Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you …. Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner
Deliver sermons from the Book of Psalms and you’ll find a receptive audience. Why? Because even in a day of biblical illiteracy, Psalms still holds a high place in popular sentiment. Consider the fact that Bible publishers continue to sell popular editions of the New Testament bound with a single Old Testament book — Psalms.
From the earliest days the church has regarded Psalms as relevant to its needs and circumstances. In the first century, references to Psalms appear in nearly eighty New Testament passages. The fourth-century bishop Athanasius reportedly declared that Psalms has a unique place in the Bible because, while most of the Scripture speaks to us, Psalms speaks for us.1 Centuries later, John Calvin described the Psalter as “an anatomy of all parts of the soul, for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”2
The church has regarded Psalms not only as relevant but also authoritative. Psalms speaks to us as well as for us. References from no less than five psalms were quoted in the first chapter of Hebrews as statements that God “said.” The apostles regarded David as a prophet through whom the Holy Spirit spoke (Acts 2:30 and 4:25). The writer of Hebrews saw in Psalm 40:6-8 a prediction of Jesus’ coming (Heb. 10:5-7). Luke and John regarded Psalm 22 as a prophecy of Jesus’ death (Luke 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1; John 19:24, quoting Psalm 22:18). Simon Peter saw our Lord’s resurrection foretold in Psalm 16:8-11 and Christ’s triumphant rule predicted in Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:25-28, 34-35).
The early church simply followed the pattern of Jesus himself, who regarded the psalms, no less than the law and the prophets, as part of that inspired word which predicted His coming (Luke 24:44). Doubtless, Paul was including Psalms when he said that all Scripture was “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).3
The Challenge of Preaching the Psalms
Preachers will not want to ignore a book that speaks with such abiding relevance and authority to so many. But despite the receptivity one finds in preaching Old Testament poetry, the psalms present difficulties. The challenge of psalm interpretation lies not simply in the rhetoric of ancient literature, but also in the pre-Christian culture and convictions which confuse some Christian readers. For example, the poet speaks of a temple and a sacrificial system no longer in operation in Psalms 84 and 116:17. He cries for bloody vengeance in Psalm 109:6-20. He holds a bitter argument with God in Psalm 13:1. He exclaims his personal righteousness and innocence, as in Psalm 26:1 — which seems arrogant up against Paul’s humble confession: “I know that nothing good lives in me” (Rom. 7:18).
Bringing a psalm to the pulpit requires four tasks. The interpreter must: (1) categorize the psalm to compare it with other psalms of its type for similarities and differences; (2) identify the rhetorical techniques the poet used to convey his meaning; (3) study the poem in light of the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ; and (4) outline the psalm for preaching purposes.
Categorizing the Psalm
The preacher must first categorize the psalm by comparing it for similarities and differences with other psalms of the same type. The 150 psalms are not organized,4 so with each new psalm the reader may move from one type to another — e.g., from praise to lament — much like listening to an apparently random selection of songs on a radio program. Thus, the interpreter must first determine the type of psalm under investigation.
One of the most helpful ways to categorize a psalm was suggested by Walter Brueggemann. He contended that the interpreter must first ask which experience the poet describes — orientation, disorientation, or reorientation. The value of this categorizing should be obvious. The preacher’s hearers experience life as either oriented, disoriented, or reoriented. By identifying a psalm’s existential setting the preacher can recognize a psalm’s present application.
Psalms of orientation spring out of the times when life is anxiety-free and thus the believer can look away from himself and meditate upon the phenomena of the world around. In these poems the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), the Lord is the believer’s shepherd (Ps. 23:1), the Enthroned One laughs at those who oppose Him (Ps. 2:4), glorious things are said of Jerusalem (Ps. 87), and brothers live in unity (Ps. 133). C. S. Lewis said of such poetry:
The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight which made David dance … Against [the merely dutiful ‘church-going’] it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read.5
Poems from times of disorientation comprise the bulk of the book of Psalms. In fact, personal lamentations makes up roughly a third of the Psalter. In these complaints, the poet desires the restored joy of God like a deer pants for water (Ps. 42:1), God has rejected and humbled His people (Ps. 44:9), the believer cries out until his throat is parched (Ps. 69:3) but God does not answer (Ps. 22:2), the Lord has exalted the right hand of the king’s foe and cast his throne to the ground (Ps. 89:42, 44), and the believer (in Ps. 13:1) asks, “Will you forget me forever?” At times the poet confesses that the hardships have resulted from his own sins (Ps. 38) or from the sins of the nation (Ps. 60). At other times, the poet cries for God’s rescue from a difficulty that did not come from his sinfulness (Ps. 142) or from the nation’s unfaithfulness (Ps. 44).
Leslie Allen said that, unlike Job’s so-called friends, these poems are “companions that understand,” which remind the believer to call on “the God of compassion who knows our frame and somehow is there in the darkness.”6 Sermons from these poems of crises must encourage the believer to give words to sorrows and address those words to God.
Surprised by the inbreaking of grace and deliverance, the believer experiences what can be called re-orientation. A psalm from this phase gives words to the excitement of God’s intervention in a personal or national crisis. In these poems, God stoops down to make the king great (Ps. 18:35), God lifts the believer out of the depths so that his enemies could no longer gloat over him (Ps. 30:1), God breaks the chains of his nation’s exile (Ps. 107:14), and God covers the penitent’s sins (Ps. 32:1). Sermons from the psalms of reorientation should call for the believer’s gratitude for some specific, recent grace that God bestowed on the individual, the local church, or the nation.
Identifying Rhetorical Techniques
After categorizing the psalm to compare it with other poems of its type, the interpreter must identify the rhetorical techniques the poet used to convey his meaning. Biblical poetry differs from prose. In poetry, words carry more meaning, and carry it differently. The psalms, wrote Lewis, must be understood “as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.”7 Thomas Long observed that psalms “operate at the level of the imagination, often swiveling the universe on the hinges of a single image.”8
The poet of Psalm 82 used the image of an earthquake to convey the instability of the community when foundational justice was neglected. In Psalm 42:1 the poet used the simile of a deer when he spoke of the depressed soul panting for God like a deer panting for water. And in Psalm 131 he used the image of a weaned child to depict how he had quieted his soul from unruly ambitions.
The psalmists also utilized rhetoric not easily translatable. They enjoyed acrostics, such as Psalm 119. This poem contains twenty-two octaves where each stanza is made up of eight lines and each octave begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet — Aleph, Beth, Gimel, etc.9 The psalmists utilized word play, though translations often lose the assonance and alliteration. Biblical poets also deliberately chose the names of God. Consider Psalm 19: in verses 1-6, when the poet described the general revelation available to all humanity through the created order, he used the general name for God: El; in verses 7-14, when he described the specific revelation given to those in covenant union with God, he used the covenant name for God: Yahweh.
Of all the rhetorical devices, scholars regard “parallelism” as the primary characteristic of Hebrew poetry. While traditional English poetry is characterized by rhyme and rhythm, in Hebrew the sense of thought determines the poetic form. In its simplest form, parallelism is a mere restatement in the second line of the thought in the first line: “They are like a lion hungry for prey,/like a great lion crouching for cover” (Ps. 17:12).
In addition to this so-called “synonymous” parallelism, scholars have identified other forms. The poets used “antithetical” parallelism, in which the first and second line are opposed: “For evil men will be cut off,/but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Ps. 37:9).
They employed “inverted” or “chiasmic” parallelism, where the second line begins like the first line ended, and ends like the first line began: “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;/according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me” (Ps. 18:20).
And the poets used “stairstep” parallelism, in which the second line advances the thought of the first line: “Everyone lies to his neighbor;/their flattering lips speak with deception” (Ps. 12:2).
Recognizing parallelisms can sometimes be crucial for a proper interpretation. Consider Psalm 137. This bitter poem was written after the collapse of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon. Many modern readers are shocked by verses 8-9: “happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us –/he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (emphasis added).
This is a parallelism where the second line is used to describe the first line. Through parallelism, the interpreter discovers that the slaughter of infants was something Babylon had already done to Judah. The poet’s outburst comes within the context of ancient Near Eastern warfare (see Nah. 3:10; Hos. 13:16). The Babylonians who had exterminated Judah’s little ones would suffer the same fate, by divine promise. The supplicant of Psalm 137 prayed for nothing more than what God elsewhere promised to do: “Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes…. See, I will stir up against them the Medes…. They will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children” (Isa. 13:16-19).
Studying the Psalm by Means of the New Testament
After the interpreter has discovered the genre to which a psalm belongs and has discerned the rhetorical technique the Old Testament poet used to convey meaning, the Christian interpreter has a third task to perform. A poem must be studied in light of the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. In The Authority of the Old Testament, John Bright insisted that the preacher deliver sermons from the Old Testament text in the light of what its theology has become in Christ. According to Bright, in Christ the psalms have been (1) ratified, (2) modified, (3) fulfilled, or (4) superceded.
First, some psalms have been ratified. For example, in 1 Peter 3:8-12, Peter endorsed Psalm 34:12-16 with no substantial change. In Romans 8:36, Paul quoted from Psalm 44 (v. 22) and radically ratified the entire psalm of theodicy in Romans 8.
Second, the New Testament writers modified some psalms in light of Christ’s coming. For example, psalms that include sacrifice (such as Ps. 66:13-15) and temple worship (such as Ps. 84) have been reinterpreted. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews regarded these as fore-shadowings of the Messianic age which dawned in Jesus.
Third, some Psalms have been fulfilled in the first advent of Christ. In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus announced the fulfillment of Psalm 110. The writers of all four Gospels referred to the fulfillment of Psalm 22 in the crucifixion.
Finally, Bright contended that some psalms express an ethic that has been superceded in Christ. According to Bright, when Christ said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), in effect He passed sentence on imprecatory psalms such as Psalms 69, 109, and 137.
However, the preacher must not too quickly conclude that the ethic of a particular psalm has been superceded. At first glance, it certainly seems that Christ’s teaching has superceded the bitter imprecatory psalms such as Psalms 69 and 109. Did Christ not teach that His followers must love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them? However, the New Testament is not without its share of imprecation. Consider Jesus’ opinion of Judas as one “doomed to destruction” (John 17:12), or Paul’s opinion of unbelievers: “If anyone does not love the Lord — a curse be on him” (1 Cor. 16:22). John’s Revelation sounds no different than the bitterest Old Testament psalm: souls of saints call for God to avenge their blood (6:10), believers are told to rejoice because “God has judged her [Babylon] for the way she treated you” (18:20), and heavenly multitudes shout “Hallelujah!” over the smoke from Babylon’s destruction (19:3).
Furthermore, the very psalms of cursing that some regard as below the Christian ethic were quoted by the Christian church. New Testament writers referred to Psalm 109 (see Acts 1:20) and frequently quoted Psalm 69 (see John 2:17; 15:25; Acts 1:20; Rom. 11:9-10; 15:3). The interpreter must therefore be careful not to regard a cursing psalm as superceded when the church cited it or embraced its ethic.
Outlining the Psalm
After categorizing the psalm, identifying its rhetorical effects, and examining it in the light of the New Testament, the psalm must be outlined.
First, in outlining, we identify the beginning and end of the poem. Most psalms begin and end within the number assigned by the English translations, but not all. For example, Psalms 9 and 10 belong together, as do Psalms 42 and 43.
Second, we divide the poem into strophes, if possible. This is easy when the psalm has identifiable stanzas, like the poem of Psalm 42-43; its three strophes are marked off by the repeated refrain, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (42:5; 42:11; 43:5). Strophes can be identified in other psalms by noting to whom the words are addressed. For example, Psalm 82 has four divisions: verse 1 sets the stage, verses 2-4 are God’s words addressed to the judges, verses 5-7 are God’s words addressed about the judges, and verse 8 is the poet’s prayer addressed to God.
Third, we state the basic affirmation of the strophic unit in simple declarative, timeless sentences. After all, Sunday sermons in Christian pulpits should not be dry lectures on ancient Hebrew literature. The preacher should relate the timeless experience and theology of the psalm in a way that helps the listener to better speak to God in prayer and to better live before God in practice. For example, a sermon from Psalm 13 could have three points: first, from verses 1 and 2, Hardship can cause you to wonder if God has forgotten you; second, from verses 3 and 4, You must always bring your complaints to God in prayer; and finally, from verses 5 and 6, Prayer can restore your trust in God’s unfailing love.
Thomas Long observed, “Even today when public knowledge of the Bible is at a low ebb, the psalms maintain their grip upon the popular memory and imagination.”10 Preachers intent on communicating with modern church-goers cannot afford to ignore the psalms. We must work through these four tasks: identifying the psalm type (genre), discovering the rhetorical techniques, examining the psalm in light of the New Testament, and outlining the psalm. In this way, the preacher can bring to the pulpit psalms that speak both for the people and to the people.
1. Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), p. 9.
2. John I. Durham, “Psalms,” Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4, ed. Clifton J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman, 1971), p. 41.
3. All Scripture in this article quoted from the New International Version of the Holy Bible.
4. The psalms were arranged into five books with doxologies at the end of the first four books (41:13; 72:18-20; 89:52; 106-48); Psalm 150 concludes the fifth book and also the entire Psalter. This was doubtless an editorial, and quite artificial, division. Durham, above cited, surmised that the editor of the psalms was imitating the fivefold division of the Torah: “Genesis through Deuteronomy thus stands as the basic revelation of God to His people, and the five books of the Psalter, their fivefold response, in praise of him” (Durham, p. 154). See also Leslie C. Allen, Psalms, Word Biblical Themes Series (Waco: Word, 1987), pp. 12-13; and Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp. 35-43.
5. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1958), pp. 45-46.
6. Allen, op. cit., p. 38.
7. Lewis, op. cit., p. 3.
8. Thomas Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), p. 47.
9. The book of Psalms contains eight acrostic poems: Psalms 9-10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; and 145.
10. Long, op. cit., p. 43.
Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you …. Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner