Good book on preaching the psalms

In his splendid book, How to Preach the Psalms, Kenneth Langley’s burden is not to teach you how to interpret the psalms. Plenty of folks have already done that. Nor is it about exegesis―there are already far too many guides to what Abraham Kuruvilla maligns as a “hermeneutic of excavation.”1 Instead, Langley’s aim is to help pastors preach the psalms as the literary treasures they are.2

Langley explains that, early in his ministry, he avoided preaching the psalms. They were too raw. Too emotional. Perhaps even unsuited to preaching.3 When he tried his hand at the genre, he felt like a failure. It was flat. Stale. Cold. Something was missing. “I had been faithful to the meaning of the Psalms, but their emotion, imagination, and aesthetic appeal never quite made it into the sermon. I had not captured the poetic essence of these texts.”4

It is this disconnect that Langley seeks to bridge. It is a well-earned cliché that newly-minted seminary graduates will be poor preachers for several years. We may be able to discuss verbal aspect theory vs. traditional tense form. We might point with pride to our dense syntax analysis of Psalm 1. But, can we communicate truth as the psalm presents it? Or, do we deliver stale, scholastic ice for 45 minutes? “Many preachers have felt the force of this argument. We remember with embarrassment sucking the juice out of a psalm and then preaching a shriveled rind of a sermon.”5

Langley divides his suggestions into seven categories encompassing 14 “strategies:”

Figure 1. Langley’s strategies for preaching psalms

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Each strategy is very practical; there are no ivory towers here. In style and feel, this little book greatly resembles H.B. Charles’ On Preaching.6 The chapters are short, the advice punchy, the content extraordinarily practical.

I see two reasons why Langley’s book is needed more than ever. The first is that pastors, like many people, read less than they used to. I am skeptical one can “teach” a feel for genre, style, mood, tone, or the implicit force of a text. This knowledge only comes from years of reading fiction, history, biography, prose, poetry―from reading a lot. Aside from a curious mania for Narnia and Tolkien (both massively overrated!), too many Christians read far too little. This means their interpretive abilities are often stunted. It also means pastors may give lip-service to tone and implicit feel,while happily crushing a psalm into a didactic mold. “This sucks the life out of a poem.”7 But, if we consciously stop, think, and make the poem real to us, there is hope we can go beyond a deductive outline.

The reason why Langley’s little book is so valuable is that it teaches pastors to interpret, frame and present poetry differently. “The psalms do not open their treasures to preachers who insist on treating them like epistles or theological arguments.”8 This is the great tragedy―because so few of us can escape this trap. We want to excuse away Job 23, and we are uncomfortable with the raw emotion of Psalm 109. We are addicted to the “audiobook commentary” style of preaching championed by John MacArthur, who not only epitomizes the “hermeneutic of excavation,” but actually built the excavator.

Using the Book

I will illustrate this book’s usefulness by relating some anecdotes from a recent sermon I did on Psalm 113. I preach through the psalms on Wednesday evenings. We meet in people’s homes, not in the building, which means this is a cozy, intimate setting―sitting in a circle on chairs and couches, with a cat or two purring in someone’s lap. These sermonettes usually last 15 minutes, give or take.

Strategy 3 tells me to follow the logic of the psalm. I followed Fred Craddock’s advice and did not declare “the point” of the psalm at the beginning and then deductively “prove it.” I quickly advanced through vv.1-3, which is a plain vanilla declaration of praise to God. I did not linger to explain why we ought to praise Him. If I had done that, I would have robbed the psalmist, because he was about to do that for me.

The setup is in vv.4-6, which emphasizes how “high” and mighty God is. Above the nations. Above the heavens. Seated on high, gazing down on little people like us, far below. If I had read Langley before 11 November 2021, I would have stressed the gulf between heaven and earth forcefully so as to make people think, “Well, He’s too important for the likes of me and my problems!”  

The mind-blowing moment is in vv.7-9, where we see that, despite His great heights, God cares. He cares enough to notice and help the most powerless, most vulnerable people in society. There is no partiality or favoritism. The God who is so high loves to stoop so low, for His people. Now, when the psalmist repeats His command to “praise the Lord,” it really means something. The psalm is precious because it shows us that the God of Isaiah 6 cares about you― especially you.

Strategy 4 tells me to re-narrative the psalm. Christians in 2021 cannot really connect with the “poor” and the “barren woman” in the way the psalmist intended. These are the most powerless people, the most vulnerable. Who are these people, in today’s society? What about that fellow in your church who works an unskilled job for a multi-billion corporation, makes little money, is in poor health, and is in debt? He is exploited by a billion-dollar juggernaut for pathetic wages, in constant fear of losing his position to other poor unskilled workers. He is disposable, and the corporation knows it. He is the product of a cultural system that has locked him into a cycle of poverty.9 He is the powerless believer, crushed by forces he cannot understand.

Yet, God looks down from the commanding heights, raises him from the dust and sits him alongside princes. He cares about him. He really cares. Of course, the Torah does not envision crushing debt and poverty lasting longer than seven years (Deut 15:1-11), but real life is cruel. There is perhaps a subtle rebuke here to the wickedness of a society that permanently crushes its most vulnerable members. “The preventable decimation of the people is social murder.”10

In this fashion, Langley’s strategies can make a psalm sing. He can help you communicate reality in Psalm 113, rather than another stale lecture about providence. It is an excellent book.


1 Abraham Kuruvilla, A Manual for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 7. “[W]e preachers are consumed with what is best labeled a ‘hermeneutic of excavation’ and have been trained to shovel up loads of dirt, boulders, potsherds, arrowheads, and fishhooks. We dump it all on our desks. Everything in the text, it seems, is equally important and crucial, and there is hardly any discriminating inference or integration that leads to an understanding of what the author is doing—the theology of the pericope. Like cows at pasture, we munch on every available blade of grass, and commentaries abundantly furnish those pieces of herbage for our consumption.”

2 Langley observed, “It seems to me that what preachers need is more of what Tom Long did in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Fortress, 1989) and Jeffrey Arthurs did in Preaching with Variety (Kregel, 2007). Long steered preachers in the direction of genre-sensitive preaching ‘based on the relatively simple idea that the literary dynamics of a biblical text can and should be important factors in the preacher’s navigation of the distance between text and sermon.’ His chapter on Psalms is the seed from which the present book has grown …” (Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes, 2021), p. 13).

3 “I was almost prepared to agree with Donald Gowan that the psalms do not want to be preached, that they are speech directed toward God and do not adapt well to speech directed toward the church,” (Langley, Psalms, p. 15).

4 Ibid, p. 15.  

5 Ibid, p. 16.  

6 H.B. Charles, Jr. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2014).  

7 Langley, Psalms, p. 46.  

[8] Ibid, p. 51.  

9 Walter Rauschenbusch writes, “Our national optimism and conceit ought not to blind us longer to the fact. Single cases of unhappiness are inevitable in our frail human life; but when there are millions of them, all running along well-defined grooves, reducible to certain laws, then this misery is not an individual, but a social matter, due to causes in the structure of our society and curable only by social reconstruction,” (Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan, 1907; reprint: CrossReach, n.d.), p. 63).

[10] Ibid, p. 62.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Sounds like a helpful tool. I have not found it especially easy to preach the Psalms, though some much easier than others!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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