Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Introduction

To the Chief Musician

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions
In Leading God’s People in Prayer and Praise

Introduction: Why Consider the Psalm Inscriptions?

The psalms are a rich source of devotion and worship. Throughout history they have taught God’s people how to sing and pray and praise. They lifted the voice of Israel in worship through the Old Testament, comprising the songbook of the Temple. The psalms spoke of Christ and prepared the way for His coming (Luke 24:44). They are mentioned first among the music of the church in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). We are exhorted to sing them in light of their full expression and fulfillment in Christ. The psalms teach us how and what to sing, as our hearts are drawn out and our affections are raised in the presence and power of God. They are a treasure for the Christian and we should turn to them often.

Many of the psalms include inscriptions, headings that appear at the beginning, added when the Psalter was complied and the psalms were ordered for use in worship in the Temple. The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections, each ending with a doxology: I (1-41), II (42-72), III (73-89), IV (90-106), V (107-150). [1] The majority of the psalm titles appear in the first two books as indicated in the following table:

Psalms Titles Chart

As noted in the table above, some of the psalms have more than one inscription. In the entirety of the 150 Psalms there are a total of 337 inscriptions attached to the beginning of 116 of the psalms. Many of the headings were likely fixed to the psalms by the authors. Others may have been added at a later time as the psalms were gathered into collections and finally put into their present form. The headings were attached to the individual psalms to add explanation and clarity as the psalms became part of the corporate worship of Israel. These inscriptions offer insight as we sing the psalms and embrace them as our own expressions of worship.

Unfortunately the psalm inscriptions tend to be overlooked in the study of the psalms. The rich theological content and poetic beauty in the psalms themselves have held the interest of scholars and theologians, but the headings are often subject to mere cursory mentions.

There are several possible reasons for this:

  1. The inscriptions are considered to be secondary additions to the psalms and of limited value.
  2. The inscriptions focus more on musical matters and are of less interest to theologians and commentators than the rich texts of the psalms themselves.
  3. The inscriptions remain the subject of a wide array of speculation.

The meanings of some of the terms and phrases found in the inscriptions are uncertain and elusive. Some of the mystery surrounding the inscriptions lies in a loss of knowledge of the practice and performance of music in the Temple. Even by the 3rd century BC, when the Septuagint (LXX) [2], the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was made, the titles were already regarded as ancient and many of the terms found in the titles were not understood. Some of the translations supplied by the LXX appear arbitrary and misinformed. Commentator Peter Craigie suggests that the poor translations of the psalm headings may “indicate a lack of musical or liturgical knowledge on the part of the translators, or the lack of equivalent or appropriate terminology in the Greek language.” [3] According to Idelsohn this lack of knowledge was exacerbated by the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.

A short time after the destruction of the Temple the entire art of the instrumental music of the Levites fell into oblivion; and two generations later the sages lost all technical knowledge and all sense of the reality of that silenced music. [4]

Lack of musical knowledge has led some commentators to embrace many untenable theories concerning the meaning of the terms. Speaking of the commentators, Alfred Sendrey comments:

Whenever they were guided mainly by musical considerations, they were able, in most cases, to offer natural as well as logical interpretations. In other instances, they were bound to lose themselves in fruitless speculations, which necessarily ended in a blind alley. [5]

Though the precise meaning of many of the inscriptions remains a mystery, they are still a valuable aid in understanding the psalms. The psalm titles are part of the canon of Scripture. In the Hebrew (Masoretic) text they are included in (or as) the first verse of each psalm which has a title. They are therefore a part of God’s revelation and to some degree profitable for the people of God, especially to those concerned with serving God through music.

This series of posts will explore the psalm inscriptions under five categories.

I. DESIGNATION: Those titles using the Hebrew preposition לֹ lamed.  They can denote the author(s) of the psalm, the recipient(s) of the psalm, to whom the psalm is dedicated, or possibly whom the psalm is about.

II. DESCRIPTION: Titles that state the type of poetic genre or musical composition. [psalm, maschil, song, praise, prayer, testimony, michtam]

III. EXPLANATION: Titles that provide a historical connection for the psalm. They relate the circumstances surrounding the composition of the psalm.

IV. APPLICATION: Titles that indicate the liturgical, devotional or didactic use of the psalm. [For the Sabbath Day, To Bring Remembrance, Of the Ascents]

V. INTERPRETATION: Titles that explain how the psalm should be musically interpreted or performed. [On Flutes, With Stringed Instruments]

[Download a PDF list of Psalm Inscriptions highlighted by category]

The psalm inscriptions present an intriguing study for musicians and worship leaders. As we survey the inscriptions in upcoming posts, we will aim to answer three basic questions:

What do the inscriptions reveal about the use of poetry and music in the life and worship practices of ancient Israel?

Do the inscriptions have relevance for worship practices today?

What can the inscriptions teach us, especially in regard to composing, arranging and planning music for worship?

Notes:

[1] The Doxologies are found in 41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, and 150:1-6.
[2] The LXX was widely used during the time of Christ and is often quoted in the New Testament
[3] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983), 33.
[4] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1929; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 19.
[5] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1969), 137. For a more thorough survey of suggested meanings for the psalm titles, see, 93-158.

This series is based on a seminar paper for “Special Research in Church Music” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (May 1995).

See a Table of Contents for this series: Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions

(Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)

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