PSALMS: Introductory by C. S. Lewis

Introductory by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.  If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this.  It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can.  When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you.  I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers.  The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less.  The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met.  The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten.  He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers.  I am “comparing notes,” not presuming to instruct.  It may appear to some that I have used the psalms merely as pegs on which to hang a series of miscellaneous essays.  I do not know that it would have done any harm it I had written the book that way, and I shall have no grievance against anyone who reads it that way.  But that is not how it was, in fact, written.  The thoughts it contains are those to which I found myself driven in reading the psalms; sometimes by my enjoyment of them, sometimes by meeting with what at first I could not enjoy.

The psalms were written by many poets and at many different dates.  Some, I believe, are allowed to go back to the reign of David; I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 (of which a slightly different version occurs in 1 Samuel 22) might be by David himself.  But many are later than the “captivity,” which we should call the deportation to Babylon.  In a scholarly work, chronology would be the first thing to settle: in a book of this sort nothing more need, or can, be said about it.

What must be said, however, is that the psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.  Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome.  That seems to me to be nonsense.  But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.  Most emphatically the psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English.  Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.

Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern, is fortunately one that survives in translation.  Most readers will know that I mean what the scholars call “parallelism”; that is, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.  A perfect example is, “He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision,” (Psalm 2:4), or again, “He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light; and thy just dealing as the noon-day,” (Psalm 37:6).  If this is not recognized as pattern, the reader will either find mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in his effort to get a different meaning out of each half of the verse or else feel that it is rather silly.

In reality it is a very pure example of what all pattern, and therefore all art, involves.  The principle of art has been defined by someone as “the same in the other.”  Thus in a country dance you take three steps and then three steps again.  That is the same.  But the first three are to the right and the second three to the left.  That is the other.  In a building there may be a wing on one side and a wing on the other, but both of the same shape.  In music the composer may say ABC, and then abc, and then αβγ.  Rhyme consists in putting together two syllables that have the same sound except for their initial consonants, which are other.  “Parallelism” is the characteristically Hebrew form of the same in the other, but it occurs in many English poets too: for example, in Marlowe’s,

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,

or in the childishly simple form used by the Cherry Tree Carol,

Joseph was an old man and an old was he.

Of course the parallelism is often partially concealed on purpose (as the balances between masses in a picture may be something far subtler than complete symmetry).  And of course other and more complex patterns may be worked in across it, as in Psalm 119, or in 107 with its refrain.  I mention only what is most obvious, the parallelism itself.  It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere meter does) in translation.

If we have any taste for poetry we shall enjoy this feature of the psalms.  Even those Christians who cannot enjoy it will respect it; for our Lord, soaked in the poetic tradition of his country, delighted to use it.  “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” (Matthew 7:2).  The second half of the verse makes no logical addition; it echoes, with variation, the first, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you,” (Matthew 7:7).  The advice is given in the first phrase, then twice repeated with different images.  We may, if we like, see in this an exclusively practical and didactic purpose; by giving to truths which are infinitely worth remembering this rhythmic and incantatory expression, he made them almost impossible to forget.  I like to suspect more.  It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great imagination which in the beginning, for its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of nature, submitted to express itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry.  For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.

I think, too, it will do us no harm to remember that, in becoming man, he bowed his neck beneath the sweet yoke of a heredity and early environment.  Humanly speaking, he would have learned this style, if from no one else (but it was all about him) from his mother.  “That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.”  Here is the same parallelism.  (And incidentally, is this the only aspect in which we can say of his human nature, “He was his mother’s own son”?  There is a fierceness, even a touch of Deborah, mixed with the sweetness in the Magnificat to which most painted Madonnas do little justice; matching the frequent severity of his own sayings.  I am sure the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, “mild” and “gentle,” but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind.  One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country dialect.)

I have not attempted, of course, to “cover the subject” even on my own amateurish level.  I have stressed, and omitted, as my own interest led me.  I say nothing about the long historical psalms, partly because they have meant less to me, and partly because they seem to call for little comment.  I say the least I can about the history of the psalms as parts of various “services”; a wide subject, and not for me.  And I begin with those characteristics of the Psalter which are at first most repellent.  Other men of my age will know why.  Our generation was brought up to eat everything on the plate; and is was the sound principle of nursery gastronomy to polish off the nasty things first and leave the tidbits to the end.

I have worked in the main from the translation which Anglicans find in their Prayer Book; that of Coverdale.  Even of the old translators he is by no means the most accurate; and of course a sound modern scholar has more Hebrew in his little finger than poor Coverdale had in his whole body.  But in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know.  I have usually checked, and sometimes corrected, his version from that of Dr. Moffatt.

Finally, as will soon be apparent to any reader, this is not what is called an “apologetic” work.  I am nowhere trying to convince unbelievers that Christianity is true.  I address those who already believe it, or those who are ready, while reading, to “suspend their disbelief.”  A man can’t be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.

I have written, too, as a member of the Church of England, but I have avoided controversial questions as much as possible.  At one point I had to explain how I differed on a certain matter both from Roman Catholics and from Fundamentalists: I hope I shall not for this forfeit the goodwill or the prayers of either.  Nor do I much fear it.  In my experience the bitterest opposition comes neither from them nor from any other thoroughgoing believers, and not often from atheists, but from semi-believers of all complexions.  There are some enlightened and progressive old gentlemen of this sort whom no courtesy can propitiate and no modesty disarm.  But then I dare say I am a much more annoying person than I know.  (Shall we, perhaps, in purgatory, see our own faces and hear our own voices as they really were?)

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