Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong about Psalm 23

The Guest and the Host

You prepare a table before me
      in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
      my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
      all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Psalm 23:5–6

C. S. Lewis understood Psalm 23 better than he knew.

It may surprise you to hear that Lewis was unable to reconcile the beauty of verses 1–4 of Psalm 23 with what he regarded as a spirit of hatred in verse 5, a spirit “almost comic in its naivety.”

For Lewis, the notion that a host might treat his guest to a feast while his enemies are made to look on is irretrievably spiteful. “The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid enemies (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it. . . . The pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.”1

Yet, for all this, I have a favorite scene in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that never fails to make me smile because it expresses the true meaning of Psalm 23:5 so beautifully.

The Lord of Psalm 23

David Gibson

David Gibson walks through each verse in Psalm 23, thoroughly examining its 3 depictions of the believer’s union with Christ as sheep and shepherd, traveler and companion, and guest and host.

Around the halfway mark in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis gives us two chapters: “The Spell Begins to Break” and “Aslan Is Nearer.” At this point in the fable, the white witch’s power is waning, the frozen wastelands of Narnia are thawing, winter is retreating, and Christmas is returning. In a land where it was always winter and never Christmas, beautiful things are now reemerging: Father Christmas is back, there are presents and gifts, and with Aslan nearer and on the move, we know we are heading for a showdown with the white witch. As she is racing to the stone table, she stumbles across this scene:

. . . a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools around a table. Edmund couldn’t quite see what they were eating, but it smelled lovely and there seemed to be decorations of holly and he wasn’t at all sure that he didn’t see something like plum pudding.2

As the white witch arrives at the feast, she recoils in outrage and horror:

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered.
      “Speak vermin!” she said again. . . . “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence? Where did you get all these things?”3

C. S. Lewis wrote better than he knew.

You prepare a table before me
      in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
      my cup overflows. (Ps. 23:5)

This strange little episode in The Chronicles of Narnia goes unnoticed so often, and yet it adds a wonderful element to the story. For in an allusive and understated way, it manages to suggest that, when all is said and done, the point of everything is not warfare and the clash of good and evil but fellowship and feasting. In a world made new there is overflowing joy in the delightful gifts of the King and in the lavish goodness of his reign.

In the Presence of His Enemies

Remember Herod lurking in the background in Mark 6 with the implicit threat that what happened to John the Baptist will happen to all who preach the same message he did? Kenneth Bailey points out how much of Jesus’s eating and drinking in the Gospels happens in the presence of those who are either criticizing him for his choice of culinary companions or even coming to view his dining habits with murderous eyes.4 “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’” (Luke 19:7). As the table is spread, so the cross begins to loom.

Jesus’s welcome is vast and free; it is sealed in blood and it is offered in bread and wine.

This helps with the unfortunate interpretation of Psalm 23:5 provided by C. S. Lewis. Recall that for Lewis there is a “pettiness and vulgarity” to the idea that one might enjoy a feast in the presence of enemies; he even goes so far as to call psalms with such ideas “terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible.”5 On the one hand, it is important to observe that Lewis’s reading actually projects into the verse the idea that conflict between the guest or host and the enemies is a thing of the past, so that in the feasting the enemy is humiliated by triumphant vindictiveness. But, of course, Psalm 23:5 says nothing of this. What if the conflict is actually ongoing? What if the conflict is coming to a climax? What if the guest is, in fact, in great danger from his enemies as he eats, but he eats to woo and win them, not to belittle or degrade?

On the other hand, the forcefulness of Lewis’s reading really melts away when we see the Lord Jesus eating and drinking in the presence of his enemies. He is not humiliating them; he is seeking to humble them, and in so doing he shows his own humility. He is not gloating over them; he is inviting them. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The door is open to all. There is a ready, wide, capacious invitation to any who will come and eat and drink with him. All you need to do is know that you are lost.

So the table is spread in the presence of his enemies, but it is precisely that—a table. It is not a bar of justice in their presence; not yet anyway. It is not a sword. Not yet. It is a table, where Jesus is defining the people of God as those who will recognize him as the true shepherd of Israel, the good shepherd, the now-present-with-us Immanuel-host of the messianic banquet long promised in the prophets and so passionately anticipated by God’s people. A table, with food and drink, is where covenants can be sealed and fellowship formed, it is where relationships can be restored and enemies reconciled as friends, and it is where so many choose to seal their own fate in their rejection of Jesus. Judas went out into the night, but he went out with clean feet and with bread and wine in his belly. He left a table that a loving host had prepared in the presence of his murderous enemies.

The Lord Jesus has displayed his complete and total sufficiency for all our needs and his lavish love for the most wayward prodigal or most vile outcast. His enemies are not defined as people who have done bad things, and his friends are not defined as those who have done good things. No, his enemies are those who cannot bear the fact that he eats with people who have done bad things. People like me, and you.

His welcome is vast and free; it is sealed in blood and it is offered in bread and wine. It is an ocean of generosity in a world of stymied and miserly quid-pro-quo reciprocity. In Bailey’s words, this is “costly love.” He suggests that the core meaning of “a table in the presence of my enemies” is this: that Jesus “demonstrates costly love to me irrespective of who is watching. People hostile to me will observe what he is doing and he knows that their hostility against me will be extended to him as a result. He doesn’t care. He offers that love anyway.”6


  1. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Fontana, 1961), 23–24. The same idea is present in different form in Harold S. Kushner, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm (New York: Knopf, 2003), 125–34.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950; repr., London: HarperCollins, 1980), 105.
  3. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 105–6.
  4. 9 Kenneth E. Bailey, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament (London: SPCK, 2015), 57–58.
  5. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Fontana, 1961), 24.
  6. Bailey, The Good Shepherd, 57.

This article is adapted from The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion, and Host by David Gibson.

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