This post, which is the third 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 and here for the second).
[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]
Psalms and the Christian: The Law and Second Meanings
Sweeter Than Honey (the law)
How can God’s laws, His statutes, be truly thought of as “sweeter than honey,” as stated in Psalm 19:10, or something that “rejoices the heart” (19:8), when a starving person is told not to steal? Lewis could not understand this at first. To say that obeying the law brought about these joyful thoughts and feelings, as some have suggested, is to miss the psalmist’s intentions.
By “the law” is meant all that is in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, not simply the Ten Commandments. Psalm 1:2 says that the law is a delight and to be exercised day and night (in more modern translations, the word used is “meditate”). This is not referring to constant obedience, but continual study and meditation. So what is meant by delight in the law is akin to loving a certain subject, like astronomy, for instance.
Of course, there can be a danger in having your favorite subject be something sacred. It can lead to spiritual conceit. See John 7:49. The pride that grew amongst Israel’s leaders led them to attach more and more conditions to the laws until finally no one could do them all. Or, if some claimed to fulfill all the conditions, then this bred self-righteousness.
Moving on from this note of warning, another aspect of the psalmist’s understanding of Gods laws is that they’re “true.” They aren’t “true” in the same sense that “apples grow on trees” is true, but that they are righteous and rock solid: “Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields” (162-163). This has more meaning when viewed in the light of Israel’s neighbors and enemies. Pagan practices abounded, like ritual sodomy and the burning to death of babies. But when horrific danger pressed in on the Israelites, say from the Assyrians, many were tempted to appeal to the “gods” of these rituals. To the person who saw the harm and horror of these pagan practices, God’s laws indeed would be “sweet.”
Second Meanings: Writings in General, and in Scripture
In the last three chapters of Lewis’ book, he presents ways to view second meanings in (1) pagan writings, (2) how second meanings may be viewed in scripture generally, and lastly, (3) second meanings in the psalms. The purpose of this exercise is to determine if it is legitimate to even consider meanings apart from what the writer apparently intended. And if so, how can we know a second meaning is something we should take seriously?
In relation to pagan writings, Lewis explains how Virgil’s poem Eclogue IV* (written shortly before Christ was born)–which uncannily resembles the birth of Christ and its meaning–can be considered an amazing “coincidence.” Whereas Plato’s description of what the world would do to a man of perfect goodness, where he describes a scene like Christ’s passion before the event came to pass, is akin to a very educated guess. Plato was in tune with the subject because of his teacher Socrates’ execution, and after contemplating it all, perfected his thoughts on the matter. And so it happened that Plato was quite correct in his assessment! (While reading Lewis’ work one can surmise that he did not think, really, that Virgil’s poem was mere coincidence or that Plato’s work lacked divine inspiration, but Lewis is making an argument apart from immeasurable heavenly influence.)
Lewis reasons: “If even pagan utterances can carry a second meaning, not quite accidentally but because, in the sense I have suggested, they have a sort of right to it, we shall expect the Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often. We have two grounds for doing so if we are Christians” (187). The two grounds are:
(1) Aside from direct prophecy, the OT is filled with all kinds of different writings. Ecclesiastes is basically pagan, so why is it scripture? The Song of Songs is basically secular, so why is it scripture? Lewis describes those OT as having been worked upwards, or divinely upgraded. “All [have been] taken into the service of God’s word. . . . On all these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not by any means [the authors] need have been conscious” (188).
Just as not all see (believe) that the human animal has been up-graded to hold the divine, not all will see the divine in the up-graded words of the Bible. “For what is required, on all these levels alike, is not merely knowledge but a certain insight; getting the focus right” (190). He likens this to the printed page: for those who do not know what it is, apart from ink markings on paper, a person who tells them it is a poem may not get far in convincing them.
(2) The second ground for acknowledging other meanings in scripture is far easier to explain: Jesus Himself said so. He had scolded the disciples going to Emmaus for not realizing, from scripture, that the anointed one would suffer. He told them of the scriptures that referred to Himself in the OT (Luke 24:25-27). From NT verses, we know positively that the following OT passages referred to Jesus: Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:27-38), Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34), Psalm 110 (Mark 12:35-36), Psalm 91:11-12 (Matt 4:6), Psalm 118:22 (Mark 12:10), Psalm 16: (Acts 2:27). As Lewis states: “He [Jesus] accepted—indeed claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture” (191).
* Lewis had not provided the name of the poem, but I include it for the readers’ information.
Second Meanings: The Psalms
“Here (to speak in ludicrously human terms) we feel that it needed no Divine guidance to give the old texts their second meaning but would rather have needed a special miracle to keep it out” (196).
As Lewis explains it so clearly, and as I think that clarity is necessary here, I will quote him at length concerning the overall view of “second meanings” in scripture:
“In a certain sense Our Lord’s interpretation of the Psalms was common ground between Himself and His opponents. [The example of] how David can call Christ ‘my Lord’ (Mark 12, 35-37), would lose its point unless it were addressed to those who took it for granted that the ‘my Lord’ referred to in Psalm 110 was the Messiah, the regal and anointed deliverer who would subject the world to Israel. This method was accepted by all. The ‘scriptures’ all had a ‘spiritual’ second sense. Even a gentile ‘God-fearer’ like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8, 27-38) knew that the sacred books of Israel could not be understood without a guide, trained in the Judaic tradition, who could open the hidden meanings. Probably all instructed Jews in the first century saw references to the Messiah in most of those passages where our Lord saw them; what was controversial was His identification of the Messianic King with another Old Testament figure and of both with Himself.
Two figures meet us in the Psalms, that of the sufferer and that of the conquering and liberating king. In 13, 28, 55 and 102, we have the Sufferer; in 2 and 72, the King. The Sufferer was, I think, by this time generally identified with (and may sometimes have originally been intended as) the whole nation, Israel itself—they would have said ‘himself’. The King was the successor of David, the coming Messiah. Our Lord identified Himself with both these characters (193).
So, as Lewis remarks, allegorical readings have been viewed as normal and this by the highest authorities–but, not all interpretations are fruitful or even rational. One has to be discerning and open to the possibility that an interpretation can be wrong, based on historical blindness or wishful thinking.
He finishes the chapter, and his book, with examples of second meanings in some psalms based on interpretations in the NT itself (not all are summarized here). The first is Psalm 110, and Lewis explains it in the context of it being used for Christmas day in his church’s prayer book. This psalm is about a coming king who will be victorious over his enemies, and not about a sweet helpless newborn. We already know that David’s “Lord” is Jesus (verse 1), from Mark 12, and this Psalm is wholly messianic. It is about conquering in wrath the kings of the earth, not about individual salvation. Verse 4b says, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek,” which is discussed at length in Hebrews 7. For a Jewish convert this is very important, since Jesus could not be a priest in the order Aaron; right there in a psalm of David, a messianic psalm, is the reference to a priestly order prior to Aaron’s. But regarding Jesus as conqueror and king, see also psalms 45, 89, and 132 (for Lewis’ fantastic treatment of Psalm 45, where Christ is also bridegroom, lover, and father, see pages 197 – 198).
Psalm 68 was read on Pentecost. It rejoices at the Lord’s victories over His enemies as well, but also presents how God loves and defends those in need. This is truly an astonishing messianic psalm! In verse 2, there are said to be a great host who spreads the word that the Lord gave; this suits Pentecost and seems to refer to all His followers. In the NT, Paul (Eph 4:7-8) gave a meaning to verse 18 that was no doubt new to many, and that was of the giving of the Holy Spirit (which of course Jesus told them about in John 16:7).
Paul wrote of another Psalm, 8, that had a new revealed meaning (Hebrews 2:6-9, 1 Cor 15:20-28). Instead of the psalmist meaning humanity in verse 5, “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor,” it became known to the early church (maybe through Christ Himself) that that verse referred to the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 8 also speaks of the “son of man,” which Christ so-often called Himself. Lewis observes,
“And it is this, I believe, that most modern Christians need to be reminded of. It seems to me that I seldom meet any strong or exultant sense of the continued, never-to-be-abandoned, Humanity of Christ in glory, in eternity. We stress the Humanity too exclusively at Christmas, and the Deity to exclusively after the Resurrection; almost as if Christ once became a man and then presently reverted to being simply God. We think of the Resurrection and Ascension (rightly) as great acts of God; less often as the triumph of Man. The ancient interpretation of Psalm 8, however arrived at, is a cheering corrective. . . . As I have already indicated, there seems to me to be something more than analogy between the taking up of animality into man and taking up of man into God” (199-200).
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).