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Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace

Why we preach from Psalms

Preaching on a psalm is like trying to give a talk on "America the Beautiful" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Psalms are meant to be sung—or at least read—again and again, till we know the next line before we read it, till we know their spiritual pitch without a piano introduction, till our hearts naturally begin to think and speak in psalmic.

So what's a preacher to do when our text is a psalm? We tend toward spiritual musicology, lecturing on the song's history and structure ("Do you see the chiasm in verses 5 and 6?"). We take the word pictures and deconstruct them, as if to help people find the faint blue numbers under the psalmist's paint. We rightly point out the expressions of faith or joy or pain and try to walk our people into the music, but we end up sounding like a documentary on how the orchestra works.

The preacher of the psalms is like a choral conductor rehearsing his choir. I've directed choirs for years. I'm not great at it, but I know my role. For one thing, I see to the choir's sound—pitch, color, dynamics, tempo. But it is also my job to see that they communicate the music: that they voice the message of the composer, that they bring the music to life. When it comes to psalms, we preach to the choir. We help them find the text's spirit, mood, and meaning so they can do justice to it when they sing it, or pray it, themselves or together. We preachers have to remember that in the end, God's people sing the song. We help them learn it and love it. Then we urge them to sing it as it was meant to be sung.

For example, in preaching Psalm 19, the magnificent paean to the God who speaks, our introduction could poke at our inclination to see God's Word as ordinary, as black type on white paper, as a thousand pages to be ploughed through. Then to the point: "Our text today, Psalm 19, is an anthem to God's speech, his talk, his conversation with us. Everything about God is glorious, but our ears are dulled by too much chatter, too many newspapers and billboards, and we can't see the wonder of the conversing God. But here we have a master of worship—David—who not only wants to teach us the wonders of God's Word, but to teach us how to sing for joy at the thought of it."

Then, of course, when the sermon ends be sure there is time actually to sing of God's good Word, preferably using settings of the psalmist's own words. Perhaps something special can be done to hold high the Scriptures, symbolically and literally. In our church, one thing we might do is congregational sharing: "One verse of Scripture that shines like the sun to me is…."

The meaning in the dance

The famous ballerina, Isadora Duncan, was asked what a certain ballet meant. She replied, "If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it." There is a problem when preachers try to tell people what a psalm means. Oh, I believe the text has an unchanging, God-intended meaning. It isn't a Rorschach inkblot open to any interpretation. Yet there is a depth of meaning, a quality of meaning, which the preacher can't describe. It must be danced. It must be prayed. And the more it is prayed or sung, the deeper the meaning. (I don't mean the psalm must be literally set to music, though I'm sure we're the poorer for our tunelessness, but that it becomes our heartsong, a lyrical prayer.)

This unusual way of talking to God is the heart's true language.

If I were preaching onPsalm 91, that fortress of promised safety, I would help people see the structure and understand the more obscure word pictures. But more importantly, I would talk about the scores of times I've read this psalm in hospital rooms. (It is always my first choice.) I would show verbal snapshots of these places where sickness seems to be in charge, and where the future is especially murky. I would try to convey how this psalm, read again and again in crisis situations, has taken on a deeper meaning than we can acquire from a sermon or occasional devotional reading. The deeper meaning is a more settled assurance that even relentless pain and desperate diagnoses cannot assail the heart that rests in "the shadow of the Almighty" and his refuge of promises. The point: psalms mean more—mean deeper—when we've owned them in our own experience.

In preaching the psalms, the goal is not only to lay bare the truth of the text but also to show why it was meant to be sung or prayed, not merely said. The sin-sick lament of Psalm 51, the shepherd's walk of Psalm 23, the marching-to-Zion psalms of ascent speak of God and godliness more truly because they are poetry, and even more when they're the soul's own song. Preaching helps people hear the music in their heads and hearts, urges them to make the song their own, and helps people see how to pray this way.

Another task of the preacher is tuning hearts to the psalm's pitch. Many psalms trace a soul's progress in some circumstance of life. Psalm 4, for instance, begins, "Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress." It ends, "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety." The psalm traces David's journey from distress to peace.

Imagine that this psalm is a perfectly tuned, six-stringed guitar. (It is, after all, a perfectly tuned soul song.) Our people come to church each carrying their own guitar, out of pitch from a week of rough treatment and disuse. The preacher's job is to tune their heart-guitars to David's heart-guitar.

So we help them tune to v.1. The preacher might ask, "Have you ever felt like you're calling God, and he doesn't pick up? Like you keep getting his answering machine? 'Come on, God,' you say, 'pick up! I know you're there.'" In saying that, the preacher is tuning the hearts of his people to v.1.

Can you can hear in your mind a guitar player tuning her guitar? A string plucked and resonating. Then she turns the tuning key—woowwaawo—till it matches the perfect pitch. That's our goal: preaching each stanza to tune hearts to the pitch of Scripture. And when we come to the end, their souls are in tune with the psalmist's, and they're ready to sing for themselves, and with all the other singers. David's psalm becomes their psalm. We preach in order to tune their hearts to sing God's grace.

Have you noticed that some psalms seem sort of emotionally exaggerated? Take those imprecatory psalms, for example: "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." I'm almost never that angry with anyone. My psalm would be much more restrained: "Lord, make those irritating people start being nice to me." At the other end of the spectrum, there is that exuberant praise: "Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth." I don't even like clapping along with the praise songs.

But the psalms aren't exaggerated. Sometimes, though, our hearts are drugged by inattention to God, by sin, and by the soul's diseases. We don't feel much of anything spiritually. Sermons on psalms remind people who hardly know the sound of their own inward voice (let alone the Holy Spirit's) what it is like when the godly pray or weep, complain or worship.

Take those loud crashing anthems at the end of Psalms. Our problem isn't understanding those calls to worship, nor explaining why all creation ought to praise God. It is just that for many of us we can rarely imagine being that jazzed about praising God. Our task is to tantalize both mind and emotions with the glories of God so that people not only understand why everything that has breath should praise the Lord, but also so that the congregation can't wait for the songs that follow the sermon.

To do that, the preacher will have to step outside the psalm itself to the mighty deeds of God, recounting with childlike wonder the exodus, the great sun-stopping victories of God, the glories of Christ, the sweet homemaking of the Spirit in our hearts, and the enchanting hope of heaven. Tell why cedars should praise God: "And you cedars, sing! Let the wind play you like great clarinets. For God gives you life and beauty and fragrance, a majesty that hints at his own. He has even brought you into his very temple as the paneling of his dwelling." And if that is not enough, move on to rhapsodize about the character of the Triune God. Punctuate this recounting with the calls to worship from the psalm itself. This sermon won't fit into the three point structure, and it will require that the preacher has summoned his own soul to profound praise before he is fit to preach.

Building a soul-song repertoire

Preaching also helps put these loud psalms in perspective. We help people see where and when this prayer will be needed. We help people prepare a soul-song repertoire for the days ahead. We may not need an angry song or an exalting anthem at this moment, but surely we will. And on that day, we won't have time to learn it. We won't want to have to hum our way through. "Why are you downcast, O my soul something, something, mmmm" Someday their souls will need a vocabulary they seldom use, a song to let the heartbreak out or to set their God-touched spirits soaring. Preachers teach them those songs.

Not long ago I sat on a bench at sunset overlooking the Grand Canyon. People strolled along in front of me, trying to take it all in. One woman stopped, shook her head a little, and, groping for words, blurted, "Ohwhoopee!" That woman needed a psalm!

Have you ever led congregational singing and spotted folks standing there, but not singing? It's unsettling. I'd really like to stop everyone and say, "What's up with you?" Who knows? Maybe they don't know the song, or don't like to sing, or don't want anyone to hear their poor voice. But I always suspect they're dulled, distant, disconnected. They don't know that singing lifts them. I sing, "Jesus is all the world to me," even when he isn't, because singing it—especially with others—makes it truer and moves me closer to where I want to be.

Preaching the Psalms draws silent, voiceless, reluctant souls to sing or pray. Some don't know that the saved soul can sing. Only unredeemed souls are tone deaf. The redeemed have a new song to sing. When we preach a psalm, we urge people to make it the lyric of their heart. It isn't enough to tell them what it means. Our job is to set them a-singing. To set the cadences and spiritual rhymes into their memory. God's beloved people often don't know how wide and deep their songs and prayers are meant to go. When we preach the psalms, we give them a spiritual phrasebook so they have the language to push back the frontiers of their experience with God.

A friend told me about being at a Promise Keepers rally when 60,000 men sang "Holy, Holy, Holy." He dialed his wife on his cell phone and whispered, "Listen to this," and then held his phone in the air. He didn't want her just to hear the song; he wanted her to hear the way it was sung. Preachers urge people to hear the way the songs of Zion are meant to be sung. And we help them understand that these are the songs of all the saints, that a great cloud of witnesses have sung them before us.

Psalms are more soulish than the rest of Scripture. They are also more responsive. Whereas the prophets and storytellers and apostles inform our ignorance and challenge our error, Psalms teach us to talk to God, to sing to him. It is a serious matter that so many of God's people find the Psalms to be as distant to them as the poetry of Tennyson. "I just don't get into the Psalms," they say. "I prefer the epistles and the Gospels." But the Psalms teach us to pray. They are the Lord's Prayer writ large. We don't preach the Psalms only for their theology or their emotion, but to give God's people soul songs and a book of common prayer. We help them see that this ancient song is their today song and that this unusual way of talking to God is the heart's true language.

Selah.