C. S. Lewis’ insight into the Psalms is rich and deep. I am so glad he put his thoughts on this into a book: Reflections on the Psalms. However, before doing that, he wrote an essay on the Psalms, reprinted in a book called Christian Reflections. There he says,
The dominant impression I get from reading the Psalms is one of antiquity. I seem to be looking into a deep pit of time, but looking through a lens which brings the figures who inhabit that depth up close to my eye. In that momentary proximity they are almost shockingly alien; creatures of unrestrained emotion, wallowing in self-pity, sobbing, cursing, screaming in exultation, clashing uncouth weapons or dancing to the din of strange musical instruments. Yet, side by side with this, there is also a different image in my mind: Anglican choirs, well laundered surplices, soapy boys’ faces, hassocks, an organ, prayer-books, and perhaps the smell of new-mown graveyard grass coming in with the sunlight through an open door. Sometimes the one, sometimes the other, impression grows faint, but neither, perhaps, ever quite disappears.
Lewis lived with the Psalms, day in and day out, to an extent that few people do anymore, other than nuns in a nunnery or monks in a monastery. The Psalms were part of every Sunday worship service Lewis attended. They were also part of the daily services he would have experienced in college in term time. If Lewis did not hear the Psalms read aloud in worship, he would have been reading them on his own on a daily basis as he read the morning and evening services in the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, it is quite likely that Lewis read through, or listened, to all of the Psalms every month throughout his adult Christian life. Therefore, as we blog our way through the Psalms over the coming days, I think we will find many of Lewis’ insights most helpful.
The Psalms are so important, and so rich, that we really should spend a single day on each Psalm. However, to do that will throw off our plan of reading through the C. S. Lewis Bible in a year. Thus, my goal will be to handle four psalms per day.
While Lewis was constantly struck by the distance between himself and the psalmist behind each psalm, in reading the first four psalms today, I was struck by their immediacy. The Psalms are such personal expressions of worship, expressions that I think, to some extent, every Christian of some maturity can identify with. The Psalms really show us that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God. Many people today recoil from such a phrase as “a personal relationship with God”. However, I think there is hardly a better way to put this. That is what the various psalmists live out before our eyes in their various expressions of prayer. Yes, sometimes God seems distant, but the only reason he seems distant at times is that at other times the psalmist has known God’s closeness.
This is not to say that there are not some things in the Psalms that Christians today have a hard time identifying with. We encounter one of these aspects in the very first psalm. The idea of delighting in the law of the Lord seems alien to most of us. Delighting in God’s mercy, yes, but in his law, how can that be?
Lewis reminds us that we must consider the situation of the ancient Jews, living in the midst of a hostile culture, with people all around them worshiping strange gods—even gods who called upon their worshippers to sacrifice their children in the fire. It is in such a context that the ancient Jews found God’s law to be a delight, a refreshment. Meditating on God’s law was for the ancient Jew like coming out of the heat and humidity of a 100 degree summer afternoon into a climate-controlled room that is cool and comfortable--an oasis. To use the psalmists own image: when we delight in the law of the Lord we are like trees planted by streams of water, soaking up the refreshing nourishment of God’s word. He satisfies our spiritual thirst.
Psalm 2 is of course one full of meaning for Christians. In its original context, the Lord’s anointed would have referred to the King of Israel, or perhaps of Judah in particular. However, it is natural that the first Christians would have seen a reference in this psalm to our Lord. Indeed, it seemed to the early Christians that the nations were conspiring against the Lord and his anointed one, Jesus, by putting the latter to death on a cross. Yet, this was not the end of the story. Thus, the psalmist instructs that all the rulers of the earth, in fact all people, can best find happiness by taking refuge in the Lord.
Psalm 3, like many of the Psalms of David, is one that I think most Christians can personally relate to at one time or another. It is not hard to take this psalm as our own prayer when we are feeling embattled, and who does not have this feeling at some time in his or her life? What a great comfort it is to be able to lie down and sleep and rise again because the Lord sustains us, the same Lord who sustained David.
Psalm 4 expresses something we have seen already in the book of Job. One of the greatest desires of the ancients was simply to be heard by God. To be heard by God, whatever God’s answer may be, means that we are not alone. “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! ... Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer…. the Lord hears when I call to him.”
Of course, the best thing we can do with the Psalms is not merely to think or talk about what they mean, but to take them up as our own prayers, or even as our own songs to the Lord. I hope that as we work our way through the psalms each day that you will take some time to do just that….