Like Scales and Jazz: How to Preach Christ from Psalms

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The Christian church knows this excruciating cry from both the Gospels and also the Psalms (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Ps. 22:1). But how did Jesus come to inhabit the lament of his royal ancestor, breathing David’s agonized prayer as his own?

After his resurrection, Christ taught his disciples that the Psalms—indeed, the entire Old Testament—had testified about him (Luke 24:27, 44). Christ was teaching that all of Scripture is fulfilled in him—that he walks the entire Psalter, amplifying its prayers and enriching its patterns and fulfilling its intentions so fully that his earliest followers could see his footsteps, sense his sufferings, and anticipate his kingdom throughout the psalms of Israel. The psalmists, Jesus taught, were “singing in the reign.”

But how exactly does this work? How should contemporary Christ followers and Christian pastors continue walking the Emmaus Road, seeing and preaching Christ throughout the Psalms? In Preaching Christ from Psalms: Foundations for Expository Sermons in the Christian Year, professor Sidney Greidanus applies his Old Testament preaching methodology (1999) to select psalms. The result is a helpful collection of sermons that systematically teach his method.

Handbook for Preaching the Psalms 

This latest work follows Preaching Christ from Genesis (2007), Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes (2010), and Preaching Christ from Daniel (2012). In his introductory chapter, Greidanus equips preachers to mine a psalm for its poetic riches, identify its central message, recognize its theocentric emphases, form an accurate and communicable homiletic outline, and shape a Christ-culminating exposition. This step-by-step process makes the volume a thorough handbook for preaching a psalm.

Building on his earlier works, Greidanus briefly summarizes his seven “ways” preachers can move from a psalm to Christ. First, redemptive-historical progression calls us to evaluate how further revelation has amplified and developed the message of the psalm. Second, promise-fulfillment helps us consider how a psalm’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. Third, typology seeks to understand how the types embedded in various psalms meet their antitype in Christ. Fourth, analogy “notes the similarity between the teaching or goal of the psalmist and the teaching or goal of Christ” (35). Fifth, longitudinal themes invite the preacher to trace relevant themes in the psalm through the Old Testament and on to Christ. Sixth, New Testament references may cite or allude to a psalm, supporting the other six ways of preaching Christ. Finally, contrast forces us to reckon with distinctions between elements in the psalm and New Testament revelation.

Greidanus wisely recognizes that these seven “ways” aren’t mutually exclusive but often overlap, shape, and support each other. Due to this overlap, there is some conceptual blurring between the categories (e.g., redemptive-historical progression and longitudinal themes, or typology and analogy). But Greidanus repeatedly illustrates how each distinct “way” can lead to Christ, increasing the book’s clarity as the examples pile up.

The bulk of Preaching Christ from Psalms models the method as Greidanus interprets, outlines, and exposits 22 specific psalms or passages. His exegesis is rich and his exposition clear, with full sermons concluding each chapter, showing precisely how he moves from each psalm to Christ. He treats psalms from all five books of the Psalter, entire psalms and psalm passages, a variety of psalm genres, psalms of varying length and theme, and psalms with structures both simple and complex. He treats some psalms that are substantially cited in the New Testament such as 2, 8, 22, 32, 95, and 118, but excludes others (e.g., 110). He also includes creative ideas for liturgical readings that highlight the message and flow of each psalm.

Too Formulaic? Learning Scales and Playing Jazz

David Prince, a pastor and professor of preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, acknowledges the positive reception Greidanus has received, but critiques Greidanus’s overall method. Prince argues (among other things) that Greidanus’s seven lines of connection from the Old Testament to Christ are “formulaic” and therefore fail to inculcate the “instinctive” Christotelic hermeneutic the disciples inherited from Christ.

Prince paints an admirable vision: preachers so steeped in the biblical story and its culmination in Christ that every Old Testament spark naturally burns into a New Testament flame. But on my reading, Greidanus is seeking to achieve this same vision through systematic pedagogy. I see Greidanus teaching scales while Prince advocates jazz. Both have their place, so long as the method serves the music.

Greidanus uses accurate chords to play Christian music with Old Testament notes. But the book will be most useful when readers recognize that his seven chords (“ways”) do not exhaust the variety of music a new covenant minister should make with the psalms. The Old Testament feeds into the New Testament more like an intricate tapestry than a set of copper pipes, more like a myriad of rivers emptying into the ocean than a set of manmade canals feeding a reservoir. So long as Greidanus’s seven “ways” are seen as illustrative and not exhaustive, complementary and not mutually exclusive, an enlightening servant and not a restrictive master, we can learn much from his thoughtful system.

Preaching, Praying, and Living the Psalms

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus came as heir not only of David’s throne but also of David’s prayers—from his distress to his deliverance, from his laments to his praises. Since God’s people in every generation will walk the same path—cross before crown—Christian pastors are wise to preach the Psalms in all seasons.

The Psalter is a rich resource for prayer, a sacred library of image-laden theology, and an infallible songbook celebrating God’s reign. The Psalms help us mourn over sin and turn to our merciful King; they give us words for the indescribable evils in our world; they introduce us to spiritual ancestors who feel our pain; they free us to lament before our compassionate Father; and they trace the prefigured footsteps of our messianic king whose fellowship we’ve joined by faith. We need the Psalms desperately, because the Psalms read us as much as we read them. They give us prayers to pray when we have nothing to say, and they remind a trembling people to sing of a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

But more than anything, preaching the Psalms is vital because Christ himself breathes throughout the Psalter. Thus preaching Christ from Psalms is one of the greatest privileges a new covenant minister enjoys. The more we sing and recite them, the more we’ll welcome Christ’s inbreaking kingdom; and the better we preach them, the more we’ll preach not just psalms that prefigure the gospel, but even the gospel according to the Psalms.


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