A Brief Review or Critique
C. S. Lewis seeks to help other amateurs understand the Psalms in his book Reflections on the Psalms (2). His purpose is not to examine the theology of the Psalms, for he argues that this is not their purpose; he does not even seek to sermonize them, for he argues that this is not their purpose either (2). The purpose of the Psalms then rests on the fact that they are poems meant to be sung in worship to God (2). They must be read as poems if they are to be properly understood in light of the authors’ intentions (3).
Lewis’ “amateur” attempt at gleaning from Psalms begins with his emphasis upon the Psalms’ “Judgments” (ch. 2). He points to the fact that God’s judgment in the Psalms causes the righteous to rejoice as one (9). The righteous furthermore request the righteous judgment of God in response to the wrongdoing of the wicked (10-11). They trust that though God’s judgment may not be immediate, it will surely come in His timing (11-12). Finally, Lewis briefly examines the dangers for those who look forward to God’s judgment (17). These individuals must realize that they are not righteous (for no one is, save Christ), but may be in the right (17). Furthermore, the character of the individual is irrelevant in determining whether either individual is in the right or wrong within a specific situation (17-18).
Lewis’ examination of the cursings—those Psalms that have a spirit of hatred or happiness in the failings of others (20-21) —then follows (ch. 3) (20-33). He points to some of the most-difficult passages in Psalms to interpret. He calls these Psalms contemptible (21-22) and devilish (25). Lewis believes these Psalms distort the truth of God, but God’s hatred for sin is yet shown somehow through them (32).
Death in the Psalms in then reviewed (ch. 4). Lewis argues that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no mention or no belief in a future life beyond this world (36). He believes that there is meaning lost is the translating process from Hebrew to English (36). For examples, he refers to “soul” in the English translation as actually meaning “life” in the Hebrew, “hell” actually meaning “land of the dead,” and the state of all the dead—good and bad—being “Sheol (36).” The early Jews, unlike the New Testament writers, spoke very little about eternal life (38-39). Lewis argues however that God may have spoken about and inspired writers to write little on the subject because of the Egyptian and surrounding nations’ obsession with the afterlife (39-40). He finally argues that in place of their hope of heaven and eternal life, the early Jews focused on temporal peace and provision on earth (42-43).
In chapter 5, Lewis discusses “the fair beauty of the Lord.” He argues that when the Jews discuss seeing the Lord or wanting to be with Him, they are describing being in the temple, the central aspect of their worship to God (44-48). The early Jews did not separate “beholding the Lord” and the act of worship itself (48). Though Gentile readers are unfamiliar with the temple and other Jewish elements of worship found in the Psalms, Christians can still glean from the Psalms’ God-centered emphasis and its pointing to the highest degree of joy found in God Himself alone (49-53).
The “Sweeter than honey” aspect of the Psalms is examined next (ch. 6). In this chapter Lewis gleans how the Psalmists describe God’s law as “delicious (54-55).” He finds this peculiar, and yet, he understands that the Psalmist has delicately woven his meticulous love for God’s Law into his poetry (56-60). Lewis further gleans that God’s Law is righteous, not because He decided it would be righteous, but because God Himself is righteous (61-62). Thus, God’s Law can be nothing but righteous, for it comes from God, flowing from His nature (61-62). These Psalmists then must see God’s Law as delicious especially when compared to the sodomy, sexual immorality, and human sacrifice of its neighboring religions (62-63). Christians today too can find God’s Law delicious due to the immorality surrounding them as well; however, with this delight in the Law, there is a danger that the sinful Christian will turn this into delighting in himself (64-65).
What Lewis calls “Connivance” is discussed next (ch. 7). He begins this chapter by arguing that God’s Word not only condemns those who do evil, but those who do nothing about evil as well (66). According to Lewis, silence concerning surrounding evil is indirect approval (67). Christians however must be very careful that in coming against evil, they do not become Pharisees (67). He furthermore argues that Christians should avoid, where they can, wicked men, because they are too weak to endure the temptations, and will at least silently approve of their neighbors’ wickedness (71-72). Lewis does argue however, that if Christians will argumentatively, not dictatorially, disagree with the individual(s), it will glorify God, and may cause the hearer to eventually repent (73). He then concludes this chapter pointing to the evils of the tongue described by the Psalter (74-75).
Lewis then examines “Nature” in the Psalms (ch. 8). He begins this chapter pointing to the fact that the early Jews in the Psalms were largely peasants and very familiar with the land in which they lived (76-77). Cities like we see today were non existent (76-77). Furthermore, the Jews could use nature to point to the attributes of their God, because He created nature (77-83). This separated Israel from pagan nations because nature, according to their gods, is presupposed, while in Judaism, God is presupposed (77-83). Lewis then notes that not only is humanity utterly and helplessly dependent upon God, but all creation needs and depends on Him as well (83-85). He concludes this chapter examining a 14th Century B.C. Egyptian named Akhenaten and his poem Hymn to the Sun (85-89).
“A Word about Praising” is examined next (ch. 9). Lewis argues that God should be praised because of who He is and because He commands it (90-93). For those who enjoy God, praise is the natural result of their joy (93-96). Because of its sinfulness, the church’s praise today is simply a .01 % (if even this) comparison of the praise occurring in heaven now and that will occur in the future as well (96-97).
In chapter 10 Lewis examines “Second Meanings” in the Psalms. In this chapter, he refers to the Scriptures’ additional allegoric meaning (99). In order to determine whether the Psalms should all be viewed as allegorical, he examines the difference between prophecy, luck, and fact (103-104). Lewis spends the rest of this chapter trying to show his readers that intrinsically in God’s world there is truth accessible to non-Christians that unknowingly points to Christ because of humanity’s need for Him; evil naturally always seeks to “crucify” that which is good (104-108).
Lewis then examines how “Scripture” has second meanings as well (ch. 11). The first reason he gives for the multiple meanings of Scripture is because the Scriptures must be approached in a Neo-orthodox fashion (109-117). The second and final reason is that in Luke 24:26-27 Jesus taught that He Himself is the second meaning of the Old Testament (117-119).
In the final chapter, Lewis examines the “Second Meanings” found in the Psalms (ch. 12). He begins by pointing to the sufferer and conquering king (120). The sufferer he argues is identified as Israel and the king is the coming Messiah (121). Lewis furthermore points to David and Meclchizadek typifying Christ (122-124). He then briefly examines various Psalms that point ahead to God the Holy Spirit and Christ (124-127). This is followed by an examination of Christ and His bride, the church (127-132). Lewis concludes this chapter with a brief examination of the humanity of Christ; and a brief summary of the contents of this book (132-138).
Interacting with Lewis’ work is a daunting task because the man is a literary giant, and I’m not equal in comparison. Although Lewis did not seek to make theological arguments concerning the Psalms, because this is not their purpose (2), when studying the Scriptures, theological conclusions cannot be avoided because theology is “the study of God” and the Bible is a book about God. Furthermore, though the Psalms are indeed a collection of hymns that are to be sung to God (2), this does not mean that they are not theological in nature. After all, Christians must assume that God wants to be exalted (since the Scriptures throughout testify to this reality), and the only songs that do exalt Him, are true songs. Where the Psalter speaks, God speaks. I agree with much of Lewis’ “gleanings” throughout this book. There are however, several issues that need to be addressed. Due to the limits of time and space, only one example will be used for each issue.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is Lewis’ declaration that the cursing Psalms are wicked. Lewis references Psalm 137:9 as “devilish” because it says that a person will be happy if he takes up a Babylonian baby and smashes him or her against a rock (20-21). Lewis was on the right track when he argued that God’s hatred for sin is somehow shown through these Psalms (though he also argued that they distort the truth of God) (32). If these Psalms are “contemptible” and “devilish” as Lewis purports, then this must also mean that the acts they describe must also be “devilish” and “contemptible.” The problem with this assumption is that, carried to its consistent end, it calls into question the holiness of God. God Himself told Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including women and children; God Himself sent the flood to drown literally over a million people, including babies; the list can go on and on. In order to fit these “cursings” into the rest of Scripture, the best interpretation is that these Psalms are seeking to guard the holiness of God. Instead of viewing these as “hatred,” it is just as easy and more biblically sound to view them as a holy, righteous jealousy for God’s glory. Furthermore, if these Psalms were indeed sung to God, I seriously doubts that He would want to have “devilish” words sung to Him in worship.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is Lewis’ reference to there being little reference to eternal life in the Old Testament. Though this is an interesting observation, I do not really understand the significance of including this in his book. After all, “little” reference still means that there are clear references to eternal life in the Old Testament. Because of these clear references, one cannot conclude that early Jews did not believe in eternal life. However, it must be noted that Lewis’ reference to God inspiring writers to write little about the subject due to Him desiring their sanctification (in light of the surrounding pagan nations) is thought-provoking.
The third issue I observed is Lewis’ encouragement of Christians to withdrawal from culture in chapter 7 (71). He argues that it is good for Christians to basically avoid meetings with wicked people (71). I understand his argument, but I believe he is Pharisaical in this “gleaning.” The Bible indeed tells Christians to avoid every form of evil (1 Thess. 5:22); however, the question comes, “Is it evil to voluntarily surround oneself with wicked people?” The answer must be an emphatic “no” even with a cursory glance at Jesus’ life. I agree with Lewis that silence concerning surrounding evil is indeed indirect approval. The problem is that Christ has commanded the church to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16), and if His church is always surrounded by salt and light by choice, then they can never really shine in or permeate the darkness. The answer is being “in the culture” without being “of the culture.” Although I believe Lewis intended what I wrote above, I believe he should have been more precise in his description.
The fourth and final issue I observed was Lewis’ Neo-orthodox approach to the Scriptures. Based on Lewis’ own words, it seems he holds that the Scriptures are not the Word of God literally, but the words of God written in the words of men. For example, on page 97, Lewis says concerning “the bargaining Psalms,”
As for the element of bargaining in the Psalms (Do this and I will praise you), that silly dash of Paganism certainly existed. The flame does not ascend pure from the altar. But the impurities are not its essence. And we are not all in a position to despise even the crudest Psalmists on this score. Of course we would not blunder in our words like them.
Lewis clearly says here that some of the Psalms were not divinely inspired or if they were, that they are not the “essence” of what God intended. They are not as “pure” as they were on the altar. He believes something is lost when God’s infinite Word is given to the finite. The problem with this is that Christians are only left with ectypal knowledge of God; and thus, God may be unknowable.
Lewis furthermore makes his Neo-orthodox approach clear on pages 111-117. Concerning the Scriptures, he says, “The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even wickedness are not removed (111).” Furthermore, Lewis argues:
The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries [Emphasis mine] 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 (112).
If the Scriptures only “carry” the Word of God, then how can the church know which ectypal aspect carries enough archetypal truth for His church to know Him? The answer is that the church cannot know if the Neo-orthodox view is true.
In the same vein as above, Lewis argues for more than one meaning for the Scriptures themselves. He writes:
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 (117).
This quote is interesting because on page 121 Lewis says, “What we see when we think we are looking into the depths of Scripture may sometimes be only the reflection of our own silly faces.” He furthermore calls some allegorical interpretations of various texts, “strained,” “arbitrary,” and “ridiculous (121).” I wonder if there are multiple meanings and the Scripture writers’ words only “carry” the Word of God, how then Lewis can come against any interpretation. I believe he is being inconsistent, wanting to “have his cake and eat it too.” I further believe Lewis’ arguments “fly in the face” of all of Scripture. Thank God, however, that Lewis chose to be inconsistent and serve a knowable God.
In conclusion, although Lewis claims Reflections on the Psalms is an “amateur” attempt at gleaning from the Psalms, it must be noted that if Lewis is an amateur, then I’m a beginner. Although I have some major issues with some of Lewis’ theology, this does not mean solid Christians should not read this book. I wouldn’t recommend this book to young or immature Christians, but all mature Christians should read this work. Lewis is a literary giant, and all of his books are beneficial to discerning believers. This book is no different, and should be read if for its illustrations alone. Moreover, most of this work, the overall majority, will be beneficial and encouraging to its readers. Lewis succeeded in his purpose to examine the poetry in the Psalms; however, he only somewhat succeeded in his purpose to understand the Psalms in light of the authors’ intentions.
What are your thoughts?