The Psalms remain a difficult book for many Christians today. C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms might help many of us to find our way through this great book of poetry, in the Hebrew Scriptures.
I have come to the conclusion that C. S. Lewis is probably one of greatest Christian writers that actually few Christians hardly ever read. As I have written about before, back when I was in college, C. S. Lewis was all the rage. But aside from his children’s books (the Narnia series) and a handful of other titles, I think that many evangelical Christians, like myself, probably have bought C. S. Lewis books before, thinking that we really should read more of Lewis, but that if we are honest, we often leave those Lewis volumes gathering dust upon our shelves.
I bought Mere Christianity a good 35 years ago. There it still sits on my shelf, beckoning me. Even my co-blogging colleague, John Paine, has confessed here on Veracity that he found C. S. Lewis very hard to read.
Many evangelicals know that C. S. Lewis has been probably one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith, of all time. Therefore, we feel we ought to know at least something about him, aside from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As my church begins to preach on the Psalms this summer, I thought it might be good to step up to the challenge myself and listen to Reflections on the Psalms, as an audio book, and hear what I can learn from the Oxford don, whose voice once resonated across the BBC airwaves, during the horrors of Hitler’s bombings of London, during World War 2 (That is how we got the essays that make up Mere Christianity, by the way).
Evangelical unease over Lewis can be put no better than in Douglas Wilson’s brief review, when he read Reflections on the Psalms: “Glorious, but awful in parts….Lewis has an uncanny ability to edify me and appall me simultaneously.”
Reading the Psalms with C.S. Lewis
Wilson, a conservative, Reformed blogger, chiefly known over the past thirty years for stimulating Christian interest in reviving classical education, and promoting home schooling, was surely annoyed, when in the first chapter, Lewis tips his hand with a slight reference to his belief in purgatory. Lewis, in many ways, could just as well do without some of the language in the so-called imprecatory psalms (see below), and he does not consider the Book of Job to be describing historical events, which chafes against Wilson’s belief in a rather strict inerrancy of the Bible. Then there is Lewis’ view, where he sees no need to try to reconcile the Genesis story of creation with modern science, contrary to Wilson’s advocacy of Young Earth Creationism.
But aside from these, shall we say, “idiosyncrasies(?)” of Lewis, I mainly read Lewis as a mirror of my own struggles when reading the psalms. To be honest, there are just some things about the psalms that leave me scratching my head, as it did for Lewis. Lewis himself admits that he is neither a theologian, nor a biblical scholar. He is just reading the psalms just as any other typical Christian would. However, the benefit of having Lewis as a companion is his expert knowledge of literature, which is a big help when it comes to reading ancient Hebrew poetry.
For example, Lewis first observes that the Jewish psalm writers have a very positive view towards God’s coming judgment. Whereas Christians think of God’s judgment in terrifying terms, whereby God will ultimately judge us as defendants, criminally charged with committing sin, the psalm writers view themselves as plaintiffs in a civil court instead. The psalmists, for the most part, eagerly hope for God’s judgment, believing that God will vindicate them, and punish the wrong doers who oppress them. “Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord!” (Psalms 35:23 ESV) What a different picture of the psalms I would have missed, if I had not read C. S. Lewis!
Along with Lewis, I am very uncomfortable with the so-called imprecatory, or vindictive psalms. I cringe at the cursing uttered against the Babylonians: Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9 ESV).
Not exactly a “pro-life” slogan, to be championed by cultural conservatives in our day. Nevertheless, Lewis manages to humanize and internalize the thoughts of the psalm writers, when they curse their enemies, helping us to see the enemy that sin presents within ourselves.
Lewis correctly observes that the psalm writers generally have no belief in the afterlife. Yes, there are a few “proto-Christian” references anticipating the teaching of the New Testament, “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit” (Psalm 30:3 ESV). But mostly, the view of what comes after death is very dim: “For when he dies he will carry nothing away… his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light. (Psalm 47:17-19 ESV). Verses like that make me yearn for the New Testament.
Lewis gives a fascinating explanation as to how the Psalms often contain a “second meaning,” not apparent to original writers, but that becomes clear from the perspective of the New Testament. The Psalms is the most heavily quoted book of the Old Testament in the New, pointing to the reality that the trajectory of the Old Testament leads us to Jesus.
In explaining the Psalms in particular, Lewis put it this way, with respect to the Old Testament in general:
- We are committed to [the Old Testament] 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” (i.e. the Pentateuch) down, all the places in the Old Testament “concerning Himself” (Luke 24, 25-27). He clearly identified Himself with a figure often mentioned in the Scriptures; appropriated to Himself many passages where a modern scholar might see no such reference. In the predictions of His Own Passion which He had previously made to the disciples. He was obviously doing the same thing. He accepted—indeed He claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture.
What helps when reading Lewis, and the psalms for which he meditates on, is an idea of progressive revelation, as we watch how God unfolds his plans and purposes throughout the Old Testament, to be ultimately fulfilled in the New. The Old Testament acts as an on-going dialogue, back and forth, within the text. There is a certain theme of longing we find in the psalms, as with the doctrine of the resurrection, that anticipates the coming of Christ in the New Testament.
This is why the Book of Psalms should be a central part of our personal and corporate worship experience. When we read these psalms, they force us to think beyond our current condition, and to consider the Glory of God. We live within the tension of “the now and the not-yet” of the coming Kingdom. While as Christians we rejoice of our hope in Jesus, life in the interim can be exceedingly hard. The Book of Psalms helps us to connect the despair of our present situation with that hope, that breaks in every now and then, into our journey with Christ. When we do that, we come into the very presence of the God, who is to be worshipped and adored.
Though I might quibble on minor points, far from being distracting, I found many of Lewis’ “idiosyncrasies” to be illuminating, helping me to discover and appreciate the psalms in ways that have always remained elusive to me. The nice part about Reflections on the Psalms is that it is short, less than a four-hour audiobook listen. I plan on listening to it again once I have read through the entire psalter, later this summer. If the psalms seem rather distant to you, then you should consider having C. S. Lewis as your companion!