Are the Psalms really appropriate for New Testament worship?
Pastor H. Leverne Rosenberger
On the B.B.Warfield internet list an elder inquired why we should limit our worship praises to the O. T. Book of Psalms. "Christ is much more plainly and fully in the New Testament. How can we not explicitly mention Jesus, or the trinity, or Calvary, or resurrection on the 3rd day in our songs of praise?" he asked. Here is the response of an elder who sang mostly Gospel songs in his youth, and who graduated to "the great hymns of the church" for most of his adult life. Then he discovered that all the Psalms could be sung from Psalters, and that they have an edifying power like no other human composition.
To the Warfield List (4-19-01),
Biblical Theology as Geerhardus Vos presented it is most helpful in interpreting
Scripture. But as practiced by many today, notably Lee Irons in
interpreting Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, it confuses rather than clarifies the
meaning of Scripture. I frankly couldn't follow the reasoning of Irons as
he explained those verses regarding the singing of Psalms in the worship of
God. I know of no greater way to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly
than to teach and admonish one another in psalms in the worship of God. (I
do believe that hymns and spiritual songs in those verses refer also to the
Psalter as the well known and accepted book of praise when those words were
It is certainly the case that to sing Psalms in the most edifying
manner in this dispensation, is hard work! But it is rewarding,
sanctifying, joyful labor! And that work must begin with the pastor who
selects the Psalms to be sung. Clearly the language of redemption in God's
hymnbook is the language of shadows and imagery. But it is God's own
imagery to reveal Christ! And to reveal Him in the most personal,
practical, everyday manner of life. No human composition can rival its
power and aptitude.
I do think that it is not enough for a pastor to simply announce a
Psalm and then have the congregation sing it without another word of
explanation. If several Psalms are sung in a worship service, necessarily
very few words can be spoken about every Psalter selection. But at least
one or two of them should have their edifying message introduced by the
pastor so that the congregation can sing them with the proper understanding.
Contrary to what is claimed by some on this list, I believe there is
an infinite difference between the edification attaching to Gospel songs,
hymns, and the Psalms of the Psalter. ONLY the latter are the word of
Christ, designed by Him for His worship. They were eminently useful for
Christ and his apostles, to reveal the Gospel that they preached. They knew
of no necessity to use "New Testament terms" in their worship songs, as they
carried the Gospel to the Gentiles.
But they most certainly beginning with the Psalms. . . preached
Christ in all his glory from that revelation in ancient Word. That still
must be done today! I have experienced no more edifying a worship service
than when the church was led in worship by a minister who really knew the
He incorporates the Psalter into every part of the worship service, from the
Call to the Closing Doxology. Particularly useful is its power in calling us to repentance
early in the service of worship.
I am one who grew up in a church that majored in Gospel songs. How
relieved I was, years later, to discover the great hymns of the church, that
at least directed our corporate praise to God, instead of rehearsing our
great experiences of God. One step higher yet was it to discover Trinity
Hymnal, perhaps the finest hymnal for use by Presbyterians. I came to know
every hymn in the book, and what particular stanzas I could not
conscientiously sing. Then came my introduction to THE BOOK OF PSALMS FOR
SINGING, put out by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. In a
mission church, we began to sing a Psalm from it occasionally. Demand
increased, and we began to use it half of the time. Soon I was forced to
study anew what the great difference was between this Psalter and Trinity
Hymnal. The quality of congregational praise when we sang from the Psalter,
in my opinion, exceeded that of singing from the Hymnal. In fact, I began
to studiously narrow down the particular hymns that I considered to be of
equal quality with the Psalter selections. Through the weeks, that list of
hymns became smaller and smaller. The day arrived when I had to confess
that no hymn in TH measured up to the quality, inspiration, usefulness of a
Psalm from the Psalter.
There are differences too between Psalters. I have diligently
studied various Psalters and Psalter Hymnals, playing through them from
beginning to end at the piano, and to date (among 7 or 8 Psalters) I have
not found any Psalter more accurate in translation from the Hebrew, or more
useful for ease of congregational singing in both tunes and diction, than
the Book of Psalms for Singing. Should anyone need an email address for
ordering sample copies, it is <www.psalms4u.com>
In my research as to why the Psalter was more powerful than the
Hymnal, I played through a new Psalm (or several Psalms) each day on the
piano. Many times I had to stop the singing and ask questions. I could not
understand what I was singing! Why was I singing these words? Especially
was that true as I was calling down God's wrath upon his enemies. I had to
identify what enemies the Psalm had in view, and who those enemies are in my
life and experience. That was the hard, but rewarding, work! And I
discovered that this conflict with God's enemies, about which He was asking
me to sing to Him, was the most sanctifying experience that I had ever
known. In my old age, really, I discovered the power of singing the Psalms
that I had not known in all the blessed years of reading the Psalms. One
can read the Psalms passively, as being David's experiences, some of which
may be similar to my own. But when one sings the Psalms to God, there is a
directness of communication with God that can be missed in reading them.
Most of the Psalms present a conflict between good and evil as few hymns
even attempt to do. But more than that, the Psalms get us involved in that
conflict as no hymn could do.
Being the word of Christ, we cannot pass off a difficult passage
lightly as I often did with a Gospel song, saying, Why am I singing this? I
must sing the Psalter promises as being directly from the Composer to my
heart. I must return my vows in response from my heart to my Redeemer and
Judge, in all honesty of spirit. I fear to sing lightly, or meaninglessly,
or uncomprehendingly, a promise that I am making to my Lord. And if I
cannot honestly sing to Him the words He has placed there for me to sing,
then I must stop and examine my heart then and there to deal with what is
hindering that honest openness to His Word. That is the time that
repentance comes. The enemies against whom I have declared in worship I
stand, perhaps have entered into my own heart. They have achieved a
foothold that was not recognized until the Lord led me to sing Psalm 18:21ff
or similar verses.
The Psalter, I am convinced, was composed by the Lord for his people
as covenant songs, to be sung by them in order to bring us all into the
closest fellowship with our Redeemer and Mediator with the Father. We must
see all the Psalms as Christ's words primarily, He is the blessed man of
Psalm One. But it is he as the Mediator, the Messiah, that he gives us the
Psalter. Therefore, when He sings his messianic message He wants us to be
singing it with him and taking our position as being in Christ as we sing.
Hebrews 2:12 tells us that when we congregate in his name he is right there
in the midst of the church, leading our singing. He says to us N.T.
believers, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the
church will I sing praise unto thee.
So what He sings to us is the same message as to the O. T. saints,
at times joining with us in confessing our terrible sinfulness, even as the
body of Christ! At other times he asks us to sing with him about his
glorious righteousness, that we are experiencing through our union with him
by faith. But most of the time in the Psalter he is engaging us in critical
spiritual warfare for our sanctification. He is leading us to victory
against his enemies who are trying to destroy our souls. We need that
edification every time we come to worship. Pastors need to use the Psalter
as they plan each service of worship, so that the proper Psalm will be used
for the spiritual result needed.
How often, when I was an OPC minister, was I disappointed when a
Psalm I wanted to have us sing was not found in Trinity Hymnal, or a
critical part of the Psalm was not there to sing. There are no superfluous
parts of the Psalter. They all are profitable for God's holy purposes, and
especially is that true with the "imprecatory Psalms."
I would plead for all ministers of the Gospel to sing Psalms every
day, until they become so familiar with the Psalter that they can breathe
the freshness and vitality of its diverse messages into each worship
service. What you learn from the Psalter in your own life and experience,
share with your people, so they will come to appreciate the word of Christ
in all its richness until it dwells in them also. If you have not found a
particular Psalter easy to use, try another Psalter. There are many of them
May I boldly invite any of you who get to Boston to please join with
the Cambridge Reformed Presbyterian Church, 53 Antrim Street, just off the
campuses of MIT and Harvard, for Sabbath worship.
Here is a pastor who knows the Psalter and how to use it edifyingly
throughout the service. Here is a congregation that sings the Psalms so
heartily, understandingly, and carefully, that each service leaves one
filled with the joy of the Lord. There is no greater joy on earth than to
adequately praise God with His people as He leads us with His words,
beholding his works of creation, providence and redemption.
May His blessings attend you all as you prepare for His glorious
worship this week.
Your brother in the Psalmsinger in our midst, Christ,
H. Leverne Rosenberger, RPCNA Minister of the Word