Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Psalm 119: Sweeter than honey (Part 2)

psalm119_30 But there is something else to our purpose in [Psalm 119]. On three occasions the poet asserts that the Law is ‘true’ or ‘the truth’ (vv. 86, 138, 142). We find the same in Psalm 111:7, “all his commandments are true.” (The word, I understand, could also be translated ‘faithful’, or ‘sound’; what is, in the Hebrew sense, ‘true’ is what ‘holds water’, what doesn’t ‘give way’ or collapse.) A modern logician would say that the Law is a command and that to call a command ‘true’ makes no sense; “The door is shut” may be true or false but “Shut the door” can’t. But I think we all see pretty well what the Psalmists mean. They mean that in the Law you find the ‘real’ or ‘correct’ or stable, well-grounded, directions for living. The Law answers the question “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” (119:9). It is like a lamp, a guide (v. 105). There are many rival directions for living, as the Pagan cultures all round us show. When the poets call the directions or ‘rulings’ of [Yahweh] ‘true’ they are expressing the assurance that these, and not those others, are the ‘real’ or ‘valid’ or unassailable ones; that they are based on the very nature of things and the very nature of God…. [The Jews] know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is ‘righteous’ and commands ‘righteousness’ because He loves it (11:8). He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth, ‘truth’, intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature, and are therefore as solid as that Nature which He has created. But the Psalmists themselves can say it best; “thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains, thy judgements are like the great deep” (36:6). Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields.
    For there were other roads, which lacked ‘truth’. The Jews had as their immediate neighbours, close to them in race as well as in position, Pagans of the worst kind, Pagans whose religion was marked by none of that beauty or (sometimes) wisdom which we can find among the Greeks. That background made the ‘beauty’ or ‘sweetness’ of the Law more visible; not least because these neighbouring Paganisms were a constant temptation to the Jew and may in some of their externals have been not unlike his own religion. The temptation was to turn to those terrible rites in times of terror — when, for example, the Assyrians were pressing on. We who not so long ago waited daily for invasion by enemies, like the Assyrians, skilled and constant in systematic cruelty, know how they may have felt. They were tempted, since the Lord seemed deaf, to try those appalling deities who demanded so much more and might therefore perhaps give more in return. But when a Jew in some happier hour, or a better Jew even in that hour, looked at those worships — when he thought of sacred prostitution, sacred sodomy,healthy-breakfast-honey1 and the babies thrown into the fire for Moloch — his own ‘Law’ as he turned back to it must have shone with an extraordinary radiance. Sweeter than honey; or if that metaphor does not suit us who have not such a sweet tooth as all ancient peoples (partly because we have plenty of sugar), let us say like mountain water, like fresh air after a dungeon, like sanity after a nightmare.

C.S. Lewis, ‘Sweeter Than Honey,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 341-342.

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