PSALMS: Death In The Psalms (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

Death In The Psalms (Part 1) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

According to my policy of taking first what is most unattractive, I should now proceed to the self-righteousness in many of the psalms.  But we cannot deal with that properly until some other matters have been noticed.  I turn first to a very different subject.

Our ancestors seem to have read the psalms and the rest of the Old Testament under the impression that the authors wrote with a pretty full understanding of Christian theology; the main difference being that the Incarnation, which for us is something recorded, was for them something predicted.  In particular, they seldom doubted that the old authors were, like ourselves, concerned with a life beyond death, that they feared damnation and hoped for eternal joy.

In our own prayer-book version, and probably in many others, some passages make this impression most irresistibly.  Thus in 17:14, we read of wicked men “which have their portion in this life.”  The Christian reader inevitably reads into this (and Coverdale, the translator, obviously did so too) our Lord’s contrast between the Rich Man, who had his good things here, and Lazarus, who had them hereafter; the same contrast which is implied in Luke 6:24 – “Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation.”  But modern translators can find nothing like this in the actual Hebrew.  In reality this passage is merely one of the cursings we were considering in the previous chapter.  In 17:13 the poet prays God to “cast down” (In Dr. Moffatt, “crush”) the ungodly; in verse 14, a refinement occurs to him.  Yes, crush them, but first let them “have their portion in this life.”  Kill them, but first give them a bad time while alive.

Again, in Psalm 49, we have “No man may deliver his brother…for it cost more to redeem their souls; so that he must let that alone forever,” (vv. 7, 8).  Who would not think that this referred to the redeeming work of Christ?  No man can “save” the soul of another.  The price of salvation is one that only the Son of God could pay; as the hymn says, there was no other “good enough to pay the price.”  The very phrasing of our version strengthens the effect – the verb redeem which (outside the pawnbroking business) is now used only in a theological sense, and the past tense of cost.  Not it “costs,” but it did cost, more, once and for all on Calvary.  But apparently the Hebrew poet meant something quite different and much more ordinary.  He means merely that death is inevitable.  As Dr. Moffatt translates it: “None can buy himself off.  Not one can purchase for a price from God (soul’s ransom is too dear) life that shall never end.”

At this point I can imagine a lifelong lover of the psalms exclaiming: “Oh bother the great scholars and modern translators!  I’m not going to let them spoil the whole Bible for me.  At least let me ask two questions, (i) Is it not stretching the arm of coincidence rather far to ask me to believe that, not once but twice, in the same book, mere accident (wrong translations, bad manuscripts, or what not) should have so successfully imitated the language of Christianity?  (ii) Do you mean that the old meanings which we have always attached to these verses simply have to be scrapped?  Both questions will come up for consideration in a later chapter.  For the moment I will only say that, to the second, my personal answer is a confident, No.  I return to what I believe to be the facts.

It seems quite clear that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious importance.  The word translated, “soul,” in our version of the psalms means simply, “life”; the word translated, “hell,” means simply, “the land of the dead,” the state of all the dead, good and bad alike, Sheol.

It is difficult to know how an ancient Jew thought of Sheol.  He did not like thinking about it.  His religion did not encourage him to think about it.  Evil might.  It was a condition from which very wicked people like the Witch of Endor were believed to be able to conjure up a ghost.  But the ghost told you nothing about Sheol; it was called up solely to tell you things about our own world.  Or again, if you allowed yourself an unhealthy interest in Sheol you might be lured into one of the neighboring forms of Paganism and “eat the offerings of the dead,” (Psalm 106:28).

Behind all this one can discern a conception not specifically Jewish but common to many ancient religions.  The Greek Hades is the most familiar example to modern people.  Hades is neither Heaven nor hell; it is almost nothing.  I am speaking of the popular beliefs; of course philosophers like Plato have a vivid and positive doctrine of immortality.  And, of course, poets may write fantasies about the world of the dead.  These have often no more to do with the real Pagan religion than the fantasies we may write about other planets have to do with real astronomy.  In real Pagan belief, Hades was hardly worth talking about; a world of shadows, of decay.  Homer (probably far closer to actual beliefs than the later and more sophisticated poets) represents the ghosts as witless.  They gibber meaninglessly until some living man gives them sacrificial blood to drink.  How the Greeks felt about it in his time is startlingly shown at the beginning of the Iliad where he says of men killed in battle that “their souls” went to Hades but “the men themselves” were devoured by dogs and carrion birds.  It is the body, even the dead body, which is the man himself; the ghost is only a sort of reflection or echo.  (The grim impulse sometimes has crossed my mind to wonder whether all this was, is, in fact true; that the merely natural fate of humanity, the fate of unredeemed humanity, is just this – to disintegrate in soul as in body, to be a witless psychic sediment.  If so, Homer’s idea that only a drink of sacrificial blood can restore a ghost to rationality would be one of the most striking among many Pagan anticipations of the truth.)

Such a conception, vague and marginal even in Paganism, becomes more so in Judaism.  Sheol is even dimmer, further in the background, than Hades.  It is a thousand miles away from the center of Jewish religion; especially in the psalms.  They speak of Sheol (or “hell” or “the pit”) very much as a man speaks of “death” or “the grave” who has no belief in any sort of future state whatever – a man to whom the dead are simply dead, nothing, and there’s no more to be said.

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