The Psalms possess tremendous power to impact us. They reach past the surface concerns and emotional defenses of our daily lives and open our hearts toward God. Depending upon which psalm is in view, a given psalm may comfort our hearts, lift our feelings toward God, convict our consciences of sin, or arouse us out of our complacency.
This phenomenon is no accident. From beginning to end—from the process of composition to the time of our reading and reflection upon a psalm—God's Spirit takes an active role in the process. Each psalm is carefully shaped by both its divine and human authors to address us in specific ways. Allender and Longman write:
No section of the Bible teaches us the language of the soul better than the Psalms, which reflect the movement of the human heart in rich, evocative, and startling language. In a voice that disrupts, invites, and reveals, the psalmist draws us to the voice of God.[i]
God's Spirit prepared the biblical authors to write, and he prepares our hearts and minds to read and understand. We cannot uncover the mysteries of the Spirit's inner workings as God reveals himself to contemporary believers when they read or listen to a particular psalm. Much of what goes on when a person receives a message from God's Word lies beyond human understanding. However, we may be able to look behind the veil to discern some of the Spirit's work on the other end of God's self-revealing work. It is possible to analyze the Psalms themselves to discern the means by which God has acted to transmit his Word to readers and listeners. Yet, Tremper Longman cautions:
The trick is to learn how to read poetry in a way that respects its original, heart-targeted intention without doing so much analysis that we suck the life out of it.[ii]
With Longman's concern noted, our aim as preachers should still be to uncover the methods by which the psalmists employed tools from a carefully prepared poetic genre to shape and transmit God's Word. A carefully executed poetic and rhetorical analysis is important with a psalm intended for use as a preaching text. Just as each psalm is designed in specific ways to maximize its impact on readers and listeners, our sermons can be similarly crafted.
Rhetorical Dynamics in the Psalms
It is true that we must approach sermon design with great care lest we succumb to the temptation to manipulate our listeners' emotions. Our primary goal is not to produce an emotional response in our hearers. Rather, we should aim to communicate and apply God's Word accurately and effectively to listeners' lives.
However, an attempt to reproduce some of a psalm's built-in rhetorical effects does not undermine the text's accuracy. To the contrary, we need to ask ourselves why so many sermons empty the preaching text of its own innate poetic and rhetorical character. If a psalm from which we intend to preach has within it the power to comfort or convict, challenge, provoke, reassure, or to bow or lift a listener's heart and mind in praise toward an awesome God, then shouldn't a sermon on that same psalm produce a similar effect?
Different types of literature call for different homiletical approaches. Rather than use a one-size-fits-all sermon form to preach from the Psalms, why not seek to work in concert with the psalmists themselves? We would do well to mimic some of the effects of a psalm in our sermon by use of rhetorical devices and strategies that are inherent in the genre of Hebrew poetry.
Thomas Long makes the case for carefully examining the rhetorical dynamics of a biblical text. He maintains that it is possible to design our sermons to "say and do what the text says and does in its setting."[iii]
Obviously, we will not be able to carry over one hundred percent of a psalm's poetic power into our sermons. If that were our goal, we would only have to read the psalm to our congregation and sit down. Sermons have become a form unto themselves, with their own purposes and rhetorical strategies. Lives have been touched by sermons in which little attention has been paid to the use of poetic rhetorical devices. However, new developments in rhetorical criticism have supplied us with a new appreciation and awareness of the inspiration and ingenuity with which the biblical psalmists conducted their craft. If we continue to stuff the Psalms into traditional didactic sermon forms, we will be much like the proverbial father assembling his child's bicycle on Christmas Eve without following the directions. Our sermons will have many leftover parts for which we can find no use. And—although our sermon will be functional—it will probably never move with the power and grace that it might have had.
Rhetorical analysis should not replace exegesis. Rather, it should supplement our exegetical study of a psalm and build upon it. Exegesis answers the question: What is the psalmist saying? Rhetorical analysis answers the questions: How did the psalmist say it? and What specifically causes this psalm to affect me the way it does? Exegesis reads what a given line says. Rhetorical criticism seeks to uncover from the same line(s) how the text may be affecting readers or listeners while they are receiving the contents of the message.[iv]
When performing a rhetorical analysis on the Psalms, it would be wonderful if we could find a single key that would unlock the secret behind the beauty and power of poetry in general and the Psalter in particular. Poetic discourse often soars far above plain discourse in terms of the relative effects produced within listeners. Why does "Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth" touch us in a way that "Eighty-seven years ago our ancestors instituted" does not? If we could grasp the reason why the former soars while the latter merely plods along in the same general direction, then we could develop a simple formula that would vitalize our preaching on any given psalm.
I haven't found a master key. What I've found instead is an entire key ring with different shaped keys that unlock different types of locks. There are different types of psalms just as there are different types of locks. What makes one psalm affect us deeply often differs from what makes another psalm affect us. Preachers who wish to unlock the rhetorical power of a psalm and carry some of that power over into their sermons will need to carry a full key chain. Sometimes we will have to try several keys in a lock before we find just the right one.
This is because the Psalter employs a multitude of rhetorical strategies. Which strategy is used and to what degree in a given psalm makes a great difference in the impact that psalm may have upon readers and listeners. Therefore, as we apply the following questions to a given psalm, note that one question may be more useful than another in the rhetorical analysis.
Questions to Ask About a Psalm
To what genre does this psalm belong? How is it similar to other psalms of the same genre? How, if at all, does it differ?
What mood(s), subject matter, and intended effects are usually characteristic of a psalm of this type? Does this psalm remain true to type in these ways?
How well does this psalm follow the usual structural patterns of psalms of this type? Does the author introduce any innovations that alter the psalm's rhetorical impact?
Are the psalm's contents arranged inductively or deductively? What evidence points in this direction?
What is the rhetorical effect of this psalm? What feelings does it produce in me as a reader? How does the psalmist achieve these effects?
What is the psalm's emotional topography? Where are the highs, lows, and level places emotionally? What is the psalmist saying when the psalm hits these different levels of emotion?
What is the psalmist's point of view in time or space? How does the psalmist's point of view contribute to the psalm's message and effect? Is there a spatial or temporal movement within this psalm? If so, what effect does this produce?
What is the psalm's narrative plot, if any?
What are the key images in the psalm? What makes them key? How does the psalmist develop the images? What effects do they produce?
How, if at all, does the psalmist build tension into the psalm? How does he relieve it?
What kind of language—concrete or abstract—does the psalmist use? What effect does it have?
What poetic devices does the psalmist employ in this psalm? These may include such things as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, apostrophe, shifting or unusual tenses, presence or absence of refrains, and the like. What effects do these produce?
What are some of the intensifying features, if any, within this psalm?
What is the psalmist attempting to do in or through this psalm? What does he want the reader to think, feel, believe, or do as a result of reading this psalm?
With these questions in hand, we are prepared to analyze Psalm 8. This psalm is a hymn celebrating the greatness of God as Creator of all things. It is quoted by the author of Hebrews, who identifies "the son of man" in verse 4 of the psalm as Jesus. It would probably be better to preach two sermons, one on Psalm 8 and the other on Hebrews 2, rather than to preach one complex and lengthy sermon on the two texts paired together. The rhetorical analysis that follows deals primarily with Psalm 8 as it functioned in its original literary context.
A Rhetorical Analysis of Psalm 8
1. To what genre does this psalm belong? How is it similar to other psalms of the same genre? How, if at all, does it differ?
Psalm 8 is a hymn. The purpose of a hymn is to give praise to God for something. In this case God is to be praised for his work as Creator and for his ongoing care of his creatures, especially human beings. The psalmist opens the song with words of praise uttered directly to God. This psalm differs from many other hymns in that the psalmist's opening words are addressed to God directly rather than to other worshipers, as is the case with hymns such as Psalm 95-96 and Psalm 100.
2. What mood(s), subject matter, and intended effects are usually characteristic of a psalm of this type? Does this psalm remain true to type?
Hymns typically convey a joyous mood. This psalm celebrates God's work as Creator of the world. By casting his eye toward the heavens, the psalmist paints a picture of the grandeur and vastness of God and his handiwork. Then, in the middle of the psalm, he shifts the focus down to how small and insignificant we are by comparison. He does this with a question, "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" Humanity is elevated to a place of prominence in the next verse in language that calls to mind the theology of creation in Genesis 1.
3. How well does this psalm follow the usual structural patterns of psalms of this type? Does the author introduce any innovations that alter the psalm's rhetorical impact?
Hymns typically open and close with words of praise. The body of the hymn offers reasons for praise. Psalm 8 contains both of these features. The opening and closing verses operate as a type of refrain. The strategic placement of a question in the middle of the psalm deepens the sense of wonder and awe at the glory of God's power and the intimacy of his concern for us.
4. Are the psalm's contents arranged inductively or deductively? What evidence points in this direction?
The psalm has a deductive feeling because the psalmist opens the hymn with words of praise. He presents the desired response from listeners at the outset and supports the call for worship with reasons to do so. This contrasts with psalms such as Psalm 130, which has an inductive feeling because it opens with the words, "Out of the depths I cry to you."
5. What is the rhetorical effect of this psalm? What feelings does it produce in me as a reader? How does the psalmist achieve these effects?
The psalm makes me feel small by comparison to the grandeur of the night sky. I have a similar feeling when I stand looking at the ocean and think about the vastness and power it contains. The psalmist achieves the effect by sharply shifting the focus from the heavens to human beings.
6. What is the psalm's emotional topography? Where are the highs, lows, and level places emotionally? What is the psalmist saying when the psalm hits these different levels of emotion?
The psalm opens in a major key, shifts momentarily to a minor key via the question posed in verse 4, and shifts back to a major key with the answer to his question in verse 5.
7. What is the psalmist's point of view in time or space? How does the psalmist's point of view contribute to the psalm's message and effect? Is there a spatial or temporal movement within this psalm? If so, what effect does this produce?
It's as if the psalmist is standing outside on a starlit night, gazing upward to the heavens and musing about the greatness of the one that is above the heavens. At some point during his meditation it is possible, although not certain, that he hears a baby cry (something calls to his mind the image of a very young child). His focus shifts from the grandeur of the heavens downward to the smallness and seeming insignificance of the human race. Yet the psalmist is aware of humanity's elevated position by God's design. He says humanity is "lower than the heavenly beings, yet crowned with glory and honor ruler over the works of [God's] hands." At this point, the psalmist appears to have a panoramic view of the creatures that inhabit the land, sea, and sky.
8. What is the psalm's narrative plot, if any?
Narrative plot appears to contribute less to the rhetorical effect of this psalm than to many other psalms. What plot there is has to do mostly with creation.
9. What key images are in the psalm? What makes them key? How does the psalmist develop the images? What effect do they produce?
Suckling infants, enemies and avengers, God placing the sun, moon and stars in the heavens, human beings, heavenly beings, flocks, herds, birds, and fish are all present in this brief hymn. The purpose behind the inclusion of suckling infants, enemies, and avengers seems somewhat unclear. Their mention does seem to add a note of sublimity. The juxtaposition of humanity against the vastness of the rest of creation inspires a sense of awe and quiet reflection.
10. How, if at all, does the psalmist build tension into the psalm? How does he relieve it?
The only significant tension comes in the middle of the psalm with the psalmist's age-old question about the significance of humanity in the larger scheme of things. He relieves the tension immediately in the next verse by answering his own question.
11. What kind of language does the psalmist use? Is it concrete or abstract? What effect does it have?
The psalmist uses language and develops themes that call to mind the opening chapters of Genesis. The psalmist uses concrete and specific words rather than abstract ones.
12. What poetic devices does the psalmist employ? These may include such things as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, apostrophe, shifting or unusual tenses, the presence or absence of refrains, and the like. What effect do these produce?
The psalmist does not employ many of the poetic devices found commonly throughout the Psalter. For instance, he does not use metaphors, similes, or hyperbole. He does use refrains, but only at the beginning and end of the psalm. These are comprised of praise given in the form of direct address to God. He also uses highly visual and concrete imagery and jumps freely from one image to another.
13. What are some of the intensifying features, if any, within this psalm?
In a couple of places, the psalmist begins with a general term and then amplifies the term by mentioning a few specific terms that fit under it. The word "heavens" is amplified by "work of your fingers," "moon," and "stars." "Everything under his feet" is amplified by "flocks and herds," "birds of the air," and "fish of the sea."
14. What is the psalmist attempting to do in or through this psalm? What does he want the reader to think, feel, believe, or do as a result of reading this psalm?
The psalmist wants worshipers to praise God for the glory of his handiwork. He also wants worshipers to come away from singing the psalm with a combination of humility and feelings of exultation at our unique standing in this vast universe.
Ways to Preach from Psalm 8
As we move to shaping a sermon based on Psalm 8, we are interested especially in how it functions rhetorically. What effect does the psalm produce on the listener, and how does the psalmist achieve that effect? How may we carry over some of this rhetorical impact to a contemporary audience? What moves will we make? What kinds of illustrations would be compatible with the biblical text?
Psalm 8 is one of a small group of psalms devoted to the topic of creation. One striking thing about this psalm is the sharp rhetorical turn the psalmist makes in the middle of the psalm. He begins in verses 1 and 3 by using broad brush strokes to paint a verbal picture of God's creation of the universe. He depicts God's glory by the vastness of the heavens in which he has placed the moon and stars. In verse 4, the psalmist makes a sudden rhetorical turn. Without warning, he shifts to a question, "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" The sharp juxtaposition of this question with the glory of God displayed in the heavens is the key to understanding and preaching the entire psalm.
We could begin the sermon by heightening the hearer's sense of the grandeur of the creation. In a personal approach, we could describe an experience of the feeling that the psalmist captures in the opening verses: "When I was a child I once tried to count the stars." Another approach might be to expand upon the psalmist's observations with an illustration from science: "if only the psalmist had had a telescope to survey the night sky." We could then describe facts about the size of the universe, the number of galaxies and stars, and the like. Our goal is to intensify the feeling of awe at the majesty of the creation. The more this feeling of awe comes across in the sermon, the more effective will be the transition into the next major move.
In a transition to the next move, we could pose the psalmist's question, "Is it any wonder that David asked, 'What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?' How small and seemingly insignificant we feel when we compare ourselves with the heavens!" At this point, our feeling of insignificance could be heightened with a quote from an author such as Carl Sagan:
As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.
The effect of the illustration could be further heightened by repeating the adjectives and nouns from the quote, "insignificant planet, humdrum star, forgotten corner of the universe." Are we really "insignificant" and "forgotten"? We could offer an illustration on feelings of insignificance using salient quotes, studies that have been done concerning people's sense of insignificance, or a story from everyday life.
In order to stay with the emotional and thematic contours of the psalm, the next move should restore a biblical view of human dignity, as the psalmist does in verses 5-8. The move could be heightened by an illustration from science about the extraordinarily precise conditions required of a universe capable of sustaining life. For example, renowned astrophysicist Martin Rees offers the following startling information about the size of our universe:
The very hugeness of our universe, which seems at first to signify how unimportant we are in the cosmic scheme, is actually entailed by our existence! This is not to say that there couldn't have been a smaller universe, only that we could not have existed in it.
Other details about the fine-tuning of our universe include the force of gravity, the tilt of the earth, the earth's near ideal positioning in orbit around just the right size star, the size of our universe, and the like. All of these could help to intensify the listeners' sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of God's wisdom and love as he called into being a world in which we are the crown and glory of his handiwork.
Because Psalm 8 has a special place in the New Testament—the author of Hebrews cites part of the psalm in reference to the person and work of Christ—we may wish to include a move in the sermon that deals with Christ's incarnation and atoning work. What stronger support is there for the degree of God's love for us than what we find in the central message of the gospel?
Psalm 8 in its original context does not make direct reference to Christ. However, the author of Hebrews clearly identifies Christ with the "son of man" of verse 4 in the psalm. Psalm 8:2—which is somewhat difficult to interpret from the context of the rest of the psalm alone—introduces the topic of the enmity between God and humans. This opens the door to preaching on the incarnation and atonement without necessarily offering a full treatment of Hebrews 2 in the sermon.
If we wish to pair Psalm 8 with Hebrews 2, it might be advisable to preach two sermons. The first would comprise a full treatment of Psalm 8 as it functioned in its original context. The second sermon would focus more on Hebrews 2, but make major reference to Psalm 8 as well.
The sermon suggestion offered here has several advantages. It remains faithful to the meaning embodied in the psalmist's words. It takes seriously the obstacles that ardent naturalistic scientists have attempted to erect against a theistic understanding of the cosmos. And it reassures those listeners who wonder how a God who is busy running such a huge universe could possibly care for them. If the cosmos were not the way it is, they could not be here to ask the question!
Techniques for Preserving a Psalm's Poetic Effects when Moving from Psalm to Sermon
Select a sermon structure similar to the psalm's structure in order to preserve some of the psalm's original rhetorical impact (you may choose an entirely different structure for your sermon, but be aware of what effect your change will have on the psalm as it is filtered through the sermon).
Decide whether to use an inductive or deductive sermon.
As a general rule, a sermon on a psalm should be arranged in moves (a series of developed ideas) rather than a traditional sermon outline structure of parallel points bridging from a single transition sentence in the introduction.
Build and release tension (if applicable) into your sermon in a way that mimics or respects the author's efforts to build and release tension.
Consider whether to help your listeners slow down and muse over one of the author's images, similes, metaphors and the like. How will you develop key images in your sermon? Do you want to intensify some of their effects, keep them the same, or tone them down?
Select appropriate illustrations that work in concert with the rhetorical effects the psalmist achieved.
Select the mood of the sermon. Do you want to echo the author's mood?
Decide the point of view for the various moves of the sermon.
Use concrete, specific words in your sermon. Consider using parallelism as a way to restate your major ideas. For example: God loves sinners; sinners are the apple of God's eye.
Consider whether to pair the psalm with related Scriptures. For instance, should a sermon on Psalm 19 be linked with passages on the work of Christ?
Further Reading on Poetic Analysis
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985)
Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988)
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996)
Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)
William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, ed. Kermit A. Ecklebarger (Dallas: Word, 1993)
James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981; reprint 1997 (Ann Arbor: UMI Books on Demand)
Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988)
Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, edited by David W. Cotter, Jerome T. Walsh, and Chris Franke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001)
[i] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 31.
[ii] Tremper Longman III, Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 131.
[iii] Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 24-34.
[iv] Craig Loscalzo, "A Rhetorical Model" in Hermeneutics for Preaching: Approaches to Contemporary Interpretations of Scripture, ed. Raymond Bailey (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 105.
Kenneth Smith is minister of outreach and family ministry at First Baptist Church of Stoneham, Massachusetts.
"Preacher's Perspective" is an ongoing review of books of interest to preachers from the Christianity Today book-of-the-year awards. Stories with Intent addresses the topic of how to interpret the parables of Jesus.