Saturday Psalm Series: Parallelism and Poetic Imagination in the Psalms: C. S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms

The Psalms were written by many poets and at many different dates. Some, I believe, are allowed to go back to the reign of David; I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 (of which a slightly different version occurs in 1 Samuel 22) might be by David himself. But many are later than the “captivity”, which we should call the deportation to Babylon. In a scholarly work, chronology would be the first thing to settle: in a book of this sort nothing more need, or can, be said about it.

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense. But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.

Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern, is fortunately one that survives in translation. Most readers will know that I mean what the scholars call “parallelism”; that is, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words. A perfect example is “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision” (2, 4), or again, “He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light; and thy just dealing as the noon-day” (37, 6). If this is not recognised as pattern, the reader will either find mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in his effort to get a different meaning out of each half of the verse or else feel that it is rather silly.

In reality it is a very pure example of what all pattern, and therefore all art, involves. The principle of art has been defined by someone as “the same in the other.” Thus in a country dance you take three steps and then three steps again. That is the same. But the first three are to the right and the second three to the left. That is the other. In a building there may be a wing on one side and a wing on the other, but both of the same shape. In music the composer may say ABC, and then abc, and then αβγ. Rhyme consists in putting together two syllables that have the same sound except for their initial consonants, which are other. “Parallelism” is the characteristically Hebrew form of the same in the other, but it occurs in many English poets too: for example, in Marlowe’s

Cut is the branch that might have grown

full straight

And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,

or in the childishly simple form used by the Cherry Tree Carol,

Joseph was an old man and an old man was he.

Of course the Parallelism is often partially concealed on purpose (as the balances between masses in a picture may be something far subtler than complete symmetry). And of course other and more complex patterns may be worked in across it, as in Psalm 119, or in 107 with its refrain. I mention only what is most obvious, the Parallelism itself. It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.

If we have any taste for poetry we shall enjoy this feature of the Psalms. Even those Christians who cannot enjoy it will respect it; for Our Lord, soaked in the poetic tradition of His country, delighted to use it. “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7, 2). The second half of the verse makes no logical addition; it echoes, with variation, the first, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you” (7, 7). The advice is given in the first phrase, then twice repeated with different images. We may, if we like, see in this an exclusively practical and didactic purpose; by giving to truths which are infinitely worth remembering this rhythmic and incantatory expression, He made them almost impossible to forget. I like to suspect more. It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.

—C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), 2–5.


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Posted by C. S. Lewis | Saturday, May 20, 2023 | Categorized in Biblical Exposition, Biblical theology, Psalms, Saturday Psalm Series. C. S. Lewis. Bookmark the permalink.

About C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) was born in Belfast, educated prep schools in England, Belfast, and earned his undergraduate degree at Oxford. He was a military veteran of World War I and, in 1925, appointed tutor in Magdalen College, Oxford. He was converted to Christianity in 1931 and became a prominent literary critic, scholar of Norse mythology, Medieval and Sixteenth-Century English, and a leading apologist for Christianity. His academic work is still appreciated by scholars and his popular fiction (e.g., The Chronicles of Narnia are beloved by millions.


  1. Lewis was the worst. His awful commentary on the Psalms really should infuriate Christians. He hated the 23rd Psalm and had no clue what to do with the imprectations. He considered them sub Christian which, ironically, he was as he taught that Christ sinned/falsely prophecied in one of his last writings, The World’s Last Night, he denied the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work in his last published book, Letters to Malcolm and he said it didn’t matter what theory of the atonement a Christian held to, that it would work. He promoted the heretical Ransom Theory in LWW. It would seem that The Screwtape Letters were really his autobiography as he has wormed his way deep into every branch of Christendom.

    • His comments on the atonement were in Mere Christianity where he also seemingly promoted a type of universalism with his hopeful Buddhist dreck. I read some of his stuff as a young Christian and admired him but I can’t see how it is possible to do this now.

      • Chris,

        Was he not an expert in literature? Why not learn from him what we can? Was there a better writer in the English language in the 20th century? Maybe but he’s on the short list. These are interesting comments. Obviously your antennae are up so you’re not likely to catch a doctrinal disease from him.

        May we only read people with whom we agree on everything? Is Lewis especially dangerous?

    • I’ve criticized this very book for his high-handed approach to imprecatory Psalms but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing of value in the book. Is this passage bad?

      The ransom theory is a mistake but heretical? Says who? Where? He said that he wasn’t teaching a doctrine of the atonement in Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. He explained that scene worked for the story but it’s not meant as an allegory.

  2. Doesn’t the Ransom Theory, if I remember correctly, say that God had to deceive Satan to win our souls from him? That’s a weird explanation by Lewis concerning the seeming atonement in LWW. He did consider Aslan as a Christ like figure didn’t he? Thank you for your reply, I just don’t understand the almost ubiquitous adoration of Lewis across Christendom. It’s not like he hid his rejection of so many doctrines terribly well.

    • Some takes on the ransom theory do have God deceiving Satan, but not all ransom models say that. Augustine, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa wrestled with this issue. I think the ransom model is weak, but even its advocates seemed aware of its limitations.

      • Jacob,

        Thank you for this note. Chris, I think you might be confusing Augustine’s comment about the cross being a mousetrap (which is a marvelous image) with the ransom theory, which, in essence, held that, after the fall, Christ had to die to pay what was owed to Satan. Lots of important ancient writers never accepted this view, including Athanasius but it was Anselm who effectively refuted it. It’s never been declared heresy as far as I know.

        It’s not weird to pay attention to what an author said about his work. It’s postmodern to ignore what an author’s own explanation of his work.

        There are allusions to the Christian faith but he did’t write LWW as an allegory, in which this thing (e.g., the Lion) stands for that thing. Not every use of symbol or every use of a figure is an allegory.

    • Adoration is rather a strong word, Chris. Many simply enjoy Lewis’ wonderful way with a pen. There are some Roman Catholic writers that I enjoy reading as well. Chesterton is a good example. Hopkins for his beautiful poetry.

      Chris, trust God to see to/deal with errant theology, be it found in Lewis, Chesterton, or in you and me. For none of us see through the glass clearly in this wicked world.

  3. It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that the study of Hebrew parallelism has advanced significantly since 1958, when Lewis wrote. Lewis was echoing the prevailing view of his day, when he described parallelism as “the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words. ” No contemporary OT scholar would say that, since the work of James Kugel and Robert Alter. The emphasis has come to be on the way in which the second line advances and develops the thought; not “A=B” but “A and what’s more B”. Even when the second line repeats the first, it thereby underlines and reinforces it, not merely reiterates it. And synonymous parallelism is far from the only kind of Hebrew parallelism. Lewis perhaps hints at that when he calls it “the same in the other”, but his emphasis is entirely on the same, where contemporary study of Hebrew poetry emphasizes the aspect of “the other”.

    More generally, Lewis is frequently wrong in his book, “Reflections on the Psalms” but almost always wrong in interesting and thought-provoking ways. The questions he asks are good questions, even when the answers he gives are off base – not merely on the imprecatory psalms but on the concept of righteousness in the psalms and the challenge of loving the law. And his comment in the quote above on the importance of reading poetry as poetry features every year in the introduction to my class on Psalms and Wisdom literature.

  4. I see Lewis, who taught or rejected probably more essential doctrines, as we see Douglas Wilson. Wilson says great things, clever, thought provoking things sometimes but we don’t want people caught up in his sticky web.

    • Chris,

      I understand that you hate Lewis but this is a ridiculous comparison:

      1) Lewis didn’t deny the Reformation (though I think he worshiped in an Anglo-Catholic congregation in Headington)
      2) Lewis wasn’t involved in three plagiarized books
      3) Lewis didn’t endorse the social Trinitarian error (it’s’ a part of the FV)
      4) Lewis didn’t commit the very serious practical errors of which Wilson has been accused by his own denomination. You may not know about the Sitler (pedophilia), and Wight (statutory rape) cases.
      5) Lewis didn’t publish the N-word nor the C-word
      6) That’s just the beginning


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