It is notoriously difficult to preach on the Psalms. Some think, moreover, that it is inappropriate to try because the Psalms have a different, quite distinct function in the liturgy. I am, nonetheless, assigned the topic, so here are four thoughts on preaching the Psalms.
(1) The Psalms are poems of particularity and must not be treated as a generic statement about the human condition. These are the words, tried and tested, by persons in a particular community and pertain only to those persons in that community. At the outset the preacher must resist privatized interpretation.The ones who speak here are Israelites who carry with them and bring to expression the long experience and the myriad of remembered texts concerning their life with God. The Psalter belongs in the OT and is surrounded by ancient memories of rescue, treasured accounts of miracles and promises from God, durable commands that have been variously honored and violated, and hopes awaiting fruition. The Psalms are “thick” in the sense that all this accumulated poignant reality is present in the utterance of the Psalms; and the preacher must attend to all that thickness.There is a powerful interpretive tradition that redeploys the Psalms as the utterance of Jesus — the Son who loves the Father in praise, the Son who suffers and who directs that suffering toward the Father. In such christological utterances, Jesus relives and replicates the glorious, troubled life of Israel with God.
When the preacher lines out these Psalms (as the voice of the church) for the church, church people are understood as heirs and practitioners of the faith of ancient Israel. The baptized thus become, at second hand, the community of communion and obedience, of praise and defiance. Thus the capacity to praise and to voice absence is done in the sermon along with a cloud of witnesses who have uttered these words many times over before us and found them adequate.
(2) I believe that preaching the Psalms requires that we “narratize” the poetry. That is, either deliberately and carefully, or inescapably and accidentally, the preacher will imagine the narrative context in which the Psalm may have been uttered so that the utterance arises in a particular context. The useful question to ask is, “Whose Psalm is this?” “Who is speaking and in what circumstance?”
Scholars have been hypothesizing such putative contexts for a long time. It is proposed that great hymns, especially “Enthronement Hymns,” are from a grand new year festival in the temple when the world begins again in great joy. It is proposed that “Torah Psalms” may be in an instructional situation, when the young learn the “ABC’s” of faith and life (thus, Ps 119 as an acrostic Psalm). It is proposed that some of the Psalms of complaint are spoken in a context of illness or from prison. This is, no doubt, the reason why some Psalms are peculiarly powerful in a hospital setting.
Behind these scholarly guesses, the biblical text itself shows the process of narratizing. The superscriptions in Pss 3, 34, 51, 52, 54, 60, 63, and 106, for example, connect the Psalms to the life of David. The best known of these is Ps 51, wherein the prayer of confession is connected to David’s crisis concerning Uriah and Bathsheba. No critical scholar believes these superscriptions are “historically accurate.” They are, however, later interpretive clues for how Psalms might be read. By such superscription the Psalm is relocated, in the imagination of Israel, into a particular circumstance of concrete life.
But of course the Psalms are richly polyvalent and are not confined to one circumstance. Thus the preacher may devise current “superscriptions”: Ps 22 prayed, perhaps, by a person who has come to great shame in the neighborhood when her child has deeply disappointed; Ps 109 prayed, perhaps by a woman who has been raped, who is fully in “touch with her anger”; or Ps 29 prayed, perhaps, in a rural church after a big May rain on the corn crop. The particularity permits the poetry to become concrete, and lets the listening congregation relate to that circumstance and then to hear in its own circumstance.
(3) A primal motif of the Psalms is praise, praise of YHWH, that is, “Hallelujah.” Praise is a most characteristic practice of ceding one’s life, one’s self, and one’s community over to the subject (object?) of praise in glad self-abandonment. The praise uttered may be as a review of past transformative actions by God in the life of the community (cf. Pss 135-36) or naming characteristic acts of deliverance that are named concretely but are given doxological expansiveness to make particular miracles grand and overwhelming (Ps 114). Praise may be the naming of particular personal transformations from death to life (cf. Ps 107) that are summarized in more general participial assertions that YHWH does these acts characteristically (Pss 103:3-5; 145:13-20a). Or praise may concern YHWH’s most characteristic attribute of “steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 117:2).
“To preach praise,” means to live out the script for praise, model its utterance, empower the congregation to praise, and teach what praise means as subversive action. Praise is a counter-cultural act because the dominant culture all around us urges self-control, self-actualization, self-indulgence, and self-sufficiency. This way of life means to gather all of self for self, to make one’s self the center of reality. Praise, by contrast, is the glad yielding of self to this other one known in our memory. The preacher invites the congregation to engage in a redefining act of counter-culture.
(4) The Psalter is filled out with numerous utterances of lament and complaint that function as both petition and protest. These Psalms form a radical counterpoint to the hymns, because in these poems the speaker claims self, asserts self along with one’s needs, hurts, hates, and fears. These Psalms speak out of a deep sense of entitlement. Because of the long history of covenant with YHWH and the mutual promises made between YHWH and Israel, Israel — and particular Israelites — have claims to make on YHWH. These Psalms are, to be sure, acts of catharsis whereby the truth is told to the God from whom no secret can be hid. It is a common mistake, however, to reduce these Psalms to catharsis in the assurance that “You will feel better if you let it out.” These Psalms, rather, are prayers of petition from a ground of covenantal entitlement. These speakers dare to address God in an imperative, to issue a command that is grounded in deep need and helplessness along with deep faith. By lining out laments with narrative imagination, the preacher models candor about hurt and hate — self-announcements in the presence of God that are elemental for serious doxological faith.
The preacher, in most US churches, preaches in a society of denial and despair in which people grow numb and imagine that more commodities will make us happy and safe. The preacher, from these texts of the Psalter, can model and exemplify a more excellent way, lining out a life of faith that is a vibrant dialectic of ceding and claiming. The preacher invites baptized congregants to “listen in” on an old, thick, risky transaction of God and God’s people. Such preaching is an offer of wonder in the face of denial, an offer of buoyancy in the face of despair, an offer of communion in the face of self-sufficiency. This alternative life is given in a particular narrative from ancient times transposed by the preacher into a narrative account of our own energizing of faith.