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Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (3 of 3)

Psalm 21, Initial D. In: Albani-Psalter
Psalm 21, Initial D. In: Albani-Psalter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.]

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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:[10] (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).

 

Sources

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).

 

Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (2 of 3)

KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of &qu...
KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of “L ORD ” (and “God” in the heading) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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).

 

Sources

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).