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)