From Reflections on the Psalms
In Racine’s tragedy of Athalie the chorus of Jewish girls sing an ode about the original giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which has the remarkable refrain ô charmante loi (Act I, scene iv). Of course it will not do – it will border on the comic – to translate this, “oh charming Law.” Charming in English has come to be a tepid and even patronizing word; we use it of a pretty cottage, of a book that is something less than great or a woman who is something less than beautiful. How we should translate charmante I don’t know; “enchanting”? – “delightful”? – “beautiful”? None of them quite fits. What is, however, certain is that Racine ( a mighty poet and steeped in the Bible) is here coming nearer than any modern writer I know to a feeling very characteristic of certain Psalms. And it is a feeling which I, at first, found utterly bewildering.
“More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb,” (Psalm 19:10). One can well understand this being said of God’s mercies, God’s visitations, his attributes. But what the poet is actually talking about is God’s law, his commands; his “rulings” as Dr. Moffatt well translates in verse 9 (for “judgments” here plainly means decisions about conduct). What is being compared to gold and honey is those “statutes” (in the Latin version “decrees”) which, we are told, “rejoice the heart,” (v. 8). For the whole poem is about the Law, not about “judgment” in the sense to which Chapter II was devoted.
This was to me at first very mysterious. “Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery” – I can understand that a man can, and must, respect these “statutes,” and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate. If this is difficult at any time, it is doubly so when obedience to either is opposed to some strong, and perhaps in itself innocent, desire. A man held back by his unfortunate previous marriage to some lunatic or criminal who never dies from some woman whom he faithfully loves, or a hungry man left alone, without money, in a shop filled with the smell and sight of new bread, roasting coffee, or fresh strawberries – can these find the prohibition of adultery or of theft at all like honey? They may obey, they may still respect the “statute.” But surely it could be more aptly compared to the dentist’s forceps or the front line than to anything enjoyable and sweet.
A fine Christian and a great scholar to whom I once put this question said he thought that the poets were referring to the satisfaction men felt in knowing they had obeyed the Law; in other words, to the “pleasures of a good conscience.” They would, on his view, be meaning something very like what Wordsworth meant when he said we know nothing more beautiful than the “smile” on Duty’s face – her smile when her orders have been carried out. It is rash for me to differ from such a man, and his view certainly makes excellent sense. The difficulty is that the psalmists never seem to me to say anything very like this.
In Psalm 1:2 we are told that the good man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law will he exercise himself day and night.” To “exercise himself” in it apparently does not mean to obey it (though of course the good man will do that too) but to study it, as Dr. Moffatt says to “pore over it.” Of course “the Law” does not here mean simply the ten commandments, it means the whole complex legislation (religious, moral, civil, criminal, and even constitutional) contained in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The man who “pores upon it” is obeying Joshua’s command, (Joshua 1:8), “the book of the Law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night.” This means among other things, that the Law was a study or, as we should say, a “subject”; a thing on which there would be commentaries, lectures, and examinations. There were. Thus part (religiously, the least important part) of what an ancient Jew meant when he said he “delighted in the Law” was very like what one of us would mean if he said that somebody “loved” history, or physics, or archaeology. This might imply a wholly innocent – though, of course, merely natural – delight in one’s favorite subject; or, on the other hand, the pleasures of conceit, pride in one’s own learning and consequent contempt for the outsiders who don’t share it, or even a venal admiration for the studies which secure one’s own stipend and social position.
The danger of this second development is, of course, increased tenfold when the study in question is from the outset stamped as sacred. For then the danger of spiritual pride is added to that of mere ordinary pedantry and conceit. One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian; one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian. The temptations to which a great philologist or a great chemist is exposed are trivial in comparison. When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said, (John 7:49), “All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.” And as this pride increases, the “subject” or study which confers such privilege will grow more and more complicated, the list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others. Meanwhile the “weightier matters of the Law,” righteousness itself, shrinks into insignificance under this vast overgrowth, so that the legalists strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.
Thus the Law, like the sacrifice, can take on a cancerous life of its own and work against the thing for whose sake it existed. As Charles Williams wrote, “When the means are autonomous they are deadly.” This morbid condition of the Law contributed to – I do not suggest it is the sole or main cause of – Saint Paul’s joyous sense of Christ as the Deliverer from Law. It is against the same morbid condition that our Lord uttered some of his sternest words; it is the sin, and simultaneously the punishment, of the Scribes and Pharisees. But that is not the side of the matter I want to stress here, nor does it by this time need stressing. I would rather let the psalms show me again the good thing of which this bad thing is the corruption.