Preaching the Psalms, Part 2—Proclaiming the Metaphors and Images

In the first essay, I wrote about the task of preaching the theological content of a psalm, describing an approach to preaching in which one searches out the central theological witness of a psalm.

That approach focuses on what a psalm says. A second approach to cracking open a psalm is to focus on how a psalm says what it says.

According to William Brown, a respected Old Testament theologian, “The power of Psalms lies first and foremost in its evocative use of language.” To put it another way, the truth of the Psalter’s witness lies not just in what the psalms say. The truth of the Psalter is found equally in how the psalms say what they say. And one of the prominent ways that the Psalter communicates is through metaphor, simile, and imagery.

Even a quick tour through the Psalter’s poems will introduce a reader to a Louvre-like collection of imagery and metaphor. God is rock, refuge, redeemer, fortress, dwelling place, king, shepherd, judge, light, shield, cloud-rider, a chosen portion, an inheritance, a song, strength, a keeper (or guard), a helper, and so on. God “shines forth,” “breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,” prepares a table “in the presence of enemies,” covers “you with his pinions,” and so on. The psalmists describe themselves as being like a worm, an owl, a lonely bird, grass that fades, sheep, a rejected stone, a vine, and so on. The psalmists describe their bodies as melting like wax, dry like a potsherd, a taunt, a scorn, shaking bones, and so on. Those who persecute the psalmist are described as raging bulls, dogs, lions, arrows lying in wait, devouring mouths, pregnant with mischief, a deceitful tongue, a snaring fowler, and so on.

Putting subject, verb, and object together into phrases and sentences, the Psalter overflows with witness: “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (30:5). Or, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (36:9). Or, “How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?” (62:3). Or, “teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart” (90:12). Or, “taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (34:8).

This brief foretaste of the metaphorical and imaginative feast of the Psalter is served up in order to whet preachers’ appetites for rich and evocative language. There is plenty more where that comes from. But the question is, “How does one preach this feast without merely describing it?” Three strategies are suggested here. These three strategies are not mutually exclusive–you do not have to pick one to the exclusion of the others; they can be interrelated.

Strategy 1: The refrain
A first strategy for preaching the imaginative language of the psalms is to create a refrain out of the central metaphor or poetic line of the psalm. In this homiletic approach, a sermon cycles back again and again to a refrain that the preacher repeats, such as, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (30:5b). (Almost any of the above metaphors or examples would work for this strategy.) When such a sermon is well constructed, it builds with each section and with each repetition of the refrain. The refrain becomes like a pressure valve; when it is spoken, building energy is let off.

Strategy 2: Exegetical red thread
A second strategy for preaching the imaginative language of the psalms is to pull on the thread of a metaphor or theme of a psalm and trace it through Scripture, and perhaps beyond. In the spirit of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, the metaphor becomes the rhetorical excuse to preach the biblical story. For example, with the phrase, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning,” one could make either the dialectic between weeping/joy or night/morning the theme, and walk the Bible’s path of tears from Hagar through Esau, from Jacob through Hannah, from David through Peter, and so on. But, of course, the sun also rises on these weeping souls. They cried on their pillows, but the joy of God’s salvation rose for them on the wings of morning.

Strategy 3: Evocative Language
A third strategy to keep in mind when preaching the language of the Psalter is to let the colorful metaphors of the psalms bleed out into the rest of your sermon. The secret to good writing, one wise person used to say, is verbs. In this spirit, my freshman-year composition teacher would only allow us to use the verb “is” twice in an essay. [And please, don’t go back and score this essay according to that standard!] The point that calculating old professor drove home by means of his admittedly wooden standard? Words create, they evoke (they do not merely describe). So make the beautiful and suggestive language of the psalms your own. Do not just preach about them, but preach them so that they rattle around in your paragraphs, so that they echo through your stories.