Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) is one of his last theological works. It is a collection of short essays revolving around single themes arising from the Psalms. He addresses the most difficult puzzles that might confront a modern Christian reader: the cursing in the Psalms, the self-righteousness, the fawning over God’s laws. How, Lewis asks, can we draw spiritual nourishment from the Psalms? What do we need to know to overcome obstacles to such nourishment?
He completed the Reflections just after Till We Have Faces and just before Studies in Words. [See a timeline of his complete works here.]
In content, it most resembles Letters to Malcom (Reflections is addressed humbly to the reader “as one amateur to another” and not a fictional friend). In style, it perhaps resembles most Studies in Words. One can also hear echoes of Till We Have Faces in chapter XII on the pain of “graduating” from a lower station to a higher station whether on the natural level (as when a young girl marries a powerful monarch) or the supernatural level (as when a human being becomes adopted by God).
Readers enjoy Lewis’ most mature theological reflections in this book, reflections which blessedly don’t restrict themselves only to the Psalms but rove around the Old and New Testaments and also outside Scripture. The only theological essays published later than this one are Letters to Malcom, which, again, are “about” prayer but move comfortably through a range of other topics.
Should you read it?
Lewisophiles should read Reflections on the Psalms for the same reason mountaineers simply must climb Everest: “because it’s there.”
Casual readers may be a bit confused at the abundance of literary references. Lewis’s intended reader seems sometimes to be a “theological amateur”, other times a fellow well-read classics aficionado familiar with the myth of Osiris, the Greek plays of Sophocles, and the philosophical writings of Plato.
That said, any sufficiently curious theological reader will learn much from reading the Psalms over Lewis’s shoulder.
- Introduction. Lewis’s method is to proceed to the ugly parts first, like a child eating his vegetables first. We’ll deal with difficulties honestly and then proceed to the delightful and nourishing parts of the psalms.
- “Judgement” in the Psalms Puzzle: The psalmist pictures himself as innocent, asking God to judge the wicked, but he doesn’t seem aware of his own wickedness. Solution: the psalmist picture’s himself as the innocent plaintiff in a civil case, not the guilty defendant in a criminal case as the Christian does.
- “Cursing.” Puzzle: The Psalmist curses his enemies. This seems wicked, contrary to the example and teaching of the Lord. It’s also violent. Solution: The righteous indignation of the psalmist teaches us several things: first, the monstrous hatred and resentment that injustice can engender. Second, we notice that nothing in Pagan literature shows as much righteous horror at evil; pagans rail against fate, laviciousness, cruelty, and so on – but nowhere do they betray the same high standard for goodness. The Psalmist knows right from wrong sharply, has an “implacable hostility” for wrongdoing.
- Death - Puzzle: The Psalms deny or ignore the possibility of an afterlife. Death is presented as final. Solution: The Psalmist is being trained to love God and love the good regardless of rewards or punishments in the afterlife, because true love of God does not depend on extrinsic rewards.
- “The Fair Beauty of the Lord” Puzzle: The psalmist seems to confuse the beauty of the Lord with the beauty of (a) the temple, (b) temple worship – the bustle and hum of ritual and procession. Solution: The Psalmist loves temple worship and loves the Lord, and the modern distinction between the two would have been unthinkable to him. He delights, he simply fulminates with joy, in the crash and pomp of the whole raucous festival. (Training this emotion into oneself is what Lewis finds the most salubrious formative effect of reading the Psalms.)
- “Sweeter than honey”. Puzzle: The psalmist seems to delight in the law of the Lord to an absurd degree. Does “thou shalt not murder” arouse in one an aesthetic delight? Solution: the Psalmist loves the law per se, not its effects or it’s reluctantly useful prohibitions. He loves the goodness, the rightness, the purity, the perfect beauty of the law itself. Reflections on Psalm 19, the “most beautiful psalm in the psalter” (56)
- Connivance. Puzzle: The psalmist avoids the company of evil men, which seems self-righteous, priggish, and opposed to Jesus’ example. Solution: The psalmist is too weak to be around wicked people and stay pure, but if he were stronger, like our Lord, he could do it. (This is the last chapter about difficulties.)
- Nature. Puzzle: The psalmist talks a lot about nature, and strangely so. Solution: In the Psalms as in no other pre-Christian writing, Jewish or gentile, do we find the doctrine of creation from nothing expressed and implied in the psalmist’s delight in nature as a separate thing from God himself, as a creation.
- A word about praising. Puzzle: An awful lot of time of the time spent “praising” God in the Psalms is actually telling other people to “praise the Lord!”. Also, God seems to needy for praise, like a petty deity or insecure celebrity. Solution: It is natural and universal phenomenon that we humans praise what we love and what is excellent. All the more so, we invite others to praise and enjoy what delights us. So much more so does the psalmist contemplate God in His excellence, enjoy him, and “complete” his enjoyment through expression of God’s excellence and inviting others.
- Second meanings. Puzzle: So far, we’ve been treating the Psalms as they should be read by those in their context. However, most Christian readers and interpreters don’t do that. They see in the Psalms meanings other, or higher, or deeper than their original writer’s intent. Is there warrant for accepting as non-accidental any second meanings we find in Scripture? Solution: Yes, there are. Consider three kinds of coincidence of a second meaning. The first is accidental and unintended: for example, after a building burns down, an earlier and off handed comment that the building is cold but “will heat up soon enough” might take on take on a second (and sinister) meaning that was not intended. The second is intended but is fundamentally based upon luck and guesswork: for example, a science fiction writer describing a new species of beetle that turns out, upon a later discovery of a new Amazon rainforest beetle. Although the artist aimed to make his description vivid and lifelike, he would be as surprised as anyone that it turned out to be accurate. The third is intended and principled; the first meaning is grounded in same principle that grounds the second meaning. For example, we could imagine an early scientist who observes that snow appears on high mountains at certain times of year and remains longest at the highest point would surmise that, somewhere in the world, there exists a high enough mountain that it has snow on it year round. When that scientist discovers that the Alps actually exist, he would not be surprised, strictly speaking, but vindicated. He discovered a principle (higher altitude, colder weather) that grounds both his prediction and the weather in the Alps. This third type of coincidence best explains (a) pagan “predictions” of a dying and rising savior (such as Adonis), or pagan predictions of a new “Age of Saturn” when the “son of Jupiter” is born (such as Virgil describes), or the suffering of an innocent righteous man (such as Plato describes in Republic VII), and (b) some but not all of the psalmist’s meanings that, upon reflection, prophesy particular events in the life of Christ.
- Scripture. Puzzle: Much of the Old Testament writing appropriates earlier mythology, songs, poems, stories. Furthermore, there are many authors, genres, and varying quality and clarity of composition. Given these origins, how do the “second meanings” (allegories) in Scripture compare to secular literature or accidental second meanings? Solution: There is an additional source of second meanings: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There is plenty of room for the Scriptures to have less-than-inspired origins in their source material and authorial intents, which the church and the Holy Spirit carefully identify as being better than their origin. “Thus something originally merely natural…will have been raised by God above itself… compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served” (93). Regarding the varying quality and clarity, Lewis proposes that God would have made Scripture more systematic if it were better that way. Since God does what is best, there are apparently reasons for the unsystematic presentation: perhaps, for example, reading the Scripture as it is requires “a response from the whole man” to engage (not just the impartial and objective mind). A person must submit to Scripture wholly, “steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him… to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.” (95-96). Furthermore, Christ himself interprets the Old Testament allegorically as referring to Himself. For any faithful Christian, submission to Christ (in mind as well as life) requires doing the same. (For example, Christ interprets Isaiah 53 as referring to himself in the Road to Emmaus pericope; on the cross, he interprets Psalm 22 is referring to himself). Peter does the same thing in Acts 2 when he interprets Psalm 16 as a prophecy about the Christ.
- Second meanings in the Psalms. Puzzle: How do the romantic poems reflect Christ? How do the Psalms reflect Christ, and in what ways? How do these allegorical second meanings show up in the New Testament? How do they nourish our faith? And is there a limit to allegorical interpretation? Solution: Yes, there are limits. Some allegorical readings reflect the reader’s own face more than the face of God. However, there are reliable patterns. The Psalms feature consistent characters: the suffering servant, the conquering king, the romantic lover. Each, at the literal level, referred to some one person (such as David or Solomon), and/or to Israel as a whole. Both have been, and should be, understood in retrospect to be about Christ. Jews believed the Messiah was to be a conquering king and had to learn the painful lesson that he was also the suffering sacrifice. Gentile converts to Christianity are likely to first know Jesus as the suffering sacrifice, and thus can learn the (perhaps painful) lesson that he is at the same time commanding and all-powerful monarch. Psalm 110, for example, details a proper perspective on the Nativity of Christ at Christmas in ways that the gospel accounts and Christmas hymns do not. The nuptial poetry (in Song of Songs, and in Psalm 45) read allegorically reflect a profound and accurate understanding of the mystical union between God and the church. So the picture that emerges from the Psalms helps us understand Christ as king, husband, and servant of humanity. Each of these corrects misunderstandings that might arise from focusing solely on the others, and each fills out a complete understanding of man’s relationship to God by rendering a better portrait of Christ, the God-man. We can see how New Testament authors (Peter, Paul, and the author of Hebrews) take up these themes in their writings to both how God humbled himself in Christ and how humanity is elevated by Christ.
- Appendix. Some translations of various psalms.
Some Reflections on the Reflections
In some ways, (and here I’m speaking of my own reading) Reflections is a difficult book to wrestle with. Lewis unflinchingly addresses a lot of evangelical bugbears: evolution, inspiration, mythology, inerrancy, purgatory, icons and more. He pushed my buttons. That’s not to say he tows a party line, whether fundamentalist or liberal. Rather, he says what he thinks is true, even if it’s difficult – or especially if it’s difficult.
As I transitioned from a “low-church” Vineyard charismatic Christian to a more traditional high church Orthodox Christian, I had plenty of chance to revisit the beliefs implicit or explicitly catechized into young evangelicals. Some of those beliefs I revised; others remained surprisingly intact in the long voyage across the Bosphorus.
The most uncomfortable passages include: (p. 97) God’s “Leaky method” for composing the Bible, and a comparison to a possible evolutionary method of sublimating lower animals into humans; (p. 96), referring to the teaching of Ecclesiastes is referred to as “anti-religious nihilism;” the concession that (94.) “naievity, error, contradiction, even… wickedness are not removed” from the Bible.
Lewis says much that pushes my personal limits of what I believe is permissible to say about Sacred Scripture. And the way he says it – his style, his “voice” – is not as gentle and pastoral as in, say, Mere Christianity or Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer. He speaks in his no-nonsense professorial voice, a la Abolition of Man or Studies in Words.
Even despite my discomfort, Lewis handles these topics with greater care and wisdom than many modern polemicists on either side. And there is a lot of wit and insight to his recommendations on how to read and benefit from the Psalms.