Category Archives: Psalm Inscriptions

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: What Can We Learn?

Psalm Inscriptions

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

Conclusion: What Can We Learn?

The psalm inscriptions offer a unique perspective on music and worship for the church musician. In this series we have examined the 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 psalms set a precedent and paradigm for church music through the ages. Although a measure of uncertainty still surrounds the meanings of some of psalm inscriptions, they are a part of God’s revelation in Scripture and have relevance for the present day. God has given us enough light to reveal some of their purposes within the Psalter. Those who serve God with the gift of music can especially benefit from a knowledge of these headings.

So what can we learn from the Psalm inscriptions? How can they be useful and encouraging to us as we magnify God through music in the present day? Here, in summary, are ten lessons we have gleaned over the course of the study:

1. The psalm inscriptions reveal a wide range of poetic and musical forms found in the psalms. These include psalms, songs, prayers, praises, testimonies, michtams, maschils, and shiggaions. This diversity in the Psalter sets a precedent for the vast tapestry of poetic and musical forms used in worship throughout church history.

2. The psalm inscriptions display a wide range of usefulness for music in worship. The psalms shape and accompany much of the content of Old Testament worship. They not only function as musical compositions, but also as prayers, wisdom literature and liturgical texts. According to the inscriptions, the poetic and musical forms in the Psalter provide helpful structure for singing, playing music, celebrating (at a wedding), petitioning God (in time of need), praising God, giving thanks to God, grappling with injustice, repenting of sin and declaring faith in God as He is at work in the lives of His people.

3. The inscriptions and especially the psalm texts themselves show the wide range of emotional expression possible and appropriate for worship. From the deepest valleys of anguish and despair in Psalm 88, to the sorrow and grief of Psalm 51, up to the highest peaks of joy and praise that culminate in Psalm 150, the psalms demonstrate the unmatched ability and usefulness of music to express such emotion. Enoch Hutchinson in Music of the Bible explains:

“The essence of lyric poetry is the immediate expression of feeling; and feeling is the sphere in which most of the psalms move. Pain, grief, fear, hope, joy, trust, gratitude, submission to God, everything that moves and elevates the heart is expressed in these songs.” [1]

4. The psalm titles demonstrate the wide range of musical expression possible in worship. Many types of instruments are mentioned in the inscriptions including stringed instruments, flutes, an instrument of Gath, as well as a host of others mentioned in the texts of the psalms themselves (such as Psalm 150). Vocal forces include solos (individual praise and lament) to “everything that has breath.”

5. The psalm inscriptions highlight the connection between music and God’s work in human history. They link the psalms to real situations recorded in Scripture and actual worship practices of ancient Israel and the Temple. We sing the words penned by David and other Old Testament songwriters as they looked to God for strength and help. We join our voices with God’s people in past ages, singing the words that carried their praise and comforted their hearts. The psalms remind us that we are part of something much larger than what we see God doing in our lives today. We are part of God’s covenant promises and plan of redemption that has shaped all of human history since the Garden of Eden to the present day.

6. The psalm inscriptions intimate a place for personal expression (I and me) in music for worship. The psalms are the heartfelt and authentic cries of David, Asaph and other songwriters, expressing their petitions and praises, their thanksgivings and laments. Though many of the psalms began as individual expressions of worship, expressed in the first person (I and me), God’s people in all ages have identified with the psalms and found an affinity with their message. We sing the words of the psalmists as our own because they express common experiences and feelings, such as remorse over sin, repentance of sin, praise to God, thanks to God, and adoration of God. The psalms demonstrate that we can address God in personal and intimate ways, though corporately as the gathered people of God.

7. The psalm titles suggest a connection between the popular or familiar music of the culture and music in worship. The sound of the music in the Temple was not markedly distinct from the music of the people. Temple musicians borrowed from familiar tunes, styles and instruments of the day. The psalms set a precedent for the church throughout its history to harness the music of the world for the glory of God. This is evident in the New Testament as well. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, alongside psalms, Paul lists hymns, a musical form borrowed from pagan culture, first used to honor false Greek and Roman gods, but now synonymous with music of the church.

8. The psalm inscriptions reveal that our worship of God should extend beyond our times of gathered worship. The Psalms of the Ascents (120–134) were sung by Israel as they journeyed to the Temple in anticipating of corporate worship. We see David and others lifting praise and crying out to God in many situations and circumstances, in times of joy and in times of need. We can pray and sing to God at any time and in any place and He will hear us and answer us.

9. The psalm titles set a precedent for care and planning for music in worship. The psalmists were careful to include instructions concerning how the psalms should be musically performed. This involved care in using appropriate instruments and tunings, care in using the psalms for appropriate occasions, and care in finding the right tune to fit with a certain text. The psalm titles teach us the value of being thoughtful and intentional in preparing for and leading worship.

10. The psalm titles highlight the value of ministry of those who compose, compile, plan and lead music in worship. They remind us to give thanks for songwriters, musicians and worship leaders in the church. We need to encourage them and pray for them. We need to pray that God will raise up more servants in the church who will use their musical gifts for His glory and benefit of His people.

For more on Music and Worship, see “What Then Shall We Sing?”

Part 1: Thoughts on Music
Part 2: Thoughts on Music and Worship
Grid for Evaluating Music

Note:
[1] Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61.

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)

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Interpretation

Played by Flutes

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

Titles of Interpretation

The inscriptions included at the beginning of many of the psalms offer valuable instruction for church musicians. They provide brief glimpses of the worship practices of ancient Israel and the Temple. In earlier posts we considered four categories of titles: designation, description, explanation and application. The final category of psalm inscriptions is interpretation.

Thirteen inscriptions included in the first three books of the Psalter relate to interpretation, clarifying how the psalm was musically performed or sung. These inscriptions always follow the designation to the chief musician (lamnatstsech). Although these headings are the most difficult of the five types to satisfactorily understand and adequately translate, they include terms that most likely denote musical instrumentation, voicings, melody or tune names, and musical styles. All but one use the preposition ‘al meaning upon or according to or the proposition b meaning with.

Instrumentation

Three of the headings appear to indicate musical instrumentation. They refer to stringed instruments, flute or wind instruments, and an unknown instrument of Gath.

With Stringed Instruments

An instruction to perform with stringed instruments appears in five psalms. [1] The singular with a stringed instrument occurs in two psalms. [2]

The Hebrew inscription binginoth consists of the preposition b meaning with or on and the plural form of the noun neginoth. Neginoth comes from the root nagan meaning to touch (strings) or to play a stringed instrument. [3] Most modern versions translate the inscription as with stringed instruments or simply for strings. The KJV leaves the term untranslated as on Neginoth.

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. [4]

Idelsohn adds: “These two instruments were the most important ones, without which no public religious ceremony could be held.” [5]

Upon Flutes

The inscription el-hanechiloth occurs only in Psalm 5. It consists of the preposition el meaning upon and the plural form of the noun nechilah which most likely denotes a flute. [6] Most modern versions translate the heading as for flute accompaniment or simply for flutes. As with neginoth the KJV leaves this term untranslated, upon Nehiloth.

Flutes were primarily used on special occasions and festivals in the worship of Israel, including Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. [7] According to Edersheim, “the flute was also used by the festive pilgrim-bands on their journey to Jerusalem, to accompany ‘the Psalms of Degrees,’ or rather of ‘Ascent,’ sung on such occasions.” [8] This heading does not appear on any of the Songs of Ascent, however, all of the psalms in Book V lack titles of application.

When flutes were used in the Temple, they were highlighted as solo instruments as Edersheim notes:

In the Temple, not less than two nor more than twelve flutes were allowed, and the melody was on such occasions to close with the notes of the flute alone. [9]

Upon the Gittith

The instruction ‘al-hagitith appears in three psalms. [10] The Hebrew phrase consists of the preposition upon ( ‘al), the definite article h and an uncertain term gittith.

The term gittith most likely refers to a musical instrument named after the Philistine city of Gath. [11] David spent time in Gath when he was fleeing from Saul (1 Samuel 21:10–15). He would have been aware of their musical practices. Kraus suggest, however, that the term “probably refers to a melody” and should be rendered according to the Githitic (tune). [12] The KJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV all leave the term untranslated. The NKJV has on the instrument of Gath.

Voicings

The two headings indicating a certain voicing or tuning of the stringed instruments are the first of the headings to appear in Scripture outside the Psalter. They are found in 1 Chronicles 15:20 and 21 where David prepares to bring the ark to Jerusalem and appoints Levites to oversee the worship of God.

The singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound bronze cymbals; Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah were to play harps according to Alamoth; but Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed- edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah were to lead with lyres according to the Sheminith. Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, should direct the music, for he understood it (1 Chronicles 15:19–22).

The use of the inscriptions in this historical context reveals that they are ancient, going back at least to the beginning of David’s reign as king.

According to Sheminith

The heading ‘al-hasheminith occurs in Psalms 6 and 12. The term is unclear, but likely instructs the instrumentalist to tune to or play in a lower key.

The KJV, NIV, ESV and NRSV leave the term untranslated. NKJV has on an eight-stringed harp. The NAS has upon an eight-stringed lyre. Klein suggests two possible meanings: a musical instrument probably of 8 strings or an octave. [13] Peter Craigie, in his commentary, renders it upon the octave implying a lower tuning or bass accompaniment, which, he says, “would be appropriate to the solemn theme of the psalm.” [14]

According to Alamoth

A similar heading to sheminith occurs in Psalm 46, ‘al-‘alamoth. This term is also uncertain, but is likely a compliment to sheminith, especially in light of their use in 1 Chronicles 15:20–21. Alamoth, therefore, would denote a tuning to or playing in a higher key.

The KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV all leave the term untranslated. Klein refuses to speculate on this term saying it is “of uncertain origin and meaning.” [15]

Melodies

At least seven headings in the psalms suggest the use of pre-existing tunes or well-known melodic patterns to perform the psalm. Idelsohn explains the role of these tunes in Israel’s worship:

The vocal song of the Temple, like all religious song among the ancient and primitive nations, drew its sap from the folk song, though foreign tunes may have occasionally crept in. These Temple songs—folk-tunes modified and sanctified—were in turn copied by the ‘representatives of the people,’ the Anshe Maamad, from all parts of the country, who learned the melodies together with the texts, and would carry them to their homes. [16]

Curt Sachs further clarifies the use of these melodic patterns:

Oriental music has always been, and still is, composed in well-defined designs or melodic patterns. These melodic patterns might be compared to the three Greek orders or styles in architecture, the composition of which had detailed rules with which the artist was compelled to comply, and only within these specifications could he follow his personal interpretation. In music, melodies using the same scale, and relating to each other by their general mood, belong to one melodic pattern. [17]

According to Aijeleth Hashachar

The tune Aijeleth Hashachar is found only with Psalm 22. The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated, but other versions have spawned a number of suggested translations. These include: The Deer of the Dawn (NKJV and NRSV), The Doe of the Morning (NIV), and Doe of the Dawn (ESV).

According to Jonath Elem Rechokim

The title ‘al-Jonath Elem Rechokim occurs only in Psalm 56. The terms in the heading are uncertain and have produced a number of various translations: The Silent Dove in Distant Lands (NKJV), A Dove on Distant Oaks (NIV), The Dove on Far Off Terebinths (NRSV and ESV). The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated.

According to Shoshannim

The inscription ‘el-shoshannim means literally upon Lilies. Of the seven inscriptions that likely refer to tune names or melodic patterns, this one presents the most difficulty. It occurs in three psalms, 45, 69, and 80. Psalm 45 is a song of love replete with praise and adoration. Psalm 80, however, is a lament containing a refrain that pleads with God for revival. It seems improbable that two psalms of such different character could be performed with the same musical setting.

The phrase is literally translated as Lilies (NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and ESV). The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated.

According to Shushan Eduth

The title ‘al-shushan appears only in Psalm 60. Although the term ‘eduth meaning a testimony is often included as part of the tune name, it should be considered as a separate title of description, as in the heading to Psalm 80. The title ‘al-shushan consists of the preposition according to (‘al) and the noun lily (shushan) which appears in the plural form in Psalm 45, 69, and 80. Commentators who attached ‘eduth to this title assume unnecessarily that the noun shushan is in the Construct state and must be linked with the following term. The translation of the title should read, however, to the tune “A Lily.”

The KJV, NAS and ESV leave the title untranslated. Translated tune names include: Lily of the Testimony (NKJV) and The Lily of the Covenant (NIV and NRSV).

According to Muth-labben

The heading ‘almuth labben occurs only in Psalm 9 (Psalm 10 is a continuation of this psalm and does not have its own heading.) Owen suggests that the title derives from the words ben meaning son and ‘almah meaning young woman. He translates the performance instruction as soprano voice of boys. [18] Other scholars suggest the first word in the title relates to the Hebrew root muth meaning to die. [19]

The KJV, NAS, ESV and NRSV leave the title untranslated. NKJV and NIV translate the name of the tune as Death of the Son.

According to Machalath (Leannoth)

The title of Psalm 53 uses the uncertain term machalath with the preposition according to (‘al); Psalm 88 uses both machalath le‘annoth introduced by according to (‘al). Marvin Tate says in his commentary that the phrase is “assumed to be a tune or chanting pattern to be used with the psalm.” [20] The KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV leave the terms untranslated, implying this possibility.

Do Not Destroy

The heading ’al-tashcheth appears in four psalms. [21] It consists of the negative particle ’al and the Hiphil (causative active) form of the verb shachath meaning to spoil, ruin, or wipe out. [22] The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated. The NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and ESV all translate the title as Do not Destroy.

The inscription may relate to Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 9:26, or David’s words in 1 Samuel 26:9, or more likely, to the words of a song recorded in Isaiah 65:8 which begins:

Thus says the Lord:
“As the new wine is found in the cluster,
and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
for there is a blessing in it,’
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
and not destroy them all.”

Marvin Tate explains:

The “do not destroy it” expression seems to have been a popular saying or proverb which reflected the idea of a vineyard keeper refusing to destroy grape-vines when the first clusters of grapes were bad. The vines still had the blessing of life in them and a potential for future production. Like the vines, Israel had brought forth the grapes worthy of destruction but Yahweh would not destroy Israel because she still contained a blessing (cf. Isa 28:23-28). [23]

Styles

According to Jeduthun

This heading referring to Jeduthun, one of David’s chief musicians, appears in two psalms (62 and 77). Jeduthun’s name also appears in a title of designation (with the preposition  לֹ) in Psalm 39. Tate suggests that the title in Psalm 62 and 77 employing the preposition ‘al may be “referring to a tune or musical setting, according to which the psalm was to be sung.” [24] The Hebrew preposition, however, is best translated here as according to. [25] Kraus suggests the proper rendering “After the manner of Jeduthun’s music making,” [26] denoting a particular style for which Jeduthun was known.

Conclusion

Although the titles of interpretation are the most difficult to translate, they do shed some light on the use of music in worship.

First, the titles indicate a measure of thoughtfulness and planning in the preparation and performance of music. The musicians who served in the Temple were intentional in choosing what instruments were used (strings, flutes, and even an instrument of Gath) and the key or tuning of the musical setting (lower or higher). They used specific melodic patterns or tunes to accompany certain psalms. They even used the musical settings or styles of particular composers (as with Jeduthun). The titles of application serve to remind us to put thought and care into the planning of music for worship.

Second, the titles also suggest a rich crossover between the music of the Temple and the popular music of the people (sung in homes, in the fields and in other cultural settings). Temple musicians borrowed from well-known or popular settings; they included melodic patterns that were familiar to the people. This is a point worth noting. There are some who have concluded that sacred music (music used in the worship of God) should have a decidedly distinct sound or style from secular music (music used for other purposes in the world). The psalm inscriptions, however, suggest that the musical style and arrangement of sacred and secular are not so markedly separate.

In the New Testament Paul provides a paradigm for church music that encompasses a vast array of musical sounds and styles down through history and around the world. We are to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) to the glory of God. The music of the church begins with the psalms, rooted in the worship of ancient Israel. But even in the psalms we see the beginnings of the varied sounds of praise in worship. Along with popular melodic patterns accompanying some of the psalms, we see remarkably, instructions to use an instrument (or possibly a tune) from Gath. A part of the musical tradition from a city of the Philistines, one of Israel’s enemies, is selected and sanctified for use in worship.

The psalms set a musical precedent for worship that God will accomplish in fuller measure in the New Testament through the church. Throughout church history, God has added and continues to add many musical styles and sounds to His praise. As the gospel goes out in the power of God’s Spirit, conquering hearts and lives, people from each generation and from every tribe and tongue and nation add their voice to the music of the church. There is not one sound that is solely sacred, but a vast array of musical composition that God is weaving into a tapestry of praise for His glory.

Notes:
[1] Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61.
[2] Psalm 67, 76.
[3] The New Brown–Driver–Briggs–Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon [BDB], 618.
[4] 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.
[5] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1929; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 8.
[6] John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1992), 3:263.
[7] Edersheim, The Temple, 79-80.
[8] Edersheim, The Temple, 80.
[9] Edersheim, The Temple, 80.
[10] Psalm 8, 81, 84.
[11] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. (New York, MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987), 111.
[12] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalm 1–59: A Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1988), 31.
[13] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 666.
[14] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 90.
[15] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 473.
[16] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 20.
[17] Curt Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1940), 126.
[18] Owen, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, 3:269.
[19] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 327.
[20] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 394.
[21] Psalm 57, 58, 59, 75.
[22] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 366.
[23] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 77.
[24] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 120.
[25] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 120.
[26] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, 30. See also BDB, 393.

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)

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)

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Explanation

When David fled

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 3:1–2)

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 7:3–5)

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. [1] Doeg was a wicked man who killed 85 priests at the command of Saul when the rest of the king’s servants refused. [2] 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 52:7–8)

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. [3]

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. [4] 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 57:1)

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
(Psalm 59:1–3)

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?” [5] 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?
(Psalm 60:6–9)

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. [6]

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 60:1)

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. [7]

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 18:1–3)

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. [8]

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. [9] 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.
(Psalm 34:1)

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.
(Psalm 34:4–7)

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. [10]

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.

Conclusion

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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!
(Psalm 34:1-3)

Notes:

[1] 1 Samuel 21:7.
[2] 1 Samuel 22:6-18.
[3] 1 Samuel 23:27.
[4] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 76.
[5] 1 Samuel 19:5.
[6] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 105.
[7] Psalm 142:5.
[8] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 172-73.
[9] 1 Samuel 21:10–15.
[10] 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)

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)

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Designation

The Servant of the Lord

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. [1] The NKJV and ESV translate the phrases together as “A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD.”

Of Solomon

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.

Of Asaph

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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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.

To Jeduthun

Jeduthun was one of the chief musicians appointed by David and also one of the king’s seers. [5] 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).

Conclusion

The titles of designation offer some helpful insights into the composition of music for worship in the Old Testament.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

Notes:

[1] 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.
[2] 1 Chronicles 15:16–19; 16:4–7; 25:1–9; 2 Chronicles 5:11–14; 35:15.
[3] See also 1 Chronicles 15:17, 19; 16:41; 25:5; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 35:15.
[4] 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.
[5] 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)

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)