Category Archives: Psalm

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)

Music at Grace

Music at Grace

Often I am asked about the music we sing at Grace Baptist Church. Are the lyrics available? Where can I find a recording? How can I get the sheet music?

The music we sing at Grace comes from many songwriters and composers, embracing new songs of our day as well as cherished hymns of the faith. Some of our music is composed and arranged in house. The rest comes from many other sources. Most of the songs are available online.

Each year I post a list of 150 titles of our current and favorite music for worship. The list includes composers, publishers and (for some titles) links to help find the music online.

Here is the list of our current and favorite music for worship thus far in 2014.

How Should We Sing the Great Old Hymns of the Faith?

Down through the ages church history has displayed a rich tapestry of praise to the glory of God. Included in the music of the church are many beloved hymns that have stood the test of time and have become lasting contributions to the church’s voice in worship. These are songs that resonate beyond their age, with proven quality and depth.

There is no question that we should continue to sing and cherish the old, established, proven hymns of the faith. They remind us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. God is at work in every age accomplishing His purposes and building His church. His Kingdom reaches throughout history and across nations and languages. The old hymns of the faith are the voices and echoes of the past that testify to the greatness and faithfulness of God through the ages.

But how should we sing the great old hymns of the faith? How do we add our voices in the present to songs from the past in ways that will allow us to share in the praise and benefit from the testimony of saints who have gone before us?

Or to ask the question another way: Is it more authentic to sing the great hymns of the faith just as they were written? Should we aim to preserve them in the style and form in which they were composed? Or is it more authentic to recognize that we live in a new day and aim to craft our music to reflect the styles of today? Should we take the old hymns and give them a fresh sound, adjusting and adapting them to fit our voice and our time?

Piano and Drums

Many have strong preferences regarding how we sing the music of the past. Some believe the old beloved songs should be left as is and not “messed up” by making them sound contemporary. Others are convinced that the old hymns are more meaningful and accessible in our day when we re-craft them with new settings and new tunes.

Authenticity is measured differently across styles of music. For classical music an authentic sound might be judged by how close the musicians come to expressing the original intentions of the composer. Deviating from the notation, altering or re-arranging the tune would dilute the song and make it inauthentic and unstylistic. For jazz authenticity might be judged by the musicians’ creativity and skill at improvisation. The idea of playing a song as written, or playing it the same way it was played yesterday (or even a few moments ago) would be absurd.

But authenticity in worship is never a matter of our own creativity or our adherence to musical form. Authenticity is always a matter of the heart. Our aim in worship is glorifying God, not exalting one way of singing over another. We come to proclaim truth, not preserve musical form or flaunt musical talent. We come to magnify Christ, not measure the greatness of our songs.

God’s worship cannot be contained by our preferences, within our comfort zones, and inside our creativity. Paul’s descriptive words for church music, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, encompass the great breadth and scope of music in the church that God is orchestrating to His own glory.

So how then should we sing the great old hymns of the faith?

The answer is with hearts enlivened by God’s grace and moved by God’s glory. And this can take many forms. There will be times (and places) when we use older and beloved settings of great hymns. At times we might sing new songs that borrow or incorporate older hymns (songs such as Cornerstone from Hillsong that uses the verses from The Solid Rock or Lord I Need You from Matt Maher that quotes I Need Thee Every Hour). And at times we might sing older hymns with a new arrangements and tunes (songs such as Glorious Day – Living He Loved Me, sung by Casting Crowns, that updates One Day or God Moves from Sovereign Grace Music that updates William Cooper’s hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way). But at all times we must sing from our hearts with passions more enflamed for God’s glory than stoked by personal preferences.

There are some compelling reasons why we should see the music of the church as fluid and dynamic, rather than rigid and inviolate.

1. God has designed our music to be necessarily contemporary. Most of the music of the church only lasts for the moment. It serves its day and then fades to make room for new songs. Even with the Old Testament psalms, thousands were composed and sung in worship in the tabernacle and Temple, but only 150 were set down and preserved in Scripture. Relatively few hymns and songs have continued on to become the treasured music of the church. But whether we sing the music from the past or new songs from our own day, our singing is contemporary. It is the church lifting its voice in worship to God now in the present.

2. With the psalms God gave us a mandate and set a precedent for our worship. We are commanded in Scripture:

Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
(Psalm 47:6–7)

The psalms continue into the New Testament as a treasured part of the church’s music:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:19).

Paul taught the church to include the music of the past. First on his list of what the church should sing are the psalms, music of the Old Testament that anticipated the coming of Jesus and spoke of Him (Luke 24:44). And yet the psalms come to us without musical tunes or arrangements. While some of the inscriptions on the psalms suggest that specific melodies and instruments were used, those original melodies were not preserved along with the words. To sing the psalms, as God commands, the church has had to compose and add its own tunes.

3. Most of the great old hymns are known by tunes that were added later by composers looking for a new sound for great lyrics. For Example:

• The words to Holy, Holy, Holy were written by Reginald by Reginald Heber (1783–1826). John B. Dykes later composed a new tune (NICAEA) for the hymn when it was included in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861.

• The words to the hymn Amazing Grace by John Newton were published in the Olney Hymnal in 1779. Verse 6 that begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” was added in 1790. The tune NEW BRITAIN (also known as AMAZING GRACE) is an American folk tune that was first published (to different words) in the Virginia Harmony in 1831. It was adapted and arranged by Edwin O. Excell to fit the lyrics to Amazing Grace in 1900.

• The words to And Can It Be were written by Charles Wesley in 1738. The hymn tune most associated with Wesley’s words, SAGINA, was composed by Thomas Campbell in 1825, over 80 years later.

In most cases, we owe the longevity of great hymns of the past to the willingness of church musicians to find or compose new music to accompany them.

4. For most of the history of western hymnody, words were not rigidly connected to specific tunes. Before hymnals that included both words and music, printed together on the same page, became popular in the 20th century, it was common for the same hymn to be sung to several different tunes. Hymnals were printed with words only; tunes and lyrics were matched by poetic meter (C.M., L.M., 7.6.7.6., etc.). Each local church would have a repertoire of favorite and familiar tunes that they would use with the lyrics they wanted to sing in worship. As churches today are moving away from printed hymnals to again sing with words only (now projected on screens), the idea that a song can have only one authentic tune or arrangement is fading as well.

Thankfully there are church musicians in our day who are committed to keeping hymnody alive and well. Tim Challis has provided a helpful summary on contemporary hymns. Several groups are writing new tunes and new arrangements of old hymns, including Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Paige CXVI, and Red Mountain Music.
We need to sing the great old hymns of the faith. We need to join our voices with God’s people through the ages and celebrate the boundless scope of His mercy and grace. May God help us to sing them, in both new and old ways, as authentic expressions of our hearts in worship to His glory and praise.

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