Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

“Praise the Lord.” What more is there to say? “Praise the Lord.” Period.

Simon's mother-in-law, Fen Ditton
"Simon's mother-in-law, Fen Ditton" by Steve Day; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

February 8, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

“Praise the Lord.” What more is there to say? “Praise the Lord.” Period.

The psalmist has offered five ways to proclaim praise to the Lord with the five Hallelujah Psalms that conclude the Psalter. Even within each of these five psalms, the psalmist offers myriad ways to say essentially the same thing: “Praise the Lord for the Lord is worthy to be praised.”

Isn’t this our task as preachers? We proclaim the gospel, the same enduring good news, week after week? This psalm offers homiletical possibilities regarding both content and form for saying the same thing in a number of ways. The former (content) helps us preach about the psalm and the latter (form) helps us preach like the psalmist.

Preaching about the psalm

The focus of Psalm 147 is on God as both the agent of creation and the ongoing active (very active!) agent in the healing of the world. This striking combination is worthy of exploration and emphasis. How amazing it is that the one who is the mighty and powerful creator (verse 5) is also the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (verse 3). The one who determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name (verse 4) is also the one who builds up Jerusalem and gathers the exiles of Israel (verse 2). This incarnational revelation that began at Christmas continues into this season of Epiphany.

Curiously, despite the creative power of this one (verses 8-9), God’s pleasure is not in the usual ways the world expresses power (verse 10). Instead, the Lord delights in those who fear him and who put their hope in his unfailing love (verse 11). Praise the one who possesses such an intriguing and life-giving combination of characteristics.

Another possible way to attend to the content of this psalm in the sermon is by imagining the psalmist’s proclamation in Psalm 147 as a response to Isaiah’s questions (Isaiah 40:21).

  • Have you not known the LORD who gathers the exiles of Israel?
  • Have you not heard that our Lord is great and mighty in power?
  • Has it not been told you that this one’s understanding has no limit?
  • Have you not understood that the Lord covers the sky and supplies the earth?

You too might consider offering a sermon that is a response to Isaiah’s questions. Psalm 147 serves as your guide.

Preaching like the psalmist

The psalmist is a master at using various literary and grammatical devices for saying similar things in multiple ways. For the week-to-week preacher, these are crucial skills to adopt. One literary device (contrast) was explored above. This section offers two additional devices: allusion and mood.

Literary Device: Allusion

An allusion offers a brief reference to something without dwelling on it or “over explaining” the connection. For example, a sermon might refer to the dark places of this world as “valleys of the shadow of death” into which the light of Christ shines so that we might “fear no evil.” Without even naming Psalm 23, most hearers would make the connection. In fact, referring explicitly to Psalm 23 might actually diminish the power of the allusion. The psalmist utilizes this device often. Before reading on, see how many allusions to other texts you identify in Psalm 147.

Compare your list with this one.

  1. The opening and closing “Praise the Lord” point me to the other five Hallel Psalms that close the Psalter. (Reading Psalm 146-150 as one unit might yield some insights.)
  2. The seemingly contrasting claim that God is both mighty creator (Psalm 147:4, 8-9, especially) and pays careful attention to the brokenhearted ( 3), for example, is reminiscent of Psalm 8:3-6.
  3. I cannot help but recall Psalm 133 when I hear: “How good and pleasant it is.” In fact, this phrase resonates with parts of scripture beyond the Psalter as well. Recall Jacob’s foretelling of the blessing of his son, Issachar, who “saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant” (Genesis 49:15). Remember from the Song of Songs 7:7 — “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!” Also, the word “good” alone hearkens back to the creation story itself (Genesis 1:1).
  4. Determining the number of the stars and calling them each by name reminds me again of the creation story (Genesis 1:16) as well as the Lord’s words to Abram accounted later in Genesis, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).

So, beyond considering the content of the psalm, preachers might consider doing as the psalmist does and allude to the psalm or other parts of scripture in the sermon. The preacher might also consider alluding to experiences of the congregation in order to undergird the mandate to “Praise the Lord.”

Grammatical Device: Mood

Paying attention to mood can spark sermonic substance. Notice the absence of the interrogative and conditional in Psalm 147; there are no questions and there are no “what ifs.” This psalmist has something to shout out and does so convincingly. He is not asking for our opinion or expressing wishful thinking. He is not asking questions as Isaiah did; he is answering them! Using the indicative (“The Lord builds Jerusalem”) and imperative (“Sing to the Lord … make music to our God … ”) moods, the Psalmist is proclaiming God’s greatness and encouraging (demanding!) a response.

Review your sermon in terms of grammatical mood. Are you using (overusing?) interrogatives when a biblical text prompts more conviction in proclamation? Are you expressing wishful thinking of possibilities (conditional/subjunctive) when a biblical text urges indicatives that describe the way things are.

The challenge

Take a cue from Psalm 147 in order to preach like the psalmist by using literary and grammatical devices such as contrast, allusion and mood of verb tenses. This challenge may help you offer the worthiest challenge of all to your hearers: “Praise the Lord!”