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Creative Doorways into a Psalm and Sermon

It takes imagination, not just analysis, to recreate the impact of a Psalm.
Creative Doorways into a Psalm and Sermon
Image: Noorulabdeen Ahmad / Unsplash

How can we preach psalms in a way that recreates some of the meditative, emotional, imaginative, and collaborative effects the poets built into their hymns?

Preachers need look no further than the communication strategies of the text. Some of those strategies can be incorporated directly into our sermons.

The goal is not to mimic the exact form of the text but to reproduce the impact of the text. If the text is meditative, we would do well to prompt meditation since this is the Author's intent. If the text prompts emotion, we should too. If the text rebukes, we should rebuke.

In this article, I present nine ideas on how to preach psalms. The ideas gradually move toward innovative strategies implied but not found explicitly in the text but which help us herald the text faithfully.

When Preparing, Meditate

Poetry is a language of images and emotions that the reader must experience. This is how the psalms work, and we must yield to this in our study. Henry Ward Beecher's words are especially applicable when we preach a psalm: "The first element on which your preaching will depend for power and success ... is imagination, which I regard as the most important of all elements that go to make the preacher."[i] I recommend that you get away, lock your door, take a walk, or take a drive to give yourself time to experience the poem. Meditation demands solitude. The only way I know to unpack a psalm's dense images and intense emotions is to slow down our normal mode of reading, linger over words, and imagine.

When I was a little boy, my dad regularly took me and my brother into the woods behind our house to sit on the "listening log." This was simply a fallen tree, and we simply sat in silence trying to notice sounds. We weren't allowed to move or make noise. We just had to listen. It was torture. Our sessions often ended with my dad exasperated as his sons poked, giggled, and whined. Poking and giggling is natural to boys, of course, but I'm afraid that the whining was the response of kids nurtured in a media-saturated culture. Silence is torture to a person brought up with constant visual and aural stimulation. Most Americans lack the ability to listen to "silence" and to imagine that which is not paraded before our eyes, but these skills are necessary to exegete the psalms.[ii]

To help spark our imaginations, Thomas Troeger recommends "logosomatic" study.[iii] Get your body involved. If the text says we are like blind men, cover your eyes or take a trip to a cave. If the text says we are deaf, cover your ears. If we are captive, clench your hands and clamp your arms. If we stumble, stumble.

I also recommend listening to the text. Read it aloud or listen to a professional recording. Poets write for the ear. Robert Frost said, "The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. I have known people who could read without hearing the sentence sounds and they were the fastest readers. Eye readers we call them. … But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer has put into his work."[iv] Thankfully, part of the aural quality of Hebrew poetry comes through even in translation because parallelism is one of the few poetic devices that transfers from one language to another. The psalmists wrote in balanced, pulsing, coordinate phrases, and we can hear them that way even in English.

Use Concrete Language

The psalms use concrete language. There is no reason we shouldn't also, and perhaps every reason we should. We want the same rhetorical effects in our sermons that the psalms produce: imagination, identification, concretizing. Let us avoid Ralph Waldo Emerson's description of his own lectures: "Fine things, pretty things, wise things, but no arrows, no axes, no nectar, no growling, no transpiercing, no loving, no enchantment."[v]

The key to communicating concretely is verbs and nouns. Rather than telling the story about the "man who went down the street," describe the "grandfather who shuffled" or the "CEO who strutted." Discipline yourself to use exact words not vague words.

Try writing out a manuscript. This discipline helps slow the preparation process. It gives us time to choose vivid words. It also gives us a tangible document to edit. Caution: write a manuscript, but don't preach from it! Very few people can read conversationally. When we read it sounds like we're reading. Don't memorize the manuscript either. None of us has time for that. Just depend on the discipline of writing and editing to add some vividness to your speech. Some of the language from the manuscript will transfer to your sermon, and you'll have the best of both worlds—concrete language expressed conversationally.

Spurgeon's language comes from a bygone era, but we can still learn from the master. Notice the sensory appeal:

Spurgeon's language comes from a bygone era, but we can still learn from the master. Notice the sensory appeal:

  • (sound) Our hearts are beating funeral marches to the tomb.
  • (touch) The heart is very slippery. Yes, the heart is a fish that troubles all gospel fishermen, slimy as an eel, it slippeth between your fingers.
  • (taste) Suppose you tell me that honey is bitter. I reply, "No, I am sure you cannot have tasted it; taste it and try." So it is with the Holy Ghost.
  • (smell) The precious perfume of the gospel must be poured forth to sweeten the air.[vi]

Let's talk like the psalmists talk—with concrete nouns and verbs. Let's talk about "sores" not "Job's difficulties," "Toyota pickups," not "vehicles," and "bloodshot eyes," not "the signs of fatigue." Let's describe actions that "wobble," "heave," and "growl." The effective communicator helps listeners imagine because "the mind of man is more like a picture gallery than a debating chamber."[vii]

Use Metaphor

Another strategy of style that arises directly from the text is the use of metaphor. If you have a gift of artistic language, your gift can soar when preaching the psalms! For those of use who don't have that gift, we can at least avoid denuding the text's metaphors by translating them into abstract propositions. (Note: When interpreting biblical metaphors we may need to "translate" the images for modern audiences. Few of us know what a lot is, and even when we understand the gist of the image—sheep, arrows, oil lamps, scrolls—we often need some explanation and background to appreciate the figurative language better.)

Wiersbe parodies an overly abstract approach in a preaching outline from Psalm 23. Here are portions of that outline:[viii]

I. A relationship that is precious ("the Lord is my shepherd").

II. A resource that is plentiful ("I shall not want").

III. A rest that is pleasant ("pastureswaters").

VII. A repast that is peaceful ("a table before me").

IX. A realization that is phenomenal ("follow me").

X. A regularity that is positive ("all the days").


If we don't have the ability to spin metaphors as easily as the cotton candy machine spins treats, perhaps we can spin just one. A single metaphor can become a controlling image for an entire sermon, or even a series of sermons. Years ago I did a five part series on the problem of evil using the metaphor of a "long and winding road."[ix] Each sermon used the journey metaphor with the last one describing heaven as "arriving home."

A controlling metaphor makes a great refrain:

  • "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming" (Tony Campolo).
  • "Payday someday" (R.G. Lee).
  • "How is a king like a lion, a farmer like a cow, a dowager princess like her lapdog, a mafia chief like a snake?" (Haddon Robinson).

Metaphor used as a refrain lodges in memory. African American preaching has known this for centuries. The use of metaphor and refrain is one way to make preaching memorable and inspiring.

Create an ‘Emotional Outline’

This is David Larsen's phrase. He contrasts the emotional outline with the logical outline, arguing that "there need to be … peaks and valleys. There need to be moments of affective intensity and then a backing off and moments of relief for the congregation. Working at half throttle all the time won't do, nor will going at full bore throughout delivery, like lightning which flashes all over but strikes nowhere" (Larsen, Anatomy of Preaching, [Kregel, 1989] p. 70).

In the emotional shape of Psalm 77, the first 9 verses angle sharply down, but then the psalm hinges in verses 10-12 and swings upward from that point onward as the author and readers (who are reading sensitively!) plow through the great deliverance at the Red Sea. Then the final verse "flattens out" with a summary as the Israelites continue their journey toward the Promised Land. The psalm leaves us higher than it started.

We can achieve a similar effect by carefully choosing and arranging materials not only for their ideas (remember that we are teachers of the Word) but also for their emotional content. For example, you may choose to use self-disclosure in this sermon about a time you felt "faint" (Psalm 77:3), "troubled" (Psalm 77:4), and "forgotten" (Psalm 77:9). As you well know, such self-disclosure is likely to crackle with emotional energy. The listeners would be riveted. Your story would help them experience the truth of the psalm on the downward slope, but you would need to take special care to help them experience the upswing also. The psalm doesn't leave us in the depths. It rebounds with passion and leaves us in a higher state than we began.

Perhaps you could describe the crossing of the Red Sea with vivid and dramatic language and then bring the text into the twenty-first century with testimonies of deliverance from folk who have seen God perform miracles (Psalm 77:14) and redeem his people (Psalm 77:15).

With this psalm, the preacher should probably not turn the experience into imperatives ("We should trust God just as the psalmist did"). Instead, the preacher should help worshipers to remember how God delivered them. That will prompt trust.

Use Parallelism

If you want the congregation to slow down, meditate, ponder, and turn the prism this way and that, try doing what the Bible does: use parallelism.

Here is an example from a sermon of mine on Psalm 77 where I used concrete language and parallelism to try to recreate the impact of the text:

If you think God has forgotten you, think again!

Israel groaned for 400 years, but then God delivered them. He hadn't forgotten them!

The Midianites oppressed Israel, but then God delivered them with 300 men and a timid leader named Gideon. God hadn't forgotten them.

180 thousand Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem, but then God sent his angel.

If you think God has abandoned you, think again.

The disciples groaned as they pulled on the oars. The storm tossed them this way and that. They thought God had forgotten them, so Jesus said to the storm, "Hush." And the storm hushed.

The disciples groaned when their friend Lazarus died. They waited in darkness while Jesus took his time getting there. They thought he had forgotten them, but then they had an attitude change when Jesus said, "Come forth."

The disciples saw Jesus on the cross, and they groaned. For three days they huddled in silence because they thought God had forsaken Jesus and them. But then on Sunday morning, Jesus rose, and they remembered that fact all the days of their lives.

If you think God has abandoned you, think again.

Not only can we use parallelism for small units, but we can also use it to organize the entire sermon. State your point and develop it, then restate the point and develop it with more intensity, then restate it again. Sermons don't always have to march, they can also swirl in expanding arcs. However, if you organize your message with synonymous parallelism, be careful that the "arcs" intensify just as the second part of a Hebrew line does. Sermons must not stall even when they state and restate.

Antithetic parallelism lends itself easily to sermonic structure. A text like Psalm 1, with its striking contrast between the godly and the wicked, could be organized with any strongly contrastive motif such as "This/Not this," or "Cause/Effect."

Use Music

The psalmists used music; why shouldn't we? I'm not recommending that we sing our sermons, but that we incorporate music into them. Even this technique may jar the congregation, but remember that music is powerful rhetorically and that the biblical poets intended their poems to be accompanied by music. Maybe you could try one of these:

  • End the sermon with a hymn or praise song based on your psalm.
  • Begin or end with special music that coordinates with the emotional and ideational content of the sermon.
  • Insert a congregational song or special music in the middle of the sermon.
  • Use musical background as the text is read.
  • Insert your own singing into the sermon(!).

I have heard all of these done, and I have done all of them myself. My experience has been very positive except when I sang. Like all homiletical/rhetorical practices, the use of music can be used to great advantage or disadvantage, but it's worth a try.

Work in Concert with the Entire Service

The sermon is only part of the worship or evangelistic service. The liturgical tradition knows this and thoughtfully arranges the entire service as a unit. Those of us in the "free church" tradition should work with musicians and other leaders to create a holistic experience. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, says that the music, drama, Scripture reading, and prayer get him to the "five yard line." All he has to do in the sermon is carry the ball over the goal line. Music, testimony, prayer, readings, communion, greetings, as well as the sermon, should be conceived as parts of a whole.

To recreate the impact of the text, try following your sermon with a testimony, silence, or benediction. You may need to shorten your sermon so that there is time for contemplation or discussion. Effective preachers think through such issues before they find themselves in front of the congregation.

Use Actual Images

Although the psalms communicate with words, not literal images, their language is so sensory, and our listeners are so attuned to visual communication, that the use of actual images may help us recreate the impact of the text (for an illuminating commentary on, composed almost entirely of photographs, see Robert Short, A Time to Be Born—A Time to Die [NY: Harper and Row, 1973]). One of the most stirring Scripture readings I have heard was of Psalm 8 ("the heavens declare the glory of God") accompanied by music and a slide show. Besides using pictures, preachers can use objects, as when Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, preached on Psalm 119 ("your word is a lamp to my feet") in a dark auditorium lit by a single lamp.

Remember that the Bible appeals to more senses than just sight. One of my students told me of a service where his pastor set a bread machine in the back of the room. He programmed the machine to bake the bread during the service while he preached on the text, "One loaf...one body" (1 Cor. 10:17). The lovely smell of baking break gradually pervaded the room, and after the sermon they used the fresh loaf for communion.

Your church may discourage such communicative techniques, but perhaps you could use these ideas in other settings such as retreats, classes, or home groups.

Use an Expressive Voice and Body

Preachers convey meaning through two channels: sight and sound. What we look like and sound like is not incidental to preaching. It is inseparable from it. In face-to-face communication the nonverbal channel (what we look like and sound like) dominates the actual words. This is especially true when the nonverbal channel seems to conflict with the words. You know the kind of thing: (scowling with a harsh voice) "Dear friends, it is good to see you. Welcome." When the two conflict, we believe the nonverbal; therefore, preachers who want to recreate the rhetorical impact of the text must embody it. God has ordained that his Word be incarnated in the voices, hands, and faces of preachers. What we look like and sound like is our medium, and if Marshall McLuhan overstated his argument that the medium is the message, we all agree that it is at least a message.

So if the text is joyful, we need to feel that happiness, then speak out of a full heart with a skillful voice and bearing. If the text is doleful, we need to vicariously enter the psalmist's experience and then communicate that experience naturally and sincerely. When we embody the text, the rhetorical impact is regenerated in the hearts and minds of the people. Some authors call this communication dynamic "empathy." Listeners mirror what they see and hear from a speaker, as this description of Chrysostom's preaching illustrates:

As he advanced from exposition to practical appeals, his delivery became gradually more rapid, his countenance more animated, his voice more vivid and intense. The people began to hold their breath. … A creeping sensation like that produced by a series of electric waves passed over them. They felt drawn toward the pulpit as if by some magnetic influence. … some rose from their seats, others were overcome by a kind of faintness and the great mass could only hold their heads and give vent to their emotions in tears.

Perhaps this advice on recreating the impact of the psalms can be summarized in the old adage about writing and speaking: "If you're going to talk about a bear, it is of the utmost importance to bring in a bear." Bring in the bear with concrete language, metaphor, actual images, music, compelling delivery. Turn the bear loose and see what happens.


[ ] Meditate. Imagine.

[ ] Get your body involved while studying.

[ ] Read the text aloud.

[ ] Listen to the text read aloud.

[ ] Get alone.

[ ] Find a "listening log."

[ ] Use concrete language—strong verbs and nouns.

[ ] Write a manuscript.

[ ] Write for the ear.

[ ] Create metaphors.

[ ] Use a metaphor as a refrain.

[ ] Translate metaphors as needed.

[ ] Appeal to all the senses.

[ ] Create an "emotional outline."

[ ] Use self-disclosure.

[ ] Don't necessarily turn poetry into propositions or imperatives.

[ ] Use "micro parallelism" (in a section).

[ ] Use "macro parallelism" (for the structure of the whole sermon).

[ ] Slow down and help people turn the "prism."

[ ] Use a hymn or chorus.

[ ] Use special music (before, after, or in the middle).

[ ] Work in concert with the entire service.

[ ] Use testimony.

[ ] Use pictures.

[ ] Use objects.

[ ] Use other sensory experiences.

[ ] Use an expressive voice.

[ ] Use expressive facial expression, hands, postures, movement.

[ ] Practice.

[ ] Think.

[ ] Pray.

[ ] Bring in a bear.

[i] Quoted in David L. Larsen, The Anatomy of a Sermon: Identifying the Issues in Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), 108.

[ii] Besides the suggestions in this chapter for developing the imagination see Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry (Wheaton: Victor, 1994), esp. 289-300.

[iii] Thomas H. Troeger, Imagining a Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 55.

[iv] Troeger, Imagining a Sermon, 70.

[v] Larsen, Anatomy of Preaching, 71.

[vi] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Creative Preaching: Finding the Words (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 101. See also, Jay E. Adams, Sense Appeal in the Sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed).

[vii] W. MacNeille Dixon in Larsen, Anatomy of Preaching, 109. For more help in developing a concrete style, see Thomas H. Troeger, Creating Fresh Images for Preaching: New Rungs for Jacob's Ladder (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1982); and William H. Kooienga, Elements of Style for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).

[viii] Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching, 235.

[ix] Available at PreachingToday.com.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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