Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis


I. Introduction
     “This is not a work of scholarship,” opens C. S. Lewis in his lesser-known work, Reflections on the Psalms; 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.”[1]  Yet, Reflections of the Psalms is critically examined by academics as if it were an academic work.  This may be credited to the caliber of his other theological writings, or it might be that few men in the pew would compare themselves to Lewis as he strives to write as an unlearned man from the pew.  While this critique will attempt to remember that Lewis has made no claim to such authority on the topic for which he writes, this review of Reflections on the Psalms cannot fully embrace Lewis’ work as “unlearned.”  An impressive list of Lewis’ books would easily demonstrate how “learned” Lewis is on theological and biblical matters; but given the popularly of Lewis and his work, space in this post will be reserved to matters other than his background and bibliography.  This critique will first provide a brief summary of Reflections on the Psalms followed by a critical interaction with the work, where this author will attempt to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses Lewis’ man in the pew musings on the Psalms.  

II. Brief Summary
     Reflections on the Psalms is a fairly short work and written in a similar conversational style as another popular work by Lewis, Mere Christianity.  The difference however, is the target reader.  About Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes, “ . . . this is not what is called an ‘apologetic’ work.  I am nowhere trying to convince unbelievers that Christianity is true.”[2]  The reader will quickly realize the truth of this statement as he or she comes across the many discussions on chapters and lines of the book of Psalms with no reference other than a chapter or verse number.  Lewis assumes the reader is either intimately familiar with the text or will read his book held in one hand with an open Bible in the other.  Although this is not to suggest that Lewis does not quote the Psalms, because he does so frequently.  Many quotes come from the Coverdale[3] Prayer Book used by Anglicans even though Lewis admits that Coverdale had a poor understanding of the Hebrew language compared to modern scholars.[4]  The beauty and poetry employed by Coverdale, according to Lewis, is better than any others.[5]  However, Lewis also frequently goes to the translational work of Dr. Moffatt—whom this author believes is the Scottish biblical scholar, Dr. James Moffatt.[6]  Lewis discusses or mentions 79 of the 150 Psalms.[7]

     Although not expressed, Lewis has divided his work into two parts: the first approaching the Psalms primarily from the viewpoint of the Jewish writers’ and readers’ perspective, and the second with the approach of the Christian reader.  The first section covers the general topics of judgment (or more appropriately, an understanding of judgment from the perspective defendant in a criminal trial verses the plaintiff in a civil case), hatred and cursings, death, the beauty and magnitude of God, the sweetness and desirability of God, the avoidance of temptation and the sins of the tongue, nature, and how and why we praise.  In the second section, Lewis deals with how he believes a Christian should approach the text.  Here, he wrestles with the idea that the Psalter has two meanings, the second completely unknown by the Psalmist.  It is also here that Lewis suggests that Pagan writings my also convey the same truth or carry second meanings.  And, as Lewis neatly ties up is work, he concludes with an argument that the Psalms not only point to a coming messiah, but are specifically about Jesus as the Lord and Messiah, with His clear appearance in the text.

     Because the unique style of Lewis is such that he tends to mosey along, making his point by laying out an interesting but vague nebulous of ideas that seem to solidify in the mind only after the book as been closed or the reader has paused between chapters, a succinct summary cannot capture his the jaunt through the Psalms.  Therefore, any attempt at summarizing Reflections on the Psalms will be offered with the critical interaction that comes next.

 III. Critical interaction with the author’s work
     A seminary student, such as this author, might find himself intimidated to critically review such a popular and influential writer as Lewis.  He may be tempted to treat the effort like a father plays softball with his young son: throwing only slow, straight pitches.  However, a critique must be offered, if anything, to show Lewis and his text the respect it is due.

     Lewis starts with the matters he sees as the most unattractive.[8]  In doing so, he does not ease into his subject matter or allow his readers the opportunity to warm up to his ideas.   Right upfront, the matter he sees the most unattractive (if indeed Lewis is dealing with the most unattractive first) is the idea of the Day of Judgment or God’s justice.  This author finds it strange, that Lewis’ chapter on justice came before that of the chapter on cursings, where Lewis uses the example of Babylonian babies being dashed and beaten against the pavement.[9]  In any case, Lewis notices that the Jews looked anxiously to the Day of Judgment.  This is, according to Lewis, because the Jews looked upon this judgment differently than Christians might today.  Writes Lewis,

The ancient Jews, like ourselves, think of God’s judgment in terms of an earthly court of justice.  The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff.  The one hopes for an acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.[10]

This idea serves to help the reader understand some of the Psalms in these terms.  Some passages become clear under this explanation, and it allows the reader—who does not face the same challenges finding vindication in the courts— to better grasp why the Jews would so look forward to this day.  It is further explained that “ . . . there are very good reasons for regarding the Christian picture of God’s judgment as for more profound and far safer for our souls than the Jewish.”[11]  Lewis suggests that the Christian view is better but the Jewish way of reading the text should not be thrown out.[12]  This, however, should cause the one to ask, Why should the Christian read the Psalms differently than the Jews? In Chapter 11, Lewis suggests that the meaning of the Psalms hold a duel meaning, especially in the allegory.  For example, he articulates that to the Old Testament reader, Melchizedek is a high priest, but the New Testament reader sees him as Christ himself.[13]  However, where some of this allegory is clear between the Old Testament and the New, what reason is there for the New Testament reader to change the meaning of justice and the type of court case found in the Psalms?  Lewis fails to provide a reason, a weakness of his method of argument found throughout his book.  Lewis does a poor job of crediting his information or providing a strong foundation for his arguments, hiding behind his opening line that this is not an academic endeavor.  But being an academic endeavor or not, the types of claims he makes require a strong foundation.  In addition, for an “unlearned” man, he writes this chapter and all that follow with an air of authority.  A strength however, is that his understanding of the court’s meaning does shed tremendous light on how the Psalmist may have been thinking about justice, and this is true of most of the other material through the remaining chapters.

     Another weakness of Lewis is how he, as a literary scholar, could miss symbolic uses of words.  In both Chapters 3 and 7, Lewis deals with the issue of hate.[14]  In both of the chapters there is an implied idea that the Bible teaches against hate, so we can either deal with these passages by finding an explanation (as Lewis does) or we can ignore them.  However, when taken in the larger scope of the entire Bible, the word ‘hate’ can take on different meanings, even symbolic meanings.  Fore example, God’s love for Jacob and hatred for Esau is symbolic for God electing Jacob.  And in light of Lewis’ approach to ‘hate’ in the Psalms, how should one view Luke 14:26, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (ESV)?  Surely, the definition in Luke is not the same as in the Psalms, but these other examples should serve to demonstrate that there could be greater symbolism associated with specific words and definitions.  This should especially hold true for Lewis given his position on second meanings and different readings for Jews compared to Christians.

     While this author has spent the bulk of his interaction focusing on the most glaring weaknesses, some brilliant strengths must also be addressed.  The first is that Lewis directs his readers to view the Psalms in light of their beauty and poetry.  This is why he is willing to sacrifice translational accuracy in his source selection.  Lewis zeros in on rich passages such as Psalms 19:10.[15]  The Coverdale translations reads, “More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.”[16]  The second great strength of Reflections on the Psalms is Lewis’ admiration for the Psalms.  While much of this love simply pours out through his dedication to the subject, at one clear point Lewis writes, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”[17]  After reading his work on the Psalms, few would argue otherwise, certainly not this author. 

IV. Conclusion
     There are moments where a reader may feel uneasy about Reflections on the Psalms, as this author did from time to time, but that is no reason to put down the book.  This work, like so many of his others, allows the reader to sit across from C. S. Lewis at the Eagle and Child Pub, and ask him his thoughts on the Psalms.  And whether one agrees or not, Lewis has made it clear from the start—he is giving his unprofessional opinion, no matter how knowledgeable he may be on the subject.  The Screwtape Letters, Chronicles of Narnia, or Mere Christianity, this book is not; but Lewis makes that clear from the start too.  Reflections on the Psalms is for one wanting to stroll through the Psalms for their beauty and form and take Lewis, a master of beauty and form, along for the journey. 

Encyclopedia Britannica.  “James Moffatt” [accessed September 26, 2009].
Lewis, C. S.  Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.
Tlogical. “Miles Coverdale” [accessed September 26, 2009].

     [1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), 1.
     [2] Ibid., 7
     [3] This author believes Lewis is referring to Miles Coverdale (1488–1568), who created the first complete English Bible in 1535.  Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms is included among the Anglican Book of Prayers. Tlogical, “Miles Coverdale”, [accessed September 26, 2009].
     [4] Ibid., 7.
     [5] Ibid., 7. 
     [6] Encyclopedia Britannica,  “James Moffatt”, [accessed September 26, 2009].
     [7] Lewis, 149-151. 
     [8] Ibid., 6-7, 34.
     [9] Ibid., 20-21.
     [10] Ibid., 10.
     [11] Ibid., 12. 
     [12] Ibid., 13. 
     [13] Ibid., 123.
     [14] Ibid., 26, 66, for example. 
     [15] Ibid., 54.
     [16] Ibid., 54. 
     [17] Ibid., 45. 

*I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.