PSALMS: Sweeter Than Honey (Part 3) by C. S. Lewis

Sweeter Than Honey (Part 3) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

By this assurance they put themselves, implicitly, on the right side of a controversy which arose far later among Christians.  There were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who held that “God did not command certain things because they are right, but certain things are right because God commanded them.”  To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love him and one another, he might equally well have commanded us to hate him and one another, and hatred would then have been right.  It was apparently a mere tossup which he decided on.  Such a view, of course, makes God a mere arbitrary tyrant.  It would be better and less irreligious to believe in no God and to have no ethics than to have such an ethics and such a theology as this.  The Jews, of course, never discuss this in abstract and philosophical terms.  But at once, and completely, they assume the right view, knowing better than they know.  They know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is “righteous” and commands “righteousness” because he loves it, (Psalm 11:8).  He enjoins what is good because it is good, because he is good.  Hence his laws have emeth, “truth,” intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in his own nature, and are therefore as solid as that Nature which he has created.  But the psalmists themselves can say it best; “thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains; thy judgments are like the great deep,” (Psalm 36:6).  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.

For there were other roads, which lacked “truth.”  The Jews had as their immediate neighbors, close to them in race as well as in position, Pagans of the worst kind, Pagans whose religion was marked by none of that beauty or (sometimes) wisdom which we can find among the Greeks.  That background made the “beauty” or “sweetness” of the Law more visible; not least because these neighboring Paganisms were a constant temptation to the Jew and may in some of their externals have been not unlike his own religion.  The temptation was to turn to those terrible rites in times of terror – when, for example, the Assyrians were pressing on.  We who not so long ago waited daily for invasion by enemies, like the Assyrians, skilled and constant in systematic cruelty, know how they may have felt.  They were tempted, since the Lord seemed deaf, to try those appalling deities who demanded so much more and might therefore perhaps give more in return.  But when a Jew in some happier hour, or a better Jew even in that hour, looked at those worships – when he thought of sacred prostitution, sacred sodomy, and the babies thrown into the fire for Moloch – his own “Law,” as he turned back to it must have shone with an extraordinary radiance.  Sweeter than honey; or if that metaphor does not suit us who have not such a sweet tooth as all ancient peoples (partly because we have plenty of sugar), let us say like mountain water, like fresh air after a dungeon, like sanity after a nightmare.  But, once again, the best image is in a Psalm, the 19th.

I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.  Most readers will remember its structure; six verses about Nature, five about the Law, and four of personal prayer.  The actual words supply no logical connection between the first and second movements.  In this way its technique resembles that of the most modern poetry.  A modern poet would pass with similar abruptness from one theme to another and leave you to find out the connecting link for yourself.  But then he would possibly be doing this quite deliberately; he might have, though he chose to conceal, a perfectly clear and conscious link in his own mind which he could express to you in logical prose if he wanted to.  I doubt if the ancient poet was like that.  I think he felt, effortlessly and without reflecting on it, so close a connection, indeed (for his imagination) such an identity, between his first theme and his second that he passed from the one to the other without realizing that he had made any transition.  First he thinks of the sky; how, day after day, the pageantry we see there shows us the splendor of its Creator.  Then he thinks of the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of it daily voyage from east to west.  Finally, of its heat; not of course the mild heats of our climate but the cloudless, blinding, tyrannous rays hammering the hills, searching every cranny.  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is, “There is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.  Then, at once, in verse 7, he is talking of something else, which hardly seems to him something else because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine.  The Law is “undefiled,” the Law gives light, it is clean and everlasting, it is “sweet.”  No one can improve on this and nothing can more fully admit us to the old Jewish feeling about the Law; luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant.  One hardly needs to add that this poet is wholly free from self-righteousness and the last section is concerned with his “secret faults.”  As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in every nook of shade where he attempted to hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all the hiding-places of his soul.

In so far as this idea of the Law’s beauty, sweetness, or preciousness, arose from the contrast of the surrounding Paganisms, we may soon find occasion to recover it.  Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time.  None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism.  But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough.  Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility.  Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and “sweet reasonableness” of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.  But, of course, if we do, we shall then be exposed to the danger of priggery.  We might come to “thank God that we are not as other men.”  This introduces the greatest difficulty which the psalms have raised in my mind.

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