Book Review – CS Lewis’ Reflections On The Psalms

7 05 2010

This is a required book review for my Old Testament Orientation class.  Enjoy!!

Bibliographical Entry

Lewis, C.S.  Reflections On The Psalms. San Diego:  Harcourt, Inc., 1958.

Author Information

Reflections On The Psalms was written by one of the most influential authors of Christian literature in the 20th century.  Mr. Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis was born to a well-educated family in Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 29, 1898.  Having been surrounded by books throughout his entire childhood, Lewis is said to have found his reality between the pages of the books he read.  Tragedy struck his family when his mother died when he was only 9 years old.  The great sadness that ensued thrust Lewis further into the world of literature and fantasy.  In his teen years, as he struggled with the pain of the death of his mother, he drifted in his faith and ultimately became an atheist.

In 1916, Lewis was awarded a scholarship to University College, Oxford University, England.    In 1917, he took a break from his studies to enlist in the military during the tumultuous time of the First World War.  After being wounded in battle in Arras, he was discharged from the military and returned to his studies in 1919.  Lewis went on to become a Fellow and Tutor of English Literature at Magdalene College in Oxford from 1925 to 1954.  He was later granted the seat of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College in Cambridge.  Lewis came to Christ in 1931 after being influenced by his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis was a prolific writer of fiction, science fiction, poetry, and Christian apologetics.   It has been said that there were “three Lewises.”  First, there was Lewis the distinguished literary scholar and critic.  Then, there was Lewis the writer of science fiction and children’s literature.  Lastly, there was Lewis the “popular writer and broadcaster of Christian apologetics.”[1]

Content Summary

Lewis begins his short book on the Psalms with an introduction that sets the mood for the entire work.  He states in the first line of his Introductory, “This is not a work of scholarship.  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.”[2] The tone of his Introductory follows the first few sentences.

Lewis begins the body of the book with the first chapter on “’Judgment’ in the Psalms.”  He speaks of the differences of the beliefs of the Jews and the Christians toward the “Day” of Judgment.  The Jews saw the Day of Judgment as a day of vindication from their enemies and those that oppressed them as a people.  The Christians, on the other hand, see the Day as a time when Jesus will return to this earth and ultimately establish His rule and reign and restore everything to its original design.  Lewis warns the reader of falling into the same self-righteous trap as the Jews when calling for vindication on their enemies.

Moving to the next chapter, Lewis moves to the “Cursings”.  This chapter holds one of the most moving portions of the entire book.  He speaks on forgiveness and how we are to do as Jesus taught in forgiving those that hurt us.[3] Again, he warns the reader not to fall into a trap of self-righteousness.  The fourth chapter in Lewis’ work covers “Death in the Psalms”.  The writer speaks on the surprising nature of the Jews’ belief system on death and resurrection from the dead.  According to the Psalmists, Lewis does not see where the Jews believed in the after-life, per se.  The Jews looked for worldly prosperity, but God had to continually warn them and judge them concerning this very matter.

The next chapter sees a shift in mood for the book.  “The Fair Beauty of the Lord” is the subject of the fifth chapter.  The author expounds on the idea of the Jews longing to “see” the Lord in His holy Temple.  The Temple was the place where the glory of the Lord dwelt, and the Psalmists spoke of the desire to dwell in the Temple forever with the presence of the Almighty.  Following the same mood as the previous chapter, chapter six talks about the Law of God being “Sweeter than Honey”.  He expounds on chapter 19 of Psalms and shows how the psalmist viewed the Law in relation to his earthly, sinful state.

The next two chapters, “Connivance” and “Nature”, see another shift in mood.  In “Connivance”, Lewis describes to the reader the psalmists’ feelings on the “sins of the tongue”.[4] He says that some of the greatest battles against the Jews were not fought with the sword, but with the accusations and rumors from the enemy.  In his chapter on “Nature”, Lewis discusses the Jewish views of God as the Creator and the pagan views on creation and how they were similar and were quite different.

Lewis begins chapter nine with the statement, “It is possible (and it is to be hoped) that this chapter will be unnecessary for most people.”[5] Again, he sets the tone of the chapter for the reader.  He continues his musings on praise in the Psalms and how the psalmists viewed it in relation to the Jewish people of the day.

The concluding section of the book contains three chapters that deal with much of the same material.  Chapter Ten is entitled “Second Meanings” and contains Lewis’ thoughts on second meanings in Scripture and the use of the allegory.  Lewis explains in chapter eleven, “Scripture”, how the Scriptures as a whole were viewed and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  In conclusion, chapter twelve, “Second Meanings in the Psalms”, ties the previous two chapters together and explains the use of the allegory in the Psalms and how it relates to the rest of Scripture as a whole.

Evaluation

How does one go about critiquing a book by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century?  It is truly a daunting task.  First, the strengths of his work should be noted.  As a fellow seminary student commented on the same work, CS Lewis had a very “gentle” approach to his writing style.[6] He captivates the reader by his use of stories and illustrations to further drive his point home with the reader.  The brevity of his work makes it very easy for the reader to comprehend what he is trying to communicate.  Being a scholar of English Literature, he uses his skills to see through the literary forms that the psalmists used to examine and unpackage their original intent and possible second meanings.   Lewis’ knowledge of the book of Psalms and their related references throughout the body is evident in his constant references to the Scriptures.  The appendix of the book shows references to seventy-nine different chapters or psalms.  It further includes the entire body of six chapters.

It is very easy to find the strengths of Lewis’ work on the Psalms; however, the weaknesses are much more difficult to point out.  The modern-day reader might stumble through the book upon the first reading just trying to get familiar with the writing style of Lewis in the 1950’s in England.  He was so intelligent that some of his phraseology and wording could be quite confusing if the reader was not completely focused on the comprehension of the material.  A word that Lewis commonly used that is completely unfamiliar in modern English is “prig” or “priggish” which means acting in a self-righteous or irritating manner.  Another weakness, if it could be called that, would be how Lewis begins the work with such negative themes such as Judgment, Cursings, and Death.  For the everyday reader of the book of Psalms, these negative thoughts might not be what would come to mind; however, once Lewis moves through this opening segment of the book, he moves to the more “positive” themes of the Psalms.

Lewis stated in the beginning of the book that he was not learned in the subject of the Psalms.  He was simply stating how he felt about the different topics and themes that he found in the book.  In that case, Lewis was writing his “Reflections” to the average reader of the book.  He was not trying to have a debate with theologians on the topics at hand, but he just simply wanted to assist the reader in drawing their own conclusions about the Psalter as he had done the same.

Conclusion

C.S. Lewis accomplished the goal that he set out to do.   He wanted to write a book that would touch his readers and lead them on a journey of enlightenment that could be discovered by taking a deeper look at the book of Psalms.  The use of words that are not familiar to the modern-day reader may present a challenge; however, due to the sheer knowledge on the subject that Lewis displayed, one would greatly benefit from reading this book regardless of their station in life or ministry position that they might hold.

Bibliography

Edwards, Dr. Bruce L. “CS Lewis: A Modest Literary Biography and Bibliography.”  Available            from http://personal.bgsu.edu/~edwards/biobib.html.  Internet; accessed 6 May 2010.

Lewis, C.S.  Reflections On The Psalms. San Diego:  Harcourt, Inc., 1958.

Sanchez, Chris.  “Book Review – Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis.”  Available from

http://chrissanchez.blogspot.com/2009/08/book-review-reflections-on-psalms-by-cs.html.

Internet; accessed 6 May 2010.


[1] Dr. Bruce L. Edwards, CS Lewis: A Modest Literary Biography and Bibliography, available from http://personal.bgsu.edu/~edwards/biobib.html; Internet; accessed 6 May 2010.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (San Diego:  Harcourt, Inc., 1958), 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 24-25.

[4] Ibid., p. 75.

[5] Ibid., p. 90.

[6] Chris Sanchez, Book Review – Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis, available from http://chrissanchez.blogspot.com/2009/08/book-review-reflections-on-psalms-by-cs.html; Internet; accessed 6 May 2010.

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