I had an epiphany while listening to Johnny Cash that transformed the way I preached the Psalms.

Well, okay - maybe it wasn't exactly an epiphany, but it was an important insight. And while it may not have exactly transformed my preaching of the psalms, He at least nudged me in the right direction.

I was working on a doctoral thesis, The Narrative Preaching of the Psalms. My objective was to write a series of sermons based on psalms that told a story. So far, the project had not gone well. I was having trouble finding story-psalms; there were not as many as I thought. I was beginning to wonder if I should scrap the whole project completely and get a new one.

Then I went on vacation. Before I left, I grabbed my CD case, looking for "traveling music." My collection contains an eclectic mix - praise music, jazz, rock, country and world music. My wife and I listened to this mishmash of musical styles all through the trip.  

It was in the middle of a Johnny Cash album that it finally hit me. It was not just ballads that told stories. Every song told a story — or at least a part of one. Every song, in whatever style, connected in some way to a story.

Ballads told stories, of course. Johnny Cash is famous for them: "A Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of Fire." But the rest of his music told stories as well — stories about love, sadness, sorrow, hope and joy. Every song had a story.

We listened to other discs. Every kind of music - love songs, praise music, jazz. The songs expressed every possible human emotion, and all that emotion arose from human experience. Sometimes that experience was in a beginning — a boy meeting a girl he wants to fall in love with. Others times, it was an experience from the past — blues songs about broken love affairs. Others picked up the stories in the middle, when the singer was enraptured with his girl, his God or even his Corvette. Some celebrated triumph. Others related tragedy. But each song had a unique story behind it.

That's what attracts us to music. Some part of the singers' experience resonates with us. We sing along, perhaps changing the meaning just a bit to fit our own experiences, lives and moods. Even though the singer does not know us, we adapt the music to our needs. We say to each other, "Listen, they're playing our song."

The Psalms are the same. They come from ancient people who experienced the same feelings, challenges and joys we feel now. As we read or sing them, their stories become ours. 

Some psalms tell their stories directly. Other psalms are clearly written in the midst of a story. Psalm 51 is written in the midst of David's sorrow over his sin with Bathsheba. Psalm 56 is written when David was seized by the Philistines. Psalm 130 is written from the bottom of a pit — either spiritual or literal — and tells the anguish of a trapped man. Psalm 137 catches the psalmist by the rivers of Babylon, weeping in unresolved anger. At the end of the psalm, he still has not fully dealt with his trouble. It ends with him saying "Happy is he who repays them for what they have done for us—happy is he who takes their infants and dashes them against the rocks!" (Try reading that one to a sleepy Sunday morning congregation!)

There may also be stories that embrace more than one psalm. Psalm 120-134 are the psalms of degrees, or ascent. They were pilgrim songs sung on the way to Jerusalem for holy days. They may also be psalms sung as the exiles returned to Jerusalem. These psalms reflect an upward movement from despair to joy. In other words, they tell a story.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that while the rest of the Bible is God's Word to us, the Psalms are words given by God to be said back to Him. They were not written as information but as prayers.[1] God's intention in giving them to us was that we would give them back to Him as expressions of our own devotion and desires.  

All stories may have a distinctive three-part structure. A story begins with equilibrium. There is a setting that makes sense, and characters who are comfortable in their setting. It is the moment at the beginning when the baseline of normality is established. In the parables, it is usually the opening lines: "A certain man had two sons," "A sower went out to sow," "A certain man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho."

In material that is less overtly narrative, it may not be a place or setting, but a proposition which is universally accepted. Psalm 73 opens with "Surely God is good to Israel, even to those who are of a pure heart." This is what we would expect the Psalmist to say. It is the starting place for all that comes afterward.

Next comes the upset. This is when the equilibrium is challenged by argument or circumstances such as, "The younger son said to his father, give me my portion now," "And he fell among thieves." In Psalm 73, the upset comes when Asaph, the psalmist, admits, "But as for me, my feet almost slipped, I almost lost my foothold for I envied the arrogant." It is the moment when the status quo is threatened, and the old order no longer holds.

Finally comes the resolution. Whatever caused the upset is resolved, and a new equilibrium is established. This new equilibrium is not like the old. We gain new strength and understanding from having our world shaken. A father forgives his wayward son. Even a Samaritan can be good. Asaph in Psalm 73 learns not to envy the arrogant when he goes to the sanctuary of God (73:15).

In the Psalms, the story arc is essentially the same for all. The Psalmist trusts in God (the equilibrium). His faith is challenged by the realities of a sinful world (the upset). He learns that God is trustworthy, even through difficulty (the solution).

A psalm usually does not tell the whole story arc. Faith fills in the rest. A psalmist might be anticipating difficulties that lie ahead, giving instructions on how to avoid it, or he might begin his psalm at that moment of upset. Things have gone wrong, so he is crying out for help. Or the psalmist might be rejoicing because he can finally see help on the horizon. Or a psalm might be reflecting back over a time of trouble, and offering praise to God for his deliverance.

For this reason the meaning of a psalm is not just a matter of line-by-line interpretation. To understand the psalm's intent, we must see where on the story arc the psalm falls. Telling the meaning of the psalm is not only telling what is happening, but what has happened and what we expect to happen next in the story.

The role of the preacher is to bridge the gap between the psalm-story and our story. This can be done in several different ways, depending on how much of the story is revealed in the psalm.  

We may tell the story that is there.  

In a handful of Psalms, we can see the full arc of the story. Psalm 23, Psalm 73, and Psalm 136 are examples. If the whole story is there, all we need to do is tell the story with creativity, vividness and relevance.  

Psalm 23 may seem like an odd addition to this list of examples, but it shows all the elements of story. Psalm 23 begins with an indisputable proposition: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." It then follows the shepherd and his sheep on a journey that challenges that proposition. After going through the green pastures and still waters, He leads them on a narrow path, the path of righteousness. This path leads through the "valley of the shadow of death," a place of great danger. This is the upset, the place where faith is challenged. As long as the sheep trusts the shepherd, he fears no evil. Finally, they come to a place of refreshing, in the presence of enemies. At last, the sheep and shepherd come home to the house of then shepherd where they abide together forever. The problem is solved through trust in God, and a new equilibrium is established.

We may anticipate the resolution that is coming.  

Many psalms, (120 and 137, for example), end without resolution. They pick up the story at the worst moment, at the depths of the upset. Preaching these psalms requires that we fill in the rest of the story, revealing that God's deliverance is on the way.

Psalm 137 is a song of grief for a believer who has been torn from his home. It picks up the story at the bottom of a well of grief. There is no resolution to it; it is a raw cry of anguish. From the famous opening words, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion," to the shocking closing curse, "Happy is the man who repays you for what you have done for us — happy is the man who seizes your children and dashes their heads against the rocks," the Psalmist cries out in pain.  

The emotions in this psalm are real and powerful. But the context of this psalm in the history of Israel shows us that God did not leave His people in pain. He allowed them to cry, but He also brought them home again. There is no suggestion that God ever encouraged His people to commit infanticide against the Babylonians, or that the Israelites ever did any such thing. It does demonstrate, though, that even in the deepest sorrow, God accepts our grief and anger.  

I once preached this psalm for a hospice memorial service to families struggling to recover from the death of their terminally ill relatives. These grieving relatives found the psalm was strangely comforting — even the angry parts, because many of them were struggling with the same feelings. The psalms told them that God was willing to listen to them with all their doubts and anger. They could release their anger to Him, and grow beyond it. The story of the psalmist echoed their own story.  

When preaching a psalm like this one, it is important that we do not end where the psalm ends. We need to complete the arc of the story by bringing resolution. The sermon should end in hope. In the end, God is faithful to His people.

We may celebrate God's faithfulness in the past.  

Many psalms reflect on past struggles and victories. These psalms remind us of the reason we tell stories at all — as testimonies to God's goodness. In Psalm 136, the psalmist reflects on the major events of the Exodus, and invites us over and over to remember that "His love endures forever." When we get to the end of the story in the psalm, there is no need to end. We can continue the story in our own day, using the story of our congregation or our own lives as examples, without violating the meaning of the text. When we combine the ancient story with our own modern one, the lesson of the text becomes as relevant as a newspaper headline.

While most of the Bible is narrative, there is a crucial difference in the narratives of the Psalms. The Psalms do not just tell stories — they sing them. They are lyrical, not merely factual. That is the way God intended them to be presented. For those of us who can't carry a tune in a bucket, this means conveying the feeling as well as the facts of the psalm.

Preaching the story of a psalm is not the time to give lectures on biblical history or the parallel structure of Hebrew poetry. It means making us feel what it is like to have our souls in peril with only our faith for comfort. The psalmists went to great lengths to make us feel as they felt, so we might experience a glimpse of God's mercy on the other side of trouble.

We don't have to have the skills of King David (or even Johnny Cash) to tell these stories - we just have to tell them honestly. But if we can see the story behind the psalms, and can bring that story to the listener, then the story will live in them as well. The story of the Psalms will become our story, too. 


Bill Fleming is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian Pastor and teaches at New Life Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.


 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalm" The Prayer Book of the Bible, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966.