An overview of the historical background and theology of Psalms to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
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The Psalms are the words of people to God that have become the Word of God to his people. They are written out of the history of Israel’s relationship with God and given to successive generations to use in corporate and individual worship. The Psalms are also Scripture, part of the canon through which the church seeks to hear the voice of God. They are illuminated by the Holy Spirit and used by God to teach and rebuke his people: God speaks to us through the Psalms even as we use them to speak to him.
As poetry, psalms use language creatively, inviting meditation and reflection alongside exegetical analysis. First, the brevity or compactness of their wording is immediately obvious from the large amounts of white space on the page. Much meaning is carried by a few words, encouraging us to slow down and engage thoughtfully.
Secondly, Hebrew poetry is marked in particular by the use of parallelism, sometimes called “thought rhyme.” Key ideas are repeated in a similar but varied way. The repetition intensifies, sharpens, and clarifies the ideas. Again, we need to slow down and carefully consider the comparisons and connections being made.
Thirdly, like most poetry, psalms also use imagery—metaphors and similes—to form word pictures. Images might not be as precise as literal language, but their accuracy lies in their ability to attract our attention by their vivid expression, stimulating our imaginations, and stirring our emotions to engage fully with what they describe. However, the imagery of the Psalms originates in an ancient, non-Western, agricultural context, so we need to understand the effect these pictures would have had on their original readers. Images are explicated by their cultural context, for example, describing enemies as dogs refers to wild and dangerous animals rather than pets as we might initially assume (e.g. Ps 59:6); by the context of the passage in which they are found, such as the connection of the image of a rock to ideas of refuge, safety, and security (e.g. Ps 18:2); and by broader biblical theology, as the Psalms’ depictions of God’s actions must be consistent with his character as revealed throughout Scripture (e.g. Ps 78:65).
Finally, we should also note the use and effect of other poetic devices such as inclusio (e.g. Ps 8), acrostics (e.g. Ps 119), or wordplays and alliteration in the Hebrew text (e.g. Ps 122).
Psalms were written throughout the entire period of Old Testament history, from the time of Moses (Ps 90) through to the exile nearly a thousand years later (Ps 137). Psalms were collected over time into an anthology that could be used both individually and corporately. The people of God are encouraged to both learn the songs of the past and to “sing a new song,” expressing their praise to God in their current situation. Perhaps the best analogy we have is with a prayerbook or hymnbook.
There are psalms found in other parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 15; Judges 5) but these are often historically specific, deeply embedded in events from the time. The psalms in the Book of Psalms are deliberately written to be used by successive generations of prayer-ers and worshipers.
While each psalm had an original setting and author, for many of them, this information is not given to us. Those that do include a title or superscription  make explicit what is implicit in all: that each has a historical context, including an author, when and why they were written, and how they were intended to be used. When there is a specific title, we are able to see the relevance and appropriateness of the psalm to the event, and the poem can be preached alongside the corresponding narrative. But we can also see that the psalmists do not embed the events within the psalm to the point that they cannot be used by later worshipers. (e.g. Ps 51 refers to sin in general rather than adultery or rape explicitly; Ps 3 mentions enemies but does not specify a son). The title can inform our reading of the psalm, helping us hear and imagine it within that context, but there is also freedom to make use of each psalm for our own situation.
Psalms have been preserved so they can be used by future communities of faith. As we preach them, we look for meaning but also for the effect they have on the community who speaks, prays, and sings them. The Psalms show us what it looks like for the gathered people of God to respond to God. They expand our vocabulary of prayer and worship. They don’t just teach about worship; they are worship. They invite us to learn by doing.
Psalms engage the whole person. They engage with our minds through instruction and understanding, sharing deep truths about who God is. They engage with our bodies through movement and expression (e.g. kneeling, lying prostrate, raising hands, walking, speaking, listening), inviting us to love God with all our strength. They engage with our souls, connecting with our emotions. They engage with our imaginations, calling us to picture or visualize what God is like and what life in the kingdom can be. They engage with our relationships, both with God and one another as we speak to, with, for, and about him. Nasuti says that rather than simply providing us with a source of information a bout God, the Psalms make available a relationship with God. They invite us into an experience of conversing with God, and with one another about God, and it is from this conversational encounter that our theology is shaped.
John Calvin said that any emotion a human being has ever felt can be found in the Psalms. Based on this truth, many Christians have been encouraged to use the Psalms personally and privately as a kind of emotional vocabulary. We recognize our own circumstances and responses, and then look for a psalm that reflects how we are feeling. This is a wonderful thing to do and allows the Psalms to voice the depths of our own experience. But as Scripture, the Psalms seek to do more than this. They invite us as a community to enter into their experience.
As we preach a psalm of lament, many of our people may not currently be feeling the sadness or anger that is described. But the Word invites us to take on these expressions and to consider their transformative power in our own lives. Why might this Scripture invite us to anger? What injustices are there in our own world to which this is the appropriate, godly response? Similarly, as we preach a psalm of thanksgiving, we are inviting our people to tell our story of transformation, of how God has turned our mourning into joy. A prayer of innocent suffering can become our supplication on behalf of our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world. An imprecation, or curse, against evil can become our battle cry against the spiritual forces, the powers and principalities whom Christ has defeated. A declaration of God’s great saving acts throughout history can become our own statement and proclamation of what God has done in Jesus, is now doing in and through the church, and will do once and for all in the new creation.
Preaching the entire book of Psalms presents a challenge, as few congregations would be willing to devote 150 weeks to a sermon on each individual poem, although there would be great riches to be discovered in doing so. The outlines presented here provide four suggestions for shorter series, each of which could be adapted or extended to include the many individual psalms not covered below.
Series 1: Preaching Through a Variety of Genres
Big Idea for Whole Series: Exploring the breadth of corporate worship.
When preaching an individual psalm within the book, identifying its genre is an important first step. Consideration of the variety of these genres is one of the best ways of providing people an entrée into the Psalter. This can connect with and challenge the breadth and diversity of our own expressions of worship and prayer.
This series was created for a church where the Psalms had not been preached in recent memory. We used the series title “Expressions” as we sought to encourage people to practice each type of worship both corporately on Sunday and individually throughout the following week.
Text: Psalms 96, 145
Title: Praise: Psalms of Orientation
Exegetical Idea: All worship is response; we start with the character and actions of God. In these psalms we look for the invitations to praise (e.g. sing, declare, tell, exalt, celebrate) and the reasons why we do so (e.g. God’s salvation, majesty, justice, goodness, compassion, righteousness). These point us forward to God’s fulfilment of all these things in Jesus and call us to exalt him in our own lives.
Big Idea: Declaring who God is and responding to him with worship.
Text: Psalms 13, 69
Title: Lament: Psalms of Disorientation
Exegetical Idea: We all experience situations of distress: times of suffering, guilt, and sin, and even feeling like God is absent. These psalms give us permission to name these realities before God, and they move us from request, through honest complaint, confession, or assertions of innocence, to statements of trust and hopefulness. They challenge us to honesty with God and one another in the midst of our brokenness.
Big Idea: Crying out to God in our sin and suffering.
Text: Psalms 30, 116
Title: Thanksgiving: Psalms of Reorientation
Exegetical Idea: When we see God at work, these psalms encourage us to remind ourselves and tell one another what he has done. Recounting God’s faithfulness in our lives becomes an invitation for others to join us in praising him, encouraging us to share testimonies of what Jesus is doing in our lives.
Big Idea: Gratefully telling the story of God’s work in our lives.
Text: Psalms 23, 131
Title: Trust: Psalms of Confidence
Exegetical Idea: These psalms use an extended metaphor (sheep and shepherd; mother and child) to reflect on and wonder at God’s care, concern, and compassion for his people. They invite us to put ourselves into that picture and allow God to embrace us.
Big Idea: Meditating on a picture of who God is to us.
Text: Psalms 121, 122
Title: Journey: Psalms of Pilgrimage
Exegetical Idea: The title of these psalms links them to pilgrimage in ancient Israel, a practice of both journey and destination. Ps 121 speaks of God as our ever-present help, guarding and guiding us as we walk the road. Ps 122 celebrates Jerusalem, the place where God’s people gather together in his presence, an image picked up throughout the NT for both the church and the new creation.
Big Idea: Walking with and towards God’s presence.
Text: Psalms 1, 119
Title: Wisdom: Psalms of Instruction
Exegetical Idea: Corporate worship should include singing and speaking to one another the truth of who God is and calling each other to respond. These psalms seek to encourage right living, teaching life lessons from the psalmists’ own experience. They challenge us to consider the depth of theological and practical teaching in our own expressions of worship.
Big Idea: Reminding and teaching one another how to live as God’s people.
Other psalm types that could be considered in an extended series: psalms of remembrance (e.g. Pss 78, 136); kingship psalms (e.g. Pss 20, 45); Zion psalms (e.g. Pss 46, 137).
Series 2: Preaching a Key Theme of the Psalter
Big Idea for Whole Series: Understanding and responding to Jesus as our King.
Declaring God as King is a key reason for praise throughout the Psalms, which in turn shapes our understanding of what it means to call Jesus King. This series was a follow up to the previous series, one year later, and preached as part of a 12-month theme on the kingdom. We sought to explore how these psalms can speak of Israel’s human king, called to represent God to his people; of the true divine king; and of the promised king, the Messiah.
Text: Psalm 2
Title: Enthroning the King
Exegetical Idea: Kingship psalms might have been used as part of enthronement ceremonies or coronations, where the people of Israel pledged their allegiance to both their human and divine kings. While other rulers set themselves up in opposition to God (vv 1-3), this is futile (vv 4-6), as God has chosen his anointed king (vv 7-9). There is a warning to those who do not submit to him and the promise of blessing for those who do (vv 10-12).
Big Idea: Jesus is King forever, but we need to choose to acknowledge and submit to his reign.
Text: Psalm 24
Title: Welcoming the King
Exegetical Idea: God is our creator-King: all things belong to him (vv 1-2). Entering his presence requires humble submission (vv 3-6) and a willingness to welcome him in all his glory (vv 7-10).
Big Idea: We are called to welcome Jesus’ kingship in every area of our lives.
Text: Psalm 47
Title: Worshiping the King
Exegetical Idea: God’s kingship is to be celebrated! It is awesome (vv 1-4) and our response should be one of exuberant joy (vv 5-7). One day every tribe and nation will acknowledge his kingship (vv 8-9).
Big Idea: We sing because we rejoice in Jesus’ reign.
Text: Psalm 72
Title: Praying for the King
Exegetical Idea: The Israelites prayed for their human king, asking God for just judgment (vv 1-4); an enduring reign (vv 5-11); compassion for the needy (vv 12-14); the extending of his kingdom (vv 15-17); and all praise to him (vv 18-20). These same requests can shape our prayers as we ask for the kingdom to come today.
Big Idea: We seek and long for Jesus to reign with justice in our world.
Text: Psalm 98
Title: Proclaiming the King
Exegetical Idea: As we praise God for what he has done for us (vv 1-3), so we declare to all nations that he is king (vv 4-6), and we proclaim his coming just judgment to the whole world (vv 7-9). In the same way, we proclaim to the world the salvation Jesus has brought, his reign breaking into the world, and his future coming to set all things right.
Big Idea: We proclaim King Jesus to the world.
Other key theological themes that could be considered for additional series: God’s Word, God’s character, Creation, Rest, Forgiveness, God’s victory, and God’s mission to the nations.
Series 3: Preaching a Collection Within the Psalter
Big Idea for Whole Series: Living daily as the pilgrim people of God.
Psalms 120-134 share a superscription that connects them to Israel’s practice of pilgrimage. From Augustine to Dante to Bunyan and beyond, the church has used the image of a “pilgrim people” to describe our identity. This collection of psalms speaks to what this looks like in daily life and corporate practice.
This series was initially developed for a leadership conference and then preached at a large church who were seeking to make connections between Sunday gatherings, daily family and neighborhood life, and reaching out to the wider community. It explores some of the tensions these psalms present, as two poems side-by-side can explore paradoxical aspects of our identity and calling.
Text: Psalms 120-122
Title: The Pilgrimage Journey
Exegetical Idea: The pilgrimage collection starts in a place of dislocation and distance, calling us to dissatisfaction with where we find ourselves (120). As we begin our journey, where do we look for help (121:1-2)? We are invited to see God as our guardian in every dimension of life: day and night, coming and going, now and forever (121:3-6). At the same time, we anticipate with great joy the place God is preparing for us (122:1-3); and we seek his shalom both there and here (122:4-8).
Big Idea: The tension between journey and destination: God is at work in and through us now and yet we are still anticipating something more.
Text: Psalms 123-124
Title: Slaves and Free
Exegetical Idea: We are invited to picture ourselves as slaves waiting upon the favor of our master (123:1-2); leading to an acknowledgement that we have been satisfied with something far less from other masters (123:3-4). At the same time, we are invited to imagine what our lives would be like if God had not stepped in (124:1-2) and to feel the joyful experience of salvation (124:3-8).
Big Idea: The tension between salvation and submission: we have been set free to serve.
Text: Psalms 125-126
Title: The People of God
Exegetical Idea: Our communal identity is one of security (125:1-2), unlike those who reject God’s ways (125:3), and so we cry out for God’s peace upon us (125:4-5). At the same time, we remember that we are here now only because of God’s saving work in the past (126:1-3) and we look for him to again pour out his blessing anew (126:4-6).
Big Idea: The past and the present: who we are is shaped by where we have come from and shapes where we go.
Text: Psalms 127-129
Title: Daily Life and Struggles
Exegetical Idea: Work without God’s hand is futile (127:1-2); but when we are blessed in our families it is God’s work (127:3-5). Those who walk in his ways receive his blessing in their lives (128:1-4) and seek for that blessing to be shared with others (128:5-6). At the same time, suffering is our common experience (129:1-3) and so we look for God’s intervention (129:4) and we leave vengeance upon enemies up to him (129:5-8).
Big Idea: Work, family, and nation: seeking God’s blessing in every area of our lives.
Text: Psalms 130-131
Title: Repentance and Confidence
Exegetical Idea: We cry out in confession knowing we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness (130:1-3) but receiving it because of who he is (130:4). In response, we wait and hope for his word (130:5-6), calling others to seek his forgiveness too (130:7-8). At the same time, we can stand in God’s presence with bold humility (131:1), content without needing more from him (131:2) and calling others to the same hope (131:3).
Big Idea: The tension between confession and assurance: we humbly bow before God as sinners, and we stand forgiven as his children.
Text: Psalm 132
Title: God’s Desire to Dwell Among His People
Exegetical Idea: This psalm is longer, more historically grounded, and uses more traditional poetic style and imagery than the rest of the collection. Yet it announces the climax of Israel’s story: the realization of David’s great longing (vv 1-5) that God would dwell among his people (vv 6-12) and the theological truth that this has in fact been God’s great longing too (vv 13-18).
Big Idea: The paradox: the God we long for has always been longing for us.
Text: Psalms 133-134
Title: The Blessing of Community
Exegetical Idea: The unity of God’s people is incredibly good, illustrated by pictures of overflowing and abundance (133:1-3a) and the certainty of blessing (133:3b). As the pilgrimage collection comes to an end, this works out in the departing pilgrims reminding the priests to keep blessing God (134:1-2) and the request for this blessing to poured out upon all he has made (134:3).
Big Idea: The tension between being gathered and scattered: we find joy in the experience of church community and we are sent out to share that blessing with others.
Other collections that could be considered for additional series: psalms of Asaph (Pss 50, 73-83), psalms of Korah (Pss 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88), and the miktams of David (Pss 16, 56-60).
Series 4: Preaching the Psalter’s Entire Narrative Structure
Big Idea for Whole Series: The story of the Psalms as a reflection of Israel’s story and ours.
The Book of Psalms is divided into five books, perhaps deliberately reflecting the five books of the Pentateuch. Different types or genres of psalms are more prominent in different books. Psalms 1-2 appear to form a deliberate introduction to the book as a whole, focusing on the themes of wisdom and kingship. Psalms 146-150 form a strong conclusion of praise, each opening and closing with the invitation, hallelujah. If the book as a whole is thought of as representing a “place” of worship, we may enter God’s presence with questions or doubts, but we leave rejoicing. This series seeks to help people see the shape of the Book of Psalms as a whole, functioning as part of a wider series on the overarching narrative of the Bible.
Text: Psalms 1-41
Title: Book I: Personal Struggles
Exegetical Idea: After introducing the themes of wisdom and kingship (Pss 1-2); the rest of this book contains psalms of David, many personal to his circumstances, describing his troubles (3-8), his questions about life (9-14), his experience of evil (35-39) and even the absence of God (30-31). But we also see his commitment to the Lord (15-17, 26-27) and confidence in his presence (19-21, 23) so that he can rejoice at all times (34, 40).
Big Idea: David’s honest exploration of his own relationship with God reveals God’s faithfulness despite our struggles, questions, doubts, and suffering, and helps us rejoice in all things.
Text: Psalms 42-72
Title: Book II: Communal Struggles
Exegetical Idea: These psalms of Korah (42-49), Asaph (50), David (51-65, 68-70) and Solomon (72) shift to more communal language and national focus. There are many laments as the people of God struggle to find hope in dark times (42-44, 52-64) and yet there is confident hope in God’s deliverance (54, 57, 66-67, 72).
Big Idea: The people of God cried out for his intervention as they experienced oppression and brokenness, calling us to cry for God to intervene in the mess of our world today.
Text: Psalms 73-89
Title: Book III: Crisis
Exegetical Idea: The darkest of the five books explores God’s judgment and seeming rejection of his people (73-79, 89) and takes us to the dark night of the soul (88). Yet we still find hopeful longing for God in the midst (84-85) much like we do in the book of Lamentations (3:21-26), suggesting it is darkest just before the dawn.
Big Idea: As the people of God face destruction and exile, they look for him to do something new, inviting us to do the same.
Text: Psalms 90-106
Title: Book IV: Making Sense of It All
Exegetical Idea: This book moves toward praise as the psalmists seek to answer some of the big questions raised by the exile: Does God still love us? (91-92, 100-101, 103) Is he still just? (94-95, 105-106) Is he still sovereign? (96-99) They affirm that God is who he has always been and help the people make sense of their current situation in light of that truth.
Big Idea: The psalmists affirm God’s faithful character and show how he continues to be at work in the world, a theological task that the church today is also called to.
Text: Psalms 107-150
Title: Book V: Starting Anew
Exegetical Idea: The final book is filled with thanksgiving and praise (111-118, 145) outlining God’s answering of prayer and faithfulness to his promises. It concludes with a chorus of hallelujahs (146-150).
Big Idea: As God gathers his people together again, they renew their commitment to him and praise him for who he is, was, and always will be.
Some ideas to keep in mind when seeking to apply the Psalms
Focus on communal as well as individual application.
This should include how the Psalm might challenge our corporate worship and mission practices. For example, we had someone write a corporate lament for what was going on in our world and our local situation that we prayed together as a congregation, and also encouraged people to write their own personal lament during the week.
Look for what the psalm is calling us to do.
This can be found in the commands, many of which are to worship. But it is also seen in the expression of the psalmist’s own actions (“I will …”, e.g. Ps 18:49) or in calls to the community (“O Israel …”, e.g. Ps 131:3).
Provide time and space for people to respond in various ways.
This can be both corporately and individually, and could include singing, speaking, meditating, physical postures, actions, journaling, discussing, memorizing, listening, or creating art.
For example, in the kingdom Psalms series we linked each message to a posture: kneel, stand, sing, pray, shout. After each message, we spent time practicing this physical posture as a gathered community, and encouraging people to incorporate this attitude into their week.
When exploring the theme of creation in the Psalms, we set up an art gallery of photos and artworks from members of our congregation expressing the beauty of creation with a question in place of a description inviting people to reflect; the following week we provided molding clay, canvases and paint, and invited people to explore their own creativity as a response to the Psalms.
When looking at the pilgrimage Psalms with a smaller congregation, we went for a prayer walk in small groups around our neighborhood.
Use your imagination and encourage your people together to put into practice what the Book of Psalms is speaking about.
Consider how the psalm points to Jesus.
There are various ways to do this. Often, we can apply the images for God in the psalm to him (shepherd, king, rescuer, guardian, rock). We can also pray the prayers of the psalm to him. An interesting exercise is to imagine him speaking the psalm as his own song or prayer. Jesus used the psalms as his own prayers during his life and the Gospel writers use a number of psalms to articulate their understanding of his actions. Hebrews 2:11 pictures Jesus joining us in corporate worship, singing God’s praises alongside us. Jesus is also the perfect embodiment of wisdom psalms such as Ps 1 and Ps 112, pointing to our faith in him and his work in our lives rather than our own efforts as the appropriate response to these kinds of psalms.
My Encounter with Psalms
In my context, the Psalms have often been used for individual devotion or corporate reading but rarely preached on. My own studies of the Psalms and development of these and other sermons has led to a Psalms series becoming part of the annual preaching rhythm of our church life. It engages people’s minds but also their emotions, imaginations, and bodies. Being challenged to pray psalms that do not seem to reflect our current experience has forced us to consider the wider church globally and historically and where we fit within it, so that we find ourselves speaking to, for, and about one another as well as to, for, and about God. It has enriched our corporate language about King Jesus and stretched us in our expressions of prayer and worship. It has become a highlight of our year.
Tremper Longman III, How To Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988).
Rolf A. Jacobson & Karl N. Jacobson, Invitation to the Psalms: A Reader’s Guide for Discovery and Engagement (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 It is important to note that even though the superscriptions are not given a verse number in most English translations, they are part of the original text.
 Note, however, that the Hebrew lamed can be read as “to,” “for,” or “of” rather than “by” so might indicate a broader association than authorship.
 Harry P Nasuti, “God at Work in the Word: A Theology of Divine-Human Encounter in the Psalms,” in Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Rolf A Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 29.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms Volume I, 23. Translated by James Anderson. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.pdf.