I remember the first time I discovered journaling. I was a young seminary student frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t pay attention long enough to pray for very long at all. My thoughts either bounced all around my head so that my prayers became random thoughts about the day, or they would simply stop and I would fall asleep. In desperation, one day I pulled out a piece of paper and began to write down what I was reading in the Bible that morning that stood out to me. Then I wrote down what was on my mind – the issues I was facing, the problems I was encountering, the concerns that weighed heavy on my heart. Then I simply wrote my prayer as if I was writing a letter to a dear friend. When I looked up from my paper, over an hour had passed and I felt as though I had really met with God. Today, I can show you rows and rows of binders in my study, prayer journals that date back to those early years in seminary. I can run my fingers down the spine of those small three-ring binders and pull out times in my life when I faced deep grief – like the day our triplets were born prematurely and passed away. I can show you what my prayers were on that day and the emotions I was feeling. I can also pull binders off the shelf and turn to times of great joy – the birth of my two daughters, the call to pastor for the first time, the promises God has given me along the way. Each binder contains a year. Each page contains a day. Together they are a lifetime of walking with God. In many ways the psalms are a collection of daily journals, excerpts from men and women who walked with God in the best of times and the worst of times. They are flooded with emotion. They are real, raw, untamed and unedited. Like life, the psalms are unpredictable and undeniable. That is why I preach the psalms. In one sense the psalms are an expression of art using Hebrew poetry, meter and structure, but on the other hand, like art, they are raw expressions of the soul and the human condition. Though they are ancient, they are as timely and relevant as the morning news.
This past summer I decided to preach a series on the psalms and God used it in a significant way in our church. As you sit down to prepare to preach the psalms, I would like to share with you some insights that have help me communicate the psalms in an more effective way.
There are 150 psalms in the book of Psalms. Just the sheer volume of material often scares off preachers. You may think, “There is no way I could preach on every psalm. It would take me three years to get through the entire book!” You don’t have to preach through psalm-by-psalm, just be selective. There are several ways you can choose which psalms to teach. First is the “Top Ten” approach. Just select the top ten psalms based on popular vote or your own personal favorites. This way you will hit the most popular and familiar psalms. Another way is to select one psalm out of the various categories of psalms. There are at least fifteen types of psalms such as palms of lament, praise, thanksgiving, and history. There are royal psalms, imprecatory psalms, enthronement psalms and psalms of ascent. Just selecting one from each category would give people a nice overview of the psalms and the range of emotions they represent. Still another way to select psalms to preach is to focus primarily on one type of psalm. For example, you might do an entire series on the psalms of ascent and focus your teaching on worship. Or you could do a series on thanksgiving, working primarily from the psalms of thanksgiving. There are many ways to preach through this book, but being selective will allow your messages to have greater impact.
KEEP IT PERSONAL
The psalms are personal. Close to half of the psalms are pages torn from David’s life. Each one has a background and historical context. Sometimes David is wrapped in the thrill of worship, other times he is in the depths of despair. As you communicate these emotions, keep it personal. A godly man told me once, “What comes from the head, goes to the head. What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.” Aim at the heart. This is a good time to be honest and authentic as you preach. As you share your own experiences with these emotions, you allow those who hear you to reflect on their own emotions and how they resonate with the psalmist. One example of keeping it personal comes from Psalm 139 (one of my personal favorites). Clearly the structure of this psalm is a prayer of David and reflects on who God is and what he has done. The first six verses describe how God knows everything about us. He knows when we sit and when we rise, what we say and what we think. Some pastors, in preaching this passage, may make a point, “This section shows us the omniscience of God.” While that is true, most people don’t know what omniscience means. That’s speaking to the head. It leans to the academic. Another way to make this point is to say, “These verses tell you that God knows everything about you.” This personal approach can be easily applied to the listener and goes straight to the heart.
As you teach through the psalms and expose various emotions, this provides you an opportunity to teach on how we should handle those emotions. In Psalm 51, David is wrecked over his sin. He is desperate to know God’s forgiveness and restoration. While it would be appropriate to teach this psalm from the perspective of the gravity of sin and glory of God to forgive sinners, it offers very practical help by way of example that we can follow when we are trapped in sin. David clearly demonstrates what to do when you mess things up. He turns to God. He admits his sin. He asks for forgiveness. He seeks restoration. Following the path of forgiveness forged by David’s experience can help us when we lose our way. So stay practical. Give your people simple applications and steps they can learn from the psalms that will be stepping stones on their way to a deeper walk with God.
POINT TO JESUS
Every psalm is an opportunity to point people to Jesus. While Jesus is not mentioned by name in the psalms, he is everywhere. Certainly in the Messianic psalms (2, 16, 67, 68, 93 and 97, to name a few) we see the face of Jesus. He also appears in the prophetic psalms (22, 40, 45, 72, 87 and others). But in just about every psalm there is the shadow of Jesus. While preaching through Psalm 121, the first verse rings out, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The context is a traveler, climbing up the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, looking up to the hills where he will meet with God in the temple. But this worshipper has questions. He’s looking to Mount Zion to find answers to life’s big questions. “Will God help me? Doesn’t God care for me?” The temple was built on the hill where God provided a sacrifice to take the place of Isaac on Mount Moriah. And it was that same hill where God sent his own Son to be the full and final sacrifice for you and for me. Where do we find help? We find it at the cross of Jesus. The shadow of Jesus crosses every psalm, it’s simply up to the preacher to point him out.