Preaching – How do you choose the Psalms?

Musical, NotesThe Scottish Psalter is a substantial volume: 150 psalms, all rendered in common metre, plus a dozen also rendered in alternative metres. How should we go about choosing the needed singings for a service of public worship? How do we select appropriate singing portions, of around 4 to 6 stanzas each, from a volume of more than 2000 stanzas?

I find it helps to think of the place of each Psalm within the worship service. A normal service of public worship in our church has four singings, and the following structure is worked out on that basis. A prayer meeting, or the initial section of a communion Sabbath morning, with only three singings, can easily merge the second and third singings, given the focus of the occasion.

The regular four singings are therefore as follows.

1. The Psalm of Praise

This singing leads the congregation to the purpose of our gathering: the worship of God. Generally speaking, I try to find a psalm portion of direct praise to God, for works or attributes directly relevant to the focus of the sermon.

For example, 40:1-5 praises God for His gracious work in salvation, suitable prior to a Gospel sermon on the way of salvation in Christ. By contrast, 139:1-10 praises God’s attribute of omniscience, suitable prior to a sermon on secret sin to the Lord’s people.

2. The Psalm of Prayer
This singing directly follows the principal public prayer of the service, and is best to continue in the same vein. I try to find a more plaintive portion, relevant to the sermon. Remember that this is still worship, acknowledging God’s absolute sovereignty in all that comes to pass: thus our needs are brought before Him.

For example, 51:1-7 expresses our consciousness of personal guilt, and appeals for forgiveness, and is therefore suitable prior to a sermon focused on the need of salvation. Equally, 70:1-5 describes our experience of opposition as God’s people, and would be appropriate for a message of encouragement in the Christian warfare.

3. The Psalm of Theme
This is a vital link in the service, connecting the public reading of Scripture with the sermon itself. By this stage of the service, I want a singing portion that directs the thought of the people towards the central theme of the sermon itself. In tone, this singing will vary considerably depending on the sermon focus, but its purpose is always to bring the people to worship in the light of the central truth taught in the sermon text.

These connections are necessarily very specific, as this psalm choice is the one most directly related to the sermon text. Recent examples from my own ministry would be 34:12-19, which expresses closely the theme of ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Mt 5:9), while 61:3-8 tied directly to a sermon theme of claiming your inheritance as a child of God from Joshua 18 and 19.

4. The Psalm of Conclusion
This singing follows the close of the sermon, and should therefore follow on in tone and content from that message. I try to choose a portion that underlines the principal application of the message. This helps to press it upon the people, and reminds that we need to worship in the light of such practical teaching, whether challenge or encouragement, from the Word of God.

For example, 10:16-18 very naturally follows and underlines a sermon urging diligence in prayer, while 36:5-9 would very appropriately conclude a sermon on the safety of the believer in Christ, emphasizing the encouragement of the application.

It is especially commendable when one can choose consecutive portions from the same Psalm, showing the congregation that we are following the inspired writer’s own train of thought. However, this is best not done artificially, by avoiding more naturally appropriate Psalm portions, for awkward but consecutive choices. When consecutive singings flow naturally, then it is very beneficial.

Good psalms for consecutive singing, when the reading and sermon focus are appropriate, include 18, 22, 51, 69, 73, 78, 105, 106, 119 and other long Psalms with a consistent theme.

Above all, however, let preacher and hearer alike try to praise God intelligently. With each singing I intimate, I try to make a comment after reading from the section, emphasizing what the psalm portion is about, to encourage praise from the heart. Whether your pastor does this or not, think carefully about each singing portion that is announced. The preacher has chosen it for a reason.

Think about the stage in the service, about the content of the words, about its message about God and about Christ, and about its relevance to your own life. And so bring forth thoughtful and meaningful worship in your heart, as you sing the Lord’s songs.

For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding. (Psa 47:7)

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