Preaching the Psalms, Part 3—Preaching the Genres

A third way of preaching the psalms is to preach the theology and faith practices of the various psalm genres–the laments (prayer for help), the hymns, the songs of thanksgiving, the instructional psalms (wisdom psalms), the historical psalms, the royal psalms, and the trust psalms.

These various genres come with their own theological commitments and their particular faith practices. The genres in themselves have something to teach us, and thus are “texts waiting to be preached.”

Before I go any further, let me prevaricate. I hesitate to write this essay, because form criticism–the approach to the psalms that focuses on the different forms of the psalms–has tended to limit the imagination of interpreters. Form criticism sinned against interpretive imagination by acting like a mighty hermeneutical road grater–smoothing out the high places and filling in the low places–plowing over the one hundred fifty unique psalms and leveling them into essentially seven psalms–one lament, one hymn of praise, one song of thanksgiving, one instructional psalm, one historical psalm, one royal psalm, and one trust psalm. And although seven is the biblical number of perfection, in this case, the number one hundred fifty is greatly to be preferred. Because of this limiting tendency of form criticism, the late, great Old Testament scholar Michael O’Connor once asked me, “Now, what was it again that was good about form criticism?”

So this word of warning–go ahead and preach the value, theology and faith practices inherent in each genre of the psalms. But if you find yourself only doing that, arise and go and burn all your form criticism textbooks. Having said that….

There is a preachable, teachable moment in each genre. Here is a quick stab at naming those moments in just a couple of the genres.

1. The Hymn of Praise
Classic examples are the hymn of Psalms 113, 100, or 93. The pattern of the hymn is a basically:

1. A call to praise (“Praise the Lord!”)
2. Reasons for praise (“For….”), and
3. A closing call to praise.

But why do we praise God? Not because God needs our praise! Praise is not given to God in order to flatter or please God. Rather, we do so for at least two reasons. First, because we need to give it away. When we give our praise to God, we confess our faith. We say, “You are the Lord of our lives–and we are not our own lords.” Praise names God as the faithful one, and admits that we are not. Second, we praise because our neighbors need to know God. When we praise God, we bear testimony to what God is about, so that others will “know that the Lord is God” (100:3).

2. The Prayer for Help (lament)
Classic laments are found in Psalms 13 and 22 (individual laments), and 44 and 60 (communal laments). In the lament, the speaker complains, asks God for help, and usually also expresses trust and promises to continue to praise God. The lament is a form of speech that has largely been lost in our society where people are not at home with complaining to God–even at times accusing God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). But the Bible teaches that a relationship with God in this fallen world is a relationship that can (perhaps must?) include such accusations and laments. God knows we live in the midst of brokenness, sin, suffering, and doubt. Those realities are part of our relationship with God. Admitting them to God, carrying them to God in prayer, is not to show lack of faith, but to participate fully in a faith relationship with God. God is more than faithful enough to accept a good bit of doubt, lament, and anger from us. And if you don’t feel angry or doubtful yourself, feel free to pray such a prayer on behalf of your starving, suffering, lonely, abused, imprisoned neighbor.

3. The Song of Thanksgiving
Classic songs of thanksgiving are found in Psalms 30 and 40 (individual) and 107 (communal). These are the songs of people who have experienced God’s help in a time of crisis and now sing praise in response to God’s help. These songs differ a little from the hymn of praise because the hymn praises God more generally for God’s overall faithfulness, whereas the song of thanksgiving gets down and dirty, thanking and praising God for a specific experience of God’s faithfulness. The preachable moment of the song of thanksgiving is similar to the hymn, and everything that was said above goes here. But in addition, the song of thanksgiving names God as an active presence in the world. It gets particular. It says, “Right here, right now, God is working salvation, God is restoring life, God is rescuing the downtrodden.” The secular world is at times able to grant that God may exist, but it doesn’t account for God in the everyday. It says, “Sure there is a spiritual realm, but that realm is for Sunday mornings; it doesn’t impact my every day life.” The song of thanks says, “God is not a God who watches from a distance (Sorry, Bette Midler), God is as near as your next breath.”

4. The Instructional Psalm
The classic instructional poem is Psalm 1. It teaches that all the psalms are instruction–in how to pray, praise, and live. The psalm teaches that the psalms are “the way of the righteous.” These psalms, which also include poems such as Psalms 41 and 73, are colored by Israel’s wisdom tradition. They teach us that our sight and the things that we are able to see in our daily experience of life are not the whole picture. They teach us that there is a bigger picture, one in which the faithful Lord of Israel is the only factor that ultimately matters. The wicked don’t matter in the ultimate sense, the evil-doers don’t, and neither do those who get rich and prosper in this life. God matters, ultimately.

5. The Historical Psalms
These psalms include 78, 105, and 106. But they aren’t just about dry facts, old events, or a past that is just an archive. The historical psalms aren’t really about history, they are about God. They teach us that our story is part of God’s story. They teach us that our story matters precisely because God has grafted our story into Israel’s story, and Israel’s story was always the story of God’s faithfulness–God forgiving the people, God proving faithful in spite of the people’s stiff-necked stubbornness, God using the people as key instruments and as part of God’s mission to love, save, bless and rescue the whole of creation. Who are we? We are God’s, and we are part of God’s mission.

6. The Royal Psalms
Here is a riddle for you. Israel’s last Davidic king was rather unkindly removed from the throne of David in 586 BCE. So, why did the Book of Psalms, which was not fully collected until right before the time of Jesus, include so many royal psalms (such as 2, 45, 72, 89, 110, and 132)? Why, when there were no kings, did the editors of the Psalter retain these poems about the kings? Perhaps the answer is that the kings of Israel were like unto what we would call “means of grace” in Christian theology. They were the particular, incarnate, down-to-earth means through which God proved faithful and gracious to Israel. And even more than that–the psalms were included in the Psalter because God promised to send the perfect Davidic descendant in the future, who would restore God’s reign in Israel. The royal psalms were included as a sign of hope, that God would keep the promise. And Christians confess that this promise was kept when a child was born in a Bethlehem stall, when that child was later crucified on a hill outside of Jerusalem, and most of all when some faithful women discovered an empty tomb.

7. The Trust Psalms
A final type of psalm to be mentioned here is the psalm of trust, notable examples of which are 23, 27 and 46. The poem of trust names things. First, it names the realities of the world that threaten, including the:

  • “Darkest valley” and “enemies” of Psalm 23
  • “Evildoers” and “army [encamping] against me” of Psalm 27
  • Shaking mountains, roaring and foaming waters, and uproarious nations of Psalm 46.

Second, these psalms do something absolutely amazing. In the very midst of the threats posed by the forces already named, these psalms express trust in God. These psalms are not idyllic, serene poems of abstract trust. They are confident poems of trust that are spoken right in the middle of the whirring bullets of war, the shaking walls of the earthquake, the looming door-knock of the foreclosing bank. Trust is only trust when there is something real threatening. God’s promise that we belong to God and nothing can separate us from God’s love creates faith in us precisely as we walk the darkest valleys.

There are other psalm forms, too, including the:

  • Enthronement psalms that name God as king (47, 93, 95)
  • Creation psalms that speak of God’s faithfulness in creation (8, 104, 139)
  • Liturgies that speak of entering God’s presence (15, 24)
  • Penitential psalms that ask for forgiveness (6, 51, etc.).

Each of these types of psalms has its own theological assumptions and words to teach us about how to live the life of faith. The people of God are hungering for God, to taste and see with the psalmists, that the Lord is good.