Psalm TItles

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Application

Song of Ascents

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

Titles of Application

The inscriptions included in the book of Psalms provide helpful insights into the composition and usefulness of psalms in the worship of God’s people. Thus far in our study of the psalm inscriptions we have examined headings related to designation, description and explanation. The fourth category is application.

Eight inscriptions concern the application of the psalms. Twenty-three psalms in the Psalter contain these inscriptions in their titles. Unlike the titles of designation and description, headings that include an inscription of application never list more than one application. Titles of application denote how the psalm was used or should be used in worship. They can be divided into three groups.

    1. Liturgical (related to Israel’s observance of the festivals and holy days)
    2. Devotional (related to appropriate expressions and occasions for worship)
    3. Didactic (related to instruction and edification)

Liturgical

Three headings relate to the liturgical use of the psalm: for the dedication of the Temple, for the Sabbath Day, and of Ascents.

For the Dedication of the Temple

Psalm 30 includes the inscription a song for the dedication of the Temple (shir-hanukkath habbayith). This psalm was likely written for the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. [1] The NAS translates the phrase literally at the dedication of the House. The KJV and NKJV combine this heading with the heading to David and translate the inscriptions together as at the dedication of the house of David. The NIV and ESV interpret the the Hebrew term habbayith (meaning house) as referring to the Temple. The NIV and ESV have good reason to make this connection. In 2 Chronicles 5:1 the Temple is called the house of Yahweh. The phrase the dedication of the house of God (hanukkath beyth elohim) is found in both verses 16 and 17 in Ezra 6 referring to the dedication of the Temple when it was rebuilt following the exile. The term Hanukkah (dedication) became firmly associated with the Temple in 164 B.C. when Judas Maccabæus established a festival celebrating the reinstitution of worship in the Temple following the desecrations of Antiochus Epiphanes. [2] The festival is mentioned in John 10:22 and includes the singing of Psalm 30.

This heading presents several difficulties in relation to Psalm 30. The psalm is ascribed to David although the Temple had not yet been built. The Temple is not mentioned anywhere in the lyrics to the psalm. In the psalm David rejoices that God heard his prayer and healed him. He thanks God that his enemies have not gained victory over him (verse 1) and he and his lineage are now firmly established in God’s blessing. It is likely in this psalm that David was looking forward in hope to the time when his son would reign and build a House for God. God had promised that David’s house (his son) would built His House (the Temple).

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13).

It may have been David’s desire that when the House of God was built and dedicated to the Lord, among the first praises lifted in song would be David’s own thanksgiving to God:

That my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
(Psalm 30:12)

For the Sabbath Day

Psalm 92 is a song for the Sabbath Day, a song set apart for use on Israel’s most treasured day of the week. On the first Sabbath Day God rested from His work of creation. In this psalm the psalmist remembers what God has done and in verse 4 proclaims:

For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
At the works of your hands I sing for joy.

On the seventh day of every week, Israel was to rest from labor and celebrate together a holy convocation. The Sabbath was a full day sanctified to the Lord for the purpose of gathering the community together for worship. The psalmist confirms in verse 13 that those who “are planted in the house of the LORD” shall “flourish in the courts of our God.”

In the Temple worship a certain psalm was sung on each day of the week. Alfred Sendrey explains:

On the first day of the week, Psalm 24 was sung in remembrance of the first day of creation. No reason is known for the choice of the other daily psalms. On the second day the Levites sang Psalm 48; thereafter through the week, Psalm 82, 94, 81, 93, and on the Sabbath Day, Psalm 92, which bears this indication in its heading. [3]

Of the Ascents

The heading hamma’eloth appears in a collection of fifteen psalms (120–134). The NKJV, NAS, NIV, and ESV all render the term of Ascents. The KJV has of Degrees. The phrase shir hamma’eloth consists of the noun shir (song) in Construct state (meaning it must be linked to the following term) [4] followed by the noun ma’elah in the plural with the definite article (ha) attached. The phrase is best translated A Song of the Ascents.

Marvin Tate in his commentary observes that all the songs tend to be brief and are pre-occupied with Zion, the City of God (Jerusalem). [5] They were sung by Israelites as they traveled to Jerusalem for worship at the Temple, especially during the three pilgrimage festivals each year: Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. [6] Sendrey comments:

The short verses, written in an unaffected popular vein not found in other psalms, make it easy to believe that these songs of ascent gradually took shape among the yearly caravans of pilgrims that marched from all corners of Israel to the holy site of Jerusalem. In time they were probably made into a small songbook, whose collective title, “Songs of Ascent,” may have been affixed to each of the songs when the collection was taken into the Psalter. [7]

The Songs of the Ascents expressed the longings of the nation to be in Jerusalem at the time of these festivals and take part in the joyful celebrations in worship of God.

Some commentators have associated the Songs of the Ascents with physical aspects of the Temple, identifying them with the fifteen steps that lay between the Court of Women and the Court of the Israelites, as Sendrey explains:

The oldest rabbinical tradition connects these fifteen steps with the fifteen psalms referred to, saying that the Levites used to stand at the former, while singing the latter at the Feast of Tabernacles during the ceremony of the Water-libation. Since the number of the psalms and of the steps was identical, the rabbinic writers concluded that each psalm was sung on one of the steps. [8]

These steps (ascents) are mentioned in the description of the Temple in Ezekiel 40:26, 31.

Devotional

Four titles of application suggest appropriate expressions of devotion in worship at specific occasions: petition (in time of need), love (at a wedding), gratitude (for answered prayer), and sorrow (in time of affliction).

To Bring Remembrance

The heading to bring remembrance (lehazekir) appears in two psalms (38 and 70). It consists of the preposition to (le) and an infinitive construct verb from the root zkr in the Hiphil (causative active) stem meaning to mention or to remember. [9] In the Qal (simple active) the verb can mean he remembered, called to mind or he mentioned. [10] According to the TWOT, the term has three ranges of meaning: (1) “completely inward, mental” such as to think (about), to meditate (upon), to remember; (2) “mental accompanied by action” such as to pay attention (to); and (3) “forms of audible speaking” such as to mention, declare, recite, proclaim, invoke, commemorate, accuse, confess. [11] The TWOT concludes: “Cognate evidence indicates that the third group of meanings is closest to the verb’s root meaning.” [12] Concerning the origin of zkr, Klein states:

According to some scholars the original meaning of this base would have been “to prick, pierce”, whence “to fix in one’s mind” — to remember. [13]

While the root meaning of the term is clear: remembrance, scholars have debated as to what the Hiphil suggests, remembrance of God (commemoration) or from God (invocation). Klein suggests that the term in the Hiphil means: he caused to be remembered, he mentioned, or he commemorated. [14] The TWOT claims that the “meaning ‘to cause to remember’ for the Hiphils is dubious.” [15] The active nature of the stem seems to lean toward causing God to remember rather than causing God to be remembered.

The NIV favors this meaning, rendering the term a petition. Owens prefers the translation to invoke. [16] The NAS and ESV link the term to an act of worship in the Temple service, for a memorial and for the memorial offering. Peter Craigie explains in his commentary: “The word is sometimes associated with the ‘memorial offering’ … as described in Lev 2:2 and 24:7.” [17]

Along with the two psalm titles, the phrase to bring remembrance also appears in 1 Chronicles 16:4 where it describes one of the three activities to which the Levites were appointed. Through music they were to bring petition, invoking God’s care and remembrance of His people; give God thanks for all He did in His people’s behalf; and praise God’s name that He might be exalted, glorified and honored.

The content of the two psalms possessing the inscription also sheds light on the meaning. Psalm 38 begins: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger.” It continues with pleading and petition, concluding in verses 21–22: “Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O LORD, my salvation.” Psalm 70 is also clearly a petition, beginning: “Make haste, O God to deliver me!” It concludes: “O LORD, do not delay.” In both psalms David is invoking God’s attention and remembrance. He is asking for God’s protection and care in the midst of suffering and trouble. David uses the same term used of Noah in Genesis 8:1, “and God remembered Noah.” Remembrance here does not refer simply to knowledge—that Noah would come to God’s mind. It rather implies action. God took special care of Noah and all on the ark. It is this care and concern that David earnestly seeks from God in these psalms.

Of Love

Psalm 45 bears the inscription a song of loves (shir yedidoth). The KJV, NKJV, and NAS translate the phrase as Song of Love. The ESV uses Love Song. The NIV has Wedding Song. In light of the content of the Psalm 45, Peter Craigie also favors wedding song. He comments:

There can be little doubt that this poetic composition originated in the wedding celebration for a particular king, composed for the occasion; subsequently, it would have been used frequently at royal weddings. [18]

The phrase shir yedidoth consists of the noun shir in Construct state followed by a plural adjective yedidoth. It is best rendered as A Song of Loves. The title is appropriate to the content of the psalm that not only depicts the beauty of a royal wedding, but also prophetically portrays the glory of Christ, the Messiah, and the beauty of His bride, the church.

For Thanksgiving

Psalm 100 begins with the inscription a psalm for thanksgiving (mizmor letodah). The KJV renders the term letodah of praise. The NKJV and NAS use the word thanksgiving. The NIV and ESV have for giving thanks. The noun todah is derived from the verb yadah which means to confess, praise or give thanks. [19] The TWOT explains:

This cognate noun, being derived from yada, basically means “confession,” either of sin or of God’s character and works. The term was employed uniquely in reference to the sacrificial system of Israel One could bring a “thank-offering” (or “praise-offering”) in which he would make declarations of praise to God and/or confession of sin to God as he offered his sacrifice. [20]

Owens prefers the translation for the thank offering, linking the psalm to its original use in the liturgy of the Temple accompanying the sacrifices. [21] According to the ceremonial law, a worshipper could bring a peace offering for giving thanks (Leviticus 7:12-15). Often these were offered in fulfillment of a vow, when God had heard and answered a plea or petition. This thanksgiving sacrifice is mentioned in Psalm 50:14-15 where Asaph writes:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

As noted above with bringing to remembrance (offering petition), the giving of thanks (yadah) was one of the three primary duties of the Levites as they served God before the ark. [22] The title is fitting to the text as verse 4 of the psalm commands those who come to worship God:

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!

For the Afflicted when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint

Psalm 102 is a prayer for the afflicted, for use by those who are physically suffering and need to cry out to God for relief. The noun ‘ani translated afflicted refers to those who are overwhelmed by want, poor, wretched or in misery. [23] The psalmist here contemplates his frailty in comparison to God’s firm endurance. Singing psalms is not just for the joyful and glad of heart. The rich content of the Psalms offers as well words for those suffering affliction and in anguish.

Didactic

One title of application found in the Psalter denotes a didactic use of the psalms. The Psalter has, along with its primary purpose of glorifying God, a secondary purpose of edifying the people of God. Through the singing of psalms as God is worshipped, His character and acts are proclaimed to the benefit of the church. His people can learn as they pray and sing and take comfort in the knowledge they gain of their God.

For Teaching

The inscription for teaching (lelammed) occurs in the longest title in the Psalter, the double heading of Psalm 60. The KJV and NAS render this heading to teach. The NKJV and NIV use for teaching. The ESV reads for instruction.

Marvin Tate notes that the heading for teaching implies that the psalm was written “to encourage or inform the people.” [24] An example of this application is seen in Deuteronomy 31:19 where Moses is commanded by God to write down (kithbu) and teach (lamdah) a song to the children of Israel. In this instance the song was to be “a witness for me against the people of Israel.”

Sendrey connects this title to the descriptive term michtam, which may denote a poem written down for the benefit of the community to teach and preserve truth:

The various psalms containing miktam originally may have formed a small independent collection, with Psalm 60 as the initial poem, expressing in its heading the purpose of the entire group, i.e., “to be taught to youth.” [25]

Conclusion

The titles of application help us understand some of the purposes for the psalms as they were used in Temple worship. The psalms provide the content for corporate worship: at the dedication of the Temple, on the Sabbath Day, and even on the journey to participate in gathered worship. We see various activities and situations in which God intends to invoke prayer and praise from His people in song: in times of joy (a wedding) and sorrow (when afflicted); in times of need (petition) and satisfaction (thanksgiving). We also see the value of the psalms in teaching us how to pray and how to praise our most worthy and exalted God.

Notes:

[1] 2 Chronicles 5–6.
[2] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were in the Time of Christ (New York: F. H. Revell, 1874; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1987), 333–34.
[3] Alfred Sendrey, David’s Harp: The Study of Music in Biblical Times (New York: New American Library, 1964), 93.
[4] In Construct state shir would be translated into English song of.
[5] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 220.
[6] See Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-26; Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17.
[7] Sendrey, David’s Harp, 84.
[8] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1969), 99.
[9] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 89.
[10] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. (New York, MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987), 198.
[11] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT], 1:241.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 198.
[14] Ibid.
[15] TWOT, 1:242.
[16] John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1992), 2:735.
[17] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 303.
[18] Ibid., 338.
[19] TWOT, 1:364.
[20] Ibid., 1:365
[21] Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, 3:433.
[22] 1 Chronicles 16:4. “Then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke [bring petitions], to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel.”
[23] Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 278.
[24] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 101.
[25] Sendrey, David’s Harp, 85.

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)

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Application”

  1. Wow. Fantastic article. I’ve been teaching through the Psalms consecutively for the last year and a half and haven’t found most theories on the inscriptions convincing. My primary commentator has been Frank E. Gaebelein (Top of Ligoneir’s list for Psalms). Thank you for footnoting. Do you have a top 3-5 list of Psalm study helps?

    1. Thank you, Luke for taking time to comment and for your encouragement. You will find several of my favorite study helps mentioned in the footnotes including the Word Biblical Commentaries (3 volumes on the Psalms) for language studies and the two books by Alfred Sendrey on music in the Bible: David’s Harp: The Study of Music in Biblical Times (1964) and Music in Ancient Israel (1969). A few others: Interpreting Hebrew Poetry by Petersen and Richards (Guides to Biblical Scholarship series, Fortress Press, 1992) is helpful for understanding Hebrew parallelism. The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary by Waltke and Houston (2010) traces the interpretation and use of the psalms through church history. For devotional study my first choice is always The Treasury of David by C.H. Spurgeon.

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