Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms

William H. Bellinger, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 26 - Fall 1984

“Prayer Book of the Bible” is a fitting title for the book of Psalms because in these texts we hear worshippers of old talk with God. These marvelous poems encompass every human condition-joy and suffering, hope and care-and thus every Christian can pray with the Psalms and find themselves therein. Martin Luther said, “This explains, moreover, why the Psalter is the favourite book of all the saints, and why each one of them, whatever his circumstances may be, finds in it psalms and words which are appropriate to the circumstances in which he finds himself and meet his needs as adequately as if they were composed exclusively for his sake. . . .”[1]See Arthur Weiser, The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), p. 20. The words of Sigmund Mowinckel indicate that this theme has continued in more recent Old Testament scholarship:”In the Psalms the human heart has found its own counterpart at all times, in sorrow and in happiness, as an individual and as a member of God’s people.”[2]Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), p. 1. Mowinckel thus broadens the theme to include the church. Claus Westermann echoes this sentiment when he reflects on his experience in Nazi concentration camp.[3]Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 6.

Our identification with the Psalms is at least part of the reason we use them more than any other part of the Hebrew Bible. We use them in worship; we use them in ministering to those who are sick or in some other crisis; we use them in counseling. We speak the Psalms, but seldom do we preach and teach the Psalms. This fact gives impetus to our topic: the proclamation of the”gospel” in the Psalms. We will address two major areas of concern: studying the Psalms and seeking to provide some assistance for those who are involved in the task of preaching and teaching these powerful texts.


Understanding the Psalms

Why do we study the Psalms? We study the Psalms because Israel knew how to come into the presence of God and she knew how to behave when she got there.[4]Attributed to G. Henton Davies in his lectures on the Psalms in Oxford. There is a sense in which the history of recent interpretation of the Psalms is an attempt to explore that statement.[5]See further in R. E. Clements One Hundred Years of Old Testa­ment Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 76ff.; Aubrey Johnson, “The Psalms,” The Old Testament and Modern Study, ed. H. H. Rowley (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1951), pp. 162ff.; Erhard Gerstenberger, “Psalms, ” Old Testament Form Criticism, ed. John H. Hayes (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1974), pp. 179ff.

The early critical study of the Psalter used a methodology which can be called the personal/historical method of study.[6]See C. A. Briggs and E. G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1906-1907); Moses Buttenweiser, The Psalms Chronologically Treated with a New Translation (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1938). The task of interpretation centered upon finding the setting in a particular person’s life in which a psalm was written or the historical event which occasioned the writing of a psalm. For example, Psalm 41 was interpreted as a prayer of Job in the midst of his sickness. Psalms 46 and 48 were related to Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. and interpreted in light of that event. The problem with this methodology, of course, is the language of the Psalms themselves. If we take seriously the language of the texts, it is clear that Psalm 41 could refer to any person who is sick and not only to Job. Psalms 46 and 48 could represent any attack on Jerusalem. The specificity of this interpretative methodology was its downfall.

A new path in the interpretation of the Psalms was forged around the beginning of the twentieth century by Hermann Gunkel.[7]See Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967). Gunkel sought to avoid problem areas of the personal/historical method, priority of philology and history in psalm study, and what he saw as subjectivity in scholarship. He was interested in more objectivity in studying the Psalms as well as the recovery of the religious significance of the texts. The concerns led him to a method based on comparison. By comparing structure, vocabulary, and religious feeling in all the psalmic material available to us, he sought to classify psalms according to type or genre (Gattung). Thus Gunkel’s method is called form-critical or type­ analytical. Classification attempts to bring order to the broad range of texts and give a broad base for study. In the lead article in this issue Dr. Ralph Smith has summarized- the various types of psalms and we do not need to repeat that, but we do want to emphasize its importance. The final significant item in Gunkel’s work is the investigation of the origin of these psalm types and the conclusion that they generally related to Israel’s worship.

The other major figure in recent psalm study was Gunkel’s student Sigmund Mowinckel.[8]See Mowinckel, Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2 vols.; Dr. Smith, in his article in this issue has discussed the use of the Psalms in worship. Mowinckel took to its logical conclusion Gunkel’s work on the origin of the psalm types. Mowinckel majored on the use of the Psalms in the worship of ancient Israel. Worship was not only the place of origin for the various psalm types in the Hebrew Bible but also the place for the use of most of the psalms in the Psalter. Mowinckel defined worship as the visible and audible expression of the rela­tionship between the congregation and God. Thus worship was a dramatic event in ancient Israel, primarily taking place in the Temple.

The different types of psalms had various uses in worship. Hymns were a part of the praise offered in the sanctuary, praising God as the trustworthy Lord who had delivered Israel in the Exodus and other remarkable historical events. God was praised in worship as Creator, Lawgiver, King (Mowinckel’s enthronement festival), and the One powerfully with his people. The Psalms, especially the Royal Psalms-those associated with the kings-were important in the services of Israel’s festivals.[9]See A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 31. Psalms were also used in services to give thanks to God for deliverance from trouble or to pray for God’s help in the midst of a community crisis such as military defeat or drought. Lament psalms of individuals were also offered as prayers of petition in Israel’s worship. All of this means that the Psalms are at base cultic literature.” Cultic” does not relate to modern,” off-brand” sects; rather, it refers to the organized worship of ancient Israel. The psalms in the Psalter are at base cultic texts, those used in community worship. It is difficult to understand why this perspective, which is evident in the texts themselves, had been ignored in Old Testament scholarship, but it is now established.

The basic hermeneutical task in relation to the Psalms, as well as other Old Testament texts, is to decipher their historical and contemporary meaning. In attempting to understand the Psalms we are concentrating on the historical meaning of the texts, and we can learn important lessons from the history of the interpretation of the Psalms. These lessons center on the various types and structures found in the Psalms and the cultic nature of the texts; the Psalms are not essentially private devotional poems or”spiritualized” prayers but have their setting, or home, in the worship of the community. This is important because it means that the texts function primarily in the life of the community in the central act of worship. A survey of the Psalm types also shows that these texts speak to the whole range of human experience.

A final aspect of the study of the Psalms calls for our attention- the language of the Psalter. The first noticeable characteristic of the language of the Psalms is that it is poetry. Many of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry are controversial or obscure in translation, but the basic one is not, parallelism.[10]See John I. Durham, “Psalms, ” Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. IV (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), pp. 155ff.; Theodore H. Robinson, The Poetry of the Old Testament (London: Duckworth, 1947); G. Buchanan Gray, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915). Hebrew poetry generally consists of lines which are parallel in thought. There are various kinds of parallelism, but mention of three major types may be helpful. First is synonymous parallelism in which the same thought is given in different words:

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain? (Ps. 2:1)

What is man that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man that thou does care for him? (Ps. 8:4)

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

Antithetic parallelism is also found in the Psalms. Here the second line gives the antithesis of the first, the” other side of the coin” as the two lines together comprise the full thought:

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Ps. 1:6)

For the wicked shall be cut off;
but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land. (Ps. 37:9)

A third type of parallelism is called synthetic or formal parallelism in which the second line takes the reader one step further in the thought. This type is sometimes called stair-step parallelism.

For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods. (Ps. 95:3)

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps. 107:1)

Parallelism is important in interpretation and proclamation because it makes clear that in the Psalms there is no distinct exegetical or homiletical point in each line of poetry. Each line is attached to its parallel and considered along with it. There is only one thought and we need to consider it as a whole.

The other major component in understanding the language of the Psalter is its relationship to worship. Gunkel began to emphasize this and it was underscored by Mowinckel. He saw that the language of worship was the language of drama. Worship dramatizes for the congregation God’s redemptive acts as well as his presence; images and metaphors are the means of communication. For example, the metaphor of the pit is used in the Psalms to describe a crisis at hand (Pss. 28:1; 30:3, 9; 40:2, 88:4-6).[11]See Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (Winona, Minnesota: Saint Mary’s Press, 1982), pp. 39ff. A helpful source on the general nature of metaphorical language is Phyllis Trible, God and The Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978). We know that a person can actually be put in a pit and denied what is necessary for life. The person is lifeless, without power. Thus the image of the pit, that dark, discouraging, deathly image, is used to speak of contexts in which a person is powerless, cut off from God and/or community, in anguish, hopeless. The question for us then becomes”Where do people encounter the pit today?” We think of loneliness, oppression, depression, abandonment. How do these texts speak of God’s relating to human beings in such crises?

Another important image in the Psalms is safety under the wings, the protective wings of God (Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4). Little birds are safe under the protective wings of the mother and so this maternal image speaks of safety, tenderness, nurture, well-being, and communion with God.[12]The wings of the cherubim over the ark of the covenant may also be in the background of this image. God gives refuge; where does this happen today in the lives of the community of faith? Encounters with community, hope, God as the source of life provide starting places. Such images as the pit and the protective wings of God become the means for psalm language to interact with contemporary community life. Thus the Psalms are not to be read as we read historical narrative or prose but as the poetry of prayer and worship. The language of the Psalter is not the rigid, literalistic language of science, business, or dry and precise research. It is rather the language of image and metaphor as it speaks of life and God’s relation to it.[13]See Bernhard W. Anderson, The Living Word of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979). This is important for interpretation and proclamation.

Before proclaiming the Psalms we need to understand them. Central to this task is the reality that the Psalms are at home in the worship of the community of ancient Israel, a worship which pervaded and was central to life in every way. We find the vehicle for the contemporary communication of the power and intent of these texts in images and metaphors of their poetic language.


Studying the Psalms

We now can note some of the practical implications of understanding the Psalms as we prepare to study this book ourselves. One of the first difficulties in studying the Book of Psalms is organizing the material. The classification of the Psalms into types (hymns, laments, wisdom psalms, for example) can be a great help here and is probably the best place to begin when thinking about how to study the Psalms.[14]See Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 173ff.; A. A. Anderson, Psalms, vol. l, PP·.29ff.; George Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), pp. 285ff. One problem with this methodology is the depression which may come with reading all the laments as a group. This task needs to be accomplished in modest doses.

An important implication of this methodology is that we need to study all the types of psalms. It is important not to censor the difficult ones. The New Testament speaks of the early church as singing hymns (Mk. 14:26), and Paul admonishes the Colossians,”Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19). The New Testament also quotes from a variety of psalms and thus there is clear scriptural warrant for using and studying the whole of the Psalter and not just favorite or”uplifting” parts of it. What is more, we need to realize that proclamation- if it is truly biblical-like the Psalter, will relate to all of life. A congregation will run the gamut in life experience and thus we need to utilize all kinds of biblical texts in contextualizing the gospel for the congregation. Proclamation has as its context worship, and people bring their lives with them to worship. The point of liturgy is to facilitate the encounter with God which brings renewal for the living of life beyond the worship experience in whatever human condition. Thus it is important to study and proclaim all the types of psalms.

For example, Psalm 88 seems despairing but it may well give form to expressions of grief in the lives of per­ sons and enable them to move beyond that experience. Psalm 109 is shocking but again may honestly express the views of persons in the dialogue of faith, views we need to deal with constructively. Psalm 150 is a joyful expression of praise and adoration in the midst of excitement. This is a vibrant part of life. Psalm 30 narrates the experience of deliverance from a major crisis. People need to express such thanksgiving or be encouraged in the midst of crises by genuine words of thanksgiving from those who have been delivered. Psalm 95 provides an important prophetic warning in the midst of the praise of God.[15]Psalm 95 provides a good illustration of help gained from atten­tion to the structure of a psalm. The psalm begins (vv. 1-5) with a univer­sal call to praise in the temple court. The reason for praise is that God creates. Vv. 6, 7 speak a second call to praise in the sanctuary based on God’s redemptive acts. Creation and covenant theology are combined. A prophetic call to enactment of that faith follows (vv. 7c-11). Psalm 1 speaks of the need to choose between the lifestyle of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Psalm 72 is a prayer that the king might live a just life in his position of power. This emphasis on social justice is often lacking in our congregations. All of these concerns are a part of life and a part of the book of Psalms. We need to study the Psalms by their types and to study all the types. It is easy to become unbalanced and ignore certain kinds of psalms; such censorship is neither honest biblical interpretation nor is it helpful to our congregations.

A second suggestion for studying the Psalms has to do with the language of these texts. Their poetry is eloquent and a study of its rhetoric will often bring clarity to its intent or message. We can begin this by asking four questions: 1) What words (or their synonyms) are used repeatedly? 2) What traditional words from Israel’s faith are used (e.g.,”righteousness,”“steadfast love,”“covenant,”)? 3) What metaphors does the psalm use? 4) How are the divine names used? Then we can look for the turning points in a psalm and have a greater help in understanding its intent.[16]This methodology assumes a translation of the Old Testament which is consistent in its Hebrew renderings.

To illustrate, let us look at Psalm 145, a hymn and alphabetic acrostic. The psalm begins with a general statement of praise for the Creator (vv. 1-7). In the first verse we meet the governing metaphor for the whole poem, God as King. As the King he is the One who does fearful acts, beyond our imaginings. Note in vv. 4ff. the synonyms for God’s mighty acts: thy works, thy mighty acts, thy majesty, thy wondrous works, thy terrible acts, thy greatness, thy abundant goodness, thy righteousness. These words reflect an essential part of the faith tradition of ancient Israel, a part which centers on the fearful deliverance from Egypt. This is emphasized in the interlude in VY. 8-9 which gives one of Israel’s central affirmations of faith (cf. Exod. 34:6f.). Vv. 10-13 continue the metaphor of God as King; of his glorious Kingdom there is no end. The last section of the psalm uses the Lord’s name repeatedly (cf. VY. Sf.) and describes God’s grace and compassion. Note also the repeated use of”all” (vv. 9, 13-21); this is a universal statement. God provides (vv. 15f.) for young and old. The psalm then is an eloquent expression of praise to the King who provides and is compassionate and merciful to his people. Vv. 1-7 and 10-13a praise the King, the Great Actor and vv. 8, 9 and 13b-21 see the implications of that in terms of compassion and provision for the people; God is a benevolent King. However, notice v. 20b: “but all the wicked he will destroy.” There is still an ethical dimension. God is with the righteous but opposes the wicked and unjust. Psalm 145 inculates trust in the righteous King, the One who gives abundant life to his people. A study of the psalm’s rhetoric gives focus to its intent.

A third suggestion for studying the Psalms is to compose psalms based on the biblical models.[17]See Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 71f.; Leslie F. Brandt, Psalms/Now (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1973). This creative use of time will move us into the world of psalms, enable us to sense the full implications of a text, and help us envision how a congregation might experience a text. How does this psalm function for the community? We must deal with this question if we are to impart the life of a text to a congregation.

This concern leads to the fourth suggestion for studying the Psalms. As we are studying the Psalms we constantly need to be aware of how they relate to life. There must be interaction between text and contemporary life as the community lives it. This means that our preaching and teaching of the Psalms are not done as dry abstractions or as theoretical comments about the texts. Rather, they actively involve the people in the congregation. Do not just lecture on a psalm; enable people to enter the world of the psalm and participate in it. This process helps the psalm come to life.

Walter Brueggemann writes candidly:[18]Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 19.

. . . it is the experiences of life which lie beyond our conventional copings which make us eloquent and passionate and which drive us to speak to the Holy One. And it is experiences beyond conventional orientations which come to vivid expression in the Psalms. That is what we mean by “all sorts and conditions of men” and women-that we have to do here with powerful, dangerous, and joyful rawness of human reality. And in the Psalms, we find the voice that dares to speak of these matters with eloquence and passion to the Holy One. Psalms offer speech when life has gone beyond our frail efforts to control.

It is when we allow ourselves to claim our humanity that we take the Psalms most seriously, and it is in the midst of such humanness that the power of the psalms is most profound. If we want to see the real impact of these texts and allow their gospel intent to grip us, then we will engage in the dialogue between the Psalms and our human condition.

One final suggestion for studying the Psalms is in order. To be fully prepared to proclaim the Psalms we need to be engaged in a steady diet of reading. First we need to read the Psalms often. Attention to the Hebrew text is helpful, but at least we need to read several different translations; this is primary. We also need to be reading the scholarly and popular literature on the subject. Such reading stimulates and facilitates our understanding of the Psalms. It also helps with the task of relating text and congregation. This final suggestion is a centerpiece for understanding and studying the Psalms.


The Task of Proclamation

Up to this point we have used the word proclamation in a rather broad sense to include both preaching and teaching. It is necessary to do both preaching and teaching of the Psalms. We cannot do everything we need to in the preaching setting; there are many things which need more time and discussion and dialogue than is possible in that setting. Thus significant time in teaching as well as preaching is essential for the proclaimer of the Psalms and for the congregation which reaps the benefits of these majestic texts. An important part of our teaching of the Psalms needs to be the equipping of the congregation to read these texts with the greatest benefit. When we help the congregation with this and are about teaching the Psalms in a variety of settings, it will bring depth and understanding and background and benefit to our preaching. Our proclamation of the Psalms includes both preaching and teaching. Only when we use both settings can we begin to do justice to the breadth of the texts before us.

Our task of proclaiming the scripture is a bifocal one-the proclamation begins with the text and the text is in dialogue with contemporary people and the con­ temporary world. If the text does not enter that dialogue, proclamation has not been fully accomplished. If the dialogue does not encounter the reality of the text, it is not really biblical. Both historical meaning of the text and dialogue with the present are included in biblical proclamation.

This description of the task is equally true in relation to the Psalms. To illustrate, we have already mentioned the psalmic metaphor of the pit. The proclaimer of the text asks how this deathly image is used in the Psalms. How did it function in the community of ancient Israel? This helps give a historical mooring to exegesis and hermeneutics. Otherwise, the danger of making the text say what we want it to say can overpower. Then the interpreter asks,” How do people encounter the pit today? How does the text function now?” This brings the text into dialogue with life. Another image found in the Psalter is the constricting, strangling, closing in, binding about of a person who is in trouble. Deliverance from such a crisis is then described as God’s bringing the worshipper to a broad and open place, to freedom from the bonds (Pss. 22:12; 31:7, 8; 42:7; 88:8). How did this image function in ancient Israel? To what intention and purpose was it directed? Then we ask how the congregation today experiences this bondage, imprisoned with no escape, and how we proclaim the gospel of deliverance to a broad place in such settings. God is often praised as Creator in the Psalms. What did such texts do and want their readers to do in ancient Israel? What was their historical impact? What does the belief in God as Creator say to people today? What is its proclamation for us? The community laments speak of great crises for the people of God. Psalm 137 poignantly and brutally speaks of the fall of Jerusalem, Zion, and the Temple. What were the significance and implications of this in ancient Israel? Is there a comparable community crisis in our world? Could it be the demise of Western hegemony and American domination of the world? How do these texts proclaim the hard gospel to such a reality? We deal with the texts as an exegete and interpreter and also with contemporary life as an interpreter and citizen of our world. We are called as biblical interpreters to exegete the text and the congregation. We proclaim with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The task of proclaiming the Psalms is to ask what the text says and how it dialogues with the present. The task is bifocal, dealing with the historical sense of the text and its impact for contemporary people in a different world. Thus we bring all the tools we have to help with this task.

Now to a more specific word about preaching. Recently a number of homileticians have described preaching as narrative or story.[19]See Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980); Edmund A. Steimle, Morris J. Niedenthal and Charles L. Rice, Preaching the Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980). Preaching may also be described as the interpretation of reality from the biblical perspective- see Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962)-a word of judgment and mercy which issues in fruitfulness. In this last definition we need to distinguish between judgment and condemnation. Biblical proclamation of judgment has the positive purpose of bringing people back to the fullness of life God offers. This means that the task of preaching is not to draw lessons from a text or to moralize or spiritualize. Rather, the task is to proclaim the gospel in a form that is understandable and that can be appropriated by the congregation. The prime form for such proclamation is narrative or story, the expression of real life.[20]This perspective means that the primary task of a sermon is not to explain the text; it also further speaks to the importance of teaching, as well as preaching, the Psalms. We need to see that the narrative style of preaching is not simply the telling of stories. Rather it takes serious­ly the bifocal nature of proclamation and especially its relation to the life of the congregation. The sermon is not ideas or arguments (as in a courtroom). It is scenes and movements; it presents a plot with concreteness with which the congregation can identify. The biblical understanding of worship emphasizes its drama and active participa­tion by the congregation. Preaching can facilitate that involvement as the people relate preaching to life. This reality provides part of the ra­tionale for emphasis on the images and metaphors of the Psalms. Help in this type of narrative preaching may be found in patterning the ser­mon after the structure of the biblical text. See Don M. Wardlaw, ed. Preaching Biblically (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983). There are two major reasons for this. First, this is how people live and how most people think about life. If the gospel is to be heard the proclaimer needs to keep this reality in mind. Second, this is the way the Bible does it. The Bible is a web of narratives which proclaim the gospel of God’s activity and presence with people in real life.[21]For example, the patriarchal narratives, the Exodus story, the David story, narratives about Elijah, gospel narratives. See Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 36ff.; W. Lee Humphreys, Crisis and Story (Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing, 1979), pp. 1ff.

If preaching at its best is narrative then part of the task in preaching psalmic poetry is translating it to life story. This is not always easy. Psalm 150 is not a narrative, but it can be expressed as a narrative plot creatively relating praise to life. The sermon illustration is central in this task; it is not ”filler.” Rather, illustrations provide the most likely opportunity for people to process the proclamation. It is the illustrations which the congregation will remember. Psalm 19 speaks of God as Creator and Guide. Its proclamation can creatively also tell the story of the response to and celebration of that Creator and Guide by people today. Effective communication of the Psalms translates the text to a ”story-line” people can enter. This enables them to enter the world of the text and make the gospel of the text available to them. Psalm 2 told a story about authority in ancient Israel. It can also tell a story of the impact of authority, human and divine, on persons and communities today.

Probably the best place to begin to think about this translation of the text to narrative form is with the laments and songs of thanksgiving because they already tell a story. Take Psalm 30 as an illustration. This is a psalm of thanksgiving which narrates the crisis and deliverance of a worshipper.[22]See Westerman, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, pp 102ff.; Claus Westermann, The Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980), pp. 73ff. The psalm states its purpose of praise and then recounts the experience in the pit. The crisis relates to the sin of presumption. The worshipper was at the top of the world and of his profession and career when suddenly he was thrust into deep darkness. He then pled with God for deliverance as a part of the honest dialogue of faith and there was in­ deed light and hope at the end of the tunnel. God delivered, turning his mourning into dancing, and he now gives thanks for this deliverance by narrating his story and praising God with thanksgiving in the midst of the congregation. People in congregations have had this same experience and can identify with its narration for the community. Others are still in the pit and can use the encouragement of the worshipping community and the gospel of hope and thanksgiving for what lies beyond the pit. The narrative of the text effectively proclaims the gospel. The task of proclamation is to retell the story of the text, a retelling which is constantly in dialogue with the narratives of the congregation.

In sum, we have said that the effective proclamation of the Psalms includes both preaching and teaching. It narrates the story of the text in such a way that the congregation feels its impact. The best proclamation of the Psalm is bifocal, taking the plot of the text as determinative and communicating that plot skillfully to con­ temporary life. This approach is necessary if our proclamation is to be both biblical and effective. There is a pressing need for this kind of proclamation because it enables our congregations to encounter the power of the Psalms and the life which they give.


Themes for Proclamation

In order to facilitate the task of proclamation we now delineate seven themes found in the Psalms. The list represents a more synthetic view of the Psalter and is by no means exhaustive. However, we hope it will stimulate some possibilities for preaching and teaching the Psalms.

I. Worship. The Psalms are central for any truly biblical description of worship. We spend hours worshipping and preparing for worship but give little time to proclamation on the subject, proclamation which is needed in our congregations. In the Psalms worship is not so much a human activity as a part of God’s presence and activity. Worship begins not with human action but divine action. In worship we celebrate the redemptive acts of God and his presence, culminating in Jesus Christ, in order to make these realities alive and powerful for the congregation. The purpose of worship is renewal for the living of life; then we can offer back to God the life he gives us. Worship is not passive but active. The Psalter makes it clear that the members of the congregation are active in worship; they are the worship­pers. Every aspect of worship-praise, confession, proclamation, commitment-is mentioned in the Psalms. The following psalms are good bases for proclamation on worship: Psalms 15; 24; 48; 68; 84; 95; 105. Psalm 105 furnishes a good example. This psalm is a hymn of praise, as are most of those listed. The call to praise is to call us to ”re-member” (re-live, re-experience, actualize) God’s wonderful works for his people. The psalm then recounts the salvation history of ancient Israel from Abraham through entry into Canaan, the promised land. With this rehearsal, the power of these redemptive acts is unleashed for the congregation of the present; the same God still delivers. Worship today is still such a dramatic rehearsal of God’s mighty acts.

II. Praise. Several hymns of praise provide good texts for proclamation on this subject: Psalms 98; 100; 117; 122; 134; 149; 150. There is a clearly discernible structure to these psalms of praise.[23]See Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 99ff.; John H. Hayes, Understanding the Psalms (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1976), 21ff.; A. A. Anderson, Psalms, vol. I, pp. 32ff. They begin with a call to praise and then in various ways give reasons for praising God. The conclusion is often a renewed call for praise. This structure has several important implications. Notice that the nature of praise consists in enumerating the reasons for praise: God creates; God delivers; God gives life and law (instruction leading to life); God is praised when his redemptive acts are recounted and the experience of his presence is narrated. In addition notice that the praise of God in the Psalms is always a substantive praise. It is not a frothy, superficial, shallow sound, but a deep resonant sound and word, always with a reason behind it. The Psalms brim with enthusiasm for God and excitement in praising him, and always for substantial reasons. Psalm 117, the shortest of the Psalms, will illustrate the point. It begins with a universal call to praise. The reason for the praise is the Lord’s loyalty and steadfastness toward his people. He has shown himself to be trustworthy; he delivers. This praise offered to the God who acts bears enthusiastic witness to his work in the world.[24]See Thomas H. Traeger, Rage! Reflect. Rejoice! (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 80ff.; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc..,   1958), pp. 90ff. The Old Testament exhibits a spirituality of great depth. Finally, the Psalter makes clear that praise is honest. This leads to the next theme for proclamation.

III. Pain. A number of lament psalms speak of and to the reality of pain: Psalms 7; 22; 27; 88; 109; 120. Pain is a part of life and the Psalms call us to claim that. In many ways we live in a pain-denying culture, and so an important part of ministry is the public claiming and expressing of pain in ways which facilitate the gospel’s speaking to it so that people and communities are helped in dealing with it constructively. The Psalms give form to our expressions of grief and pain.[25]See Walter Brueggemann, “The Formfulness of Grief,” Interpretation 31 (1977): 263ff. They enable us to express our pain, and praise, in prayer when we are not able to do that by ourselves, in ways far beyond our imagination or creativity. Psalm 88 will illustrate power­ fully. The worshipper is in the grips of the power of death and describes his sojourn in the pit. Only his God can help and he desperately cries to him. He is forsaken, forgotten, shut in, alienated, and afflicted. He is surrounded by death. There may be no greater expression of pain than this psalm. The biblical view is that only when such pain is claimed can a new song be sung to God and a new orientation to life be encountered. Proclamation of such a psalm can initiate that kind of pilgrimage.

IV. Hope. The anticipation of God’s presence and deliverance- hope-is present in various types of prayers in the Psalter. It infuses the present and brings possibilities for the future. God is at work-directly, through persons, enabling people to endure. God is at work; this reality enables hope. It is interesting that some of the most hopeful places in the Psalter are the lament psalms, those prayed in the midst of crises. Nearly all of them come to some kind of hopeful conclusion and affirm with confidence and certainty that God hears the prayer and is present and active.[26]See Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, especially pp. 52ff. and 64ff.; Westermann, Psalms, pp. 31ff., 55ff. This engenders hope for the worshipper(s). The following are good texts for the proclamation of a word of hope: Psalms 6; 8; 11; 42/43; 57; 61; 130; 139. Psalm 6 narrates hope interrupting despair. The worshipper is sick and facing death and enemies. He pleads for life and receives it (vv. 8-10). She is assured of the presence of the Promiser. Hope invades the pain of the present. Psalm 130 is a powerful expression “out of the depths.” The cry is for forgiveness, for a powerful and benevolent Presence. The worshipper yearns for God and then himself encourages the congregation to hope in God because he delivers.[27]See Kyle M. Yates, Preaching From the Psalms (New York: Harper& Row, Publishers, 1984), pp. I06ff. on the significance of the presence of God in relation to the pit. See Traeger, Rage! Reflect. Rejoice! pp. 29ff. on the reality of hope. What great testimonies to our shared tradition of hope and what a desperately needed word in our world!

V. Justice. This theme has often been neglected in the Psalter but it is present here, as in other biblical books.[28]See Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, chapters 4 and 5. The Psalms often cry out under the weight of oppression, and God shows himself to be on the side of the oppressed. Many of the Psalms speak passionately against oppression and for social justice. We have tended to so “spiritualize” them that we have often missed this central web of narratives. Old Testament scholars have come to see that there is much of the ”prophetic” in the Psalter, a significant strand emphasizing social ethics and the intertwining of worship and ethics in life. Psalms 17; 26; 36; 72; 74 proclaim this. Psalm 17 is a plea of a person who is falsely accused. The worshipper seeks justice from God and his fellows. She protests her innocence of the crime of which she is accused. He seeks acquittal and justice and receives it at the expense of his accusers and oppressors. God resists oppression. Psalm 26 reflects a similar setting. The person or community of integrity is vindicated by God. The proclamation of justice from the Psalms relates to specific con­ texts and calls for ethical action by persons of faith. Such action is part of our witness in the world.

VI. Community. We are so individualistic that we often miss the fact that, in the biblical revelation, life is not found alone but in community. Life is always understood as in relationship with God as a part of his community; life issues in wholeness, health, and completeness. Death as a power is anything which diminishes the fullness of life in community. Communities face the decision between two paths, the path of life with the Giver of life or the path of death in denial of the Life­ giver. Many psalms suggest the importance of community: Psalms 1; 2; 3; 12; 14; 133. The first two psalms form a kind of introduction to the Psalter. Psalm 1 speaks of the decision between evil and righteousness for the individual and an important part of that decision is which community he/she embraces (vv. 1, 5). The community of worshippers is the context for life-making decisions.[29]See Yates, Preaching From the Psalms, pp. 115ff. on the structure of the text. Psalm 2 presents the same decision for communities. Will they rebel against the Giver of life (vv. 1-3) or take refuge in him (vv. 10, 11)? God and his king have authority and use it to bestow life for the com­munity in relationship with the Promiser.[30]See Ibid., pp. 125ff. on God’s providence and leadership.

VII. Providence. The Psalms bear witness to God’s provision for his people in many ways. The kings gave them leadership and the prophets reminded them of true faith in God. God created the world for persons to enjoy and appreciate. He provided instruction in living life fully (law). Another important aspect of his providence is the redemptive acts he has performed for his people; God is present and delivers. This theme is illustrated in Psalms 20; 21; 67; 124; 126; 136. Psalms 20 and 21 are Royal Psalms. Psalm 20 is a prayer that God will pro­vide for the king in the forthcoming battle. It is a prayer for providence and expresses confidence in that reality (vv. 6-8). Psalm 21 gives thanks to God for the expression of providence to the king who represents the people of God. The king’s victory is through the providence of God. Congregations yearn to enter the narrative of God’s provision for people, a narrative to which the Psalms fully bear witness.

We have attempted to conceptualize some of the many themes for proclamation in the Psalter. It is the task of the creative interpreter and proclaimer to narrate these texts in scenes which give concreteness to the gospel of God’s meeting persons and communities in our world at the point of their greatest need. We hope that the themes described will stimulate such a worth­ while effort as well as provide some initial guidance in the task. Hopefully we have shown that the Psalms are powerful, vibrant, living texts speaking the gospel to human hearts.[31]For helpful examples, see Traeger, Rage! Reflect. Rejoice!; Yates, Preaching From the Psalms; Donald Macleod, “Preaching From the Psalms,” Biblical Preaching, ed. James W. Cox (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), pp. 102ff.; Claus Westermann, “From the Old Testament Text to the Sermon,” Review and Expositor, 72, 1975, pp. 169ff.;Bruce C. Birch “Homiletical Resources: The Psalter as Preaching Text,” Quarterly Review 1, 1981, pp. 61ff.; Leonard Griffith, God in Man’s Experiences (Waco: Word Books, 1968).



The Psalms exhibit much promise for the proclamation of the gospel. Their setting is the community of faith, and they speak of pain, hope, and justice in our relationships with God and other persons. The Psalms both speak for and to the worshipping community with great honesty, style, and drama by way of striking metaphors and images. Attention to such rhetorical devices-in their setting in ancient Israel-can become the means for the effective proclamation of these texts in our day. In addition attention to the structure of a psalm may provide important clues for structuring with clarity our proclamation of the psalm’s gospel narrative. We have also emphasized the need to study all types of psalms. Only then will our proclamation relate to the whole of life and be true to our biblical heritage.

We are called to proclaim the Psalms for the life of the community of faith. Why do we study the Psalms? Because Israel knew how to come into the presence of God and she knew how to behave when she got there. Would that we all could learn and also proclaim.” Let the words of my mouth. . . . ”



The following bibliography is in no sense exhaustive but hopefully gives some starting places for further study of the Psalms.[32]See Dr. Ralph Smith’s article in this issue for a list of commentaries.

Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1983.

Barth, Christoph. Introduction to the Psalms. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966.

Brueggemann, Walter. Praying the Psalms. Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 1982.

Clements, Ronald. One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpre­tation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Goldingay, John. Songs From a Strange Land. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Gunkel, Hermann. The Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967. Guthrie, Harvey H. Israel’s Sacred Songs. New York: Seabury Press, 1978.

              . Theology as Thanksgiving. New York: Seabury Press, 1981.

Hayes, John. Understanding the Psalms. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1976.

Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958.

Marty, Martin. A Cry of   Absence. New   York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983.

Mowinckel, Sigmund. The Psalms in Israel’s Worship. 2 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962.

Paterson, John. The Praises of Israel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.

Ringgren, Helmer. The Faith of the Psalmist. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.

Rowley, H. H. Worship in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms and Their Meaning for Today. Indiana­polis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.

Traeger, Thomas H. Rage! Reflect. Rejoice! Philadelphia: West­ minster   Press, 1977.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981.

                  . The Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980.

Yates, Kyle M. Preaching from the Psalms. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1948.


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