Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms: Parsons

Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (1990) 169-87

Copyright 1990 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.


Guidelines for Understanding and

Proclaiming the Psalms


Greg W. Parsons

Professor of Biblical Studies

Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary, Jacksonville, Texas


At first glance the Psalms are among the most inviting sections

of the Bible for the preacher because of how well loved and familiar

they are to believers. Yet, though the Psalms are perennial favor-

ites widely read for devotional purposes, for counseling and minister-

ing to the sick, and for public worship, they apparently are rarely

preached or taught.1 Stevenson vividly describes this paradox:

Writers of hymns and makers of sermons are drawn to the psalter as

bees are drawn to a field of clover. The heavenly nectar is there for the

taking-or so it seems at first glance. Nevertheless, what minister has

not been captured by a psalm, only to be defeated and humiliated in

his attempt to turn it into a sermon?2

Donald E. Gowan's book on preaching the Old Testament, Re-

claiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit, has discussions

on every portion of the text except the Psalms. He seeks to justify

this omission by saying they are primarily words addressed to God

rather than oracles from God. He recommends that "we ought to

pray them and sing them rather than preach them." However, he

does recognize that a few psalms are didactic, being addressed to fel-

low human beings, and thus appropriate for preaching.3 Therefore


1 See W. H. Bellinger, Jr., "Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms,"

Southwestern Journal of Theology 27 (Fall 1984): 17; and Ronald Barclay Allen,

Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980), pp. 17-18.

2 Dwight Stevenson, In the Biblical Preacher's Workshop (Nashville: Abingdon

Press, 1967), p. 159.

3 Donald E. Gowan, Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit

(Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), pp. 145-46.


170 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


he offers a few comments on one wisdom psalm.4 Achtemeier states

that some people maintain it is impossible to preach from the


Are the Psalms to be restricted to personal devotions and reading

in public worship? Or is it feasible and proper to preach these won-

derful words? Are there any hermeneutical or homiletical keys to

help unlock this treasure chest of inspirational gems? The present

writer asserts that the answer to the last two questions is yes.

However, anyone wishing to proclaim the Psalter properly en-

counters the general dilemma of how to be true to the biblical text

and yet relevant to modern mankind. As Kaiser has pointed out,

sermons frequently emphasize one of two extremes: a historical re-

counting of the biblical stories with little attempt to show any rela-

tionship to the present; or a dynamic message that speaks to contem-

porary needs, but with little exegetical basis in the biblical text.6

Kaiser has contributed significantly to solving this problem. He in-

cludes a helpful chapter on the use of poetry in expository preach-

ing.7 Patrick Miller cogently argues that the Psalms may occupy the

most advantageous position in the Bible for bridging the "gap be-

tween then and now, the ancient world and the present world."

The present article delineates guidelines for bridging the gap

from exegesis (focusing on the historical) to proclamation (preaching

timeless truths in the present). It presents five hermeneutical ques-


4 Ibid., pp. 106-8.

5 Elizabeth Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," Review and Expositor 81

(Summer 1984): 437.

6 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for

Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), pp. 18-20. Cf.

Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository

Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 25-28. Robinson describes two

extremes: those who prepare the sacred text "as an appetizer to get a sermon under-

way" or as a mere "launching pad for the preacher's own opinions"; and others who

lecture to people about history or archaeology instead of confronting people about

themselves from the Bible or who seek to apply the text but do so inappropriately.

Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, chap. 11, pp. 211-34. Stevenson had pre-

viously made some progress including specific comments on preaching a psalm

(Biblical Preacher's Workshop, pp. 159-77). On the other hand Bellinger has ad-

dressed the matter from both an exegetical and homiletical perspective ("Let the

Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms"). The present writer focuses on these

two perspectives with similar but distinct conclusions.

8 Patrick Miller, Jr., Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986),

p. 22. Briefly his main reasons are as follows: It possesses general familiarity, past

and present, as the historic songbook of Jew and Christian; it addresses God from situ-

ations common to all mankind; it uses images which reflect typical human experience;

it exhibits a rich interaction with the New Testament-being referred to more times

than any other Old Testament book (pp. 22-28).

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 171


tions to ask in approaching the Psalms and makes five suggestions for

proclaiming the Psalter.9 It aims to assist pastors, teachers, stu-

dents, and laypersons who want to understand the Psalms better and

proclaim them more effectively.


Hermeneutical Questions for Approaching the Psalter




Kaiser supplies a beneficial list of 18 psalms with refrains that

indicate stanzas (or strophes).10 To notice readily the refrain, it is

necessary to read the whole psalm at least two or three times in a

good modern version along with a reading in Hebrew if possible. The

classic example is Psalm 42-43, which seems to have formed a single

prayer in the original Hebrew text as seen by its thrice-repeated re-

frain (coupled with the absence of a superscription for Ps. 43). Thus

it consists of three stanzas with an identical refrain.11 Each refrain

combines the dual notes of distress and hope (or trust). In Psalm 42

the lament emphasizes the note of despair but concludes with a note

of distant hope after the prayer of Psalm 43.12 Though the words of

the refrain do not change, with each repetition they take on in-

creased nuances of meaning from intervening stanzas.13

Ideally one should treat an entire psalm in a message (or at least

a whole stanza in a longer psalm such as Psalm 11914). Each psalm

must be read as a literary unit, not atomized into single verses. Be-

sides the presence of a refrain or an alphabetic acrostic, the most ob-

vious criterion for determining strophes is repeated catchwords such

as the reiterated call "Yahweh" ("LORD") or the introductory or fi-


9 These two major aspects are analogous to divisions explored by Bellinger in "Let

the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms."

10 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 214-15. These are as follows: Psalms

39, 42-43, 44, 46, 49, 56, 57, 59, 62, 67, 78, 80, 99, 107, 118, 136, 144, and 145 (with a sub-

stitution of Ps. 118 for Kaiser's 114, the latter being apparently a typographical er-

ror). Psalms 42 and 43 are counted as one psalm because of the internal unity of the re-

frain in 42:5, 11 and 43:5.

11 For a helpful structural analysis, consult Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Bib-

lical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), pp. 325-29, and Bernhard W. An-

derson, Out of the Depths, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), pp. 84-


12 Cf. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, pp. 325-26, 329; and Anderson, Out of the Depths, p. 77.

13 Stevenson, In the Biblical Preacher's Workshop, p. 164.

14 See Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 173; and Robinson, Biblical

Preaching, p. 55.

172 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


nal phrase "Thus says the LORD" or "says the LORD."15 Kaiser cor-

rectly urges caution concerning the occurrence of the enigmatic Selah,

which may sometimes be a structural indicator, though not always.16



In seeking to ascertain the historical setting of a psalm, three

steps should be followed. First, utilize the superscription informa-

tion judiciously. Consider the historical references in the superscrip-

tions as reliable early tradition though not inerrant.17 Regardless of

one's opinion of the superscriptions, Miller suggests two ways in

which they open up possibilities for interpretation. (1) They suggest

a circumstance in which the psalm was appropriate and thus pro-

vide an illustrative clue to interpretation. (2) Attributing certain

psalms to David or some other writer is not merely to give an au-

thor's identity but also to "receive them from the lips and heart of

one who in many respects" was a "representative human being ...

that sort of ambiguous mixture of good and bad, joy and despair, obe-

dience and disobedience, that we all are."18

Second, examine the internal evidence for clues (especially when

the psalm has no historical superscription). For instance Psalm 2

arose out of international turmoil, though the specific situation is not

clear; yet the anonymous historical crisis lends a definite orientation

to the psalm. Yahweh asserted His sovereignty over such circum-

stances (vv. 4-5) and established His anointed as king.19

Third, explore the general historical/cultural backdrop of the

psalm. The best resource here is the vividly illustrated commentary

by Othmar Keel.20


15 Charles F. Kraft, cited in Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 216.

16 Ibid., p. 215.

17 Though many scholars tend to ignore them as late additions to the text, two pieces

of evidence suggest that they may have been quite early additions to the Hebrew text.

(1) The presence of superscriptions in the Septuagint furnishes evidence that many ti-

tles were added long before Hellenistic times, since certain technical terms were

misunderstood by the Greek translators (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Survey of Old Testa-

ment Introduction, rev. ed. [Chicago: Moody Press, 19741, pp. 451-52). (2) Also there

are superscriptions in the extant psalms of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, it is true

that no manuscript is extant for any of the dozen or so psalms in the Masoretic Text

with a specific historical situation in the superscription. (Ct. James A. Sanders, The

Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert [Oxford: Claren-

don Press, 1965]).

18 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 26-27.

19 C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament

(Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 127.

20 Othmar Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconogra-

phy and the Book of Psalms, trans. Timothy J. Hallett (New York: Seabury Press,

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 173



Understanding a psalm may be enhanced by classifying it ac-

cording to function (i.e., form-critical category) and according to con-

tent (such as historical, wisdom, imprecatory, penitential, or mes-

sianic). Since neither classification system is sufficient to encompass

the diversity of the Psalter, both categories should be utilized.21 The

form-critical approach is often helpful but should be used cautiously.

It serves to unlock the basic literary structure of each type (or cate-

gory) of psalm. Anderson's excellent handbook is indispensable for

this process.22 Yet as Allen notes, the form-critical method is a "good

servant but a bad master," since there are individual variations in

the literary patterns.23 Two questions may help classify a psalm

form-critically. Who is speaking? Is it an individual (indicated by

the singular personal pronouns "I," "me," or ''my") speaking about

personal needs, troubles, or joys? Is it the community--or nation--

(indicated by the plural "we" or "us")? Or is it the infrequent occur-

rence of a corporate "I" (an individual such as the king speaking as a

representative of the community or nation as a whole)24 or, perhaps

rarely, even both the individual and the community interacting?25

What is the mood (or emotional orientation)? The Psalter oscil-

lates in a continuum between lament and praise. As Westermann

states, "These are the two basic melodic sounds which, like quiet

echoes, accompany God's actions."26 Is the mood primarily a call to

praise because of God's attributes and actions? Allen says this mes-


1978). To some extent Anderson, Out of the Depths, is also helpful here.

21 Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament, pp. 122-23, 139;

cf. Christoph Barth, Introduction to the Psalms (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,

1966), p. 14.

22 Anderson, Out of the Depths. Though he emphasizes the form-critical approach,

he wisely incorporates both function and content into his categories.

23 The danger is "blurring the individuality of particular psalms as they are judged

in light of hypothetical, generalized ideals" (Leslie Allen, Psalms: Word Biblical

Themes [Waco, TX: Word Books, 19871, p. 17). Cf. Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exe-

gesis: A Primer for Students and Pastors, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,

1984), p. 110.

24 Cf. Ralph Smith, "The Use and Influence of the Psalms," Southwestern Journal of

Theology 27 (Fall 1984): 13; cf. Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old

Testament, p. 128. In contrast to the last category, Miller approvingly cites Becker's

conclusions that the "I" of several individual psalms was edited and reworked to re-

flect the situation of postexilic Israel (Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 12-13).

The implications of this suggestion must be scrutinized carefully before it is accepted.

25 William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Tes-

tament Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), p. 512.

26 Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message (Minneapolis:

Augsburg Publishing House, 1980), p. 11; cf. p. 25.

174 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


sage of a psalm may be summarized by the words, ''God is good." Or

is it primarily set in a "minor key" crying out for help? In Allen's

words this message is summarized in the words, "Life is tough" (an

indicator of a lament).27 The latter type frequently asks the question

"How long?" (e.g., Pss. 13:1-2; 74:10) or "Why?" (e.g., Pss. 10:1, 13;

74:1, 11).28 Though perhaps more than one-third of the Psalms are

laments,29 frequently the presence of the majestic and omnipotent

God propelled the psalmist into praise for expected deliverance.

Practically all laments (except perhaps Ps. 88) contain this element

of praise or confidence of deliverance.30



Sometimes a psalm was especially designed for use in Israel's

worship (such as probably Ps. 24). Other psalms were apparently

later adapted for such purposes (such as Pss. 30 and 118).31 Though

there is a degree of subjectivity here, normally a liturgical usage can

be detected by one or more of the following clues: a question followed

by a response by the worshipers (e.g,. Pss. 15:1; 24:3, 8, 10); an exhor-

tation or even a refrain to worshipers to respond (Pss. 118:2-4; 129:1-

135:1-3, 19-20); a refrain perhaps indicating response (Ps. 136); or a

notice in the superscription (Pss. 30 and 92).



Since there is no unanimity concerning how many quotations of or

allusions to the Psalms are found in the New Testament, students of

Scripture should utilize reference tools in evaluating the evidence.

For those who can work with the Hebrew and Greek texts, an indis-

pensable resource is Archer and Chirichigno's monumental compila-

tion of 312 Old Testament quotations in the New consisting of the

Hebrew, the Greek Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament quota-

tions in parallel columns with a brief commentary on their relation-

ships.32 In English a valuable handbook of the parallel Old Testa-


27 Allen, Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath, pp. 30, 34.

28 See also Miller's additional examples of the question "Why?" in the laments

(Interpreting the Psalms, p. 101).

29 Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 58, 66. This is more than any other category.

30 Ibid., pp. 75-76; 107-9; cf. Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old

Testament, pp. 132-33. Miller observes that the movement of the Psalms is always

toward praise in the individual psalms and even in the shape of the Psalter as a

whole. The first half of the Psalter is dominated by lament psalms but moves increas-

ingly to hymns of praise with the ultimate climax being Psalm 150 as the grand finale.

See his Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 66-67.

31 Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament, p. 129.

32 Gleason Archer, Jr., and Gregory Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the

New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983). Though making an outstanding contri-

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 175


ment and New Testament quotations has been edited by Bratcher. In one sense, it

is more comprehensive than Archer's work, since it includes additional citations.

Bratcher classifies the references as quotations, allusions, and paraphrases.33

In approaching psalms that may be messianic, Bible students

should consider the following suggestions. Be aware of the major

types of messianic psalms. Several scholars have adapted De-

litzsch's five basic categories with minor changes.34 (1) A "purely"

prophetic psalm is one that primarily (or exclusively) refers to

Christ (Ps. 110). (2) Eschatological psalms describe the coming of the

Lord and the consummation of His kingdom (Pss. 93, 96-99, and per-

haps others). (3) Typico-prophetic psalms are those in which the

psalmist describes his own experience with language that sometimes

goes beyond that experience (or his own circumstances) to become his-

torically true only in Christ (Pss. 8 and 22 and perhaps Pss. 2 and

45).35 (4) Indirectly messianic psalms were written for the Davidic

king (or for the royal activities in general) but with ultimate ful-

fillment in Christ, the Davidic King par excellence (Ps. 72 and prob-


bution, this volume must be used with discretion. In a few places, Archer's conclusions

are somewhat unconventional if not forced. He argues that the New Testament writer

of Hebrews consistently utilized the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint. By'

contrast, note the conclusions of F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, New International

Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,

1964), p. xlix; and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, New

Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 5. For example in

quoting Psalm 8:5 (Heb., v. 6), Hebrews 2:7 supposedly follows the Hebrew text which

in turn is followed by the Septuagint (see Archer and Chirichigno, Old Testament

Quotations in the New Testament, pp. 58-59). Rather than choosing a rare usage of

the Hebrew word Myhilox< ("gods") to conform the Old Testament to the New Testament,

this writer prefers to understand the Septuagint's a]gge<louj as a scribal change because

of reverence for God. The Old Testament context should be determinative rather than

using a New Testament citation to determine the original meaning. (See Donald R.

Glenn, "Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2: A Case Study in Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical

Theology," in Walooord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell [Chicago: Moody Press,

19821, pp. 41-42). Similarly Archer concludes that the usage of Psalm 2:9 by John in

Revelation follows the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint (Old Testament Quo-

tations in the Nezv Testament, pp. 57, 59).

33 Robert G. Bratcher, ed., Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament, 3d rev.

ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1987). This latest edition has added an appendix

of Old Testament quotations according to the order of the Old Testament books.

34 The writer acknowledges dependency on two of his former professors. For the basic

description of each category (except for minor changes), see Allen P. Ross, "Psalms," in

The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 2 vols.

(Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983, 1985), 1:789-90; cf. Bruce K. Waltke, "A Canonical

Process Approach to the Psalms,'' in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of

Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg (Chicago: Moody

Press, 1981), pp. 6-7.

35 See Glenn, "Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2," p. 47; contrast S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., who says

it is directly predicted (The Old Testament in the New: An Argument for Inspiration

[Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980], pp. 15, 19).

176 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


ably Pss. 2 and 45).36 (5) Typically messianic psalms refer to circum-

stances of the times but prefigure some aspect of Christ's life (Pss. 34

and 69 and probably Ps. 40). As stated in the previous footnote, this

fivefold classification may be challenged because distinctions be-

tween the last three categories are a little blurred. Also Waltke has

criticized this method because, in his judgment, it basically limits

the typical element to psalms cited in the New Testament--thus

failing to provide an adequate method for identifying the messianic

element in the Psalms.

Bullock's work adds a supplemental element that may be used in

conjunction with the fivefold classification to provide balance. He

suggests two types of potentially messianic psalms (in the larger

sense):37 those that refer to the King and His rule (such as Pss. 2, 18,

45, 72, and 110); and those that deal with man and his life generally

(such as Pss. 8, 16, 22, 34, 40, 55, 69, 102).38 Bullock suggests three cri-

teria for identifying psalms not directly quoted in the New Testa-

ment:39 when the language of the psalm outruns the abilities of the

human subject (as in Ps. 72:8);40 when specifically messianic terms oc-

cur, such as "anointed," "son of man," or mention of the Davidic dy-

nasty,41 and when New Testament circumstances fit those described

in the psalm (cf. Ps. 55:12-13, 20 with Jesus' betrayal and passion).

These suggestions are appreciated; however, caution must be urged

since subjectivity is involved. The safest approach is to restrict the

messianic psalms to those either quoted or alluded to with reference

to Christ's life.

A balanced approach is needed. Christ should not be seen in al-

most every psalm as did Augustine, some of the Reformers,42 and even


36 It is debatable whether evidence is sufficient to demarcate clearly between cate-

gories 3, 4, and (to some extent) 5. Though using the term "typically messianic," H. C.

Leupold's classification of Psalm 2 seems to fit here in category 4 (indirectly mes-

sianic) (Exposition of the Psalms [reprint, Baker Book House, 1969], pp. 42-43).

37 In the strictest sense "messianic prophecy" occurs only when the Messiah (a King)

or His reign is described (see LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, p.


38 Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament, pp. 142-44. He

also lists additional royal psalms. The ones cited are those the present writer consid-

ers most probable.

39 Ibid., p. 143.

40 However, a similar principle suggested over a century ago by John Brown has been

critiqued by Kaiser as too ambiguous to be of significant help. See Walter C. Kaiser,

Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), p. 130.

41 Cf. LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, pp. 398-99.

42 See Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, pp. 20-22.

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 177


as Waltke does (though he denies that his approach is extreme)."

He states, "from a literary and historical point of view ... the hu-

man subject of the psalms--whether it be the blessed man of Psalm 1,

the one proclaiming himself the son of God in Psalm 2, the suffering

petitioner in Psalms 3-7, the son of man in Psalm 8--is Jesus

Christ."44 Bible expositors need to remember that the experiences of

the authors of the Psalms must not be minimized or obliterated.45

Nor should one hold as do various critics, that there are no messianic

features in the Psalms.46


Suggestions for Proclaiming the Psalter Effectively



The Psalter runs the gamut of life experiences (including as

Miller suggests, "disaster, war, sickness, exile, celebration, mar-

riage, birth, death")48 and emotions (including "joy, terror, reflec-

tions, gratitude, hate, contentment, depression").49 Since people in

churches today face many of these same experiences and emotions,

pastors should study and proclaim all types of psalms.50

For example the lament psalms, with their heart-throbbing an-

guish, express the eternal questions in the human breast in the face of

crisis, tragedy, loneliness, or sickness: "Why Lord?" (or "Why me?")

or "How long, 0 Lord, will You be angry with me?" Yet these psalms


43 Waltke, "A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms," pp. 4, 6-7. He argues that

his approach does justice to both the historical and messianic significances in contrast

to the allegorical method or the Antiochian principle of one historical meaning that

may have typical significance. But the present writer disagrees with his former

teacher and basically concurs with Darrell L. Bock's critique ("Evangelicals and the

Use of the Old Testament in the New: Part I," Bibliotheca Sacra 142 [July-September

19851: 220-21). Bock suggests that Waltke's position of rereading the whole of the Old

Testament in light of the New Testament ultimately causes the original Old Testa-

ment expression of meaning to be "overridden and redefined by the New Testament"

(p. 220). For instance, Waltke shifts from an earthly to a heavenly referent for his

understanding of Psalm 2 ("Is It Right to Read the New Testament into the Old?"

Christianity Today, September 2, 1983, p. 77). Cf. Bock's subsequent article,

"Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New: Part 2," Bibliotheca

Sacra 142 (October-December 1985): 309-10, esp. 316, n. 2).

44 Waltke, "A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms," p. 7.

45 Cf. Ross, "Psalms," p. 789.

46 Cf. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, pp. 20-21.

47 See Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," p. 438.

48 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 19; cf. Donald MacLeod, who emphasizes the

mood of the psalm as a clue to the germaneness of the psalmist's message for today

("Preaching from the Psalms," in Biblical Preaching: An Expositor's Treasury, ed.

James W. Cox [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983], p. 109).

49 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 19.

50 See Bellinger, "Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms," p. 19.

178 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


may suddenly introduce an element of praise or expectation of the

Lord's deliverance, thus giving hope to believers today. Expositors

can challenge believers to dare to believe in God. One example of

this is Psalm 13, which moves from the desperate mood of loneliness

and despair (vv. 1-2--"How long?" is repeated four times), in which

one "screams" to God for help (vv. 3-4) to the confident expectation of

the Lord's deliverance (vv. 5-6).51

The most problematic portions of the Psalms are those classified

as imprecatory (almost always a subcategory of the lament) in which

the psalmist prayed for divine judgment on his enemies. Though one

may be tempted to consider these verses as "sub-Christian," he must

deal honestly with the text. Psalm 109, the most pervasively imprec-

atory psalm, may be shocking to modern-day congregations. Psalms

such as this one may help believers deal honestly with their anger

and hatred by channeling these emotions to and through God rather

than by expressing them (either verbally or physically) at others.52



A first step in relating the Psalms to present-day needs is to note

various figures of speech and state their literal meaning.54

This should be followed by converting the metaphorical lan-

guage of the psalm to a modern equivalent. After answering the

question, "How did the metaphor function in ancient Israel?" one is

ready to address the question, "How do people describe (or encounter)


51 Allen, Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath, pp. 150-64.

52 When rightly understood, these psalms do not contradict Jesus' teaching to love

one's enemies but should help believers not to be "overcome by evil" as they ventilate

anger to God and let Him take care of justice against those who insult or abuse them

(see Rom. 12:19-21). See Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp.

183-84, and Bellinger, "Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms," p. 19.

These four principles may be helpful in understanding the imprecatory psalms: (1)

The believer's prayers should never include the motive of personal revenge (cf. Ps.

109:21). (2) Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:17-19). (3) In certain rare cases, it

may be acceptable for believers today to pray for God to defeat those who oppose His

kingdom's work--if they do not repent (cf. Ps. 59:13; Acts 13:10-11). (4) The foremost

prayer of a believer for his enemies should be that of intercession that they might be

changed or even saved (cf. Ps. 83:16-18; Matt. 5:44). The writer is much indebted to J.

Carl Laney's excellent article ("A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms," Biblio-

theca Sacra 138 [January-March 1981]: 35-45).

53 See Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," p. 439.

54 Utilize the classic work by E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible

(reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968). For an excellent synopsis of the

main figures and some helpful suggestions, see Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology,

pp. 121-25. For some criteria to recognize something as figurative and some pitfalls to

avoid, see the brief but beneficial discussion by Bruce K. Waltke, "Historical Gram-

matical Problems," in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher

and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), pp. 114-17.

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 179


that experience today?"55 For instance little effort is needed to

transfer the imagery of being in a pit or drowning in an overwhelm-

ing flood (Pss. 42:7; 69:1-3; 88:4-7) to the modern idiom of a crisis.

These figures vividly connote "the experience of hopelessness and

anxiety, of deep depression and a sense of being so overwhelmed by

one's circumstances that there is no way out."56 Though all metaphors

will not translate so readily into a modern equivalent, careful analy-

sis will yield profitable results.57 Another metaphor worth men-

tioning is sickness. The laments contain many expressions of pain and

physical illness, which may be literal or merely powerful images of

emotional distress. For example the language of bones without

health, of the heart throbbing, loins filled with burning, and

strength failing (Ps. 38) is graphic and familiar to many who have

gone through physical or emotional distress.58

Another step is to understand correctly the Hebrew use of so-

called poetic parallelism. The traditional understanding of this

phenomenon is the repetition of meaning in parallel (or balanced)

expressions. Three categories are normally cited: synonymous paral-

lelism, in which the thought in the first line is repeated in the sec-

ond line in different but equivalent words (e.g., Ps. 24:1); antithetic

parallelism, in which the second line gives a thought in contrast to

or as the opposite of the first line (e.g., Ps. 1:6); and synthetic paral-

lelism, in which the second line completes the thought of the first

without parallel meaning (e.g., Pss. 2:6; 119:89). The recognition

that the last category is a sort of "catch-all," miscellaneous category

has generated several other classifications. These three general

groups are not wholly adequate to describe the variety involved in

the two-line relationships; however, for the general reader they

serve as "rough distinctions" to assist in analyzing meaning.59

To facilitate the accurate transfer of meaning to modern man in

analyzing Hebrew parallelism, Bible students should look at each

verse (or verses) as a whole rather than viewing parts of verses as

separate entities. Allen's analogy of stereophonic sound is helpful in


55 See Bellinger, "Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms," pp. 20-21.

He describes proclamation as a "bifocal task," which must be sensitive both to the

ancient context and to one's present audience.

56 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 23-24; cf. Bellinger, "Let the Words of My

Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms," pp. 18 19, 20.

57 Miller lists 10 other metaphors and typical experiences in the psalms that are

able to speak to and for people today (Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 23-25).

58 Ibid., pp. 25-26.

59 See John H. Stek, "Psalms," NIV Study Bible, ed. Kenneth L. Barker (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), p. 783.

180 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


the sense that the composite whole produces the thought and mean-

ing.60 In Psalm 19:1-2 there are two sets of synonymously parallel

lines, not four lines denoting four different things: "The heavens de-

clare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they dis-

play knowledge" (NIV). In verse 1 the psalmist was not saying that

"the heavens" are doing one thing and "the skies" an entirely differ-

ent thing. Instead he was describing one glorious reality. Similarly

the second verse adds the new dimension that in both day and night

the heavens reveal their Creator.61 Also one must guard against

thinking that parallelism necessarily indicates synonymity, saying

exactly the same thing in different words. Though this does occur,

the dominant pattern is "a focusing, heightening or specification of

ideas, images, action, [or] themes" from one line to the next.62 Thus

normally the second line serves to nuance the original line. In Psalm

24:1, "The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world, and

those who dwell in it," the second line supports the statement of the

first (viz., God's ownership of the world) by specifying that this

means its inhabitants belong to Him.63 The variety of ways in which

the psalmists used one line to reinforce, elaborate, or "second" a first

line is illustrated in instances where the same first line is balanced

by varying second lines. From the common first line, "Sing to the Lord

a new song," Psalm 96:1 expands by identifying those who are called

to sing; Psalm 98:1 "seconds" by giving a reason for the command; and

Psalm 149:1 emphasizes the "what and where" of the song.64

Perhaps the wide variety of creative "seconding" features could

serve as ideas for the preacher in developing a somewhat dry exege-

tical statement into a dynamic communication of relevant truths.

Robinson suggests that the use of "restatement" in a sermon (similar


60 Allen, Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath, p. 51.

61 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 171.

62 Robert Alter, "The Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew Poetry," in The Literary

Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Belknap

Press of Harvard University, 1987), p. 615. James L. Kugel has argued that the second

line serves a "seconding function," basically "an emphatic rhetorical closure" which

supports, particularizes, defines, or expands the meaning of the first part (The Idea of

Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

19811, pp. 52, 95). For an excellent summary with illustrations, see Miller, Interpreting

the Psalms, pp. 33-39. The present author agrees with Miller that since the massive

work by M. O'Connor (Hebrew Verse Structure [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1980])

analyzes the many syntactic variations of poetry rather than types of strictly seman-

tic parallels, it is less useful and accessible to the expositor who is focusing on dimen-

sions of meaning rather than grammatical or syntactical nuances.

63 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 34.

64 Ibid., pp. 38-39.

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 181


to that in the Psalms) is of some benefit to the hearers.65 By examin-

ing the creative variety of supporting statements used in the Psalter

to present its truths, expositors may be able to develop a modern

analogous method. One obvious example is the so-called emblematic

parallelism (e.g., Ps. 42:1) in which one line is a literal statement

and the other line is a figurative illustration. Sometimes there is no

need for expositors to search for good sermon illustrations, since they

are built into the passage.66

Preachers can also use clues from the "salvation-history"--or

"storytelling"--psalms (such as Pss. 78, 105, 106, 135, 136) for the

dramatic purpose of recounting and reliving the mighty acts of the

Lord (in the present as well as the past).67 These psalms recount

Yahweh's "salvation deeds," beginning with the events of the Exo-

dus, as being inseparably related to their contemporary circum-

stances. The recounting of the Exodus event at Passover was actually

a dramatic reenactment in which the hearers played a part. Simi-

larly for the psalmists, the Lord was still unfolding His drama of

redemption. The last act or scene had not yet been completed.68

This has significant ramifications for rehearsing the Lord's sal-

vation deeds today. Just as the Exodus events were the vehicle for

Yahweh's initial act of salvation for Israel, so today the events of

Christ's passion have effected salvation for Church-Age believers.

To transfer the rich meaning of these events, pastors might consider

at least two applications. (1) Some homileticians have emphasized

preaching as a "narrative" or "story." Bellinger suggests that the

task of preaching is not merely retelling the story or drawing lessons

from the text but also translating that message into "life story." He

argues that the wise use of illustrations is one means by which to as-


65 Robinson, Biblical Preaching, pp. 79-80.

66 Cf. Ronald J. Allen, "Shaping Sermons by the Language of the Text," in Preaching

Biblically, ed. Don M. Wardlaw (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), pp. 35-37.

He suggests that sometimes one should substitute a contemporary metaphor for the

biblical one if it conveys the equivalent "vibration" or feeling.

67 These psalms, which often emphasize the Exodus event, have a twofold purpose:

(1) didactic--to teach the meaning of Israel's history and God's faithfulness; and (2)

dramatic--to reenact Yahweh's involvement in history in which its hearers played a

part. However, there are other psalms that also praise Yahweh for His deeds of sal-

vation (e.g., Pss. 66:5-7; 71:15-16; 75:1; 77:11-15; 98:1-3; 107:31-32; 145:4-6). See Ander-

son, Out of the Depths, pp. 53-56.

68 Ibid., pp. 49, 53; cf. Leupold, who notes that the events were "presented as part

and parcel of a living tradition" (Exposition of the Psalms, p. 562). However, he is

skeptical that Psalm 78 had a place in Israel's worship. The Passover ritual today

has captured the dramatic aspect and the involvement of the present generation

(Anderson, Out of the Depths, p. 49). Cf. Rabbi Nathan Goldberg, Passover Hag-

gadah: A New English Translation and-Instructions for the Seder (New York: KTAV

Publishing House, 1966).

182 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


sist people in making the Scriptures a reality in their lives.69 (2)

Others suggest using drama to reenact the mighty deliverance of the

Lord (cf. the Passover in Exodus and the Lord's Supper as commemo-

rating the saving work of Christ). This may involve asking a mem-

ber of the congregation to give a testimony or sing a song to support a

sermon principle70 or preaching a brief message on one of the "salva-

tion-history" psalms as a prelude to observing the Lord's Supper. An

opportunity to give a testimony or share God's mighty deeds could

precede this observance.71 Another idea is to explore the use of pan-

tomime or a short play by members of the congregation to illustrate

an essential part of the psalm.




Achtemeier objects to the assumption that the basic lack of his-

torical references in the Psalter is automatically a reflection of the

general condition of mankind; she denies that the message should be

applied apart from the context of Israel. So she affirms that, except

for a very few psalms (e.g., Pss. 23 and 90), its truths are normally re-

stricted to those in the New Covenant community, namely, believers

and not mankind in general.72

However, the generalized language is frequently indicative of

timeless principles that transcend cultural boundaries--even though

often restricted to believers. An interesting illustration is the refrain

in Psalm 46:7 and 11 ("The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is

our stronghold"). It continues the thematic statement of verse I that

"God is our refuge and strength," one of the timeless principles in the

psalm. The two strands of the historically conditioned and the uni-

versally applicable are intertwined in the mention of the God of Ja-

cob and Yahweh Sabaoth (the Lord of hosts) respectively; the latter

involves a resumption of the principle found in verse 1.73


69 Bellinger, "Let the Words of My Mouth: Proclaiming the Psalms," p. 21 (and n.

20); see also Allen ("Shaping Sermons by the Language of the Text," pp. 34-35), who

suggests that preaching, guided by proper exegesis, should seek to join the text and lis-

tener in such a way that the text comes alive as it did for its ancient recipients. It

"lets the world of the text shape our perception of our own world in ways that are his-

torically, aesthetically, and otherwise appropriate" (ibid., p. 35).

70 This is especially effective if interspersed within the sermon itself.

71 This writer has used this approach with seeming success.

72 Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," pp. 440-42. This writer disagrees with

Achtemeier's assumption that believers today are the new Israel.

73 This author interprets Yahweh Sabaoth (tOxbAc; hvhy) as referring to the Comman-

der of the armies (hosts) of earth and heaven (angels and stars). That this is a univer-

sal aspect is corroborated by verse 10, in which God speaks of being exalted among

(all) the nations of the earth.

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 183


The most fertile ground is located in the pervasive lament

psalms. These psalms include stereotyped language that rarely

refers to specific historical situations. Apparently the psalmists

utilized accepted literary conventions of the day, as demonstrated

by the close resemblance of the general structure and imagery to that

of Babylonian psalms.74 Standardized language left the laments so

open-ended that later readers were free to adapt them to varying

circumstances and settings.75 For example the frequent enemies men-

tioned in these laments are unnamed--lending themselves to adap-

tation by each successive generation of psalm singers.76 To discover

one possible concrete context for the laments, Miller recommends an

innovative approach, namely, tracing their various cliches as they

appear in Jeremiah's laments (the so-called confessions of Jeremiah

in chaps. 11-20). The experiences of this prophet help illustrate the

circumstances surrounding the psalmists as they cried out to the

Lord.77 By studying these experiences (and other Old Testament la-

ments such as those in Job) one can make correlation to modern situa-

tions of the congregation easier.78

Whether a psalm contains generalized terms or references to

specific situations, the task of the expositor is to distill the essential

teaching of each stanza into a single sentence. Then this exegetical

statement must be stated as a timeless principle. Kaiser defines this

process of "principlization" as stating "the author's propositions, ar-

guments, narrations, and illustrations in timeless abiding truths with

special focus on the application of those truths to the current needs"79

of believers. One must avoid the past tense of the verb and any

proper names except for those of God in order to restate the biblical


74 Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 66-68, 86. An exception to the tendency to omit

historical references is Psalm 137, which reflects the situation of the Babylonian exile

(ibid., p. 32).

75 See Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 8. The Babylonian laments employed such

standardized literary imagery (including descent into the pit and the engulfing bil-

lows of the flood). They often left a blank for the name of the worshiper to be filled in

who chose to use the psalm. Similarly the biblical psalms have typical language

which epitomizes the situations common to mankind. As Anderson observes, "They too

seem to leave a blank, as it were, for the insertion of one's own personal name" (Out of

the Depths, pp. 86-87).

76 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 49-51; cf. Anderson, Out of the Depths, p. 86.

77 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 57-63.

78 Ibid., pp. 60, 62-63.

79 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 151-52. For a masterful explication

and illustration of this methodology as applied to narrative, see Allen P. Ross, Cre-

ation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of the Book of Genesis (Grand

Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988).

184 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


thought unrestricted by time, person, places, or cultures.80 As one

thinks of the audience's knowledge and needs, this principle, Robin-

son declares, should be stated "in the most exact, memorable sentence

possible."81 As a control factor, the expositor must validate his pro-

posed principle in light of subsequent biblical teaching. New Testa-

ment evidence may modify, expand, or even negate the application

for believers today." The next suggestion will deal with this issue.




A delicate balance is needed here--one sensitive both to the

original context, where primary meaning is for the psalmist's time,

and to New Testament quotations or allusions--to help develop the

theological principles and modern application.83 Because New Tes-

tament writers have selected a few psalms as having a fulfillment in

the life of Christ is no warrant for a wholesale equation of other

psalms in this manner. Barth states, "We look in vain in the New

Testament for a systematic method which would simply equate the

voice of Yahweh on the one hand, and on the other hand the voice of

Israel, of Israel's kings and of unknown worshippers, with the voice

of Jesus, so that His voice would be perceived in practically every

psalm."84 Only when the New Testament applies a psalm to Christ

can one today confidently apply it that way. To go beyond this is to

indulge in subjective speculation hazardous to legitimate exegesis

and biblical proclamation.

However, there is potential value in using a New Testament

passage with a psalm for preaching purposes.85 A rich interaction

occurs between many of the psalms and the New Testament. The

messianic psalms draw one to Jesus and "gain their specificity, their


80 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 231.

81 Robinson, Biblical Preaching, p. 97.

82 Kaiser has cogently argued that the entire canonical context must appear only as a

part of the summation of each main point and not as a part of exegesis proper. The

emphasis of the text at hand must be communicated, based on the informing theology

of antecedent passages rather than allowing a later doctrine to "unpack" the meaning

of the text. However, in the sermon itself, theological implications of subsequent

teachings must be included (Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 83, 134-40, 160).

83 Ibid., pp. 160-61. Cf. Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New, p. 226.

84 Barth, Introduction to the Psalms, p. 71. However, he seems open to the possibil-

ity that the Apostles might have looked into every psalm for testimony of Jesus.

85 See Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," pp. 447-49. Her implication--that

it is always necessary to pair an Old Testament text with a New Testament one for

preaching--seems extreme.

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 185


reality for us, their concreteness, in the revelation of Jesus."86 But it

is also true that the interaction works the other way. When one

preaches from the Gospels, psalms furnish a foundation for under-

standing the New Testament portrait of Jesus as Shepherd and Light

as well as the reality of His role of bringing salvation.87

Miller suggests that Psalm 22 gives the reader of the Gospels

"the chief interpretive clue to the Passion of Jesus," being picked up

repeatedly by quotation or allusion in the portrayal of those events.

At the same time the reader of Psalm 22 is "invited to see in the

passion of Jesus a concrete and specific example" of one who cries out

in the various laments. "His plight becomes a paradigm of the

trouble of the lamenting petitioner."88 It helps the modern reader

understand the anguish of the psalmist as well as the intensity of

Christ's personal agony as He was being forsaken by God the Father

in the face of the taunts and attacks of His enemies.89

Miller proposes that the Gospel writers viewed "Jesus as taking

up the lament of those who suffer and entering into that suffering."90

Tremendous potential application exists for proclaiming the rele-

vance of the gospel message to hurting mankind.




The form-critical method can help in determining the particular

psalm to use at the proper time. Worship leaders need to be aware of

the liturgical purposes and specific moods (or responses) evoked by

each literary genre. Anderson suggests that the hymn with its mood


86 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 28

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid., pp. 63, 100, 108-9.

89 Ibid., p. 63.

90 Ibid., pp. 110-11. Miller states, "The resurrection is God's response to the cry of the

sufferer, the vindication of life over death, the demonstration of God's presence in suf-

fering and power over it." Though not an end to suffering, it shows that God does care

about human hurt and sin. He acknowledges that forgiveness of sins was a central part

of Jesus' ministry. But his perspective appears to leave room for the view that the

atonement (or in his words "the redemptive work of Christ") was efficacious to bring

about physical healing. The author cannot agree, particularly if this is an implicit

advocacy of divine healers today. For some concise, helpful remarks on this issue, see

Alfred Martin and John A. Martin on the New Testament usage of Isaiah 53:4-6

(Isaiah: The Gloria of the Messiah [Chicago: Moody Press, 1983]; pp. 137-39).

91 For a list of several practical suggestions on this matter of coordinating one's

preaching a psalm with worship practices, see William E. Hull, "Preaching on the

Psalms," Review and Expositor 81 (Summer 1984): 453-56. He notes that abundant

keyboard literature inspired by the psalms normally allows the selection of "excellent

preludes, offertories, and postludes based on a particular psalm or on one related to it"

(p. 453). See his p. 453, n. 7 for pertinent resources.

186 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990


of jubilation belongs at the beginning of the worship service; that the

laments with their anguished cry of distress and guilt exhibit a

proper attitude conducive to worship; that the attitude of praise for

specific acts of God in the thanksgiving psalms is an appropriate re-

sponse, particularly at the Lord's Supper; and that penitential

psalms (basically the laments) belong at the time when worshipers

are called to confess their sins and ask God for forgiveness.92

Hull offers an excellent format for intertwining the psalms in

word and song: the offertory,93 the reading of the psalm to be treated,

singing the psalm as an anthem or solo, and then preaching on it in

expository fashion.94 Thus the call to worship could be extended by

singing various hymns or choruses based on the psalms or other spe-

cific Scriptures.95 Choral anthems or solo music inspired by the

Psalter can be coordinated in the program.96 In reading a psalm, sev-

eral variations are possible: the pastor may read the psalm from a

modern version in poetic format; the pastor (or worship leader) and

congregation may read the psalm in unison from pew Bibles or from

the order of service; the pastor (or worship leader) and congregation

may read responsively; the pastor (or worship leader), choir, and

parts of the congregation may read antiphonally.97


92 This information is found only in the earlier edition of Bernhard W. Anderson, Out

of the Depths (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 159-60.

93 See note 91 above.

94 Hull, "Preaching on the Psalms," p. 454.

95 For instance, "O Worship the King," a hymn based on Psalm 104, would fit here.

One legitimate contribution of the "charismatics" has been a renewed emphasis on

praise and singing Scripture. Donald P. Hustad has documented the resurgence of

singing Old Testament psalms in many denominations today. He also lists resources to

help in using the psalms in worship ("The Psalms as Worship Expression: Personal

and Congregational," Review and Expositor 81 [Summer 1984]: 417-21).

96 See Hull, "Preaching on the Psalms," p. 454.

97 Ibid. Cf. Donald L. Griggs, Praying and Teaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abing-

don Press, 1984), pp. 34-38. Since these responsive readings (or antiphonal readings)

will normally be designed (or at least coordinated) by a pastor, the following guide-

lines may be helpful: (1) Preserve the literary unity of the psalm (i.e., avoid an arti-

ficial stringing together of several parts of psalms). (2) Be attentive to the structure

for possible clues (such as refrains) for reciting the psalm to enhance congregational

participation (cf. Ps. 136). (3) Minor editing of the psalm is acceptable, such as re-

peating refrains at natural breaks in the psalm (often where Selah occurs). See Ander-

son, Out of the Depths, 1974 ed., p. 165. (4) Consider using Selah as a pause (or musical

interlude) for prayerful meditation on the verses read (see esp. Ps. 46). (5) Use a mod-

ern-language version (particularly the New International Version or New King James

Version), since the archaisms and overfamiliarity of the King James Version hinder

proper understanding (cf. Dwight W. Vogel, The Psalms for Worship Today [St. Louis:

Concordia Publishing House, 1974], p. 4). A copy should be given to each person in the

congregation ahead of time. See the adaptation of the Jerusalem Bible for group rec-

itation by Alan Neame as cited by Hull, "Preaching on the Psalms," p. 454, and the

adaptation of Today's English Version by Vogel, The Psalms for Worship Today. (6)

Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms 187


An expository sermon could be preached on a selection such as

Psalm 46 with an emphasis on the message of the recurring refrains.

The writer suggests concluding the exposition of this psalm by read-

ing it again using Selah as a pause (perhaps accompanied by a musi-

cal interlude) for meditation on the timeless message.




This article is an attempt to provide preliminary guidelines for

bridging the gap from exegesis to proclamation. Five hermeneutical

questions to be asked in approaching the Psalms were discussed.

Then five homiletical guidelines were suggested for encouraging ef-

fective proclamation of the Psalter.

Bible expositors must never forget the following obvious but pro-

found truth. Though one follows all these hermeneutical and homi-

letical guidelines, he is doomed to failure without bathing his ef-

forts in prayer. He must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to

energize his preparation. To speak with confidence and authority, he

must have received God's message from the text of Holy Scripture (in

its proper historical-grammatical-contextual setting) and applied it

to his own life. No matter how well prepared intellectually a per-

son may be, only the Holy Spirit can transform inadequate words into

life-changing principles.98 Kaiser wisely states, "Yes, even when we

have faithfully discharged our full range of duties as exegetes and

when we have also pressed on to apply that exegesis by principliz-

ing the text paragraph by paragraph into timeless propositions

which call for an immediate response from our listeners, we still

need the Holy Spirit to carry that word home to the mind and hearts

of our hearers if that word is ever going to change men's lives."99


Explore the possibility of dramatic reading in which parts are assigned to different

voices (or even for a single voice alternating with the congregation) according to the

natural structure of the text (see Erik Routley, Exploring the Psalms [Philadelphia:

Westminster Press, 19751, pp. 165-66). The present writer has utilized Psalm 107 in

this fashion. For this to be effective, practice in reading by the leader (and other in-

dividuals) is recommended. (Cf. Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Redis-

coverin, the Missing Jewel [Portland: Multnomah Press, 1982], pp. 142-45).

98 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 235-40; cf. Charles Stanley, "Spirit-

Anointed Preaching," radio broadcast of "In Touch" (February 21, 1989). This princi-

ple is consistent with the necessity that the truths of Scripture be first applied to the

expositor before seeking to communicate to others. Thus one must not divorce the study

of the Bible to get a sermon from studying to feed one's soul (Robinson, Biblical Preach-

ing, pp. 24-26). The present writer has found that an active program of reading the

Psalms devotionally while making "quiet time" notes will develop a helpful file of

sermon starters. Unless a preacher listens to God speak to himself personally, he will

probably in Stevenson's words "use the text not as a key to open lives, but as a weapon

with which to bludgeon them" (Stevenson, Biblical Preacher's Workshop, p. 67).

99 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 236.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu