PREACHING FROM THE PSALMS
Dr. Robert V. McCabe
Professor of Old Testament
Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
One of the most popular books of the Bible is the book of Psalms. The psalms are commonly used for reading purposes in public worship services, encouragement in times of trials, weddings, and other occasions. In spite of their popularity, we do not hear many expository sermons from this portion of the Bible. A sermon is occasionally preached from a verse in the psalms, but rarely is one preached from an entire psalm. My objective is to encourage a renewed vision on expositional preaching from the psalms.
There are three reasons for this encouragement. First, if pastors in our fundamental pulpits are to imitate Paul in preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), then our preaching must include the Psalms. Second, the Psalms cover a wide spectrum of human experience. Whether one faces pain or joy, deep theological concerns or great theological affirmations, failure or success, the continuum of human experience is found in the Psalms. Third, the theology of the Psalms focuses on the supreme glory of our self-sufficient and all-sufficient God. Whether portraying creation, history, sin, man, the nation of Israel, the various writers of the Psalms call the people of God to find their full satisfaction in the LORD.
To develop my objective, we will focus on interpreting a psalm in its original context and explaining a psalm for the contemporary church. Prior to examining these two issues, a definition of an expositional sermon will be presented.
I. Definition of Expositional Sermon
An expositional sermon is an accurate explanation of the message of a biblical passage (passages) that includes a persuasive application for its listeners. Three aspects of this definition need to be more fully developed.
A. An expositional sermon is an accurate explanation of a biblical text. The main objective of a sermon is to accurately communicate the content of a text. Consequently, the preacher’s first objective is to understand what the biblical author intended to teach in a text. By using a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, the preacher is able to understand the biblical author’s intended meaning and purpose. This type of hermeneutic attempts to understand the author’s message by examining the passage’s historical background, its literary setting, genre, and language.
B. An expositional sermon develops the message of a biblical passage. When the basic interpretative questions have been addressed, the next task is to discover the biblical writer’s message. The writer’s message is a reference to his argument (the development of his thought). In identifying his argument, the task focuses on identifying the subject of the passage and the complement, what the passage says about the subject. For example, the subject of Psalm 23 is presented in v. 1a, “the LORD is my shepherd” or “the shepherding of the Lord.” The last part of the v. 1 provides the complement: “I shall not want” or “the provisions for David’s need.” The remainder of Psalm 23 is a cataloging of what needs the LORD provided for in David’s life. The preacher should subsequently attempt to develop the subject and complement into a complete sentence, the author’s “exegetical theme.” The exegetical theme for Psalm 23 could be worded something as “the LORD’s shepherding provided for David’s needs.”
C. An expositional sermon should include persuasive application for its listeners. When the author’s exegetical theme has been identified, the next task is to determine how the original author expected his audience to respond to his message. In considering the original author’s expectations, the emphasis shifts to focusing on what timeless truths are involved with the exegetical theme. In considering our present culture and dispensational distinctives, the preacher should then seek to restate his theme in light of the timeless truths or directives. The restated theme can be called the “expositional theme” (other synonymous phrases include “propositional truth,” “homiletical theme,” “take-home thought,” and “big idea”). Since the expositional theme emphasizes timeless truths, the expositional theme will be worded in such a way as to avoid proper names (excluding divine names) and the use of past tense verbs (the same is also true for the points in the sermon outline).
Using Psalm 23 as an example again, our exegetical theme was “the LORD’s shepherding provided for David’s needs.” The timeless truth of the subject (“the LORD’s shepherding”) is God’s special providence for believers; that is, “the LORD’s special care for his people.” The timeless truth of the complement (“provided for David’s needs”) is that God in his special providence “meets the needs of his people.” However, we must go one step further. Why is it significant for David that God took care of his needs? Psalm 23 provides an answer. We should notice some of the expressions used in this psalm: v. 1—“I shall not want”; v. 4—“I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”; v. 5—in the presence of his enemies, God provided David with a banquet, anointed his head with expensive oil and his goblet was overflowing; v. 6—the provisions of the Davidic Covenant would follow David all his life; and if that is not enough, David’s says, “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” What did God’s special providence do for David? It stimulated growth in his faith, a sense of believing security. It is readily apparent why this psalm is generically classified as a psalm of confidence. Therefore, my expositional theme would be stated like this: “The LORD’s special care of his people should increase their faith.” The sermon is designed to persuade the listeners that the expositional theme is a biblically correct application of the argument and, consequently, that this theme needs to be willfully embraced and/or faithfully obeyed.
II. Interpreting Psalms in Their Original Context
To assist in the interpretative process, we will examine six principles. These principles move from the general to the specific. This will be followed by an application of these principles to Psalm 1.
- The first principle is to recognize that the psalms are written in a poetic style. Approximately one-third of the Bible is written in poetry. Because poetry is a part of the fabric of biblical literature, it is vital for the preacher to understand the nature of poetry. To assist in understanding poetry, we could compare it with prosaic literature and common speech. Prosaic writing as found in the historic literature of the Bible is more structured than spoken language while poetry is even more highly structured than prosaic writing (the following chart is adapted from Longman, Literary Approaches, p. 121).
Hebrew poetry is characterized by brevity in line length, parallelism, and figurative language. If we compare the line length of Psalm 1 with a narrative such as Judges 1, it is readily apparent that the length of each line in Psalm 1 is shorter than the length of line in Judges 1. Psalm 1:2 is a familiar example of poetic parallelism. The godly man’s “delight is in the Law of the LORD.” The second part of this verse parallels the first part with a slight expansion, “In His Law he meditates day and night.” The parallelism develops what the psalmist’s point is: the godly man’s joy in the Law is demonstrated by his constant study of the Law (for a good synthesis on parallelism, see Klein, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 225–41). Verse 3 of this psalm demonstrates the use of figures when it compares the blessedness of the godly man to “a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither” (ibid., pp. 241–50; to assist in interpreting the parallelism and figures of speech, a number of exegetical commentaries should be consulted; see the selected bibliography at the conclusion of this article)
The literary idiom of the Psalms is lyric poetry. A lyric poem is characterized by its abbreviated nature. A lyric poem such as Psalm 1 could be contrasted with the book of Job. Job is predominantly poetic and narrating a story from a phase of Job’s life. The poetry of Job is narrative poetry. The poetry of Job differs from Psalm 1 in length as well as content. Since each psalm is a lyric poem, this indicates that each poem is a self-contained unit. Consequently, most psalms can be preached in one sermon.
B. The second principle is to place the psalms into more precise literary genres. Through the use primarily of thematic elements that are shared between psalms as well as certain literary features, we can more precisely classify the lyric poems of the Psalms. There are six basic genres in which the psalms can be placed. We will briefly examine each of these.
1. Lament is the most dominant genre found in the Psalter. More than one-third of the psalms are of this nature. The dominant defining character of the lament is its mood. In this type of psalm, a psalmist will often be mourning about the attack of his enemies. At other times, a psalmist may make a complaint about himself and, at times, he expresses disappointment with God (Ps 22:1–2). In addition, all lament psalms move from mourning to expressing trust in God.
A problem often encountered in laments is that the enemy is described in vague terms. We need to avoid becoming too specific in our identification of the enemies. Some commentators have gone to extremes in identifying the enemy. Unless the context is clear, we should avoid this extreme because the psalmist generally wanted to be vague in identifying the specifics of a historical situation. As Longman has stated it: “In most cases the references are vague, and we have every reason to believe they are so intentionally. The psalms are purposefully vague in reference to historical events so that they can be used in a variety of situations” (Longman, Psalms, p. 27).
The lament psalm may be written from an individual or national perspective. Psalm 3 is as an individual lament highlighting what took place when David fled from Absalom. An element of trust concludes this psalm in vv. 7–8 (other examples include Pss 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and others). Psalm 12 is a national lament composed on behalf of Israel. David laments the oppression of Israel by their enemies. An expression of trust is found in v. 7 where a prayer for deliverance is offered (so also Pss 44, 58, 60, and others). The lament also includes the penitential psalms such as Psalm 51 (so also Pss 6, 38, 102, 130, 143) and psalms with imprecatory elements such as Psalm 137 (so also Pss 12, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 109, 140).
2. Praise hymns are easily identifiable because of their emphasis on praise to God. With the lament, the psalmist is at the lower end of the emotional spectrum but with the hymn he moves to the opposite end of joyful praise. God is praised for his greatness and goodness. He may be praised as Creator as in Psalms 8, 19, 29, 104, 148, as deliverer of Israel in 66, 100, 111, 114, 148, and as the Lord of history in 33, 103, 113, 117, 145, 146, 147 (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, p. 176). Another type of hymn is the Songs of Zion. In these psalms God is extolled for having made Mount Zion the place where his presence would be uniquely manifested (Pss 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122).
3. Thanksgiving psalms are joyful expressions of thanksgiving. The dominant feature is an expression of gratitude to the LORD for having responded to a request of an individual or a group (Longman, Psalms, pp. 30–31). An individual psalm of thanksgiving is found in Psalm 32 (so also Pss 18, 30, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138). In this psalm David thanks the LORD for forgiving him of his sin that involved his adultery with Bathsheba and responsibility for the murder of her husband. His prayer for forgiveness is found in his penitential lament in Psalm 51. A national psalm of thanksgiving is found in Psalm 124. Israel expresses gratitude to the LORD for delivering them from an impending destruction (other examples include Pss 65, 67, 75, 107, 136).
4. Kingship and covenant psalms celebrate and affirm loyalty to God as King, the theocratic king, and God’s covenant. This category has three subcategories. First, divine kingship psalms celebrate the LORD’s sovereign rule over the universe. The psalms in this category are 24, 29, 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99. Second, theocratic kingship psalms, generally known as “royal psalms,” celebrate the Davidic dynasty and the universal kingdom. These psalms are joined by their focus on Israel’s earthly king. These psalms have the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7 (also 1 Chr 17) as their foundation. These psalms may focus on the importance of the Davidic line and its relationship to God as in Psalms 2, 89, 132. Psalm 18 is a royal thanksgiving psalm. Psalm 20 requests God’s blessing on the king. Psalm 45 focuses on a royal wedding. Therefore, the focus of these psalms is the Davidic king but it can refer to various phases of kingship. The remaining royal psalms are 21, 72, 101, 110, 144. The royal psalms are especially significant for Christians because they provide the background and find their culmination in our Lord Jesus Christ. Third, two psalms, 50 and 81, are intended to encourage Israel to renew her allegiance to God and the Mosaic Covenant (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, p. 176).
5. Songs of trust are dominated by their emphasis on trusting God and the security that this trust in God produces. Though enemies surround David in Psalms 11 and 23, he puts his trust in the LORD and from this he finds security. In Psalm 121 the worshippers traveling to Jerusalem were faced with danger, yet they focused their eyes of faith on the LORD. In Psalm 131 the psalmist’s submissive trust in his LORD is graphically compared to a weaned child with his mother. Other psalms in this grouping are 16, 62, 63, 91, and 125.
6. Wisdom psalms have a didactic nature and emphasize the Torah as fundamental for blessing. In addition, they contrast the lifestyle of the righteous with that of the wicked. Two rhetorical elements that dominate this genre are the blessing pronouncement and the use of similes. Psalms in this category are 1, 15, 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, and 133.
C. The third principle is an evaluation of the historical setting of a psalm. In evaluating the historical setting, there are two areas that the preacher should examine. The first area is from the superscriptions that begin a number of psalms. For example, the superscription to Psalm 3 informs us that this psalm comes from the time when David fled from Absalom. The second area would be from the other biblical data from within the psalm itself and from any other place in the Canon. For example, Psalm 2:1–3 reflects that this psalm was written during a time of turmoil in Israel and Acts 4:25 indicates that David wrote Psalm 2. The combined effect indicates that this psalm was written during a time of turmoil during the reign of David. However, the preacher should be careful not to become excessively precise in identifying the historical details when a psalm as well as any other portion of Scripture does not provide this information. It appears that the authors of many psalms wanted their inscripturated poetry to be used by other Israelites so they purposely communicated on a more general level. This was part of the author’s intention. Consequently, the preacher will need to be content with a general knowledge of the historical setting. Psalm 121 has a superscription, which appears to reflect that this is one of the psalms used by Israelites traveling to worship at Jerusalem. This psalm does not reflect a specific historical setting. The implied situation is that this is a time when danger was apparent in the hills as the psalmist and his companions traveled to Jerusalem. This situation moves the psalmist to turn his thoughts to the LORD who is always ready to take care of his own.
D. The fourth principle focuses on the three-part structure of lyric poetry: subject, development of the subject, and conclusion (the fourth to sixth principles is a summation of Ryken’s methodology in Words of Delight, pp. 197–215).
1. The subject is generally contained in the first few verses of a psalm. A psalmist may be responding to a thought, emotion, or a situation. The theme may be stated in different ways. In Psalm 1 the theme is found in the first two verses. The psalmist presents his thoughts from the Law about the blessedness of a godly man. In Psalm 23:1 David’s theme is his theological thoughts about God’s rich provisions for him (ibid., p. 198). In Psalm 11:1–2 David’s theme involves a situation where his trust in the LORD helped him through an assassination attempt. In Psalm 124:1–2 the psalmist presents a situation reflecting God’s deliverance of Israel from an enemy. The controlling themes in lyric poems are found in the early verses.
2. The development of the subject is the major part of the poem’s structure. The various authors of the psalms generally develop their subject in four ways. The first way is by using contrast. In Psalm 1 the psalmist sets up a contrast between the righteous and the wicked. This contrast emphasizes the blessedness of the godly. David’s trust in the LORD to handle his trial in Psalm 11 is contrasted with the advice to flee from Jerusalem. The second method of developing the subject is through listing items that are associated with the subject. Praise hymns generally catalog God’s characteristics and actions. Psalm 23 is the most familiar example of this. In supporting David’s subject of God’s rich provisions for him, he itemizes a number of God’s provisions such as rest, restoration, moral direction, and protection. The third manner is by the use of relationship. The subject in Psalm 19 is the majesty of God (v. 1). David initially shows how nature reflects God’s majesty and then moves to a related item, God’s majesty as reflected in His Word, vv. 7–14. The fourth way is through repetition. The theme in Psalm 133 is the blessedness of Israelites who are united in worship. The psalmist uses various images to develop his theme (ibid.).
3. A psalm is rounded off by the conclusion. This may be in the form of summation as in Psalm 1:6, “For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” It may also be in the form of prayer as in Psalm 19:14 or an exhortation as in Psalm 32:11 (ibid.).
E. The fifth principle examines the structure of a psalm. This principle expands on the preceding principle of the poem’s three-part structure. Once the poem’s theme has been established, the preacher wants to see how this is developed. Poems are built on the guideline of theme and variation. A poet’s theme is developed by its variations. Having established the poem’s theme, the preacher should seek to discover how each part of the poem contributes to the them. The variations of the theme are seen by the changing images and ideas. An extremely helpful interpretative hint is to remember that contrasts are very common in understanding how variations develop the theme. Though at times the connections between parts are miscellaneous, diligence in the study will assist in seeing the unity of thought (ibid., p. 209).
The type of material in a psalm also plays a key role in the poem’s structural development. There are eight types of structural material in the Psalms. First, a descriptive structure describes an event, a scene, or a person. Second, an expository structure unfolds a series of ideas or emotions. Third, a narrative structure presents a series of events. Fourth, a dramatic structure contains a speaker addressing a listener. Fifth, an emotional structure is found in many psalms of lament. This structure reflects abrupt changes from one subject to the next. The uneven flow of thought involves abrupt changes reflecting the emotional upheaval that the psalmist is facing. Sixth a repetitive structure repeats the psalm’s theme by representing it with varying images and emotions. Seventh, a logical structure presents a sequence of ideas that lead to a conclusion. Eighth, a catalogue structure lists various aspects of a subject. Many poems contain a number of these structural forms. Understanding these should help the preacher see a psalmist’s development of his theme (ibid.).
F. The sixth principle relates to analyzing a psalm’s poetic texture. The previous principles have focused on the overall effect of a poem, but this principle deals with the details of a poem. The message of a poem is discerned by analyzing details such as the poem’s rhetorical devices and figurative language. The details of a poem are isolated to discover their meaning in its context. These details make up the psalm’s poetic texture. Two questions should be asked of the details in the poem. Why is this figure or device used here? What is the logic of this figure or device in its context? In analyzing the poetic texture of a psalm, it is best to go through the text progressively, unit by unit (ibid., p. 210).
G. An Example of Poetic Interpretation: Psalm 1
Our present task is to use the preceding principles to interpret Psalm 1. Since we have already seen that Psalm 1 is a lyric poem, we will exclude that principle and develop the remaining five principles.
1. The generic classification of Psalm 1 is that of wisdom. As such, our reading of Psalm 1 is influenced by our prior understanding of other wisdom literature such as the book of Proverbs. Wisdom literature contrasts the righteous and the wicked. It also has an emphasis on God’s blessing on the righteous, those who in faith obey the Law, and God’s judgment on the wicked. Wisdom literature’s didactic thrust is to direct the people of God into a godly way of life. Consequently, as we read of Psalm 1, we expect to see the same type of emphases (Longman, Psalms, pp. 32–33).
2. The historical setting is left on a very general level. Because of its similarities with Proverbs, Solomon perhaps may have written it. However, this is based on circumstantial evidence. Because the psalmist pictures Israelites as experiencing the covenant blessings and curses described in passages such as Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28, 30, we are best to see it as having been composed during the monarchy prior to the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 605 B.C.
3. The topic is developed in v. 1, “the godly man.” Though the author does not use the term “godly,” the manner in which he depicts this man is consistent with the Old Testament concept of a “godly man.” We might tentatively think the topic or subject is the contrast between the two ways. Though the treatment of the wicked is approximately comparable in length to that of the godly and both are introduced in v. 1, the point of the contrast is to use the wicked as a foil. The emphasis of the psalmist is to promote godliness. Therefore, the theme of Psalm 1 is this: “the godly man is blessed.”
4. The content of the poem primarily follows a descriptive structure. It describes a godly man and an ungodly man. The development of thought falls into three units: vv. 1–3 are a description of the righteous, vv. 4–5 a description of the wicked, and v. 6 summarizes the two. We could visualize the structural scheme in the following manner:
a. Description of the righteous (foundation): The righteous man stands
not with the wicked’s word but with God’s Word, vv. 1–2.
c1. Point of Comparison: The wicked do not prosper like the
righteous, v. 4a.
A1 The LORD knows the way of the righteous, v. 6a.
B1 The way of the wicked will perish, v. 6b
Because of the nature of the summary of the two types of people in v. 6, we broke this verse into two parts. An overview of the entire psalm would look like this:
vv. 1–3 vv. 4–5
v. 6a v. 6b
The psalmist develops his theme by using a prolonged contrast between two types of people. We will presently trace the psalmist’s flow of thought through the three structural units. In the first unit, vv. 1–3, the author develops his theme by contrasts. He begins v. 1 with a pronouncement of blessedness, commonly referred to as a “beatitude,” on the godly man. A contrast immediately follows by picturing the blessed man avoiding the wicked’s influence. In v. 2 the psalmist gives the basis for the blessed man’s godliness and illustrates in v. 3 the extent of his blessedness. The second unit in vv. 4–5 begins with a contrast, “the ungodly are not so.” This is to say, the ungodly do not receive the blessings that the godly receive. The psalmist then illustrates their unstable life in the remainder of v. 4. In v. 5 he concludes the second unit by describing the judgment of the wicked. He once again draws a contrast by indicating that the ungodly will be separated from the godly. The third unit, v. 6, contrasts the godly and ungodly. The godly have a special relationship with the LORD but the ungodly will perish.
How does the contrasting structure contribute to the theme, “the blessedness of the godly man”? It sets forth that making choices to separate from the ungodly and to diligently study God’s Word develops godliness. It implies that life involves struggles and hard choices. It sets forth that in the midst of this difficult life, God takes care of his own and permits the wicked to experience the justice that they deserve.
5. The most detailed part of a poetic analysis is examining its poetic texture. In doing this analysis, it is best to use exegetical commentaries and other helps. This is done by producing a running commentary on the rhetorical devices and figurative language of a psalm. Because this is somewhat detailed, we will only use v. 1 as an example.
The meaning of v. 1 is communicated through three metaphorical statements that explain what it means to be a “blessed man.” This blessed man “walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.” The metaphor is that of taking a walk down a path named “the Counsel of the Ungodly.” The verb “walketh” is a metaphor for following. It denotes a continuous movement to a destination. The term “counsel” is a legal term. This type of “counsel” has a societal influence. When applying the text, this could be viewed as representing issues such as cultural influence and peer pressure. The godly man does not comply with the pressure of the ungodly.
The second metaphorical statement is “nor standeth in the way of sinners.” The verb “stand” connotes a position of remaining somewhere. “The way of sinners” is a reference to the ungodly and their behavior in life. This is a reference to not participating in the evil activities of sinners. The third metaphorical statement, “nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful,” implies active involvement in decision-making processes with the scornful. To sit in someone’s seat implies a settling in somewhere securely and actively participating in the deliberations. The scornful are those who mock God. The godly are not securely and actively involved with the mockers of God in directing society to the level of mocking God.
These three metaphorical statements have often been interpreted as an example of progressive parallelism, walking to standing to sitting. Though this may make good “preaching” for some, it is not the point of the text. The point of the text is not a description of how one becomes progressively involved in sin, but the emphasis is to describe the man who has God’s blessing on his life. We should understand that there is an intensification with each parallel line but the point is that the godly man separates on any level of life that God has commanded. If the point is to describe the godly man, then this is not describing the steps downward into apostasy.
Though it is beyond the scope of this presentation, our next step would be to analyze the poetic details of v. 2, then v. 3, and continue verse by verse until we reach the final verse.
III. Explaining the Psalms for the Contemporary Church
There are four steps to follow before the expository sermon is developed. With each of these steps, we will continue to use Psalm 1 as an example.
A. The first step is to develop an exegetical outline based upon the preceding principles. In this step, the preacher should summarize the basic units in a complete sentence and keep his wording as close to the biblical text as possible. We could approach Psalm 1 in this fashion:
1. The blessedness of the godly man is a consequence of his faithful obedience, vv. 1–3.
a. The godly man faithfully meditates and follows the Law, vv. 1-2.
1) The godly man separates from personal influences to sin, v. 1.
2) The godly man consistently meditates on the Law, v. 2.
b. The godly man experiences the rewards of faithful obedience, v. 3.
2. The judgment of the ungodly man is a consequence of his disobedience, vv. 4–5.
a. The ungodly man experiences the wages for disobedience, v. 4.
b. The ungodly man evidences his disobedience in God’s judgment, v. 5.
3. The blessedness of the godly man is contrasted with the judgment of the ungodly, v. 6.
a. The blessedness of the godly man is a result of God’s active involvement in his life.
b. The judgment of the ungodly is a culmination of their active pursuit of sin during their life.
B. The second step is summarizing the exegetical outline into an exegetical theme. When most bible students study a psalm, they develop a tentative exegetical theme. This hypothetical theme needs to always be reevaluated, and in many cases, restated, after having done an exegetical outline. From my perspective, this is extremely important since there is often a tendency to have our prejudices influence us as we read the text. Because of this, it is necessary for the preacher to reevaluate the exegetical theme to make certain that it accurately encapsulates the psalmist’s argument. Our exegetical theme for Psalm 1 was “the godly man is blessed.” After outlining the text, we might be tempted to restate the theme as “the godly man is contrasted with the ungodly man.” However, we should resist this urge because the text begins with a statement concerning the “blessedness of the godly man” and, furthermore, the author’s purpose is to encourage a godly life. However, the contrast is simply to highlight the significance of a godly life. As such, my initial exegetical theme needs no revision.
C. The third step is to revise, if necessary, the exegetical theme into an expositional theme. To assist, the preacher should ask questions like these: What did this exegetical theme mean to the author and the Old Testament saint? Is it still true in our day? What theological truths does this exegetical theme affirm? How does this apply to a contemporary audience? After this, the preacher should revise his exegetical theme into an expositional theme. The preacher should make the expositional theme as terse and memorable as possible. Since we are not living under the Mosaic Covenant, the emphasis on “blessed” as including material prosperity would not be applicable. In the Old Testament blessedness was based on a proper relationship to the God of the Mosaic Covenant and included spiritual as well as material gifts from God. We could say that in our dispensation, the foundation of blessedness is still a proper relationship to God; however, the New Testament does not emphasize material propserity but the spiritual aspect of blessing. Therefore, Old Testament concept of “blessed” is more directly correlated with “God’s approval.” A result of God’s approval is “godly contentment.” We could state our expositional theme as “Godly living results in godly contentment,” or “Godly contentment is a result of godly living.” We could also state it like this: “Godly living has God’s approval”; or even, “God’s approval encourages godly living.”
D. The fourth step is to revise the exegetical outline into an expository outline. The preacher should restate all the points of his outline to reflect timeless truths. He should avoid using personal names, with the exception of God, and state each point in the present tense. The expository outline for Psalm 1 is presented in the following section.
IV. Sermonic Form of Psalm 1
Living with God’s Approval
Theme: Godly living has God’s approval.
Do we have God’s approval on our lives? Psalm 1 teaches that godly living has God’s approval. In this psalm godly living with God’s approval is developed in three segments. First, in vv. 1–3 godly living is prompted by God’s approval. Second, in vv. 4–5 godly living is reinforced by God’s disapproval. And finally, in v. 6 godly living is accented by God’s approval in contrast to God’s disapproval.
A. Godly living is prompted by God’s approval, vv. 1–3.
In these three verses, the psalmist presents the godly from two angles. With his first angle in vv. 1–2 we see that the description of the godly reflects God’s approval and with his second angle in v. 3 that the prosperity of the godly reflects God’s approval.
1. The description of the godly reflects God’s approval, vv. 1–2.
The psalmist describes the godly in two ways: negatively by what they consistently avoid and positively by what they actively do.
a. Those living with God’s approval consistently separate from the influence of the wicked, v. 1.
1) The godly do not comply with the influence of the ungodly, v. 1a.
The word “walketh” indicates following a path to a destination. This path is called “the Counsel of the Ungodly.” This can be applied to that path of life known as “peer pressure” or “cultural influence.”
2) The godly do not participate in the evil activities of the ungodly, v. 1b.
To stand is to remain somewhere. This illustrates an active involvement in something. The metaphor here denotes an active involvement in an evil life style.
3) The godly do not deliberate with those mocking God, v. 1c.
Sitting in the seat of scornful implies active involvement in decision-making processes with the scornful. The scornful are those who mock God. The godly are not actively involved with the mockers of God in directing society to the level of mocking God.
b. Those living with God’s approval obediently delight in the study of God’s Word, v. 2.
This is the foundation for our separation as well as all other healthy doctrine. The psalmist positively describes the foundation of the godly in two ways.
1) An internal delight in God’s Word is a foundation for God’s approval, v. 2a.
The word “delight” reflects a person’s internal affections. The Word of God is his desire. He takes pleasure in God’s Word.
2) An obedient study of God’s Word is a foundation for God’s approval, v. 2b.
The parallelism is one of specification. The first part of this verse is a general statement. From this, the psalmist more specifically explains how this delight takes shape. The verb translated as “meditates” has an intensive idea of reading and studying. It is not like our present use of “meditation” where one empties his mind. Rather than being void of content, the psalmist’s meditation is full of biblical content. This biblical term for “meditation” has the idea of poring over, this is a diligent study. It is a study that believes God’s Word and seeks to act upon it. Furthermore, this is not a forced reading of the Bible with a little devotional guide. If we combine “meditates” with “his delight” in the preceding part of this verse, this is a desirous poring over the Word of God for it has the Words of Life.
2. The prosperity of the godly reflects God’s approval, v. 3.
To illustrate the great blessing on the godly individual, a comparison is developed in this verse.
a. A comparison is made between the godly and a flourishing tree, v. 3a
In illustrating how the godly experience God’s approval, the psalmist uses a simile drawn from horticulture. The psalmist does not depict a tree growing wild in the fields or in a wadi. In these places the amount of rainfall would vary. The tree in this verse is one that has been purposely planted by “streams of water,” an irrigation canal. The tree presents a picture of blessing, its leaf does not wither and it brings forth its fruit in its season.
b. The point of the comparison is expressed, v. 3b.
In the last part of the verse, the psalmist makes his point. The godly prosper in whatever they do, they are successful. A careful comparison of this with Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 reveals that the blessing of prosperity was part of the Mosaic Covenant as a consequence of living in obedience to God’s Law. However, since direct applications for New Testament believers are primarily set forth in the NT, we must consider how it defines God’s blessing. In the NT God’s blessing is defined as obedience to God and His Word. It includes our progressively being conformed to the image of Christ.
B. Godly living is reinforced by God’s disapproval, vv. 4–5.
As in the first three verses, the psalmist presents the ungodly from two angles. With his first angle in v. 4 we see the plight of the ungodly reflects God’s disapproval and with his second angle in v. 5 the destruction of the ungodly reflects God’s disapproval.
1. The plight of the ungodly indicates God’s disapproval, v. 4.
In this verse we initially see the antithesis of blessing followed by a comparison between the ungodly and chaff.
a. The antithesis of blessing is expressed, v. 4a.
“The ungodly are not so.” The term translated as “ungodly” may also be translated “wicked.” At times, this term connotes extreme evil and, at other times, it describes people not living in faithful obedience to the covenant. These are people who find their satisfaction in sources other than God. Those who are disloyal to the covenant are not like the godly. They are not people who delight in studying and obeying God’s law; therefore, they do not experience the blessings of the covenant; rather, they experience covenant curses (see Lev 26 and Deut 28).
b. A comparison is made between the ungodly and chaff, v. 4b.
As in v. 3 the psalmist again uses a simile to make his point; however, in this verse it is used to illustrate how the ungodly experience God’s disapproval. The simile is used to compare the ungodly with chaff. The chaff was the worthless grain husk. In the process of winnowing, the grain would be thrown into the breeze. The substantive portion of the grain, the kernel of wheat, would fall back to the ground; but the chaff would be blown away by the wind. The ungodly have no foundation for real stability.
2. The destruction of the ungodly indicates God’s disapproval, v. 5.
“Therefore” draws a conclusion from the preceding. Since the ungodly are not in a faith relationship to the God of the covenant, they are disloyal to the covenant and will face God’s final judgment. Two aspects of this judgment are indicated in our text.
a. The ungodly will not withstand God’s judgment, v. 5a.
When the psalmist states that “the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,” the thought is that they will have no influence over the Judge. They may have influenced earthly judges but the Judge will give them what justice demands.
b. The ungodly will be removed from the congregation of the righteous, v. 5b.
This judgment also results in the ungodly being removed from the righteous. Those who are not rightly related to God will be removed from His people.
C. Godly living is accented by God’s approval in contrast to God’s disapproval, v. 6.
1. God’s relationship with the godly demonstrates His approval, v. 6a.
For the first time in Psalm 1, the LORD is the subject of a verb, “the LORD knows the way of the righteous.” When the text say that “the LORD knows,” this cannot simply mean that He has a cognitive knowledge of the righteous. In His omniscience, God has a cognitive knowledge of the righteous and unrighteous as well as everything else. This term translated as “know” is much stronger. This term is used of the intimate marital relationship as when Adam knew Eve (Gen 4:1). It is also used in Amos 3:2 in a covenant context denoting a covenant relationship. The sense of this term in Psalm 1:6 revolves around the idea of being actively involved in a relationship with the godly that is different from that of the ungodly. It includes the idea of establishing and directing the people of God.
“The way of the righteous” refers to the godly and the activities of their lives. The LORD is intimately involved in establishing and directing those who have unreservedly trusted Him.
2. God’s retribution of the ungodly demonstrates His disapproval, v. 6a.
The antithesis of the godly is the ungodly. Rather than having an intimate relationship with God, “the way of the ungodly shall perish.” This is to say, the ungodly and all that their life involves will perish. Those who have not put their faith in the LORD as evidenced by their lack of proof, God’s approval, will perish.
The point of Psalm 1 is that godly living has God’s approval. God’s disapproval reinforces godly living for God used the ungodly and their judgment as a foil, to highlight the glory of the faithful life blessed by God. The primary point of a wisdom psalm is not to contrast the two ways, but to emphasize that godly living has God’s approval.
V. Selected Bibliography (recommended books are preceded by *)
Alden, Robert L. Psalms. 3 vols. Everyman’s Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1974-76.
*Allen, Leslie C. Psalms 101–150. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Rev. ed. Waco: Word, 2002.
Bratcher, Robert G. and William D. Reyburn. A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms. Helps for Translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991.
*Craigie, Peter C. Psalms 1–50. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Waco: Word, 1983.
*Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. 2nd. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
*Harman, Allan M. Commentary on the Psalms. A Mentor Commentary. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms. 2 vols. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 1975.
Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Dallas: Word, 1993.
*Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1–59. Translated by Hilton C. Oswald. A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
*________. Psalms 60–150. Translated by Hilton C. Oswald. A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
Leupold, H. C. Exposition of the Psalms. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969.
*Longman, Tremper III. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: IVP, 1988.
________. Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
Parsons, Greg W. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms.” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (April-June 1990): 169–87.
*Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.
Ross, Allen P. “Psalms.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985.
Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible As Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
*________. Word of Delight. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.
*Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Waco, TX: Word, 1990.
*Wilson, Gerald H. Psalms—Volume 1. New International Version Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002
*VanGemeren, Willem A. “Psalms.” In vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.