Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Description

A Song A Psalm

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

Titles of Description

The second type of psalm inscription is a title of description. It indicates the musical or poetic genre of the psalm. Although we use the word “psalm’ to refer to all 150 songs in the Psalter, there are actually more than just psalms in the book of Psalms. The inscriptions suggest that there are at least eight types of musical composition represented. The first four are fairly clear in their meaning: psalm, song, prayer and praise. The last four are less certain: testimony, michtam, maschil and shiggaion.

The use of these terms in the inscriptions indicates that some overlap may exist in their meanings. While 82 psalms employ only one descriptive term, 15 use two in combination, and one, the double inscription in Psalm 88, uses three. Fifty-two psalms have no descriptive title.

Psalm

The most frequent title of description is psalm (mizmor). It appears in the heading of 57 psalms. It is the only descriptive term in 43 headings. [1] In 12 psalms it occurs in combination with song (shir). [2] In the double inscription of Psalm 88 it is used with both shir and maschil. In Psalm 80 it is used with testimony (‘eduth).

Mizmor is a noun meaning psalm or accompanied song. [3] The noun is a derivation of the verb zamar. Zamar has two meanings in the Old Testament. In the context of agriculture it means to prune (pluck) a vine; in the context of music, the verb means to play (pluck) a musical instrument, or sing to the accompaniment of a plucked (stringed) instrument. [4] The verb (associated with music) occurs 45 times in the Old Testament, all in the Pi’el (intensive stem) and all in the context of praise. All but four occurrences are in the Psalms. Twenty-two occurrences of zamar are in psalms that include the inscription mizmor. The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament (TWOT) and BDB Hebrew Lexicon suggest broader meanings for zamar: to make music, [5] or to make music in praise of God. [6] The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) concludes, however, that zamar “is used in OT Hebrew solely in the sense ‘sing praises (accompanied by stringed instruments).’” [7]

According to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament the original meaning of mizmor is a song sung to an instrumental accompaniment. [8] The TDOT defines the term as a song (with instrumental accompaniment). [9] This accompaniment would be predominantly by stringed instruments. Stringed instruments were especially important for the accompaniment of the psalms in the Temple worship, as Edersheim explains:

That music was chiefly sustained by the harp (Kinnor) and the lute (Nevel). Of the latter (which was probably used for solos) not less than two nor more than six were to be in the Temple orchestra; of the former, or harp, as many as possible, but never less than nine. There were, of course, several varieties both of the Nevel and the Kinnor. The chief difference between these two kinds of instruments lay in this, that in the Nevel (lute or guitar) the strings were drawn over the sounding-board, while in the Kinnor they stood out free, as in our harps. [10]

By the time of the New Testament the term psalm was used especially, though not exclusively to refer to the collection of songs used in worship in the Temple. The title for the Book of Psalms in the Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek word Psalmoi, from which the English title is derived. Jesus used this term when He said that what was written about Him in the Psalms “must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). When Paul provided a paradigm for music in the church, he began his list with singing psalms (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).

Song

Seventeen psalms are described only by the term song (shir). [11] Fifteen of these are the Songs of Ascent, songs that the people of Israel would sing on their way to Jerusalem and the Temple to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16–17). Eight psalms are described by the combination mizmor shir [12] and four with shir mizmor. [13] The double inscription of Psalm 88 has shir mizmor and maschil. One psalm, Psalm 45, is called A Song of Loves and a maschil.

Shir is a noun that simply means song. [14] It has a wide variety of sacred and secular uses. It is used of celebrating a journey (Genesis 31:27) as well as rejoicing in God (Exodus 15:1). While shir appears primarily in joyful contexts, it is also used in the headings of poems expressing lament (e.g. Psalm 88). It describes the singing of one voice (David’s solo in Psalm 18) as well as the combined praise of many voices, “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:3).

Compared to mizmor, shir is a more generic term with a broader meaning. Kraus explains in his commentary on the Psalms:

A differentiation between [shir] and [mizmor] could be stated only in this way, that [shir] probably originally and preponderantly denoted the vocal, cantillating presentation of a psalm, whereas [mizmor] primarily referred to singing accompanied instrumentally. [15]

While mizmor is a more specific designation indicating a song written for both voice and instruments (see above), shir simply denotes song or singing in general.

Prayer

Four psalms are designated as a prayer (tehillah). [16] In all four psalms, the psalmist expresses a trouble or difficulty. In light of this, Kraus suggests that the term in the Psalter means a prayer of lament or bidding prayer. [17] Psalm 90, for example, is titled: “A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God.” The psalm laments the fleeting days of man and is an extended petition for mercy and help:

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
(Psalm 90:13-15)

In one sense most of the 150 psalms could be titled a prayer, since in the vast majority God is personally addressed. The psalms are valuable models for prayer, exemplifying both praise and petition. Book II of the Psalter ends in Psalm 72:20 with the words: “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” This seems to indicate that most of the poems at least in the first two books were considered as prayers.

Praise

Only one psalm, Psalm 145, has the descriptive title tehillah, meaning praise, song of praise or praiseworthy deed. [18] Praise, however, is a term fitting for the entire Psalter. Praise is ultimate to the psalms. With the exception of Psalm 88, all the psalms include expressions of praise to God. [19] The Psalter is named in Hebrew tehillim (the plural of tehillah), meaning Praises. Although the Psalter begins with instruction (Psalm 1 contrasts the way of the wicked with the way of the righteous), and continues with many petitions and laments, it culminates in a loud crescendo of praise at the end (145–150). Everything in the book—prayers and teachings, joys and sorrows—moves toward praise to God. The psalm that bears the title of praise stands at the beginning of the final crescendo calling on all creation to glorify God.

The noun tehillah is derived from the verb halal (found only in the intensive stems in Scripture), meaning to praise. [20] Several psalms that center on joy and praise are included in a collection of psalms sung especially during the festival celebrations at the Temple. Sendrey explains:

Among the psalms sung at the high holidays, the group of the Hallel-psalms occupied the most prominent place. To this group belonged the “Egyptian Hallel,” as Pss. 113–118 are called in the rabbinic literature, the Great Hallel,” Pss. 120–136, and Pss. 146–148, specifically called the Hallel-psalms. [21]

As a descriptive term tehillah denotes a poem written to honor and extol the Lord, as Psalm 145:1–2 exemplifies:

I will extol you, my God, O King;
And bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
And praise your name forever and ever.

According to 1 Chronicles 16:4 praise was one of the three primary activities of the Levites as they ministered before the ark in the Tabernacle. The abundant use of praise in the psalms, even in petitions and laments, reveals that praise was an essential element in the music and worship of ancient Israel.

Testimony

The noun ‘eduth meaning a testimony, a witness or covenant is found in the heading of two psalms. It appears in Psalm 60 with michtam and in Psalm 80 with mizmor. The term is often used in the Old Testament to refer to God’s Law, the Ten Commandments. In Psalm 78:5–8 it appears with law (torah) where Asaph reminds God’s people of the command to teach God’s Word to children of each generation “that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God.”

In Psalm 60 ‘eduth follows the phrase ‘al-shushan, meaning literally upon a lily. Some translations of Scripture connect the two headings as one. The KJV, ESV and NAS leave the headings connected and untranslated. The NKJV has Set to “Lily of the Testimony.” The NIV is similar: To the tune of “The Lily of the Covenant.” However in Psalm 80, where ‘eduth follows a similar phrase with the plural noun ‘el-shoshannim meaning upon Lilies, several versions treat the headings as separate titles of description. The plural noun is clearly in the Absolute state rather than Construct state (meaning it stands alone and is not linked to the following term). It can be translated to the tune “Lilies.” A Testimony, but not to the tune “Lilies of a Testimony.” The NKJV correctly reads: Set to “Lilies” A Testimony. As does the ESV: According to Lillies. A Testimony. The NAS also separates the headings while leaving them untranslated: set to El Shoshannim; Eduth. The NIV, however ignores the Absolute state of the noun shoshannim and connects both headings as in Psalm 60. The NIV reads: To the tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant.” The KJV connects the headings and leaves them untranslated.

In both headings ‘eduth should be regarded as a separate inscription meaning Testimony or Covenant. Both psalms bearing this description are similar. They portray the petitions of the covenant people who, due to their own sinfulness and rebellion, have fallen out of fellowship with God. Psalm 60 begins:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
you have been angry; oh, restore us.
(Psalm 60:1)

The refrain in Psalm 80: 3, 7, and 19 echoes the same theme:

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved!

Michtam

Michtam is the only descriptive heading in five psalms. [22] Psalm 60, the longest heading in the Psalter, has both michtam and testimony. The meaning of michtam is less certain, but it likely comes from a root meaning inscribed or written down, denoting a song that is preserved for public use or public benefit. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon offers the most likely translation of the term, an inscription. [23] Peter Craigie, in his commentary, agrees, stating that the “most probable” meaning is inscribed. [24]

All six occurrences of michtam involve psalms that express some kind of trouble. Marvin Tate in his commentary suggests that these are “all psalms of distress and crisis, in which the speaker moves to confidence and assurance that enemies will receive appropriate consequences for their deeds.” [25] Cragie adds: “Tentative support for this interpretation may come from the six psalms entitled Miktam in the Psalter; four, in their titles, are associated with times of crisis, which might have been events of sufficient moment to warrant recording an inscription.” [26] The michtam was a way for the psalmist to write down or inscribe both his cry to God and his confidence in God, so that when deliverance came, all would know that the God of Israel hears and answers the prayers of His people.

Maschil

This term maschil occurs at the beginning of twelve psalms: in ten headings as the only designation, [27] once with the heading Song of Loves (Psalm 45), and once with shir mizmor (Psalm 88).

The meaning of maschil is uncertain. The KJV, NAS, NIV, and ESV all leave the term untranslated. The NKJV translates the term as a contemplation. Scholars have proposed a variety of possible meanings. Ernest Klein suggests that the term means wise, skillful, or intelligent and refers to ” a kind of didactic poem.” [28] Kraus also calls the term “an ‘artistic song’ or ‘didactic song.’” [29] This is supported by the use of the term as a participle in 2 Chronicles 30:22 where it refers to Levites who were skilled in the worship of God and were responsible for teaching God’s people. A maschil then denotes a lyrical poem used in the teaching ministry of the Levites. These are songs filled with counsel and instruction.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
(Psalm 32:8)

The use of maschil in Psalm 53 demonstrates some overlap in the psalm inscriptions. Psalm 53 from Book II in the Psalter is designated as a maschil; Psalm 14 in Book I is called a psalm (mizmor). Both have identical texts except for the name used of God in the second verse. [30]

Shiggaion

The meaning of shiggaion is also uncertain. Most modern versions of Scripture leave the term untranslated. The NKJV renders the term a meditation. Kraus suggests the rendering lamentation. [31] The term occurs in the Psalter only in Psalm 7, although it is also used in Habakkuk 3. Both songs compare the wrath of God toward the wicked with the mercy of God toward the righteous.

Shiggaion may relate to a root in Hebrew meaning to go astray. [32] This would suggest the rendering wandering psalm implying an uneven poetic meter or the expression of unsettled thoughts. This would be fitting for the text in which David grapples with the curses spoken to him by Cush. In Psalm. 7:3-5 David prays:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
and let him trample my life to the ground
and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

David resolves at the end of the psalm:

I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.
(Psalm 7:17)

Habakkuk also grapples with a difficult issue, God’s use of the Babylonians as a means to chastise His people. In Habakkuk 3:16 he laments:

I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.

Like David, Habakkuk resolves in the end that he will praise God:

yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
(Habakkuk 3:18–19)

Conclusion

There are at least eight types of musical composition represented in the Book of Psalms: psalm (an accompanied song, usually with stringed instruments), song (singing with or without accompaniment), prayer (a petition for mercy and help), praise (honoring and exalting God), testimony (a prayer of contrition from God’s covenant people), michtam (an inscription to mark a significant event), maschil (a song of instruction), and shiggaion (a complaint grappling with evil and injustice).

These titles of description are part of the rich diversity found in the Psalter. The psalms are filled with a wide range of expression in worship, from lament to joy, from a single voice to a vast convocation, from quiet and stillness to loud, reverberating praise. Added to this, shaping this expression, are a variety of poetic and musical forms. These forms encourage the worshipper to sing, play music, pray, praise, grapple with injustice, repent of sin, gain wisdom, and write down significant events when we placed our confidence in God. The music of the Psalter stands as the fount of church music and sets a precedent for the rich variety and abundance of poetic and musical forms used in worship through history.

Notes:

[1] Psalm 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 29, 31, 38, 39, 40, 41, 47, 49, 50, 51, 62, 63, 64, 73, 77, 79, 82, 84, 85, 98, 100, 101, 109, 110, 139, 140, 141, 143.
[2] Psalm 30, 48, 65, 66, 67, 68, 75, 76, 83, 87, 92 and 108.
[3] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT], 1:245; William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 189.
[4] Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 89–90; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson (New York: E. J. Brill, 1994–2003), 1:273–274. This meaning of the verb occurs in Leviticus 25:3 and Isaiah 5:6 (The Song of the Vineyard).
[5] TWOT, 1:245
[6] The New Brown–Driver–Briggs–Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon [BDB], 274.
[7] Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament [TDOT], 4:98.
[8] Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 2:566.
[9] TDOT, 4:94.
[10] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (New York: F. H. Revell, 1874; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1987), 78-79.
[11] Psalm 18, 46, 120–134.
[12] Psalm 30, 65, 67, 68, 75, 76, 87, 92.
[13] Psalm 48, 66, 83, 108.
[14] Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 367-68; BDB, 1010
[15] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalm 1–59: A Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1988), 22.
[16] Psalm 17, 86, 90, 120.
[17] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, 26
[18] [BDB, 239; Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 387; TWOT, 1:218.
[19] Even in Psalm 88, the psalmist expresses his concern for the praise of God in verse 10.
[20] Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 80–81
[21] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1969), 176-77.
[22] Psalm 16, 56–59.
[23] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebräisches und Aramäiches Lexikon zum Alten Testament, 3d ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967 – 1990), 551. “Aufschift.”
[24] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 154, note 1.a.
[25] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 66.
[26] Craigie, Psalm 1-50, 154, note 1.a.
[27] Psalm 32, 42, 52, 53, 54, 55, 74, 78, 89, 142
[28] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. (New York, MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987), 391
[29] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, 25.
[30] Psalm 14 uses Yahweh LORD. Psalm 53 has Elohim God.
[31] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, 26
[32] Craigie, Psalm 1-50, 97.

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 (thus far) for this series: Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions

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

5 thoughts on “Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Description”

  1. i m sure this will be an interesting read once my head is clear from post-op meds. i will pass this to my 75 yr old cousin, music teacher who i m witnessing to.
    audrey fitzgerald

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