Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions
In Leading God’s People in Prayer and Praise
Titles of Explanation
Thirteen of the titles in the Psalter provide some historical information associated with the composition of the psalm. It appears likely from the brevity of the historical explanations that the titles were not meant to provide a detailed account of how the psalms came to be written. Rather the titles are for the benefit of those who would use the psalms in worship.
All 13 psalms that contain historical information relate to events in the life of David. These accounts support the fact that David, called “the sweet psalmist of Israel” in 2 Samuel 23:1, is the author of at least the 73 psalms in the Psalter bearing his name. Ten of the psalms describe circumstances from which David is seeking help and deliverance. Two psalms are devoted to returning thanks to God for deliverance. One psalm is a lament over sin.
Petitions and Pleas for Deliverance
PSALM 3: When he [David] fled from Absalom his son
This psalm is associated with the events in David’s life recorded in 2 Samuel 15:13-17 when David’s son, Absalom rebelled and sought to take his father’s throne. In 2 Samuel 15:13 David receives a message: “The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” David writes as he begins the psalm:
O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
PSALM 7: Which he [David] sang to Yahweh concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite
This heading connects Psalm 7 to the events of 2 Samuel 16:5–14. In this passage Shimei the son of Gera cursed David for defeating Saul and taking the throne. He called David a “bloodthirsty rogue.” David reflects on this curse in the psalm:
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
PSALM 52: When Doeg the Edomite went and told Saul, and said to him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelech.”
This heading mentions Doeg, Saul’s chief herdsman.  Doeg was a wicked man who killed 85 priests at the command of Saul when the rest of the king’s servants refused.  In 1 Samuel 22:9 Doeg reported to Saul that David had gone to see Ahimelech the priest. This enraged Saul in a fit of jealousy and led to the murder of the Lord’s priests by Doeg.
Doeg apparently was proud of his deed, for David begins Psalm 52: “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?” In verses 7–8 David contrasts Doeg to himself:
“See the man who would not make God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!”
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
PSALM 54: When the Ziphites went and said to to Saul: “Is not David hiding with us?”
This heading relates Psalm 54 to the events recorded in 1 Samuel 23:14-29. David was hiding from Saul in the mountains in the wilderness of Ziph. 1 Samuel 23:15 explains that “Saul had come out to seek his life.” In verse 19 the Ziphites came to Saul and exposed David’s hideout. In Psalm 54:3 David prays:
For strangers have risen against me;
ruthless men seek my life;
they do not set God before themselves. Selah
God protected David and answered his opening plea “O God, save me by your name!” Before Saul could reach David a messenger came and diverted the king and his men to head off an invasion of the Philistines. 
PSALM 56: When the Philistines captured him [David] in Gath
In 1 Samuel 21:10-15 David is captured by the servants of Achish, king of Gath. In order to escape David pretended to be insane and then fled to the cave of Adullam, where the next psalm was likely composed.
PSALM 57: When he [David] fled from Saul into the cave
This psalm was likely composed shortly after Psalm 56. 1 Samuel 22:1 records that David escaped from Gath and fled to the cave of Adullam. Marvin Tate in his commentary suggests that this psalm may refer to David’s escape to a cave in the Wilderness of Engedi mentioned in 1 Samuel 24:1-3 since the heading specifies that David was fleeing from Saul.  However, since David was running from Saul when he went to Gath and this psalm is placed immediately following Psalm 56 in the Psalter, the cave of Adullam is more likely meant here.
The text of this psalm is appropriate to its heading. In verse 1 David asks for God’s protection until his troubles have passed and he refers to God as a refuge.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
PSALM 59: When Saul sent men, and they watched the house in order to kill him [David]
David composed this psalm before he became king of Israel. Saul was afraid of David and sought to have him killed. In the opening verses David declares his innocence in the matter and asks for God’s deliverance:
Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me;
deliver me from those who work evil,
and save me from bloodthirsty men.
For behold, they lie in wait for my life;
fierce men stir up strife against me.
For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD
The situation David describes here is recorded in 1 Samuel 19:1-18. Verse 11 states: “Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning.” This account also speaks of David’s innocence as Jonathan defends David, asking his father: “Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?”  The account ends by describing God’s answer to the prayer expressed in Psalm 59 as David is yet again protected in God’s providence.
PSALM 60: When he [David] fought against Mesopotamia and Syria of Zobah, and Joab returned and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt
This psalm is associated with David’s battles with Edom recorded in 2 Samuel 8:3–14 and 1 Chronicles 18:12–13. In the psalm David declares God’s sovereignty over all nations and God’s ability to bring all of David’s enemies into submission.
God has spoken in his holiness:
“With exultation I will divide up Shechem
and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine;
Ephraim is my helmet;
Judah is my scepter.
Moab is my washbasin;
upon Edom I cast my shoe;
over Philistia I shout in triumph.”
Who will bring me to the fortified city?
Who will lead me to Edom?
The title of the psalm states that twelve thousand were in the Valley of Salt, whereas the historical accounts in 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles both say eighteen thousand. This difference may be the result of two separate estimates of the number of dead. Another variation that appears in the accounts that may explain the different estimates for the number of dead is the one credited with the victory. In the psalm heading Joab, one of David’s generals, is credited with killing twelve thousand. In 2 Samuel 8:13 David himself is credited with killing eighteen thousand; and in 1 Chronicles 18:12 Abishai, another of David’s generals, is recognized as killing the eighteen thousand. Since all must have been involved in the conflict, all can take some credit for the victory. David makes it clear in the psalm, however, that it is God who must win the ultimate victory. In Psalm. 60:11–12 he prays:
Oh, grant us help against the foe,
for vain is the salvation of man!
With God we shall do valiantly;
it is he who will tread down our foes.
Concerning the location of the battle mentioned in the heading, Tate comments:
The precise location of the Valley of Salt is unknown, but it probably refers to one valley or another in the region of the Dead Sea, probably in Edomite territory. 
In spite of this victory, the psalm implies that David was concerned that God may have been displeased with Israel and intent on using David’s enemies to chastise the nation. He begins his prayer to God:
O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
you have been angry; oh, restore us.
PSALM 63: When he [David] was in the wilderness of Judah
This heading links Psalm 63 to David’s time in the wilderness of Judah. It may refer to the events in 1 Samuel 23:14 – 24:1, the same situation that produced Psalm 54, or 2 Samuel 15:23 when David flees from his son, Absalom, the situation of Psalm 3. The psalm is expressive of the imagery of a wilderness. David describes in verse 1 “a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Even in the midst of this trouble David is confident that God will preserve him, saying in the final verse: “But the king shall rejoice in God.”
PSALM 142: When he [David] was in the cave
This is the only title of explanation to appear in the Psalter after Psalm 63. The heading is not specific as to which situation in David’s life the psalm refers. It may refer either to 1 Samuel 22:1 or 24:3. Again David refers to the Lord in this psalm as his refuge. 
Praise And Thanksgiving for Deliverance
PSALM 18: Which he [David] 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
The heading to Psalm 18 emphasizes an important aspect of prayer in the Scripture. In many of the headings described above David made passionate requests of God to save him and deliver him from trouble. God was faithful to David and protected him throughout his life as the historical accounts in Scripture make abundantly clear. Prayer, however, must not stop with God’s answer. Petitions must give way to praise and thanksgiving as God’s will is made known through providence.
Consider how David begins his prayer in Psalm 18:
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
Psalm 18 is repeated in 2 Samuel 22, where it appears in the context of a historical narrative. It is difficult to specify the exact day mentioned in the title, as Peter Craig explains in his commentary:
The title indicates that the song was used on the day that David was delivered from enemies in general and from Saul in particular. Yet the context of the title in the parallel passage (2 Sam 22) does not permit the identification of the psalm with a particular event or military victory; it follows an account of Saul’s death and then a summary account of a series of military campaigns against the Philistines (2 Sam 21:15-22). It may have been employed in a celebration of victory after a series of campaigns, or it may be interpreted as having been used in one of Israel’s great annual festivals. 
Like the heading to the Psalm, the final verse points to David as the author of the psalm:
Great salvation he brings to his king,
and shows steadfast love to his anointed,
to David and his offspring forever.”
(2 Samuel 22:51)
PSALM 34: When he [David] pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed
In Psalm 34 David expresses thanksgiving to God for answering his prayers of Psalm 56 and 57. In Psalm 56 David cried out to God to save him from his captors in Gath. He pretended to be insane so Abimilech, king of Gath, would be afraid and let him go.  In Psalm 56:12 David promised God: “I will render thank offerings to you.” In Psalm 57:9 he said : “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” In Psalm 34 David is true to his word and expresses his thanks to God. Psalm 34 begins:
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
God was indeed a refuge for David during his troubles. Psalm 34 continues:
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Repentance and Sorrow over Sin
PSALM 51: When Nathan the Prophet went to him [David] after he had gone in to Bathsheba
Psalm 51 is lamentation of David where he repents of his sin against God and grieves over the wickedness of his heart. Remorse and grief over sin is an experience common to all who are truly God’s people, even a great king who is called in 1 Samuel 13:14 “a man after God’s own heart.” David’s sin is recorded in 1 Samuel 11 where David took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. In 1 Samuel 12 Nathan the prophet was sent to David and through a parable forcefully exposed David’s sin, saying in verse 7: “You are the man!” In Psalm 51 David asks for God’s mercy and confesses that his sin is primarily against God Himself. 
John explains in the New Testament, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).” All Christians struggle with remaining sin, and thus this psalm highlights an important element of public worship, the confession and expiation of sin.
As with the titles of designation, the titles of explanation highlight the historical connection of the psalms with individual songwriters. There are times when it is beneficial to know the circumstances surrounding the composition of a song. The music of worship is often forged in the crucible of life’s trials and afflictions. We see in the psalm inscriptions how David’s words, prayed and sung in the psalms, are tied to events and experiences in his life. Most of the situations that gave occasion for David’s compositions were not situations that David would have chosen for himself. They were hard and painful. And yet through them God showed His power and faithfulness, in hearing and answering prayer.
When you read through the psalms, you will find many personal declarations of petition and praise. Although the Psalter served as the song book for the gathered worship of God’s people in the Old Testament, most of the psalms are voiced in the first person singular (note the many uses of the pronouns “I” and “me” and “my” throughout the psalms). When the personal prayers of David and other psalmists were included in the Psalter, the lyrics were not changed to “we” and “us” in an effort to make the songs sound more corporate in their expression. Instead, the words were left as written with titles of explanation added where needed in the inscriptions.
Why are such personal expressions of worship included in the psalms? Why is it fitting for us to pray and sing about personal struggles and praise even in a corporate setting? There are at least two reasons:
- Many of the struggles that we experience are personal struggles—we face them individually. The testimony of God’s Word makes this evident. This is part of what makes the Psalms and all of Scripture so real and so relevant and so accessible for the child of God. It speaks to us and for us where we are—and points us always to our only hope in God and His provision in the gospel of Christ.
- As sinners saved by grace, walking together in this world on our way to a better place, we all experience similar struggles—we share many of the same joys and sorrows and temptations and trials. This is why we can read David’s prayers in Scripture and it seems that he is praying our words, speaking our sorrows, lifting our praise. What began as a personal prayer, in God’s providence was set down to become the voice of all God’s people.
The Psalms are useful to us, not only to serve as the very words we pray and lift up as praise, as we sing and pray and read the psalms in worship, but they serve to teach us how to pray—what to pray for—how to persevere in prayer—how to praise—when to praise. And they demonstrate how our own prayers, poured out in the midst of real-life struggles, can benefit and serve the people of God as a whole. What we pray as individuals, in part shapes the voice of the church as a whole.
When Christians pray in gathered worship about personal trials or tragedies, we share their pain. We may recognize similar needs in our own lives. Their prayer is magnified as it provokes more prayer in us. When songwriters compose music for the church, born out of their own joys and sorrows, their hope in God and love for Him is magnified. We sing their words in corporate worship and add our voices to their prayers and praise. This was David’s intent, as he drew from his own experiences to shape the praise of God’s people. He declares in Psalm 34:
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
 1 Samuel 21:7.
 1 Samuel 22:6-18.
 1 Samuel 23:27.
 Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 76.
 1 Samuel 19:5.
 Tate, Psalm 51-100, 105.
 Psalm 142:5.
 Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 172-73.
 1 Samuel 21:10–15.
 Psalm 51:4.
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)