Four Reasons to Preach the Psalms as a Book


Since the 1980s, scholarship has devoted serious attention to the shape of the Psalter. While viewing the Psalms as a book has not filtered into popular consciousness yet, pastors and preachers may have discovered this argument in recent commentaries, such as James M. Hamilton’s excellent volumes. Preaching the Psalter as a book might at first seem like a difficult task, but it’s well worth it. Here are four reasons why.

1. The Book of Psalms Assures Us God Directs Human History

The Psalms are unique, for while they are God’s Word to us, they also are man’s words to God. The mindset of the people who wrote them teaches us something about the reality of our world: God directs human history. If the authors of the psalms didn’t believe this to be so, they wouldn’t have cried out to him.

Throughout Israel’s history, from embryonic kingdom to dismembered state in exile, God cares for, protects, and sustains his people. No matter the circumstances, God is active. And so it is today. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but God is faithful through it all.

I write from Ireland. On the southern coastline lies Cobh, famous for being the Titanic’s final stop before its fateful sail across the Atlantic. Above Cobh stands St. Colman’s Cathedral, a massive, imposing building that towers over the entire town. No matter where you stand you can see it.

A similar image of God emerges from the Psalms when we preach them as a book. He towers over human history as the main actor.

  • In Book One, God consistently aids David in his battle against the wicked (Ps. 18:1–3).
  • In Book Two, God rescues the nation from its enemies (Ps. 44:4–8).
  • In Book Three, the psalmist cries out in the wake of the exile (Ps. 77:1–2).
  • In Book Four, hope is reignited (Ps. 105:1–2).
  • In Book Five, it’s all praise to God for his great deeds toward his people (Ps. 117:1–2).

The trajectory of the Psalms assures us that even through enemies and exiles God directs human history. What a comfort to us as we face the tumult of life.

2. The Book of Psalms Mirrors the Full Range of Human Experience

The Psalms are famous for their emotion. It’s not simply that as poetry they capture human emotion accurately, but they possess the full range of emotions, as John Calvin and many others have observed. We need to read them all, however, to feel this. Try reading Psalm 148 the day your spouse dies. It’s too joyous—it wasn’t written for such an occasion. Try reading Psalm 88 the day a friend you’ve been diligently praying for is finally converted. It’s too dark. Focusing on a single psalm does not capture the full range of human experience.

But reading the Psalms as a book does. This calibrates us; it brings ballast and balance to life. When we’re in the pits of despair, the book of Psalms not only gives us language to articulate how that feels but offers hope that better days will come. When we’re soaring in joy, the book of Psalms not only offers songs of praise but cautions us that life in this world will not always be so.

Read all the Psalms, and we see nothing we face is unique, and nothing we face lasts forever. It reminds us that life is to be viewed in the long-term; no single day and its feelings or events determines our experience for all of life. Life, like the Psalms, ebbs and flows.

3. The Book of Psalms Trains Us to Look for a New Davidic King

One of the driving forces behind the shape of the Psalter is hope for a new Davidic king. Our New Testament makes it clear that the new Davidic King is Jesus. Jesus himself and the book of Hebrews, for example, both apply Psalm 110 to Jesus (Mark 12:35–37; Heb. 7:17, 21).

If we want people to see Jesus as of utmost importance, preach through all 150 psalms. Like biblical WD-40, the book of Psalms loosens our attachment to lesser things, forcing us to look to the greater One. Those who are not yet Christians are often told to read one of the Gospels first. That’s good advice. But I want to add the book of Psalms. The promised King so apparent in the Psalms has come and won victory for us over our sin and death—his name is Jesus.

4. The Book of Psalms Trains Us for the World to Come

Our looking and longing isn’t done yet. King Jesus will return. And when he does, he will bring this world to an end and establish the new heavens and the new earth.

The book of Psalms trains us for that world yet to come. There is a general movement across the five books of the Psalter proportionately from more laments in the earlier books to more praise in the latter books. Book Five, in particular, erupts with praises of hallelujah (translated as praise the LORD in English; Ps. 111:1; 112:1; 113:1, 9; 115:18; 116:19; 117:1, 2; 135:1, 3, 21; 146:1, 10; 147:1, 12, 20; 148:1, 7, 14; 149:1, 9; 150:1, 6). It acclimates us to that world where there is nothing to cause lament and everything to provoke praise, where there will be no pain, sickness, sorrow, or sin. Just as we might pick up our guide to Dublin or Paris or London or New York before visiting, so we should be picking up the Psalms before we go to the world to come.

The intentional ordering of the 150 psalms may have been rediscovered in academia, but it has very practical benefits for the Christian in the pew. For these reasons and more, we should preach the Psalms as a book.

Davy Ellison

Davy Ellison is the director of training at Irish Baptist College and an elder at Antrim Baptist Church in Northern Ireland.

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