In the C.S. Lewis canon, his minor classic on the Psalms should not be forgotten. Reflections on the Psalms tackles thorny issues, such as the imprecatory psalms, and Lewis offers an apology for why the Christological interpretation of the Psalms is still relevant and helpful for the Christian.
One area of his book leaves something to be desired, and that is Lewis’s lack of explanation or exposition of the so-called historical psalms. The historical psalms are generally longer than the average psalm — though shorter than the great hymn to the Torah, Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible. Examples of historical psalms include Psalms 105, 106, and 135, which all recount the history of the Exodus and subsequent wanderings in the desert. Psalm 136 has a similar subject, but the second half of every verse contains the refrain, “for his mercy endureth for ever,” which suggests the liturgical origin of this psalm: We may speculate that it was read in call-and-response fashion.
Psalm 78 narrates this same history in an extended form, though not in chronological order. It begins with the wilderness narratives, goes back to the Exodus, and concludes with a reflection on the foundations of monarchy and temple in Jerusalem. Anyone who follows the traditional 30-day cycle of reading the psalms will immediately recognize Psalm 78: it’s by far the longest portion for any day, morning or evening, and at 73 verses can test the attention of even the greatest devotee.
A final example of a historical psalm with a different subject matter is Psalm 89, which relates the history of David with particular emphasis on the covenant made with the Davidic kings.
Perhaps Lewis committed no great fault by not spilling ink over these apparently dry portions of Scripture. By way of apology, Lewis wrote in his introduction,
I have not attempted of course to “cover the subject” even on my own amateurish level. I have stressed, and omitted, as my own interests led me. I say nothing about the long historical Psalms, partly because they have meant less to me, and partly because they seem to call for little comment.
I hardly want to accuse a figure like Lewis of the sin of omission. I cannot even fault him for part of his apology — “they have meant less to me” — since it seems a common experience of Christians to have particular passages of Scripture that are favorites.
But I do think his second reason is too dismissive: that the historical psalms “call for little comment.” What follows is a modest corrective addendum to Lewis’s otherwise helpful little book.
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Do these historical psalms simply retell stories we read in a more gripping form in the Pentateuch and elsewhere? In Adult Education classes, I have often said that the book of Psalms is really the first and best Book of Common Prayer. If I were exiled to a desert island and could only have either Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or the Psalms, I would, without question or hesitation, invariably choose the latter.
As many have said, the Psalms contain the whole range of human emotions: anger, joy, sadness, and more. We might falsely conclude that this is a book of individual prayers, recording the soul’s inward journey to God. However, while there are places in the Psalms that express individual spirituality — “The Lord is my shepherd” — a careful review reveals the prayers are generally corporate.
Every year on Ash Wednesday the church reads Psalm 51 as a statement of individual penitence; after all, according to the Hebrew heading of the Psalm, David composed it after sinning with Bathsheba. However, if we look carefully at the Psalm it concludes with these verses:
18O be favourable and gracious unto Sion; * build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations; * then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.
This postscript suggests that the Psalm was applied to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. “Have mercy on me, O God” in the opening verse is the collective voice of the people crying out from the land of exile.
In countless other instances, the singular voice of the psalmist appears to be a collective voice for the whole Israel of God, and this argument is congruent with Augustine of Hippo’s hermeneutic: he contends that in the Psalms we hear the voice of the totus Christus, the whole Christ. Sometimes the voice of the Head sounds forth more clearly: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” Other times, the voice of his members, the Church, resounds: “Have mercy on me, O God, after thy great goodness.”
Appreciating the value of psalms as corporate, common prayer gives a clue to their significance. To the gathered people of God, the historical Psalms rehearse in poetic form the history of Israel. It is a history that magnifies God’s saving acts, particularly in the Exodus, while it avoids cloaking the sins and folly of a people who again and again fall away from their Savior. In this sense, I think of the historical Psalms as eucharistic.
Eucharist of course comes from a Greek word for thanksgiving (eucharistia), and by eucharistic I mean a prayerful recollection of God’s saving acts in the context of liturgy. A word of thanks to God is precisely how many of these psalms begin: “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 105:1; see also 106:1 and 136:1). Similarly, in the Christian liturgy of the Eucharist, we retell the story of God’s saving works in Jesus, while also owning our faults and sins, our unworthiness for this divine gift.
Students of liturgy will know that the anamnesis is the part of the Prayer of Consecration that recalls our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. The historical Psalms are, in a sense, the anamnesis for the nation of Israel. We must recall that, in the Christian liturgy, the recollection of God’s saving acts in Christ in the anamnesis is more than just a mere recollection of the events. Rather, the anamnesis involves a making present of those acts in the sacramental Body and Blood of the Lord. In the same way, it is evident that the historical Psalms do more than recall the events they poetically describe. They make the reality of those events present for the gathered people of God, and suggest that the history of the Exodus and the wilderness wandering is paradigmatic for Israel’s later history.
As evidence of this, we can turn to the opening verses of the longest of the historical Psalms, Psalm 78, where the psalmist declares, “Hear my law, O my people; incline your ears unto the words my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare hard sentences of old.”
That word parable is suggestive. Our Lord’s parables contain accessible events and characters; by using these familiar things in creative ways, our Lord gave depth to that which was familiar and thus cast light on the truths of the kingdom and of humanity. Psalm 78 relates the events of God’s saving acts among the Hebrews, which the original audience would have already known thoroughly. The psalmist uses these familiar stories to give depth and self-awareness to the gathered people of God and to cast light on how this people is not that different from the people of the Exodus: they too are a wayward people always drifting away from the Lord; they too are a people redeemed by the great power and manifold grace of God.
This anamnesis in the historical Psalms is useful, not only for the pious Israelite, but also instructive for the Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11). Though we are on the other side of Christ’s coming, we are not all that different from the wayward Israelites recounted in these psalms.
Too many serious (and casual) readings of the Old Testament engage in what Wendell Berry has called historical self-righteousness, that is, they assert our superiority over people of the past by saying that if we had lived in their time, we would have acted differently than they did. Christians who still feel the lingering life of the fallen Adam within, or who inhabit a compromised ecclesiastical order, need to hear these parables of God’s mighty acts and our wicked and wayward ways. These are enduring parables of God’s indefatigable faithfulness to and love for his people. By his grace may we not spurn this eucharistic Word given for our instruction, refreshment, and salvation.
Fr. John Mason Lock is priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, a parish in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. His other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image is Giorgio Raffaelli’s “Exodus” (2006). It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Singer/songwriter has been working on a Psalms to music project: