Those who have been around here for a while know that I am a C.S. Lewis junkie. I have read and reread him, and have been edified by him in ways beyond reckoning. If I were to calculate the impact that various writers have had on me—and there have been many who have—he would always come in first, and by a large margin.
Even where you find my caveats—as in his early accommodations with evolution, or in the atrocious things he says about some of the psalms—I find myself simultaneously appalled and edified. For example, in Reflections on the Psalms, he says this:
“Still more in the Psalmists’ tendency to chew over and over the cud of some injury, to dwell in a kind of self-torture on every circumstance that aggravates it, most of us can recognise something we have met in ourselves. We are, after all, blood brothers to these ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men” (Reflections, p. 26).
But still, reading through that book, which I think his worst, I find myself instructed and blessed at every turn. So go figure.
The problem lies with those Christians, like myself, who do not recoil from the imprecatory psalms in the same way that Lewis does. Lewis thinks that these psalms are included in God’s Word as a sort of object lesson, a “don’t try this at home, kids” kind of thing. “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God” (Reflections, p. 33).
As one of those who believe that we are to harmonize the imprecatory psalms with the rest of Scripture, and that we are to utilize them in our corporate worship and private devotions, I am afraid that Lewis would most likely regard me as a dangerous radical, as one who likes the permission for hate that such psalms seem to provide. I think he would find me on the wrong side of a caution he issued in another related respect.
“The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard . . . For there are two states of mind which face the Dominical paradoxes without flinching. God guard us from one of them” (The Dangers of National Repentance, Essays, p. 296).
There are three quick reasons I would like to offer for suggesting that Lewis is wrong about this. I would like to persuade him that he should, after all, accept my Facebook friend request.
The first is that Lewis knows how to cut slack on this very same kind of issue, but the persons involved have to be in the New Testament. He alluded to the Lord’s hard sayings in the quotation above. He recognizes the ferocity of the ancient psalmists in the Magnificat. There he does what he ought to do with the psalms—say that there is a good way to emulate this, and a bad way to do so. I would argue that Lewis should follow his own example here.
Second, the apostles do not have the same attitude toward the imprecatory psalms that Lewis did. One of the fiercer ones is quoted by Peter when they are considering a replacement for Judas.
“For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take” (Acts 1:20, see Psalm 69:25, and then Psalm 109:8).
“Let his days be few; And let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: Let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places” (Psalm 109:8–10).
Psalm 109 is cited by Lewis as being one that is particularly bad. But if it were that bad, then why didn’t Peter seem to recognize it? I believe that Lewis fell prey here to a common mistake, that of assuming the New Testament writers more or less “share” our world, as distinct from the ancients, when actually they were much closer to the ancients than they were to us.
And third, the New Testament does not invite us to divide the psalms into two categories, the kind that bless us and the kind that repulse us. We are simply sent to the undifferentiated psalms. “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13). And the hymnbook of the Christian church is to be the entire psalter. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, cf. Col. 3:16).
So then, what? I would return to the caution Lewis gave in his essay on National Repentance. Some people want to use the imprecatory psalms as a way of providing cover for their own personal anger issues. They want to break the teeth in somebody’s jaw, and Psalm 3 provides them with a ready answer if rebuked. But there are others who understand that a hard world sometimes requires hard words. Lewis gets this when the Lord delivers the hard words. But I think we can and should extend the principle.