PSALMS: The Cursings (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

The Cursings (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

In some of the psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.  In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïvety.

Examples of the first can be found all over the Psalter, but perhaps the worst is in 109.  The poet prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy and that “Satan” may stand at his right hand, (v. 5).  This probably does not mean what a Christian reader naturally supposes.  The “Satan” is an accuser, perhaps an informer.  When the enemy is tried, let him be convicted and sentenced, “and let his prayer be turned into sin,” (v. 6).  This again means, I think, not his prayers to God, but his supplications to a human judge, which are to make things all the hotter for him (double the sentence because he begged for it to be halved.)  May his days be few, may his job be given to someone else, (v. 7).  When he is dead may his orphans be beggars, (v. 9).  May he look in vain for anyone in the world to pity him, (v. 11).  Let God always remember against him the sins of his parents, (v. 13).  Even more devilish in one verse is the, otherwise beautiful, 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement, (v. 9).  And we get the refinement of malice in 69:23, “Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal; and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.”

The examples which (in me at any rate) can hardly fail to produce a smile may occur most disquietingly in psalms we love: 143, after proceeding for eleven verses in a strain that brings tears to the eyes, adds in the twelfth, almost like an afterthought, “and of thy goodness slay mine enemies.”  Even more naïvely, almost childishly, 139, in the middle of its hymn of praise, throws in, (v. 19), “Wilt thou not slay the wicked, O God?” – as if it were surprising that such a simple remedy for human ills had not occurred to the Almighty.  Worst of all in, “The Lord is my shepherd,” (Psalm 23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across, (v. 5), “Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me,” – or, as Dr. Moffatt translates it, “Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on.”  The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it.  This may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.

One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible psalms is simply to leave them alone.  But unfortunately the bad parts will not “come away clean”; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things.  And 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 prefer, if possible, to make some use of them.  What use can be made?

Part of the answer to this question cannot be given until we come to consider the subject of allegory.  For the moment I can only describe, on the chance that it may help others, the use which I have, undesignedly and gradually, come to make of them myself.

At the outset I felt sure, and I feel sure still, that 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.  We must face both facts squarely.  The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.  Only after these two admissions have been made can we safely proceed.

The first thing that helped me – this is a common experience – came from an angle that did not seem to be religious at all.  I found these maledictions were in one way extremely interesting.  For here one saw a feeling we all know only too well, Resentment, expressing itself with perfect freedom, without disguise, without self-consciousness, without shame – as few but children would express it today. I did not of course think that this was because the ancient Hebrews had no conventions or restraints. Ancient and oriental cultures are in many ways more conventional, more ceremonious, and more courteous than our own. But their restraints came in different places. Hatred did not need to be disguised for the sake of social decorum or for fear anyone would accuse you of a neurosis. We therefore see it in its “wild” or natural condition.

One might have expected that this would immediately, and usefully, have turned my attention to the same thing in my own heart. And that, of course, is one very good use we can make of the maledictory psalms. To be sure, the hates which we fight against in ourselves do not dream of quite such appalling revenges. We live – at least, in some countries we still live – in a milder age. These poets lived in a world of savage punishments, of massacre and violence, of blood sacrifice in all countries, and human sacrifice in many. And of course, too, we are far more subtle than they in disguising our ill will from others and from ourselves. “Well,” we say, “he’ll live to be sorry for it,” as if we were merely, even regretfully, predicting; not noticing, certainly not admitting, that what we predict gives us a certain satisfaction. Still more in the psalmists’ tendency to chew over and over the cud of some injury, to dwell in a kind of self-torture on every circumstance that aggravates it, most of us can recognize something we have met in ourselves. We are, after all, blood-brothers to these ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men.

That, as I say, is a good use to make of the cursings. In fact, however, something else occurred to me first. It seemed to me that, seeing in them hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being. The word, natural, is here important. This result can be obliterated by grace, suppressed by prudence or social convention, and (which is dangerous) wholly disguised by self-deception. But just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire – though damp or the intervention of some more sensible person may prevent it – so the natural result of cheating a man, or “keeping him down,” or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages. He may succeed in resisting the temptation; or he may not. If he fails, if he dies spiritually because of his hatred for me, how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand? For in addition to the original injury I have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him. I was the tempter.

There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, “You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.” In the same way I could say of a certain man, “Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.” For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all. We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offenses but for one offense. Thus the man I am thinking of has introduced a new and difficult temptation into a soul which had the devil’s plenty of them already. And what he has done to me, doubtless I have done to others; I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates give hearty thanks for it.

It is monstrously simple-minded to read the cursings in the psalms with no feeling except one of horror at the uncharity of the poets. They are indeed devilish. But we must also think of those who made them so. Their hatreds are the reaction to something. Such hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, by a sort of natural law, produce. This, among other things, is what wrong-doing means. Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr. Pilgrim; they may live and hate.

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