Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions
In Leading God’s People in Prayer and Praise
Titles of Designation
Many of the psalms suggest by their language that they began as individual expressions of devotion that came out of a personal experience. In time these psalms became corporate prayers voiced by the whole congregation who could relate to common experiences. The use of the first person and the numerous accounts of events in the personal lives of the psalmists, make it clear that the majority of the psalms were originally private prayers. The transition of these prayers from private devotional poetry to public congregational song is preserved in the psalm inscriptions that denote the source or the destination of the psalm.
About half of the 337 inscriptions fit into the category of designation. These are titles using the Hebrew preposition לֹ. They can denote the author(s) of the psalm, the recipient(s) of the psalm, or in some places, to whom the psalm is dedicated. Having specific names attached to the psalms provides a personal connection and historical context that can be helpful in understanding the words.
Of David (ascribed to David)
Almost half of the psalms (73) are attributed to David; most of these are in Books I and II of the Psalter. The connection of the psalms with the heading of David to events in David’s life supports the interpretation of the inscription as denoting authorship. The extended title of Psalm 18, for example, makes it clear that David is the author: “Ascribed To David, Which he spoke to Yahweh the words of this song on the day that Yahweh delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
To the Servant of Yahweh
Two psalms (18 and 36), along with the designation to David, also contain the phrase to the Servant of Yahweh, which most likely is a further description of David. David is often called in Scripture a servant of the LORD.  The NKJV and ESV translate the phrases together as “A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD.”
David’s son, Solomon is credited with only two psalms (72 and 127). This is striking given the testimony of 1 Kings 4:32 that Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and composed 1005 songs. Psalm 72 is an appropriate prayer for a king known for his wisdom. It begins: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (72:1-2, ESV).” Although this psalm is attributed to Solomon, the final verse reads: “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” This may suggest that the psalm was actually composed by David with reference to or for his son, Solomon.
Psalm 127 is also a fitting psalm for Solomon. It concerns the building of the Temple, a task that fell to Solomon during his reign. This psalm begins: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Psalm 127 is one of the Songs of the Ascents, sung by the people as they made their way to worship in Jerusalem at the annual festivals.
Psalm 50 and a collection of eleven psalms (73–83) that begins Book III in the Psalter are attributed to Asaph. Asaph was one of three Levites, along with Heman and Jeduthun, appointed by David to lead the music in the tabernacle in the worship of God.  The poetry of the psalms ascribed to Asaph reflects the heart of one whose life was focused on the worship of God in Jerusalem. Psalm 50:2 says: “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” In Psalm 73 Asaph contemplates the apparent prosperity of the wicked and is perplexed until he goes “into the sanctuary of God” and in the context of worship and serving God begins to understand their end. In Psalm 74:2 he prays for God’s people gathered for worship:
Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old,
which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!
Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
Psalm 76 begins:
In Judah God is known;
his name is great in Israel.
His abode has been established in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion.
Ascribed to the Sons of Korah
Eleven psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah (Psalm 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87, 88). Korah was the son of Kohath of the tribe of Levi (1 Chronicles 6:22). The psalms ascribed to the sons of Korah may include music they composed as well as music they gathered into a collection for worship. According to 2 Chronicles 6:33–38, Heman, one of David’s three chief musicians, was a descendent of Korah.  This Heman, a Levite, should be distinguished from another biblical poet of the same name, Heman the Ezrahite.
Of Heman, the Ezrahite
Psalm 88 presents a difficulty in that it contains a double inscription. It is called both “a Song a Psalm of the Sons of Korah” and “a Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite.” If Heman, the descendant of Korah, is meant here as the author, the difficulty is solved; but the phrase the Ezrahite presents a problem in that it appears to refer to another biblical character named Heman related to Ethan the Ezrahite (1 Kings 4:31 and 1 Chronicles 2:6). This Heman was a descendant of Judah known for his wisdom. If this inscription to Heman, the descendant of Judah, denotes him as author, then the additional inscription to the sons of Korah likely means that the song was also included in a collection that the sons of Korah compiled for worship.
Of Ethan, the Ezrahite
One Psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 89, is attributed to Ethan, the Ezrahite. At least three men in Scripture have the name Ethan, causing some confusion as to who is meant in this inscription. Jeduthun, one of David’s appointed musicians, is called Ethan in 1 Chronicles 6:44 and 15:17, but the clarification in the title, the Ezrahite, makes it clear that he is not the one intended here. One other Levite, referred to in 1 Chronicles 6:42, is also called Ethan. The Ethan denoted in the title, however, is a wiseman of the tribe of Judah, related to Heman mentioned above (1 Kings 4:31 and 1 Chronicles 2:6).
Of Moses, the man of God
Book IV opens with “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” This prayer in Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to the great prophet and leader of Israel. Moses is certainly portrayed in Scripture as skilled in music. In the first song of praise recorded in the canon of Scripture, he leads the children of Israel in singing “The Song of Moses,” celebrating God’s victory over the Egyptians (Exodus 15 1-18). In Deuteronomy 31:19 God commands Moses:
Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.
Deuteronomy 31:30 declares that Moses obeyed the Lord and taught Israel the song recorded in Deuteronomy 32:1–43. Another prayer of Moses is recorded in Deuteronomy 33 where he blesses the tribes of Israel. The introduction to this prayer is similar to the title of Psalm 90 in that Moses is called in both places “the man of God.”
To the Chief Musician
The heading to the chief musician appears in 55 psalms.  The inscription consists of the preposition לֹ meaning to or for, the definite article (the) and a Piel (intensive stem) participle from the verb natsach. In the Qal (active stem) the verb means to shine or to be pre-eminent. In the Piel (intensive stem) it means to lead, to direct or to supervise.
The inscription to the chief musician denotes the recipient of the music. These are songs that were specifically designated by David and others to be given to the Temple musicians and used in the gathered worship of God’s people. The KJV and NKJV translate the inscription as to the Chief Musician; the NAS has for the Choir Director; the ESV has to the Choirmaster; and the NIV reads for the Director of Music. The NRSV has simply to the Leader, ignoring the association of the term to music.
Jeduthun was one of the chief musicians appointed by David and also one of the king’s seers.  He is called Ethan twice in 1 Chronicles, but should not be confused with the other men in the Bible named Ethan mentioned above. His name appears in the headings to three psalms that likely denote him as the recipient (specifying a particular chief musician) rather than the author: Psalm 39 and 62 (both psalms of David) and Psalm 77 (ascribed to Asaph).
The titles of designation offer some helpful insights into the composition of music for worship in the Old Testament.
- There is a connection made in many psalms between song-writer and lyrics. The inscriptions remind us that songs are often written in the crucible of personal experience, even painful and trying experience. We will explore this further in the discussion on titles of explanation.
- The personal connection between psalm and song-writer is apparent as well in the language of many of the psalms. There is a precedent in Scripture for voicing prayers and songs in first-person (“I” and “me”) even in a corporate setting. Unlike the conventional wisdom of those in our day who discourage the use of first-person in congregational music, those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament psalms did not see a need to change the wording of “I’ and “me” to “we” and “us.” Even in gathered worship, as we lift our voices together, we can express individual cries and praises of the heart.
- The titles of designation highlight the ministry of individuals (and groups of individuals) who compose, compile and lead music for worship. They are a reminder that we should be grateful and pray for song-writers, musicians and worship leaders in the church. Pray that God would continue to raise up in every age and in every place those who would invest their musical gifts for the benefit of God’s people.
 See 1 Samuel 23:10; 25:39; 2 Samuel 3:18; 7:5, 8, 20, 26; 24:10; 1 Kings 8:25, 66; 2 Kings 8:19; 1 Chronicles 17:4, 7, 24; 2 Chronicles 6:16, 17, 42; Ezekiel 34:24.
 1 Chronicles 15:16–19; 16:4–7; 25:1–9; 2 Chronicles 5:11–14; 35:15.
 See also 1 Chronicles 15:17, 19; 16:41; 25:5; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 35:15.
 Psalm 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 31, 36, 39, 40, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 75, 76, 77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 109, 139, 140.
 1 Chronicles 16:37–42; 25:1–7; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 35:15.
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)