Thursday, June 25, 2009

C.S. Lewis on the Imprecatory Psalms, Pt II

In his chapter, "The Cursings," C.S. Lewis dismisses the maledictions of the Psalter as crude and spiteful expressions of a subchristian manner. Moreover, he asserts this without any argument. This, it seems to me, is the weak link in his thesis. His silence on the matter is both frustrating and revealing. It is frustrating because he actually skips the most crucial step in wrestling with these harsh words of holy writ. But it is also revealing, I think, of his misunderstanding of the biblical (canonical) context of the Psalms themselves, and the existential context of the individual psalmists.

There are a number of items to sort through in grasping the significance of the psalmists' curses. First, we must discuss the appropriateness of the saints desiring retribution against the wicked in divine judgment. Secondly, we must discuss the messianic or royal significance of the Psalter. And thirdly, we must explore the usage of these ancient psalms by the New Testament church (something Lewis surprisingly neglects altogether).

First, is it wrong for Christians to desire divine retribution against their enemies? Some point to Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount concerning the lex talionis principle articulated in the Pentateuch as evidence that it is. However, we should note two important caveats before drawing a definite conclusion. The first caveat is Jesus' own, given at the beginning of the sermon:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, Jesus is saying that we should not misunderstand his bold refutations of the received traditions and doctrines propounded in the synagogues ("you have heard it said..., but I say to you...") as tantamount to rejecting the Law or the Prophets themselves. Jesus is not overturning Moses. He is fulfilling Moses! In fact, to reject even "the least stork of a pen" in the Law is spiritually detrimental to both ourselves and our hearers.

The second caveat is to understand just how this principle was being abused in popular practice, and so how Jesus' teachings address his immediate audience. For example, in the paragraph before the one in question, after quoting Leviticus 19:12, Jesus tells his disciples, "But I say to you, do not swear at all..." Of course, if Jesus is making an absolute statement here against oath-taking, then He has indicted not only himself (when he later testifies under oath), the apostles (who similarly testified under oath), but God Himself who swore by an oath his promises to the patriarchs (e.g., Deut.4:31; 6:18; 7:8; 8:1; 13:17; etc.). However, when we read passages such as Matthew 23:16-22, we better understand the sophistry and abuse which Jesus is here addressing. As it has been said, usum non tollit abusus (abuse does not exclude use).

Likewise, regarding the retributive principle of lex talionis, we know that Jesus isn't hereby repealing the law as somehow unjust or unrighteous. It is consistently reflected in the punitive justice of God in both the Old and New Testament (e.g., Oba.1:15; Lam.3:64; 2Th.1:6; Rev.18:6). In fact, Jesus appears to employ it himself in regard to divine judgment (e.g., Lk.6:36-38; cf. Jas.2:13). Lewis also clearly understood the normative character of retribution in all just punishments, as he so persuasively argued in his excellent essay, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."

Furthermore, it is evident that Jesus isn't here denying any use whatsoever of the retributive principle among his disciples. After all, if it is lawful, why should it be unlawful for his followers? And what is the appropriate usage of lex talionis among men? According to the Pentateuch, it was to be applied in the official courts of the community to establish justice and equity (e.g., Dt.19:15-21). It is not necessarily wrong, in other words, for the Christian to seek justice in the courts. However, as Lewis himself points out (but only to thereby implicate the inspired authors' words as contradicting God's Law), practicing mercy and forgiveness with personal enemies was the biblical norm for daily interactions and relationships within Israel (e.g., Ex.23:4-5; Lev.19:18; cf. Prov.25:21-22). According to the Law, the individual should not take justice into their own hands, but give grace instead, pursuing reconciliation and, if necesssary, the lawful means of restitution (cf., Mt.5:23-26). Jesus isn't really teaching us something new, then, but applying the Law itself against its perversion and misapplication by his contemporaries (e.g., see Mt.15:3-9).

Granted that lex talionis is appropriate for the judge, both human and divine, is it appropriate for the individual Christian to desire it against his enemies? To even pray for it? Again, the New Testament seems to affirm that it is. In fact, even the souls of "righteous men made perfect" pray to God for vengeance in heaven:
They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev.6:10)
And according to the apostle Paul, it is precisely our hope that God will avenge us against our enemies which allows us to show them true grace, and so fulfill Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Of course, the Christian is not to seek personal revenge themselves, paying back evil for evil (Ro.12:17). But then the psalmists are not acting as vigilantes, taking revenge for themselves. Rather, they rightly place the matter into God's hands, and pray for justice. Are their words harsh? Yes. But appropriately so. And this will be even clearer as we explore the messianic character of the psalms in our next post.

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