William Carey is considered a hero by many Baptists. He is the Father of the modern missions movement and called churches to spread the gospel throughout the world. He even risked his own life to practice what he preached.
The Lord blessed me with the ability to spend a summer in England on the Oxford study trip. In Oxford, in the basements of the Angus Library, is Carey’s personal Bible. What makes this Bible extra special is that some pages are clearly more worn than others. You can tell which sections of the Bible were Carey’s favorites.
The most well-worn section is the middle–the book of Psalms. What a lot of people do not realize about Carey is that he faced enormous trials while serving as a missionary to India. His son, Peter, died of dysentery. Furthermore, his wife suffered from a nervous breakdown for years before her death. Carey knew what it meant to face trials and tribulations, and during his years he often looked to the Psalms as a source of hope and strength.
Times of Crisis
I have found that many Christians struggle to know how to respond to God during times of crisis. We have read the Bible and learned theology, but sometimes our knowledge of God clashes with what we see around us. We struggle to know how to respond to God in a way that feels appropriate for a faithful believer in Christ. This is where the Psalms are a treasure.
The Psalms are God-ordained prayers and praises to Him in response to troubled times. They were produced in the intersection of God’s people trying to reconcile what they knew about God with the trouble they were experiencing in life. That’s why the Psalms sometimes seem messy. Genuine, emotional prayers to God can be messy. However, the psalmists never let their emotions turn to blasphemy, but rather they allow their emotions to drive them to seek God.
This is why I have been doing a video devotional series on the Psalms for my church over the last few weeks. These videos are between one and two minutes long, and focus on prayer. People desperately want to know how to address God in a way that still shows their faith. The Psalms often touch people in a way other biblical texts do not because they are designed to engage the emotions and not just the mind.
Looking to the Psalms as a guide for prayer has been a blessing to me, so I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
How can we preach the Psalms in a way that is faithful to the text and connects people to where they are in this crisis?
Here are three tips to consider when preaching the Psalms that will help your congregation grasp the substance, structure and spirit of the text.
First, consider preaching an entire psalm and structuring your sermon around the psalm’s stanzas. Psalms are grouped by stanzas instead of paragraphs. The stanzas are often marked off in English Bibles for us. Like a paragraph, the purpose of a stanza is to carry a single idea.
The ideas from all the stanzas combine together to represent the overall lesson from a psalm. Sometimes, the stanzas are arranged as equal parts (e.g. Psalm 1). In these psalms, you can preach each stanza as separate homiletical points.
However, many psalms are arranged more like a story—with a progression. The psalmist moves from acknowledging God, to describing his trouble, to crying out to God for help, to expressing His confidence in the Lord (e.g. Psalm 73).
Consider preaching these psalms more like a story where each point leads to the next. The final stanza, then, contains the main lesson the psalm is meant to evoke. These types of psalms can be helpful to our people because many, in their prayers, may be only describing their trouble or crying out to God.
These psalms help us get our eyes off our circumstances and onto the Lord who is faithful and loving. Arranging your sermon by the stanzas and preaching whole psalms can help your congregation not only learn the theology of the psalm but apply the psalmist’s methods to their own prayers.
Capture the Emotion
Second, make much of the emotions and images in the Psalms. You don’t have to be around people long to realize that some people are driven by their emotions more so than others. If you’re like me, all your sermons can easily focus on the logical reasons why people should trust God during the COVID-19 crisis. But then we never address the emotional needs of our congregations.
Psalms solve this because they are designed to engage the emotions. You preach the spirit of the Psalms when you engage the emotions. So, try picturing yourself as the psalmist and feel what he felt. Make much of those emotionally charged words when they appear in the text. Use the metaphors and imagery in the psalms to create your own emotional illustrations.
Many of the people in our congregations are not struggling because they do not know the truth; they are struggling to reconcile biblical truth with their emotional circumstances. The Psalms were designed to be the emotional pleas of God’s faithful people. Preaching the emotional content of a psalm does justice to the original author’s intent and connects the psalm to your audience on a personal level.
Make Christ-Centered Connections
Finally, be sure to show how Christ connects to each psalm. Many of the psalms describe God as our hope, as our refuge, as our rock or as our strength. They describe God’s character as sovereign, loving, faithful, gracious and just.
If Israelites under the Old Covenant could feel that way about God, how much more can we say the same because of Christ? Christ is our ultimate source of hope and refuge because He defeated our greatest enemies: sin and death. And, Christ is the ultimate example of how sovereign, loving, faithful, gracious and just God truly is.
We see the fullness of God’s hope and strength in the book of Psalms only when we realize that these promises are granted to us forever by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. So, preach a psalm in its original context, but be sure to show how the psalmist’s words prove even more true because of Christ’s work on the cross.
The Psalms are a great source of Christian doctrine. My prayer, though, is that the Psalms will also help our people know how to pray and praise God during this time of crisis.
Show them how the stanzas relate to one another. Show them how the psalmist expressed his emotions. Show them how the passage is true more so now because of Jesus Christ. I know my own prayer life has been enhanced by going through the Psalms. I hope yours can, too.