C. S. Lewis feeling miffed about Psalm 23
C. S. Lewis did not like the 23rd Psalm. That may come as a shock to you, especially if you are the typical Lewisophile who reveres his writings just a little less than the Holy Bible. But it cannot be denied. Psalm 23 gave Lewis problems:
“Worst of all in ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ (23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across (5) ‘Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me’ …. The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it. … the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure” (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (World Publishing: 2004), 142-143).
Now, before you go and burn all of your Lewis books, consider that he has actually done a great service to us by reading in an honest manner the text before him. On the face of it, this Psalm, beloved as it is, presents us with a theological problem. More amazingly, most of us have read this Psalm scores of times without even stumbling over the difficulty hidden in it.
Now, I personally believe that Lewis did not properly understand the Psalm, but rather than share my interpretation of verse right now, I’d like to start a discussion about it. I’ll get to the solution, eventually, but first I want to hear from you. How do you feel about Lewis’ critique of Psalm 23? How do you feel about Psalm 23:5? Does it bother you? Do you have a solution for this “Bible difficulty”?


07/13/2010 13:49

Rather than merely give my own reading, I'd like to connect Lewis's comments referenced here to some broader themes. First, throughout his writings on the Psalms, Lewis is concerned that the spirituality of the Psalmists is at times too, well, pagan. God is worshiped in exchange for petty favors.

Second, what Lewis touches on here, this problem of deriving pleasure from the suffering of one's enemies, is not unique to the Psalmists. This apparently morose delectation is to be found all throughout the history of Christian thinking, at least. The blessed in heaven are often depicted as looking down on those in hell and experiencing more joy as a result. I could provide examples, but I doubt that these are necessary. It's not a matter of controversy that these views have been expressed time and again.

Now, in response to this sort of problem, there are various types of resolution. One is the 'so what?' response. This involves shrugging one's shoulders and saying, "To hell with anyone who doesn't like this passage or any passage like it. God has revealed that it is good to delight in the suffering of the wicked. So bring on the Day of Judgment, and pass the fire and brimstone, please!" The problem with this is that it's not really a resolution of the original problem. It just denies that there is any problem at all. And it is such an abhorrent way of thinking, it really doesn't deserve much attention. Whatever God has revealed, it must be good. And this is clearly not good, so we need something else. Now, three obvious resolutions remain.

1) Deny that this is a Christian perspective at all. Modern Christians might just opt to reject this sort of cruel pleasure. Yet, if this is truly the sort of pleasure being mentioned by the Psalmists, this option will require some sort of interpretation of the Scriptures that can explain away this messy business. I think Lewis took this approach.

2) Deny that this is the proper reading of the Psalms. For instance, the Psalmist may not be literally wishing for his enemies to burn with envy. Perhaps this is just an exaggerated way of saying, "God, please show them the way of righteousness so that they can't ignore it!" Having done this, one can save the Scriptures from denigration. However, this way of resolving the difficulty also must deal with those theologians who have suggested that the suffering of the wicked is a cause for delight in the righteous. By preserving the Scriptures from error, the tradition has been thrown into doubt. Perhaps this is perfectly acceptable.

3) Deny one's modern predilections for a moment, and try to understand both the Scriptures and the tradition with a view to reconciling each with the other, as well as with an enduring notion of justice.

This latter seems the best to me. That's why I have set it up to seem best. But it also follows a hermeneutic method that is dependable, fruitful and worth attempting in any case.

My resolution, along the lines of 3), would be as follows: The problem that Lewis identifies, the pagan impulse to have God enact one's own cruel plans, is indeed abhorrent. But it is a total misunderstanding of this eschatological consummation, which involves the wicked being punished and the righteous being very happy about it.

Scriptures and the tradition of interpretation that I referenced above agree on this: to rejoice in evil, even evil that is inflicted on someone wicked, is not in line with God's righteousness. With this established, the detection of a pagan inclination for vengeance is only possible if one entirely loses sight of the true source of joy for all of God’s righteous people, namely, His justice. God’s justice is surely not evil, nor is it identical with another’s suffering. What is more, His justice is not motivated by hate or a desire for evil. The root of God’s justice is the seed of all God’s actions: His everlasting, self-emptying love. When the righteous look upon the suffering of the wicked, they only see in the light of God’s love. In this way, the object of their delight is not evil; it is the justice that shines through, the justice whereby the evil are prevented from destroying themselves or others. Indeed, it is by this justice that even the wicked catch a glimpse of God’s love themselves, if only in the negative form of restraining them from further self-annihilation.

07/21/2010 05:16

Holy frijole, Chris! What an awesome response! If I didn't have anything else to say, that would be about all I could say!

It's interesting, I just finished reading Hitchens "God is Not Great" a few months ago, and one of the things that he took great pleasure in was pointing out that Tertullian had said that the righteous will take pleasure in being granted a view of the sufferings of the damned. Because I didn't hop up and look for that reference in Tertullian, I had reasoned that it was an unfortunate statement from perhaps the only individual who has the distinction of being recognized as both a Church Father and a heretic, so I didn't lose any sleep over it. You've helped me to realize here that Tertullian deserves a second chance (on this subject at least), and I have a hunch that Hitchens pulled his reference out of context, surprise, surprise.

You left out something else that Lewis was trying to say, I think. (It's been a while since I read that book). The Psalms are not just inspired Scripture, but they are prayers that are born out of the human experience and flow out of wounded hearts. You have presented an able defense of those passages that describe taking pleasure in God's justice, but I don't think that you would want to use the same argument with Psalm 137:9, ("Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"). One of the things that Lewis was trying to do with his book was preserve the Book of Psalms as a prayer book for the Church while honestly admitting that many of the sentiments in it are not steeped in the New Wine of the Gospel. Keeping in mind that the Psalms are somewhere on the halfway-point on the marker of progressive revelation up to the full revelation in the Messiah keeps everything in the proper perspective.

But all of this is a bit irrelevant, BECAUSE

my reading of Psalm 23 doesn't have anything to do with any of these social-justice issues. (But it might bring up other ones). I'll try to present my interpretation of the text next week. Maybe someone else will chime in before then, too.


Leave a Reply