Commentary on Psalm 19
Preaching on a text about preaching is no small task.1
This is complicated further when it is not a human doing the preaching, but God’s natural creation. Because Psalm 19 tells us more about how to preach than what to preach, the following comments focus on what the preacher can learn from the way nature does its preaching and the ways in which the Psalmist highlights nature’s way of preaching.
The purpose of the heavens’ preaching is to tell the glory of God and proclaim God’s handiwork. To what extent does your preaching tell of God’s glory and proclaim the handiwork of God? Too often preaching becomes (yes, I will say it) boringly didactic. While I would not want to discount the teaching element of preaching, there are times when the purpose of preaching is not for hearers to walk away with new insight. Psalm 19 suggests that the purpose of preaching is for hearers to walk away in awe of God’s majesty. The Psalmist accomplishes this goal by poetically exploring elements in God’s creation — the sun and the law.
Does your preaching employ poetic and, in particular, metaphoric language? Speaking of didactic (hopefully, this will be stimulatingly didactic), let me remind you that a metaphor is “an abridged comparison” which compares two seemingly unrelated things. A metaphor might be used “to fill a semantic lacuna in the lexical code,” or “to ornament discourse and make it more pleasing.”2
While the Psalmist could have used metaphor to ornament discourse, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the first use of metaphor, since the inability to find words for our thoughts might sound strikingly familiar to the preacher. Reading the Psalm through this lens suggests that when we cannot find words to describe God’s magnificence, we might consider allowing creation itself to praise God through its unique ways of expression. When we are compelled to say something, we can employ descriptions of one part of creation to describe the indescribable. “Because we have more ideas than we have words to express them, we have to stretch the significations of those we do have beyond ordinary use.”3 Thus, the Psalmist uses the image of the bridegroom emerging from his wedding canopy and a strong man running his course with joy in order to describe the sun.
You may want to do as the Psalmist does rather than say what the psalmist says. If so, consider the following exercise (as corny and time-consuming as some of you might think this is). Recall your high school creative writing assignment in which you were to take a single orange, explore it, stare at it, live with it — in fact, exegete it. Then you were to describe that orange until all of the descriptive juices are squeezed out of it.
The Psalmist’s object is not an orange, but the sun. Do as the Psalmist did in order to sharpen your poetic writing skills; exegete a part of God’s creation. Whether or not the results of this exercise find their way into your sermon (not all of our exegetical work ever does), you may experience what you want your hearers to experience; that is, the wonder and majesty of God’s creation.
The Psalmist’s second object of exegesis in his creative writing course is God’s law. Note how the Psalmist mimics nature’s way of proclaiming when he poetically speaks of the law. I must admit, I cannot recall the last time I heard a Lutheran sermon (my own included) which addressed the law in a way that was not didactic. Rather than simply giving information about what God’s laws are and why we should follow them, the Psalmist poetically describes the characteristics and importance of God’s law. “More to be desired are [the ordinances of the Lord] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (verse 10).
The Psalmist sees the law as a crucial and beautiful part of creation. The law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and righteous. The law has an effect on us and that effect is good. The law revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes. The challenge set before you is this: address God’s law in your sermon poetically rather than didactically.
A final curiosity about Psalm 19 is actually a curiosity about how we have appropriated one of its verses. Note that the Psalmist’s petition, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (verse 14), is at the end of the Psalm. Why does the Psalmist pray this at the end? More to the point, why has it become common for preachers to begin their sermons with this prayer when the Psalmist ends with it? Consider doing as the Psalmist does and praying these words at the end of your sermon.
Whether or not you choose to focus on it for your sermon, Psalm 19 suggests that a purpose of our preaching is to tell of God’s glory and point to God’s handiwork. Examine your preaching (even sermons which address the foolishness of the cross or Jesus’ exchange with the money changers in the temple) in terms of its ability to create awe in your hearers – that is, not awe in your amazing poetic prowess (though that is part of God’s handiwork too), but awe in God’s amazing majesty.
1 Commentary first published on this site on March 15, 2009.
2 Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 48.