....

Since "Christ 'tasted death for all men', became the archetypal sufferer, then the expressions of all who ever suffered in the world are, from the very nature of things, related to His.... In Psalm 22, the terrible poem which Christ quoted in His final torture, it is not 'they pierced my hands and my feet' (17), striking though this anticipation must always be, that really matters most. It is the union of total privation with total adherence to God ... simply because of what God is: 'and Thou continuest holy' (3). All the sufferings of the righteous speak here; but in Psalm 40:15 all the sufferings of the guilty too—'my sins have taken such hold upon me that I am not able to look up.' But this too is for us the voice of Christ, for we have been taught that He who was without sin became sin for our sakes, plumbed the depth of that worst suffering which comes to evil men who at last know their own evil....

Psalm 45 represents Christ not only as the great warrior King, but also as "the Lover, the Bridegroom, whose beauty surpasses that of man.... Then the poet turns to the Bride, with the exhortation, 'forget also thine own people and thy father's house' (11).... One thinks of homesickness ... but ... this has also its poignant relevance when the Bride is the Church. A vocation is a terrible thing. To be called out of nature into the supernatural life is at first ... a costly honour.... 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house', said God to Abraham (Genesis 12:1).... Turn your back on all you know. The very like that which the Psalmist offers to the bride: 'I will make of thee a great nation.' This 'turn your back' is ... repeated ... by Our Lord—'he that hateth not father and mother and his own life.' He speaks, as so often in the proverbial, paradoxical manner; hatred (in cold prose) is not enjoined; only the resolute ... ruthless rejection of natural claims when, and if, the terrible choice comes to that point....

"Psalm 8 ... is ... an expression of wonder at man and man's place in Nature ... and therefore at God who appointed it.... Though He has made us inferior to the celestial beings, He has, down here on earth, given us extraordinary honour—made us lords of all the other creatures. But to the writer of Hebrews (2:6-9) ... new weight [is] laid upon the poet's words. Christ has ascended into Heaven. And in due time all things, quite strictly all, will be subjected to Him. It is He who having been made (for a while) 'lower than the angels', will become the conqueror and ruler of all things, including death and (death's patron) the devil.... It is the very same [point] St. Paul obviously has in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. It may even descend from Our Lord. There was, after all, no description of Himself which He delighted in more than the 'Son of Man' ... [which] means Man, the Man, the archetypal Man, in whose suffering, resurrection, and victories all men (unless they refuse) can share....

"It is time to conclude with a brief notice of some simpler things. One is the apparent (and often no doubt real) self-righteousness of the Psalms: 'Thou shalt find no wickedness in me' (Psalm 17:3), 'I have walked innocently' (26:1), 'Preserve thou my soul, for I am holy' (86:2).... Of course there was to come a Sufferer who was in fact holy and innocent. Plato's imaginary case was to become actual. All these assertions were to become true in His mouth. And if true, it was necessary that they should be made.... He denied all sin of Himself. That, indeed is no small argument of His Deity", especially since Christ's enemies did not refute it.

Helpful Internal Revelation
"Of the cursing Psalms I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories—well aware that these are personal and on a quite different level from the high matters I have been trying to handle. We know the proper object of utter hostility: wickedness,  especially ... our own. Thus in Psalm 36, 'My heart showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly,' each can reflect that his own heart is the specimen of that wickedness best known to him. After that, the upward plunge at verse 5 into the mercy high as Heaven and the righteousness solid as the mountains takes on even more force and beauty. From this point of view I can use even the ... passage in Psalm 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 ... 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 own yourself some consideration'. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock [their] brains out. And 'blessed' is he who can, for it's easier said than done.

"Sometimes with no prompting ... a second meaning will impose itself upon a reader irresistibly. When the poet of Psalm 84 said (10), 'For one day in Thy courts is better than a thousand', he doubtless meant that one day there was better than a thousand elsewhere.... In Psalm 90 (4) it had been said that a thousand years were to God like a single yesterday; in 2 Peter 3:8 ... we read not only that a thousand years are as one day but also that 'one day is as a thousand years', The Psalmist only meant, I think, that God was everlasting, that His life was infinite in time. But the epistle takes us out of the time-series altogether. As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past.... The timeless as an eternal present has been achieved. Hence our hope finally to emerge, if not altogether from time (that might not suit our humanity) at any rate from the tyranny ... of time, to ride it not to be ridden by it, and so to cure that always aching wound...which mere succession and mutability inflict on us, almost equally when we are happy and when we are unhappy."
Reflect on Lewis' Reflections for Yourself Here

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