3 Reasons You Should Preach through the Psalms
One of my most enjoyable seasons of preaching was the year I spent in Psalms. The series wasn’t chronological; that is, I didn’t move from Psalm 1 to Psalm 2 to Psalm 3 and so on (though there are benefits to that approach). My selection criteria included an eclectic mix of variables. For starters, I wanted to preach psalms I hadn’t already preached. I also thought it was important to preach psalms of varying types, such as the royal psalms, the psalms of lament, and even the imprecatory psalms. Finally, I chose specific psalms to coordinate with calendar events throughout the year. For example, leading into Easter, I preached the psalms Jesus quoted from the cross; on the Sunday before Independence Day, I preached Psalm 2; just before Thanksgiving, I preached Psalm 107.
By the end of the year, our church had a better grasp on the Psalms as a whole. More importantly, the Psalms had a better grasp on us. This rich book had expanded our vocabulary of prayer and praise and had warmed our hearts toward the Lord.
How does one summarize the point of the Psalms? It’s a truly unique book in the canon, with 150 poems, written by multiple authors, ranging in history from the exodus to the exile and expressing every conceivable emotion from raw complaint to exuberant praise. Oh, and throw in some prophecy too. The Psalms resists an easy summary.
Even so, the book gives evidence of having been editorially arranged; that is, there’s deliberation in the ordering. And because we trust the Spirit to have shaped the book precisely as we have it, it’s possible to take a stab at summation. So, here’s how I’ve come to understand its “main point”: the Psalms teach us how to live a life of praise under the blessing of God’s King. That’s a clunky purpose statement, I know. But it takes a lot into account, so I trust you’ll cut me some slack.
Now, without further ado, here are three reasons to preach through the Psalms.
1. You will help your people see, perhaps for the first time, the shape of the book as a whole.
Most people look at the Psalms like 150 Lego pieces in a bucket. They may notice that some of the pieces are the same shape or the same color. For example, the psalms of David might be the standard 2×4 Lego brick, whereas the psalms of Solomon and Asaph and the sons of Korah are another size.
Or maybe they’ll notice similarity in genre: the green pieces are messianic, the red pieces are imprecatory, the blue pieces are lament. As people read and pray their way through the Psalms, they’ll notice these similarities, even without help from us.
Nonetheless, most people will likely fail to see how the 150 pieces—of all shapes and colors—click together into one structure. The Psalms are much more than individual Legos to be poured out of a bucket and organized in piles on the floor. They’re meant to be assembled; they have a collective shape. God hasn’t just given us 150 psalms, he’s given us the Psalms.
And it’s this shape of the Psalms that brings me back to my clunky purpose statement, which I trotted out with no defense. Perhaps I can gently push you down the path I’ve followed by drawing your attention to three features of the Psalms:
- Notice Psalms 1–2, with their inclusio of blessing around God’s law and God’s King. These introductory psalms set the stage for reading the entire book as Messianic Torah. In other words, the book means to teach us how to live under God’s blessing in his Son.
- Ponder the contents of the Psalms’ fivefold division, paying special attention to the psalms located around the seams of each division. The five divisions sweep us along redemptive history—from David’s enthronement and rule, to the collapse of the monarchy under Solomon, to reminders of God’s faithfulness, and, finally, to the hope of a coming King. The book has a broad but discernable shape and trajectory, leading us to long for God to send the Christ.
- Consider that Psalms 146–150 provide not only the climax but the goal of the book: praise, praise, praise, praise, praise! In short, the Psalms are meant to be read as a book that teaches us how to live a life of praise under the blessing of God’s King. Help your church grasp the grand and glorious unity of the Psalms, and you will stoke the fire of their worship of God in Christ.
2. You will help your people to become intimately acquainted with Jesus.
As you preach through the Psalms, you will of course unpack its obvious Messianic elements. But I mean something more than that. The Psalms are unique in that they enable us to peer into the devotional life of our Savior. Judging from how often Jesus referenced the Psalms, it’s clear that the Psalms played a prominent role in his own spirituality.
Just think about it: Jesus meditated on this book of the Bible. He likely had it memorized from years of worship in the synagogue. The Psalms taught him about himself—his identity, his mission, the ethics and emotions of a life of faith, the details of his suffering. How amazing is it to realize that Jesus would have prayed his way through each of the psalms, understanding each one in reference to himself?
Do you want your church to know Jesus better? Would you like your people to become more intimately acquainted with him? Open up the Psalms for them as Jesus’ own prayer book. Before the Psalms were for us, they were for Jesus.
3. You will guide your people through every experience in the Christian life.
In Jesus, the Psalms are for us. So what better reason to preach the Psalms! Not only was the book formative for Jesus, it must be formative for you and me.
An all-too-common experience in discipleship is for the walls to close in our souls. We get stuck in small spaces, spiritually speaking. O, how we need the Psalms! The Psalms walk into our tiny houses and start busting out walls. The Psalms treat us like a fixer-upper. The Psalms add new rooms; they do large-scale renovation.
In the Psalms, we see that our loving God is also holy and just and faithful and forgiving and fierce and glorious. In the Psalms, we learn to pray not only for food and family but for our neighbors and the nations—and even for our enemies. In the Psalms, our generic ethical concern to “do good” concretizes, teaching us to delight in God and his Word, to confess our sins, to enjoy the assurance of pardon, not to envy the wicked, to number our days in order to gain a heart of wisdom, to set ourselves to deal justly with others, and much more. In the Psalms, we learn that prayers of praise often follow prayers of anxiety, anger, and many desperate cries for help.
It’s been said that all of life with God is expressed in the Psalms. That’s true, and our people need the comprehensive discipleship course found in this book. Our own souls need it, too.
So brothers, preach through the Psalms. Preach it straight through in three years. Or preach it according to type, or during the summers, or timed with calendar events, or willy-nilly. But preach the book, and draw your church into a life of praise under the blessing of God’s King.
Out of all the wonderful resources on the Psalms, Derek Kidner’s two-volume set in the Tyndale series is one of my favorites. Few scholars write so succinctly and so well as Kidner.
Alec Motyer’s Psalms By the Day: A New Devotional Translation is an excellent resource for gaining translational insights, determining the poetic structure of each psalm, and enjoying Christ-centered commentary.
For me, Gerald Wilson’s essay on “The Shape of the Book of Psalms” was pure gold. Get your hands on this essay. Consider Wilson’s argument before preaching another psalm. In the same vein as Wilson is Jim Hamilton’s excellent section on the Psalms in God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.
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You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.