Reflections on the Psalms

PSALMS: Connivance (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

March 12, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms (Besides our Lord there would have been among their guests toadies and those who wanted to be “on the bandwagon”; people in fact like the young man I once knew.) He had been a strict socialist at Oxford.  Everything ought to be run by the State; private enterprise and independent professions were for him the great evil.  He then went away and became a schoolmaster.  After about ten years of that he came to see me.  He said his political views had been wholly reversed.  You never heard a fuller recantation.  He now saw that State interference was fatal.  What had converted him was his experience as a schoolmaster of the Ministry of Education – a set of ignorant meddlers armed with insufferable [...]

PSALMS: Connivance (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

February 26, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms 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, 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 (v. 5).  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, (in Dr. Moffatt, “you are a friend to any thief you see”).  In Psalm 141:4-6, where our translation appears to be rather wrong, the general sense nevertheless comes through and expresses the same attitude.  Almost [...]

PSALMS: Sweeter Than Honey (Part 3) by C. S. Lewis

February 19, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms By this assurance they put themselves, implicitly, on the right side of a controversy which arose far later among Christians.  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.”  To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love him and one another, he might equally well have commanded us to hate him and one another, and hatred would then have been right.  It was apparently a mere tossup which he decided on.  Such a view, of course, makes God a mere arbitrary tyrant.  It would be better and less [...]

PSALMS: Sweeter Than Honey (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

February 12, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms As everyone knows, the psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection.  And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point-of-view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all.  The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statues, 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.  (This may have given an ancient ear something of the same sort of pleasure we get from the Italian meter called the sestina, where instead of rhymes we have the same end [...]

PSALMS: Sweeter Than Honey (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

February 5, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms In Racine’s tragedy of Athalie the chorus of Jewish girls sing an ode about the original giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which has the remarkable refrain ô charmante loi (Act I, scene iv).  Of course it will not do – it will border on the comic – to translate this, “oh charming Law.”  Charming in English has come to be a tepid and even patronizing word; we use it of a pretty cottage, of a book that is something less than great or a woman who is something less than beautiful.  How we should translate charmante I don’t know; “enchanting”? – “delightful”? – “beautiful”?  None of them quite fits.  What is, however, certain is that Racine ( a mighty poet and steeped in the [...]

PSALMS: The Fair Beauty Of The Lord (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

January 29, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms When the mind becomes more capable of abstraction and analysis this old unity breaks up.  And no sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God himself.  Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own.  There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter.  I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began, “Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.”  This seems to me, [...]

PSALMS: The Fair Beauty Of The Lord (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

January 22, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms “Now let us stint all this and speak of mirth.”  So far – I couldn’t help it – this book has been what the old woman in Scott described as “a cauld clatter o’ morality.”  At last we can turn to better things.  If we think “mirth” an unsuitable word for them, that may show how badly we need something which the psalms can give us perhaps better than any other book in the world. 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.  This helps to [...]

PSALMS: Death In The Psalms (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

January 15, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms In many passages this is quite clear, even in our translation, to every attentive reader.  The clearest of all is the cry in Psalm 89:46: “O remember how short my time is: why hast thou made all men for nought?”  We all come to nothing in the end.  Therefore “every man living is altogether vanity,” (Psalm 39:6).  Wise and foolish have the same fate, (Psalm 49:10).  Once dead, a man worships God no more; “Shall the dust give thanks unto thee?” (Psalm 30:10); “for in death no man remembereth thee,” (Psalm 6:5).  Death is “the land” where, not only worldly things, but all things, “are forgotten, (Psalm 88:12).  When a man dies “all his thoughts perish,” (Psalm 146:3).  Every man [...]

PSALMS: Death In The Psalms (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

January 8, 2019

From Reflections on the Psalms According to my policy of taking first what is most unattractive, I should now proceed to the self-righteousness in many of the psalms.  But we cannot deal with that properly until some other matters have been noticed.  I turn first to a very different subject. Our ancestors seem to have read the psalms and the rest of the Old Testament under the impression that the authors wrote with a pretty full understanding of Christian theology; the main difference being that the Incarnation, which for us is something recorded, was for them something predicted.  In particular, they seldom doubted that the old authors were, like ourselves, concerned with a life beyond death, that they feared damnation and hoped for [...]

PSALMS: The Cursings (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

November 20, 2018

From Reflections on the Psalms Then another thought occurred which led me in an unexpected, and at first unwelcome, direction.  The reaction of the psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong.  One may try to excuse it on the ground that they were not Christians and knew no better.  But there are two reasons why this defense, though it will go some way, will not go very far. The first is that 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 neighbor as thyself,” says Leviticus, (19:17, 18).  In Exodus we read, “If thou seest [...]

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

November 13, 2018

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 [...]

PSALMS: “Judgment” In The Psalms (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

November 6, 2018

From Reflections on the Psalms I think there are very good reasons for regarding the Christian picture of God’s judgment as far more profound and far safer for our souls than the Jewish.  But this does not mean that the Jewish conception must simply be thrown away.  I, at least, believe I can still get a good deal of nourishment out of it. 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 [...]

PSALMS: “Judgment” In The Psalms (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

October 30, 2018

From Reflections on the Psalms If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s “judgment.”  The “Day” of Judgment is “that day of wrath, that dreadful day.”  We pray for God to deliver us “in the hour of death and at the Day of Judgment.”  Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors.  This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord himself; especially to the terrible Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the “goats” are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on [...]

PSALMS: Introductory by C. S. Lewis

October 23, 2018

From Reflections on the Psalms 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.  I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, [...]