Preaching Psalms

The other day I preached a Psalm in a University Bible study. A young lady came up afterwards and said, “I always expect to get something from the Gospels or Epistles, but I don’t expect much from the Psalms, but you brought that to life!” Now obviously I didn’t “bring it to life” since the Word of God is very much alive without needing my medical attention, but it raised an issue in my mind. What are some key points to remember in preaching a psalm?

1. Don’t let the outline kill the sermon – Often the work in the study is brought into the pulpit in the form of an outline which dominates the message. This has a tendency to make an emotive piece of writing (almost all psalms) into a source of intellectual thought and didactic material. With the possible exception of some wisdom psalms, you are not preaching a carefully constructed and tightly argued piece of thought. You are preaching the outpouring of a writer’s heart with all the emotion, reaction to God and circumstances, as well as theological perspective and so on. (This does not deny that Psalms are usually extremely carefully constructed, just that they often go beyond reasoned arguments, cognitive understanding of facts and propositional thought.)

2. If possible, go with the flow – I’m amazed how quickly some preachers resort to rearranging material. There can be good reasons to do this, but the default approach should be to study the flow of thought and preach that flow. Many psalms, when studied with reference to flow, have an almost narrative quality to them. This is where the outline helps you as the preacher move effectively through the text.

3. Take advantage of the great asset of poetic literature…imagery! – Many psalms are full of powerful imagery. With a little clarification, imagination or description, the images built in to a psalm will often add vivid colour to a sermon. Be careful not to just explain imagery so that it remains sitting on the page before your congregation – words understood are not as effective as images felt or experienced. What was it like for Asaph to come to God’s sanctuary again in Psalm 73. The constant pursuit by goodness and mercy is a deeply moving truth in Psalm 23. The barren woman given children goes through intense extremes of emotion in the space of a few words in Psalm 113. It is easy to present analysis of imagery, but develop the skill to tell it so it is both felt and understood.

4. Recreate mood, not just meaning – Since Psalms are poetic or hymnic, they do not merely convey information, but also they stir feelings, they convey a mood. In fact, many Psalms are built around the shift in tone or mood between one section and the next. It is not fair to David to preach the desperation of Psalm 22 without the confident trust of the last dozen verses. Psalm 73 turns completely on one verse. Often we preach both parts of a psalm with the same “mood” or lack of it. Or we turn a psalm of celebratory praise into a serious exhortation to worship. Think about how to enter in to, and recreate in some way for your hearers, the mood inherent in the psalm. A psalm that is felt and understood will make a far deeper impression than a psalm that is merely analysed and understood. In fact, you have to question whether analysis alone can lead to understanding poetic literature.

5. Carefully present relevance continually – The literature is written in a form that is foreign to our understanding of poetry, in a culture that is several millennia away from our own. Be careful to relate the text to our own experience whenever appropriate. A study of David’s experience through a psalm, ending with brief points of application only at the end, is likely to be a flat sermon. It is better to share that experience through the psalm, moving back and forth between 1000BC and 2007AD throughout.

(Peter has also commented on this post)

8 thoughts on “Preaching Psalms

  1. Just a couple more thoughts on preaching Psalms.

    1. Don’t be too bold on what you’re not told – A handful of Psalms provide historical background information at the beginning (eg Psalm 34). Most Psalms tell us very little. Even if a Psalm is “Of David,” we should be careful not to boldly determine what part of David’s experience this Psalm relates to unless there are very clear clues in the text. It is very risky to guess at a historical background to a text and then interpret the text in light of that background. You usually do not need crystal clear historical background in order to vividly preach a poem, especially if God has not given us that clarity within the text.

    2. Always check the context – Obviously it is important to consider the context within a Psalm. I probably should have added a separate point to state that it is usually better to preach an entire Psalm (or to preach a section of a long Psalm in reference to the entire Psalm in the case of Psalm 119!) But here I am referring to the Psalms around your preaching text. The collection is not as random as many assume it to be. So for example, reading Psalm 130 may give a clue as to what is too difficult for David to grasp in 131:1, especially if there are any textual hints to link the two Psalms (such as the unique phrase found only at the end of these two Psalms). Reading the Psalms before and after may not provide much help, but it does more often than you might expect.

  2. I am just reading Preaching With Variety, by Jeffrey Arthurs. It is excellent and will be reviewed on this site before long, but another thought on preaching Psalms from his chapter on the subject:

    Just like the Psalmists, use concrete and vivid language – this means definite nouns and verbs, rather than vague ones. Arthurs writes, “The word anger does little to conjure up an image in our minds, but in the psalms wrath ‘kindles’ and ‘burns.’ Confusion makes us ‘stagger’; trouble is an ‘arrow that flies by day’; security is a ‘shelter’ from the sun or a ‘wing’ to hide under; and jubilation causes ‘trees to clap their hands’ and ‘seas to lift their voices.'” So when preaching a Psalm, do not lose the power of an image by making it unnecessarily abstract. And when preaching a Psalm, be sure your own material is also concrete and vivid in description and presentation.

  3. I am certain that engineers should not teach or preach the Psalms. All that fuzzy emotive language and imagery stuff. And in our technology age there are lots of people with the engineering outlook. When working through all the imagery it is a scary prospect to go too far and end up in the theological weeds. So the engineer opts to not go far enough. The optimist says the glass is half full, the pessimist says the glass is half empty and the engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

  4. Thanks for posting this. “A psalm that is felt and understood will make a far deeper impression than a psalm that is merely analysed and understood. In fact, you have to question whether analysis alone can lead to understanding poetic literature.” Amen.

  5. It’s interesting, I’m certainly not an engineer, but an artist (turned pastor), and yet I find the Psalms one of the hardest genres to preach!

    I stumbled across your post with a Google search and have found it quite helpful as I prepare my Easter Sunday evening preach on Psalm 16: “The Psalm of the Resurrection”. Many thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Peter,
    I have been working through Psalm 119 for a while now and have recently been given the opportunity to teach it. I have plan has been to take it one stanza per sermon and work through it that way, and finish up with an overview sermon. Can you give any tips or pointers on preaching from this psalm. It’s flow seems far more pithy (like Proverbs) than the the others, but can be very repetitive. Any “biblical preaching” helps that you can offer?

    • Hi Philip, I honestly haven’t ever preached from Psalm 119 or studied it, so I probably have little to suggest. I suppose with the somewhat repetitive nature of it as an extended acrostic, I would be looking for patterns of thematic development within the 22 sections. I expect a good commentary or two would be helpful with this. Then preaching it would probably involve selective presentation since repeating yourself with explanation and application added can be hard to take for the listeners! All the time I’d want to preach it as psalm rather than turning it into an analysed discourse. Jeffrey Arthurs is worth reading on Preaching With Variety as he addresses ways to preach Psalms as Psalms.

    • My help ;would be to ask you to forget the methodical approach, stanza by stanza, and concentrate on the message. Study the psalm, find out what personal message it has for you, offer it to others to see if they get the same message, or even a deeper message, and let the spirit do the rest.

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