The Book of Psalms has been loved by believers across the generations. However, what is a loved and treasured part of the Bible can be, in the hands of preachers, a confusing, dull, emotion-less, slow draining of the soul, causing a normally amicable congregation to glance enviously at those in the church graveyard who were spared such a message. Why are the Psalms so hard to preach? And why are they so regularly mishandled from the pulpit? Here are a few tips that I hope will help your preaching.
Preaching on the Psalms without mentioning Jesus was entirely appropriate for those born before 30 AD. But even those sermons would have been missing a big piece of the story. The Book of Psalms, like the whole of the Old Testament, is about Jesus. Just ask the New Testament writers, who quoted the Psalms approximately 70 times in reference to Jesus’ ministry. The writer to the Hebrews, for example, had no problem applying the Psalter directly to Jesus (Heb 2:6-8), making Jesus the recipient of a psalm (Heb 1:13) and even putting a psalm on Jesus’ lips (Heb 2:12). We can’t understand the Psalms if we don’t read them in the light of the coming Messiah and the fulfilment of God’s faithfulness.
However, the Psalms are not only about Jesus, and we must be careful to not import him into a psalm where he doesn’t fit. The Psalms were written in response to real feelings, situations and reflections on God and his behaviour. So it is better to discover the theological truths of the psalm (e.g. God’s faithfulness, his justice, how he feels about sin, the character of his Messiah, etc.) and then consider how these are fulfilled or revealed in Jesus for the New Testament believer. This process is called biblical theology, and it considers both where the psalm and the reader of the psalm sit within the sweep of God’s plan for our world.
God included the Psalms in the Scriptures not simply so that we could learn about David’s life. Nor were they David’s personal quiet time songbook. They were written for God’s people to sing, giving words to their emotions and teaching them about God. But some messages on the Psalms end up sounding like a history lesson. Take for instance Psalm 51: it’s possible to talk about how David fell into adultery and found forgiveness in God’s faithfulness without addressing what this God means for me and my guilt. I need to know what will happen to my sin, not just King David’s sin. God included this psalm in his Bible for our edification, not for David’s.
The Book of Psalms covers the full spectrum of human emotions: if you can feel it, you can find a psalm about it. To preach Psalms as if it were simply a series of propositions to unpack misses the point entirely. Take, for instance, Psalm 22, a psalm about feeling abandoned by God: many preachers have no idea how to handle a psalm like this. Either they end up rebuking the psalmist, or they perform extraordinary theological gymnastics to render the psalm completely obsolete.
But that feeling of being abandoned by God is one that just about every Christian will experience. Psalms like this give legitimacy to those feelings. But this psalm (and many like it) follows a trajectory from that feeling of abandonment to a reflection on God’s faithfulness, to confidence in his character and then to public praise. This psalm calls for us to travel a similar trajectory when we experience those feelings.
It is the same with psalms that call for judgement against God’s enemies: they were not written as a theological reflection of the practice of, say, dashing infants against rocks (Ps 137:9), or a comment on God’s approval of such a practice; they are an expression of a very human response to oppression and evil—a demand for vengeance, a very understandable and perhaps even reasonable response to the great oppression the Israelite people experienced. Vengeance: now there is a human emotion that much of the world can relate to. This doesn’t simplify this psalm’s difficulties, but it at least gives you context for these verses.
Good preaching will not just lead people through the theology of the psalm, but through the feelings expressed. If David’s psalm finishes with joyful celebration before the nations and your sermon finishes with blank stares and the odd snore, perhaps you should consider whether you’ve missed something along the way.
So make your congregation feel what it would be like to an Israelite by the waters of Babylon, or a king caught in adultery, or someone in the depths of despair. This isn’t hard; these are real, human emotions. We all have them. The hard work has already been done for us: all the emotion is in the text; we just have to lead people to it.
So go and preach the Psalms. They were written for God’s people. They are rich and profound, and they connect with people deeply. They are full of significant truths about God, and they reveal Jesus to us. It is no wonder that they are so very special to so many.