Book Review: ‘Reflections on the Psalms’ by C.S. Lewis


There are a lot of books in the market providing commentary-level instruction and discussion on every book of the Bible. There are any number of books which look at a book of the Bible, each from their own theological or denominational point of view. However, I have noticed that there are very few books which simply look at a book of the Bible, or the Bible itself, with the questioning mind of a human.

Reflections on the Psalms-1Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis is just such a book, aiming not to provide an in-depth study of each and every Psalm, or commentary-level instruction, but rather to act simply as a companion to every reader as they encounter Psalms. This is made clear from the very first words of the book: “This is not a work of scholarship.” Lewis does not intend to write as such, claiming he is “no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” Rather, as Lewis explains: “I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.”[1] C.S. Lewis explains his rationale thus:

“It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. … The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten.”[2]

In this way, C.S. Lewis presents himself simply as another pupil in reading the Psalms — though a literary giant who has gone down in history as not only one of the English-language’s greatest writers, but also one of Christianity’s greatest teachers.

Reflections on the Psalms won’t be for everyone, however, for C.S. Lewis, though self-proclaimed as “no higher critic” does himself some injustice. Similarly, though the book “is not a work of scholarship”, the modern-reader must still contend with both an early-20th century style of writing, and Lewis’s own meandering, comma-ridden style, which often requires several re-reads before the reader has appropriatey appropriated what the author is trying to say.

These are small hurdles, however, and are worth tackling in turn so as to partake in one of the better (though brief) thought-projects on the Psalms.

What will rile many readers, however, is the author’s seeming lack of respect for the Bible — which I judge no disrespect at all, but know that I will be ignored. Lewis tackles some of the most difficult aspects of the Psalms in a way that many will likely frown upon today — the second chapter deals with “‘Judgement’ in the Psalms”, the third chapter “The Cursings”. Lewis describes as “devilish”[4] the pronouncement in Psalm 137 that “Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks,” referring to the babies of Babylon[3]. In the same chapter, Lewis says:

“In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naivety.”[5]

In the final three chapters, Lewis spins away from discussing solely the Psalms and deals with the idea of “Second Meanings” in general (chapter 10) and “Second Meanings in the Psalms” (chapter 12), while in the middle dealing with manner in which the “Scriptures” came to be written, and their second meanings evolved. For some, Lewis’s comments will sound like a counter to Biblical inerrancy, though they are not — as he makes plainly clear. It is in these chapters that Lewis’s academic knowledge comes into play, and his staggering intellect allowed to really shine.

To be clear, I understand why there are those who might frown upon Lewis’s words, and his understanding of how Scripture came to be written. I similarly understand why some might take offence at his comparisons with or derivations from Pagan mythology and religion, though hopefully, in both cases, a measure of patience will be given to the author as he explains himself. Further, a measure of study is required for those who genuinely want to understand Lewis’s thoughts on the matter, especially as he understands the role ‘myth’ has in the Gospel. C.S. Lewis scholar Alister E. McGrath has said:

“Lewis’s musings on myth have alarmed some of his less literate admirers, just as they have riled his less literate critics, who both misunderstood his language, believing it to imply the factual falsity of the Christian faith.”[6]

As McGrath continues, “we must therefore allow Lewis to define the term “myth” for us”, and such is the case for those wanting to genuinely understand Lewis’s thoughts on the Psalms, and on the Scriptures in large. Lewis does not dispute Biblical inerrancy, God’s role in their inspiration and creation, nor any other fundamental conservative theology — he simply looked at them in a different way.

For C.S. Lewis enthusiasts, readers of the Psalms, Biblical scholars, Bible students, and the everyday lay-person, Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis is a literal must-have and a must-read. You need not agree with every aspect of his interpretation of Scriptures — there are instances where Lewis’s reliance upon the limited material of the day is made clear, as when he relies on the KJV translation for Psalm 84:10, and require us to imagine his joy at being proven right in his assumptions. In the end, Lewis will make you think, and reveal questions about the Psalms, and maybe about yourselves, that you wouldn’t have found on your own.

[1]Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis, p. 1
[3]Psalm 137:9
[4]Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis, p. 20-1
[5]Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis, p. 20
[6]The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, Alister E. McGrath, p. 74 (A Gleam of Divine Truth: The Concept of Myth in Lewis’s Thought)