PSALMS: The Cursings (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

The Cursings (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

Then another thought occurred which led me in an unexpected, and at first unwelcome, direction.  The reaction of the psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong.  One may try to excuse it on the ground that they were not Christians and knew no better.  But there are two reasons why this defense, though it will go some way, will not go very far.

The first is that within Judaism itself the corrective to this natural reaction already existed.  “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart…thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” says Leviticus, (19:17, 18).  In Exodus we read, “If thou seest the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden…thou shalt surely help with him,” and, “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him,” (23:4, 5).  “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth,” (Proverbs 24:17).  And I shall never forget my surprise when I first discovered that St. Paul’s, “If thine enemy hunger, give him bread,” etc., is a direct quotation from the same book, (Proverbs 25:21).  But this is one of the rewards of reading the Old Testament regularly.  You keep on discovering more and more what a tissue of quotations from it the New Testament is; how constantly our Lord repeated, reinforced, continued, refined, and sublimated the Judaic ethics, how very seldom he introduced a novelty.  This, of course, was perfectly well-known – was indeed axiomatic – to millions of unlearned Christians as long as Bible-reading was habitual.  Nowadays it seems to be so forgotten that people think they have somehow discredited our Lord if they can show that some pre-Christian document (or what they take to be pre-Christian) such as the Dead Sea Scrolls has “anticipated” him.  As if we supposed him to be a cheapjack like Nietzsche inventing a new ethics!  Every good teacher, within Judaism as without, has anticipated him.  The whole religious history of the pre-Christian world, on its better side, anticipates him.  It could not be otherwise.  The Light which has lightened every man from the beginning may shine more clearly but cannot change.  The Origin cannot suddenly start being, in the popular sense of the word, “original.”

The second reason is more disquieting.  If we are to excuse the poets of the psalms on the ground that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in pagan authors.  Perhaps if I knew more pagan literature I should be able to do this.  But in what I do know (a little Greek, a little Latin, and of Old Norse very little indeed) I am not at all sure that I can.  I can find in them lasciviousness, much brutal insensibility, cold cruelties taken for granted, but not this fury or luxury of hatred.  I mean, of course, where writers are speaking in their own person; speeches put into the mouths of angry characters in a play are a different matter.  One’s first impression is that the Jews were much more vindictive and vitriolic than the pagans.

If we are not Christians we shall dismiss this with the old gibe, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”  That is impossible for us who believe that God chose that race for the vehicle of his own Incarnation, and who are indebted to Israel beyond all possible repayment.

Where we find a difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us.  Where there is cover we hope for game.  This particular difficulty is well worth exploring.

It seems that there is a general rule in the moral universe which may be formulated, “The higher, the more in danger.”  The “average sensual man” who is sometimes unfaithful to his wife, sometimes tipsy, always a little selfish, now and then (within the law) a trifle sharp in his deals, is certainly, by ordinary standards, a “lower” type than the man whose soul is filled with some great cause, to which he will subordinate his appetites, his fortune, and even his safety.  But it is out of the second man that something really fiendish can be made; an inquisitor, a member of the Committee of Public Safety.  It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics.  Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.  One sees the same principle at work in a field (comparatively) so unimportant as literary criticism; the most brutal work, the most rankling hatred of all other critics and of nearly all authors, may come from the most honest and disinterested critic, the man who cares most passionately and selflessly about literature.  The higher the stakes, the greater the temptation to lose your temper over the game.  We must not overvalue the relative harmlessness of the little, sensual, frivolous people.  They are not above, but below, some temptations.

If I am never tempted, and cannot even imagine myself being tempted, to gamble, this does not mean that I am better than those who are.  The timidity and pessimism which exempt me from that temptation themselves tempt me to draw back from those risks and adventures which every man ought to take.  In the same way we cannot be certain that the comparative absence of vindictiveness in the pagans, though certainly a good thing in itself, is a good symptom.  This was borne in upon me during a night journey taken early in the Second War in a compartment full of young soldiers.  Their conversation made it clear that they totally disbelieved all that they had read in the papers about the wholesale cruelties of the Nazi régime.  They took it for granted, without argument, that this was all lies, all propaganda put out by our own government to “pep up” our troops.  And the shattering thing was that, believing this, they expressed not the slightest anger.  That our rulers should falsely attribute the worst of crimes to some of their fellowmen in order to induce others of their fellowmen to shed their blood seemed to them a matter of course.  They weren’t even particularly interested.  They saw nothing wrong in it.  Now it seemed to me that the most violent of the psalmists – or, for that matter any child wailing out, “But it’s not fair” – was in a more hopeful condition than these young men.  If they had perceived, and felt as a man should feel, the diabolical wickedness which they believed our rulers to be committing, and then forgiven them, they would have been saints.  But not to perceive it at all – not even to be tempted to resentment – to accept it as the most ordinary thing in the world – argues a terrifying insensibility.  Clearly these young men had (on that subject anyway) no conception of good and evil whatsoever.

Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom.  And the presence of indignation may be a good one.  Even when that indignation passes into bitter personal vindictiveness, it may still be a good symptom, though bad in itself.  It is a sin; but it at least shows that those who commit it have not sunk below the level at which the temptation to that sin exists – just as the sins (often quite appalling) of the great patriot or great reformer point to something in him above mere self.  If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously.  For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim.  The thought of the “righteous Lord” – who surely must hate such doings as much as they do, who surely therefore must (but how terribly he delays!) “judge” or avenge, is always there, if only in the background.  Sometimes it comes into the foreground; as in Psalm 58:9-10, “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance…so that a man shall say…Doubtless there is a God that judgeth the Earth.”  This is something different from mere anger without indignation – the almost animal rage at finding that a man’s enemy has done to him exactly what he would have done to his enemy if he had been strong enough or quick enough.

Different, certainly higher, a better symptom; yet also leading to a more terrible sin.  For it encourages a man to think that his own worst passions are holy.  It encourages him to add, explicitly or implicitly, “Thus saith the Lord,” to the expression of his own emotions or even his own options; as Carlyle and Kipling and some politicians, and even, in their own way, some modern critics, so horribly do.  (It is this, by the way, rather than mere idle “profane swearing” that we ought to mean by “taking God’s name in vain.”  The man who says, “Damn that chair!” does not really wish that it should first be endowed with an immortal soul and then sent to eternal perdition.)  For here also it is true “the higher, the more in danger.”  The Jews sinned in this matter worse than the pagans not because they were further from God but because they were nearer to him.  For the supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities both of good and evil.  From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal.  And no way back to the mere humdrum virtues and vices of the unawakened soul.  If the divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse.  Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.  Of all created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God.  There seems no way out of this.  It gives a new application to our Lord’s words about “counting the cost.”  For we can still see, in the worst of their maledictions, how these old poets were, in a sense, near to God.  Though hideously distorted by the human instrument, something of the divine voice can be heard in these passages.  Not, of course, that God looks upon their enemies as they do: He “desireth not the death of a sinner.”  But doubtless he has for the sin of those enemies just the implacable hostility which the poets express.  Implacable?  Yes, not to the sinner but to the sin.  It will not be tolerated nor condoned, no treaty will be made with it.  That tooth must come out, that right hand must be amputated, if the man is to be saved.  In that way the relentlessness of the psalmists is far nearer to one side of the truth than many modern attitudes which can be mistaken, by those who hold them, for Christian charity.  It is, for example, obviously nearer than the total moral indifference of the young soldiers.  It is nearer than the pseudo-scientific tolerance which reduces all wickedness to neurosis (though of course some apparent wickedness is).  It even contains a streak of sanity absent from the old woman presiding at a juvenile court who – I heard it myself – told some young hooligans, convicted of a well-planned robbery for gain (they had already sold the swag and some had previous convictions against them), that they must, they really must, give up such “stupid pranks.”  Against all this the ferocious parts of the psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God.  In that way, however dangerous the human distortion may be, his word sounds through these passages, too.

But can we, besides learning from these terrible psalms also use them in our devotional life?  I believe we can; but that topic must be reserved for a later chapter.

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