Psalm Singing Remembered
By H. Leverne Rosenberger

(From The Blue Banner, v. 10 #2, April/June 2001)

This encouraging note was posted to an email group discussion forum in February and the author kindly granted permission to The Blue Banner to reproduce it here in slightly edited form. A complete PDF version of The Blue Banner in which this article appeared is available

Dear Mr. [G], You have solicited our views as well as our experiences on what music choirs should sing in churches. I agree with the views already expressed by others on the list, namely, that choirs have no place in New Testament worship services. In addition, let me testify to my experience as to the qualitative difference of a worship service with choirs and orchestral accompaniment, and a service with only the congregation singing only Psalms to the Lord.

You see, as I write I am one hour from my 75th birthday, and have been through a lifetime of growth in this area. I love music and have sung in quartets and choirs in my early life. While still in high school I led a choir that sang in Fisher’s Furniture Store show window on Main Street in Souderton, PA singing all-request programs of mostly Gospel music on Saturday afternoons that was broadcast live over radio station WIBG, Philadelphia.

Even at that young age I was troubled with the question you asked. Even a more important question: What songs are appropriate to sing in the worship service? In the Church of the Brethren in which I was reared, there were many Gospel songs and hymns in the hymnal that we sang that I could not sing heartily. Almost every Sunday I asked myself, Why are we singing this song? Just because someone says that was his or her experience of God, and then the song leader tells us to join in singing that experience as if it is our own experience, appeared to me to be artificial and not really true worship. In those years, I was in choirs that sang portions of the Psalms, usually anthems that repeated a verse or two of the Psalm over and over again in an artistic rendition that creatively made a great statement, usually ending in a huge climax that merited applause from the audience. BUT, I did not know then that the Psalms (a) were composed to be sung in their entirety, and (b) that some churches in past history sang only the Psalms in the worship of God.

Even in Westminster Theological Seminary I did not learn the value of singing only the Psalms in the worship of God. Rather, I was taught that the great hymns of the church have succeeded the Psalms in Christian worship. I must admit that after becoming familiar with many hymnals, I came to the conclusion that Trinity Hymnal (published by Great Commission Publications of the OPC/PCA) was the finest hymnal I knew. Its great hymns glorified God and often were thrilling to sing. I knew ALL its hymns and Gospel songs, and found only a few verses that I could not conscientiously sing.

But then I discovered the BOOK OF PSALMS FOR SINGING. I discovered that we really could sing all 150 of the Psalms. I introduced this Psalter to a new congregation which I was pastoring, and we began to sing the Psalms part-time and hymns from Trinity Hymnal part-time. I immediately noticed a qualitative difference between the hymns written by various composers and the Psalms.

Here are a few of the differences I noted: First of all, I discovered many verses in the Psalms that I knew that no human composer would dare to write for public singing. And I had to question all over again, “Why am I singing this verse?” I could not pass it off as someone else’s experience that I was asked by some song leader to sing as if it were my own. This was the inspired Word of God, and was composed specifically for Israel, the people of God, to sing to God. I began to realize that the one who composed all these verses was the one who was directing me to sing them with the understanding that they are not merely about my experiences but are about the experiences of the Blessed Man of Psalm One, who is Christ. And yet, they are not merely about Christ’s experiences apart from his church. They are composed for his church to sing WITH Christ, and much later I discovered that it is through this singing of the Psalms that Christ actually sanctifies, teaches, exhorts, comforts, and leads his church in our daily lives.

Secondly, I discovered the power of the Psalms, in their ability to do in my personal life what no hymn ever had done to me. Nearly every Psalm enlists the singer in a spiritual warfare, declaring the singer’s loyalty to God and His Christ and his kingdom, and declaring utter hatred of his enemies. Because of this strange power, I began to sing the Psalms at home every day. I sang right through the Psalter, sitting at the piano learning every tune. But often I had to stop in the middle of a verse and ask the question, Who are the enemies about which I am singing here? I had to stop to relate to my own life the enemies named in the Psalm. Psalm-singing became hard work, but really profitable work. Singing a Psalm became God’s way of teaching me of my sins (many of those enemies were inside of me and I could not glibly call down God’s curses on an enemy inside of me) and bringing me to confession and repentance.

I will not mention other differences because it would make this email too long.

Gradually I no longer could have the congregation sing many hymns from Trinity Hymnal. Qualitatively, they could not stand up against a Psalm. And I had to choose between them. There was a time when I could sing a few great hymns from Trinity Hymnal in worship, and mostly Psalms. But the day finally arrived when I realized that NO hymn in Trinity Hymnal could stand up against one of the Psalms, which were inspired by the Spirit of God for worship. I had to make a serious study of the regulative principle of worship as I never had done in seminary, where I was taught the equal value of Psalms and “New Testament hymns”. And I became persuaded in my conscience that I could not as a pastor ask the congregation to sing human compositions in the worship of God, since God himself had provided an inspired hymnal infinitely greater and more effective and more pleasing to Him than any alternative composition.

May I add simply what a tremendous blessing worship has become since that time, worship that cannot be compared to the old days when pipe organs played by virtuosos would occasionally drown out the congregation in grand sanctuaries with finely robed choirs reaching perorations of sound that shivered one’s frame! Now, bereft of all creaturely “aids to worship”, the worship services that I either lead or in which I joyously participate, are all centered in the Word of God, either read, preached, or sung. And I truly believe that the greatest experience this side of Glory is the singing of congregations led by Christ Himself (see Hebrews 2:12) in the midst, singing his own compositions designed for his church on earth to sing, in its infancy or in its maturity. The richest study of my life has become the Psalms. There is a depth of Christ-centered experience in them that simply has to be explained in order to be grasped. Singing the Psalms IS Christ’s WAY of ruling his church. As we learn to sing each Psalm we learn to walk with Christ through all the vicissitudes of life.

Every Sabbath Day is a high and holy experience as a congregation gathers to be led by Christ in singing to God the words selected for our instruction, reproof, correction and direction. Pastors who really know the Psalter have tools to lead congregations in worship that pastors who stick to Trinity Hymnal simply do not have. The Psalms are Christ’s own tools in ruling His church. No man can begin to equal their power and effectiveness in accomplishing the will of God via the singing of imitations.

Thank you for reading this old happy man’s “experiences.”

H. Leverne Rosenberger, retired missionary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, worshiping in Cambridge, MA RPC, across the Charles River from Boston.