This post, which is the second of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay. I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries (click here for the first in the series)!
[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]
Psalms and the Christian: Death and Seeing God
Death in the Psalms
Do you know what the Pharisees and Sadducees believed about the afterlife during Jesus’ time? Do you know what the Jews believed about this 1000 years earlier? When it comes to interpreting the Psalms it’s important to know that the Jews, through time, had differing beliefs about life after death. This is because God chose to reveal his plan for our eternal souls slowly.
“. . . in the Old Testament the idea of an afterlife was only partially revealed and even that revelation comes toward the end of the Old Testament period. Most of the time people thought of death as going down to the shadow world of Sheol where there was no praise of God and at best only a semi-life. What they hoped for was to die at a ripe old age with a good name, having seen their children and grandchildren . . .” (Kaiser, et al., p 46).
So this was basically the idea of the afterlife when most of the Psalms were written, which was between about 1400 BC and 430 BC. By the time of Jesus, the Jews were split in their beliefs. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife that included a resurrection, the Sadducees did not. As my old pastor occasionally said, “That’s why they were sad, you see.” At this point I think it well to make a note that while this is the view that Lewis took, and many or most scholars still take (i.e., the quote above), other scholars disagree. They argue that based on (1) the taking of Enoch and of Elijah, (2) the views expressed in some of the psalms, and (3) on the book of Job, that the Jews believed in an afterlife directly with God. While some references to Sheol say that God is present there, others do not, and in any case Sheol did not represent what we understand as heaven.
Here are some examples of the ancient Jews’ views on the afterlife: Psalm 89:47 – “Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!” Psalm 30:9 – “What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?” Psalm 6:5 – “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” Psalm 88:5 – “I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.”
Lewis does not deny that there are some verses in the Psalms that speak to us today about God’s plan of redemption, but he is pointing out in this topic that we have to be careful about applying Christian theology to ancient texts. Lewis feels that God kept thoughts of the afterlife to a minimum with His chosen people so that they wouldn’t get too caught up in it. The pagan nations around them, like the Egyptians, were very much concerned with the afterlife, indeed. One can be TOO concerned about it, where it becomes simply a selfish ambition. It was enough during this time that people sought after God to help them simply survive in a difficult world. God also wanted the Jews to learn to love Him for what and who He is, not just for what He could do for them. When they learned to love Him, they then would begin to desire to be with their God forever. It is only when God is at the center that the desire for heaven or the fear of hell really make sense, or any lasting sense, anyway. If we try to imagine what either heaven or hell is like, we don’t get very far; in the end it is a choice of whether one wants to be with God or not.
Worshiping God, Seeing God
Lewis finds that it is useful to think about how Jews worshiped God when the view of heaven was absent, which would be so foreign to us. He says the worshipful aspect of the Psalms is one of mirth, and “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” (p.154). What tempers our mirth relative to the Jews’ is that while we believe that the Messiah has already come, he died a gruesome death for us which we are called to remember every time we have communion.
Which brings us to important differences between the Temple and the synagogues, and how they relate to our current church practices. When the Temple existed, it was the place of worship and festivity, slaughter and barbeques. The synagogues were different, being local places for scripture readings and education. In our churches, we combine all: worship, slaughter (the Eucharist), scripture readings and education – we may even have an occasional barbeque.
But there’s a difference between the Temple festivals and our weekly services. Lewis says, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance” (p. 155). When people came to the temple for a holy time, it was also a fun time. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem, then it was kind-of an adventure (at least for kids). You socialized, had roast meat, listened to music and danced. You might come to think of God in that way, that he equaled those things. This is what Lewis tries to get at. Probably for the “common man” God was all of those pleasant things; the ancient peasant Jew was not an analytical Greek – all was one with him, and that one was God (however, do not think that he was a pagan or pantheist, either).
So when the psalmist talks of seeing the Lord, or longing to see him, he most often meant seeing him through worship in the Temple. Psalm 68 is an example: “Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines” (vv. 24-25). He wouldn’t say, like we might today, that he “felt” the presence of the Lord, but that what he saw was the Lord’s presence.
Considering the historic contexts shown in the essays so far, Psalm 27 (vv. 4-6) takes on new or added meaning:
One thing I ask of the Lord,
This is what I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
He will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be exalted
Above the enemies who surround me;
at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
And make music they did. The psalms are full of the longing for God and for declaring it through music. Examples can be found in: 9(2); 42; 43(4); 47(1); 50(2); 57(9); 63(2); 65(4); 81 (1-2); 84(3); 97(1); and, 150(5). Since the writers of these psalms did not know the salvation of the Lord like we do, it is all the more amazing that they worshiped with such gusto. Granted, our worship has the somber counterpoint of Jesus’ death, but we should be able to seek the beauty of the Lord and the “pleasures” of his house today. (It seems that the church as a whole actually has moved more in this direction since Lewis wrote his work in 1955.) Lewis concludes: “. . . I find [in the Psalms] an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real” (p.158).
Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. “Does God Seem so Angry in the Old Testament & Loving in the New?” In Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Lewis, C. S. “Reflections on the Psalms.” In The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis. Inspirational Press, 1994 (1955).