Impressions of “Reflections on the Psalms,” by C.S. Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to listen to C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms, on unabridged Audible. Unlike his more famous works it is not a apolgetic — Lewis is writing to the interested layman, Christian or not, about the Hebrew psalms and how they relate to Christianity.

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Lewis’s preferred rendering closely mirrors Robert Alter’s translation, The Book fof Psalms, and disagree with the style followed by Dumbrell and Lozovyy. When it comes to the Psalms, the “literal” translation is preferred among the academically minded, and a loose translation is preferred by would-be theocrats. It’s easy to see why. The Psalms are written in a down-to-earth style: the Hebrew word ruach sometimes translated as “spirit” means life-breath (the in-flow to the lungs), and words used to describe redemption clearly refer to civil suits. While what Lewis calls “double meanings” (and what Alter would call “Christian hermeneutics“) can be easily applied to some verses, there seems to be no serious academic dispute as to the original, intended meanings of many of the Psalms.

In my review of Alter’s work, I noted many have the style of hip-hop: self-congratulatory poems praising one’s own virtues and cursing adversaries. I don’t think there’s a way to resolve this without admitting that the words of the Scripture itself reflect the human biases and faults of the human author. To this Lewis and I would add that the Holy Author has a clear intention in doing this. An analogy might be found int he list of Popes. Christ chose as the first Pope a man who cut off an ear in the Garden and denied him three times during his trial. God uses human instruments to reveal Himself to us. Perhaps because we could not withstand a clearer revelation.

the-book-of-psalms

Lewis also makes some worthwhile observations about prophecy. Lewis gives the example of a scientist of the oceans, describing in a lecture what an alien fish on a planet with such-and-such conditions may look like. If later a space probe is sent to a world similar to one described, and takes photos of alien fish similar to that described by the scientist, is the scientist is a prophet? In a literary sense, yes: he accurately understood the mechanics of what was happening, and made a prediction in line with that. Other ‘prophecies’ by the same scientist should be taken more seriously as a result.

This point is important. For while there are prophecies that are filled-full by events, and those which are clearly written after events, the Scriptures even record prophets who hide their thoughts, or are scared of political power, or who disagree with other prophets

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go against Ramoth Gilead to fight, or shall I refrain?”

So they said, “Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king.”…

Then he came to the king; and the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?”

And he answered him, “Go and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!”

So the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”

Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’”
1 Kings 22:6,15-17

Thus, prophecies are part of the internal dialog of the Scripture. Another aspect of this internal dialog are where different human writers seem to disagree with each other. An interesting chain, albeit partially out of order, concerns the books Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, and Isaiah.

Ecclesiastes, if it is to be literally believed, was written by Solomon

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Solomon, though, allowed worship in the “high places”

And Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.
1 Kings 3:3

Which were destroyed by Hezekiah

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done.

He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:1-4

Which may not have been such a good thing after all

Look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.

“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’?”’
Isaiah 26:6-7

Knowledge of these internal dialogues become necessary to sustaining the faith when one reads the Psalms. Lewis begins his reflections on the Psalms near where I end it, with the terrible ones.

Let his days be few,
And let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow.

Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg;
Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.

Let the creditor seize all that he has,
And let strangers plunder his labor.

Let there be none to extend mercy to him,
Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Psalms 109:8-12

chinese-begger-kids

These terrible Psalms too are part of the Scripture’s internal dialog. And this internal dialog reaches its climax in the hallucinatory four-way testimony of the Gospels — of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in which the human ability to understand the Divine only by stripes is most apparent.

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
Luke 14:25-26

and

Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
Matthew 19:13-15

I’m glad I read Reflections on the Psalms. It’s a brief book more accessible to general readers than Alter’s Book of Psalms. It is a much more human in understanding the flesh and blood writers than most “religious readers.” It has some fascinating thoughts on prophecy and the dialog of the Bible.

And it’s short! Only three and a half hours. Highly recommended!

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