We get the name “Psalms” from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible: the word psalmos roughly corresponds to the translation of the Hebrew word for “songs.” But what became the Hebrew title for the book which is still used in Jewish Bibles today has a different meaning. It’s the word Tehillim: Praises.
We preachers love to preach from the Gospel. A good letter from Paul makes our souls sing. A decent Old Testament story, like Ruth, Esther, or Jacob offers some nice insights. And I get it; Jesus is what we’re expected to preach on. Preaching on the Old Testament can require some heavy lifting as far as context or even just ancient cultural knowledge. And a Thursday, Friday, or even Saturday evening after a long week of ministry hardly feels like the time to begin that process.
And yet — Praises, friends. What might it do for a tired preacher’s soul to regularly preach from a book called Praises?
If you’ve ever listened to the Sermon Brainwave podcast, you’ve surely heard Dr. Rolf Jacobson’s faithful and persuasive ideas for preaching from the Psalms. In fact, the Rev. Dr. has written no less that three articles for this very website on reasons why and ideas how to preach the Psalms — context! theological center! imagery! refrains! genre! — they’ve got it all. (You should all read these articles from 2008 — they can be found here, here, and here.) In line with and in homage to Dr. Jacobson’s thoughtful meditations, I offer up these three reasons to preach from the Psalms:
First of all, there’s almost no purer Gospel that you will find anywhere in the Bible than in the Psalms — that’s right, you heard that gauntlet hit the ground. No purer Gospel. The psalm coming up in the lectionary for September 9 is a perfect example: Psalm 146:7-10 reads,
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
When have you been a prisoner in your own body, to your own emotions? When have you been blinded to something staring you in the face? When have the burdens of your life bowed you over until your nose was in the dust? When have you loved someone who was intent on choosing wickedness, and your only prayer is for God to destroy not your loved one but the way they keep choosing? And who will bring this all about? The LORD our God! This preaches, baby. This preaches. (Feeling the Spirit pulling you to preach this psalm? See Dr. Esther Menn’s upcoming article here.)
There’s also almost no better place to go for powerfully transformative imagery than the Psalms — ohhh snap! You heard that right! Take the psalm for upcoming September 30 as an example: Psalm 19 is a riff on the power and goodness of the Word of the Lord, and it gets really good at verses 9-10:
9 The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
The Word of God is precious. It adds more value to your life than piles of gold, wallets of credit cards, hoards of bitcoins, because if money can’t buy you love, even less can it buy you truth, that deep truth for which you’re too scared to ask, or that feeling of rightness in your relationships with God and the people you love. And the word of God is sweet; honey dripping right from the honeycomb, powdered sugar dusting a fair funnel cake, white frosting oozing from a deep-fried Oreo. (Can you tell I’m missing my Minnesota State Fair?) Their sweetness lasts but a moment, and leaves you with a sugar hangover; but the Word of God drips into your heart, dusts your body, oozes across your soul, until that sweetness pours out from your very pores. This preaches, y’all! (Want more? See Rolf Jacobson’s upcoming article on Psalm 19 here.)
Finally, the prayers of the psalms are some of the oldest examples we have of the prayers of God’s faithful ones. Over 2,000 years ago these prayers were prayed. Two. Thousand. Years. When we pray these words, we not only learn to pray, we learn to pray with centuries of the saints: those we have never known, those we have loved and lost, even the children who are yet to be born. (Dr. James Mead lifts this up in his article here.) Take Psalm 116:3-9 for September 16 as a perfect example:
3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
6 The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
9 I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
When you take these words into your mouth, they not only are sweeter than honey; they strum a chord which has been echoing across millennia: a trill of hope, a key of pain, a cry at once beautiful and wretched but somehow, altogether, Praise. It is a lifting up with the saints before the Lord the simultaneous bleakness and beauty of this thing we call life.
This preaches, Working Preachers. Offer up the Psalm regularly in your preaching, so that both you and the people you serve may “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).
In Rachel Wrenn’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Notes from the Field,” this pastor and Ph.D. candidate offers a fresh approach to preaching in light of the everyday and the extraordinary.