Tag Archives: Psalms

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.

reflections-on-the-psalms

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!

“The Book of Psalms,” translated by Robert Alter.

I have now read all of Robert Alter’s translations of the Old Testament.  The last book of his translations I was yet to read is “The Book of Psalms.”

book of psalms by robert alter

The Music of the Psalms

But it makes me very sad I will never hear the psalms. Because they are songs, and we have lost the sheet music.

Even basic questions, such as which words are intended to be song and which are directions, are lost to us.

Consider Psalm 118:1-4

Acclaim the LORD, for He is good forever in His kindness
Let Israel now say: forever is His kindness
Let the House of Aaron now say: forever is His kindness
Let those who fear the LORD now say: forever is His kindness

Israel presumably (possibly?) refers to natural born Jews, “the House of Aaron” to the Priests, and “those who fear the LORD” to gentile converts, so is this call-and-response? Is “let… now say” a stage direction that was silent? We don’t know.

We have some idea of the instruments used, but a naive read would be wrong. For instance, it seems sensible to think that lyres would be used along with some Psalms. But couches and axes are presumably not (Psalms 149:5-7)

Let the faithful delight in glory
sing gladly on their couches
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand

We are left with imagination, separated by millennia from the First Temple, Exile, and Second Temple periods in which these psalms were composed.

king david plays the zither

Psalms and Hip Hop

In the ambiguous instrumentation and focus on the word, Psalms appear to be the ur-genre of hip hop music, which wiki defines as “music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” The basic components of a psalm are (a) description of one’s mistakes in the past, (b) enthusiastic descriptions of one’s dedication to the Lord, (c) enthusiastic defense of one’s homeland, (d) and praise to God. “Deliverance,” by Bubba Sparx, has all these elements

Can you recall a time people loved you unconditionally?
Toast in the New South: “This one is for history!”
Then I slipped fell and caused the number’s injury
Called the same people and it’s, “Yo, you just missed them, B.”

That hip hop piece has the the same format (a recollection of the indomitable past, a lamentation of the intolerable present) as Psalms 44:8-11

For You rescued us from our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time, selah
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder

psalms88-lament

Sometimes even the analogies are the same, such as the traveling road in Bubba Sparx’s “Comin’ Round

To see you coming ’round the bend
I just can’t think of anything
That could make me smile like you can
When you’re coming ’round the bend

I’ve been in love a time or two before
And all of that experience allows me to be sure
That you’re the one
Sure as darkness brings the rising sun

And traveling on the road in Psalm 123:1-3

A song of ascents.
To You I left up my eyes
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the LORD our God
until He grants us grace

The Translator

Robert Alter, the translator, brings to this translation is the same many strengths and the same few weaknesses as in other translations. His notes contain withering scorn for the idea that Psalms are simply translations of Canaanite songs (one might as well say Paradise Loss is a “translation” of the Odyssey!), or over literal interpretations (such as the claim that any Psalm with a prison reference was meant exclusively for prisoners.).

7c-king-david-illuminated-manuscript-beauneveu-detail

But Alter is allergic to christological (what in The Five Books of Moses he referred to as pre-monotheistic) interpretations, which sometime mean that important cultural context is lost. Parts of the Hebrew Bible as quite “new” — the Book of Daniel is probably as close to the Nativity in time as is the Book of Revelations — and certainly both friends and enemies of the early Christians considered them to be a collection of “The House of Israel” and “Those who fear the LORD.” So what to make of Psalms like Psalms 69:18-19

And hide not Your face from Your servant
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.
Come near me, redeem me.
Because of my enemies, ransom me.

Or Psalms 130:

I hoped for the LORD, my being hoped, and for His word I waited
My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn
Wait, or Israel, for the LORD,
and with the LORD is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him,
and He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.

Might Dr. Alter chose this moment to describe the forming of Hebrew messianic traditions or… no, no he won’t.

Final Thoughts

Unlike most of the Old Testament there is no plot, no heroes, no villains, no prose. Psalms is a collection of poems and songs. It feels like it serves as a bridge between the Temple from the latter parts of Kings to the wisdom literature in Job and Ecclesiastes. The Book of Job ends with God declaring the sea monsters, ancient foes of the Canaanite deities, to be His pet.

And that, at its heart, was Job’s mistake. Job was good as sarcastically quoting Psalms and Proverbs. But the monsters of the world are God’s pet too. They praise him too. The sun and the moon, the snow and the smoke, the sea monsters and the mountians all things praise the LORD

Hallellujah.
Praise the LORD from the heavens
praise Him on the heights
Praise Him, all His messengers
praise Him, all His armies.
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.

Praise the LORD from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His commands
Palms 148:1-3,7-8

killer whale in alaska

I read The Book of Psalms in the kindle edition.