How (Not) to Preach the Psalms
I typically don’t like “How Not To” articles. They lend themselves to sounding as if some arrogant know-it-all is telling everyone about all the mistakes they’ve made. It’s not my purpose to make you regret sermons you’ve preached or derive some sick pleasure in playing the elitist. I’m certainly not trying to put distance between you and the Psalter you love.
I have one big idea here that I want to make specific in a series of ways. The big idea is this: don’t preach the Psalms in isolation.1
DON’T PREACH THE PSALMS IN ISOLATION
Preachers often read the psalms without regard for their various contexts. But we shouldn’t isolate individual statements within a psalm from the literary structure of the whole psalm, we shouldn’t isolate individual psalms from their context in the book, and we shouldn’t isolate the Psalter as a whole from either the rest of the Old Testament or the New Testament. So here comes a list of “Don’ts” that all have to do with not isolating the psalms from the context intended by their authors.
Just to be clear: I think the individual psalmists intended phrases and lines to be read in the context of the whole psalm, and I think the person(s) who put the whole Psalter together did so purposefully and intended for readers to interpret the psalms in a particular order. This ordering of the Psalter engages patterns and promises found in the rest of the Old Testament, and those who ordered the Psalter intended to provoke the very hopes and expectations for which we find the New Testament claiming fulfillment.
DON’T PREACH A PSALM IN ISOLATION FROM ITS LITERARY CONTEXT
The psalmists were poets, and words fitly spoken are apples of gold in settings of silver (Prov. 25:11). If you want to see the gold in the beauty intended by the author, you have to consider it in its setting of silver. In other words, if you want to understand a particular line in a psalm, you have to understand the literary structure of the individual one you’re reading.
Take Psalm 12:6, for instance, which extols the purity of God’s words. How does that line fit in the context of Psalm 12? Often, biblical material is structured chiastically, so that the first and last statements correspond to and exposit each other, as do the second and second to last, the third and third to last (and so forth). In this structure, the key statements are situated in the middle. Often these central statements reach back to the beginning and anticipate the end. Consider how this works in Psalm 12. The Psalm’s chiastic structure looks like this:
- 12:1, The Vanishing Faithful
- 12:2–4, The Empty Words of the Wicked
- 12:5, Yahweh Promises to Vindicate the Poor and Needy
- 12:6–7, The Pure Words of the Lord
- 12:2–4, The Empty Words of the Wicked
- 12:8, The Strutting Wicked
The first verse speaks of how the godly and faithful are endangered, and the last verse speaks of how the wicked strut about. In verses 2–4 we find statements about liars with their flattery and boasting contrasted with a celebration of God’s pure words in 12:6–7. At the center of Psalm 12 (v. 5), Yahweh declares that he will arise to deliver the endangered faithful from verse 1 and address the strutting wicked of verse 8. Verses 6–7, then, not only celebrate God’s pure words in contrast to the lies and boasts of the wicked in verses 2–4, they also confess faith that God will keep the promise he makes in verse 5.
In your preaching, don’t miss the literary structures—structures full of beauty that communicate meaning—the psalmists have built.
DON’T PREACH INDIVIDUAL PSALMS IN ISOLATION FROM THE WHOLE BOOK OF PSALMS
My counsel here pertains not merely to the flow of thought from one psalm to another (on that point refer to my sermon on Psalms 42–48 here). In addition to these kinds of connections between adjacent psalms, there are wide-angle connections between distant psalms. Noting these connections can help us make sense of some of the more difficult statements in the Psalter.
For instance, Psalm 137:9 is pretty shocking: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” There’s an important connection between the word “dashes” here and the same Hebrew verb in Psalm 2:9, “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” This linguistic point of contact shows us that Psalm 137 blesses the future king from David’s line to whom the Lord speaks in Psalm 2. Further, Psalm 2:10 gave fair warning to rebel kings, urging them to be wise and submit to the Lord’s anointed king lest they “perish in the way” (2:10–12). Psalm 137:9 graphically and—dare I say it—mercifully warns the wicked who refuse to repent of what will happen to them and to their children if they refuse to heed Psalm 2’s admonition to “Kiss the son” and “take refuge in him” (2:12).
In a very real sense, the context for every line in the Psalter is not only the whole psalm but the whole Psalter.
DON’T PREACH THE PSALMS IN ISOLATION FROM THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Here’s the most important sentence in this article: The most important background for understanding psalms is earlier Scripture. Consider Psalm 29. David starts by calling the “sons of God” (see ESV footnote) to ascribe glory to Yahweh (29:1–2). Then he celebrates the power of Yahweh’s voice (29:3–9), before speaking of Yahweh sitting enthroned over the flood (29:10–11).
Where else do we see this same imagery? Recall Genesis 6–9. The Lord who sits enthroned over the flood in Psalm 29:10 is the same Lord who sits enthroned in the heavens, laughing at those who plot to overthrow him and his Messiah in Psalm 2:1–4.
The Psalms point not only backward to earlier Scripture, as when David prays that the blessing of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3) will be fulfilled in the king God has promised to raise up from his line (2 Sam. 7:14) in Psalm 72:17 (cf. esp. Gen. 12:3; 2 Sam. 7:9), but also forward to later Scripture. For example, David, who lived around 1000 BC, prayed in Psalm 72:8 that the future king from his line would “have dominion [cf. Gen. 1:28] from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” After the return from exile, around 520 BC Zechariah prophesied that when the Lord brought the king, “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9), that king would rule “from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). Zechariah quotes Psalm 72 as he prophesies of the future king from David’s line.
DON’T READ THE PSALMS IN ISOLATION FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Testament authors read the Psalms typologically. They recognize patterns in redemptive history that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. For instance, David really was betrayed by a close friend whom he trusted, someone who ate his bread and then later lifted his heel against David (Ps 41:9). David may refer to someone like Ahithophel, who was David’s own counselor, but who joined Absalom’s revolt in an attempt to overthrow David (see 2 Sam 15–17). So in Psalm 41 David describes his own experience. But he also sees a correspondence between his experience and the experience of earlier figures like Joseph and Moses, who were also rejected and opposed by their own kinsmen, even those closest to them (Joseph’s brothers, Gen 37; Miriam and Aaron, Num 12). Is it too much to suppose that David expected that the pattern seen in Joseph, repeated in Moses and then in David, would be fulfilled in the experience of the king God promised to raise up from his line?
On the basis of having worked through the entirety of the Psalter testing this hypothesis, I propose that this is exactly what David is doing in his psalms: he’s describing his own experience, but he understands that his own experience is an installation of a pattern of events seen previously in the Scriptures, and he expects that pattern to find fulfillment in the seed God has promised to him (see, e.g., Ps 18:50).
So, in John 13, Jesus begins to warn his disciples that one of them will betray him with the words, “But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (John 13:18, quoting Psalm 41:9). David was not predicting the future in Psalm 41:9; he was describing his own experience. And Jesus is not claiming a fulfillment of a future prediction in John 13:18, but rather the fulfillment of a typological pattern. Like David, Jesus understood the typological correspondence between Joseph, Moses, and David, and Jesus knew that what they prefigured and foreshadowed would be fulfilled in him. And this, I contend, is fully in keeping with what David intended to communicate in Psalm 41.
Don’t preach the Psalms in isolation—from their immediate or broad context. May God bless his Word in your mouth, and may the sentiments in the Psalms be the heartbeat of God’s people.
1 This section has been adapted from my forthcoming commentary Psalms. 2 vols. BTCP. Bellingham: Lexham.