The Psalms: Good News That Never Goes Out of Fashion

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

We read, pray, and sing the Psalms. But how to we preach and teach Jesus Christ and the gospel from these 150 chapters of the Bible? I posed that question and several others to Jason Hood—writer, teacher, and blogger for the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. Read much more about the Psalms at The Gospel Coalition’s site on Preaching Christ in the Old Testament.

Is there a way to summarize the “good news” we read in the Psalms?

There’s so much good news in the Psalms. A righteous figure torn out of joint while his enemies cast lots for his clothing (Ps 22) . . . the One True Human (Ps 8; cf. Heb 2, Rom 8:29) . . . the gift of dwelling with God forever (Ps 23:6) . . . a God who is present with his people in their distress is surely good news . . . inheriting the land/earth despite our lack of prowess and power (Ps 37:11, Mt 5:5) . . . even instruction in the law is seen as a gracious gift, a light in the darkness (Ps 119:29).

Perhaps the three most important pieces of good news on which we can reflect are: (1) the saving and preserving character of God, as seen in his faithfulness, righteousness, mercy, holiness, and sovereignty; (2) the possibility of forgiveness from a God who doesn’t count sin against us, as seen in Ps 51, 130; and (3) the promise that he will establish his kingdom and the reign of David’s Son: defeating enemies, establishing justice and shalom, securing blessing and life for his people.

What do we learn about the Psalms by studying how Jesus and the NT writers interpreted and applied them?

It’s incredibly instructive to go through and look at every citation in the NT. (Allusions are also very important, but obviously they are trickier to identify.) It’s also instructive to read Hebrews as a sermon on the Psalms—it’s not quite that, but reading in one sitting does give the feel of what such an enterprise might have looked like for the apostles, with application and exposition all wrapped together. Same with speeches in Acts 2, 4.

We can summarize the NT’s use of the Psalms in two main points. First, almost every type of psalm is applied directly to Jesus. It is as if the Psalm book is his own personal book, expounding his mission (Ps 78 in Matt), describing his unjust suffering (Ps 22) and obedience unto death (Ps 40:6-8 in Heb 10:5-7), and proclaiming his resurrection and messianic rule (Acts 2, 4; Heb 1-2; Pss 2, 110). The Psalms teach us about the gifts the Victor pours out on those who are his (Ps 68 in Eph 4). OT characters such as the suffering righteous and victorious kings are types of (pointers to) Jesus and his suffering and rule. Our present and future salvation in Jesus becomes the lens through which we see forgiveness in Ps 51, victory over enemies, suffering while waiting on God’s deliverance, etc.

Secondly, the Psalms are applied to the identity and mission of those “in Messiah,” agents and ambassadors through whom he works by his Spirit. A Christ-centered approach to the Psalms makes the Psalms more applicable to our lives, not less so. Paul holds believers out as sacrificial lambs, Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:38 (esp in light of 8:17 and Acts 9:4-5).

Because of our redemption in Christ, we are in some respects like Israel, a redeemed people in transit to a Promised Land. So Hebrews 3:7-4:13 uses Psalm 95 extensively to urge belief and obedience during our sojourn. See also Psalm 37:11 in Matthew 5:5; Psalm 112:9 in 2 Corinthians 8:9; and the implications of Revelation 3:21, Romans 16:20, etc., for use of royal/warfare Psalms.

Do any preachers or teachers stand out to you in their treatment of the psalms? If so, why?

One of the greatest preachers I’ve ever heard is Ronnie Stevens. He reads the Psalter every month. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him preach on the Psalms, but the benefits of Psalter intimacy appear in sermons across the canon. Tim Keller has used the Psalms well, speaking to profound worldview questions in a gospel context. Good pieces for learning to put the Psalms into play include Jack Collins’s, “Introduction to Psalms,” in the ESV Study Bible, 937, 939; Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72, especially pages 18-32; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, Life Together, 44-50 (see also Bonhoeffer’s Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible); and Richard Pratt, He Gave Us Stories, 346-359 for general orientation to finding Jesus in the OT.

I’m also intrigued by recent scholarly work on the shape of the Psalter (Jamie Grant, Gerald Wilson, etc) and the Psalms within the whole of the canon. Psalms have four contexts: the whole canon of Scripture and its story; the whole Psalter (Luther called it a “little Bible”); smaller Psalms units; and as free-standing pieces. For instance, Psalms 22-23 and 111-112 show how back-to-back Psalms function as mutually interpreting works.

How do you divide up the psalms to make them manageable for a preaching series?

It’s probably best not to try to preach or teach straight through the whole Psalter, unless you want a new job.

One option is to select a variety of key psalms (I recently did a series consisting of 19, 23, 51, 73 and a few others), especially from across the Psalter and addressing different topics: for instance, 78 for historical Psalm; 123 for lament; 100 for praise/thanksgiving.

Or, heed the collections and arrangements handed down to us, such as the Hallels (145-50), the Psalms of Ascent, or Ps 119 in its entirety. They make for a nice series for a month or two, and challenge us to go deeper in sermons than we might on vital and often neglected topics.

Some of us tend to think of the Psalms as readings we might add to the liturgy in order to complement a sermon series, and that’s excellent. But if you are doing a series from elsewhere in the OT or NT, salting the series with a passage from the Psalter can be very helpful. If you are preaching a series on idolatry, Psalm 115 might be a nice addition; or if you are doing a series on Jesus or Christology during Epiphany, Psalm 2 or 110 can be a nice way to break out of the New Testament rut. Or again, if you’re doing a series on heaven, preaching Psalm 49 or 121 with a provocative title like “Your Funeral Sermon” adds another dimension. If preaching through Ruth, why not add Psalm 136 on to the end of the series?

What do we learn about the psalms from the history of Christian interpretation and preaching?

Tertullian, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary, Luther, Spurgeon, and Bonhoeffer, to name a few, follow Jesus and the NT in applying the Psalter to Jesus, presenting him as the one to whom the Psalms point, or putting Psalms on his lips as his own songs.

Other standouts include the use of the Psalms by the persecuted church and by Christians oppressed for social or racial reasons, and the use of Psalm 139 in the pro-life movement. Christians involved in creation care as far back as William Wilberforce turned to the Psalms. These historical examples remind us that preaching an ostensibly timeless songbook can in fact be incredibly timely. Sin is the same; redemption is the same; and God’s Word is always sharp as a sword. The Psalter has deconstructed pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity. I doubt it will go out of fashion.

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen what not to do, such as the (relatively innocent) misuse of “this is the day that the Lord has made.” Much more tragic is the systematic unhinging of the Psalms from their canonical context. I have certainly heard sermons from the Psalms that were nothing more than moral lessons. We certainly need moral lessons, but we also need more than that. Failure to interpret in light of the canon also leads to the misuse (or lack of use) of War Psalms (Jay Adams’s term), also called the imprecatory Psalms. C. S. Lewis more or less throws them out (he’s certainly not alone), while other Christians have employed them to justify violence.

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