Superscriptions of the Psalms

The Great Psalms Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Wikimedia Commons

All ancient texts of the Psalter include before many of the psalms superscriptions or “titles” designed to inform the reader about who wrote the psalm, how to sing or perform the psalm, and/or what type of psalm it is. In addition, Modern English translations also typically insert newly devised headings that summarize the content of the psalms. I stress again that the superscriptions are ancient, the content headings are modern. Psalms 1–2 have no superscriptions (but they do have content headings). In my NRSV, Psalm 3 has the modern heading, “Trust in God under Adversity,” an attempt to capture the theme of the psalm. Below that heading, there is this superscription: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.” The superscription is in our ancient manuscripts, the heading is not.

This study first examines the superscriptions in the Masoretic Text (MT), which is the Textus Receptus of the Hebrew Bible and serves as the point of departure for all serious study of the Old Testament. Then we will look at the superscriptions in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. 11QPsa, etc.). Finally, we will consider the historical value of the superscriptions. Since verse and psalm numbering differs among the various editions of the Psalter (MT, LXX, English versions), it is necessary to specify that this study employs the familiar English numbering for psalms and verses no matter the edition being cited.

THE SUPERSCRIPTIONS IN DIFFERENT EDITIONS

Masoretic Text

In the MT Psalter, 116 Psalms are preceded by a superscription. If we count the term Hallelujah (“Praise the Lord!”) as a superscription (see, e.g., Psa 146), as some scholars do, then the number increases to 126. This leaves 24 “orphan” psalms, or psalms without any superscription at all.  

Terminology

Many of the superscriptions contain technical terminology not clearly understood today. We will briefly note the types of information included in the superscriptions and possible definitions for obscure terms.

There are genre designations:

  • “Song” (28 times without a modifier)
  • “Psalm” (57 times)
  • Miktam, “golden song” (?; Pss. 16; 56–60)
  • Maskil, “didactic song” (?; 13 times; also Ps. 47:7)
  • Shiggaion, “lament” (?; Ps. 7)
  • “Praise” (Ps. 145)
  • “Prayer” (Pss. 17; 86; 90; 102; 142; cf. Hab. 3:1)

The first of these terms, also appears in fifteen consecutive Psalms (120–134) in the phrase “Song of Ascents,” a category perhaps employed on pilgrimages to the mountainous region of Jerusalem, or while climbing the steps to the Temple.

There are instructions for the performance of the psalms:

  • “with stringed instruments” (Pss. 4; 6; 54; 55; 67; 76; cf. 61, singular in Hebrew)
  • “for the flutes” (Ps. 5)
  • “according to the eighth,” perhaps referring to a bass voice (Pss. 6; 12)
  • Alamoth, “maidens,” perhaps referring to a soprano voice (Ps. 46)
  • Muth labben (Ps. 9), perhaps equivalent to Alamoth, or maybe referring to a tune

The Gittith (Pss. 8; 81; 84) and Mahalath (Pss. 53; 88) may refer to musical instruments or tunes. The notations that more probably refer to tunes are the following:

  • “Do Not Destroy” (Pss. 57; 58; 59; 75; cf. Isa. 65:8)
  • “The Deer of the Dawn” (Ps. 22)
  • “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” (Ps. 56)
  • “Lilies” (Pss. 45; 69)
  • “Lily of the Covenant” (Ps. 60)
  • “Lilies, a Covenant” (Ps. 80)

Occasions for use are sometimes indicated:

  • Psalm 92 is to be sung on the Sabbath
  • Psalms 38 and 70 are to be sung “for the memorial,” perhaps referring to a sacrifice (cf. Lev 2:2)
  • Psalm 100 is “for Thanksgiving,” perhaps the Thanksgiving Offering (Lev 7:12)
  • Psalm 30 is assigned to “the Dedication of the House (temple?)”

Finally, the word lamnatzēakh, “to the leader,” is found in the superscriptions to fifty-five psalms, as also in Habakkuk 3:19. It perhaps designates the psalm as belonging to the choir director. 

Two other strange terms, though not appearing in superscriptions, may also be mentioned here. Selah appears 71 times in the text of Psalms and three times in Habakkuk 3. The two most popular explanations are that it signals a pause in singing for a musical interlude, or that it signals the place of a congregational response. Higgaion is found twice: most translations leave it untranslated in 9:16, where it appears just before selah, while in 92:3 they offer something like “resounding music” (NASB), “melody” (NRSV), or “solemn sound” (KJV).

Historical Superscriptions 

The MT Psalter includes 13 “historical” superscriptions that situate a particular psalm in relation to an event in David’s life.

  • Psalm 3, A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.
  • Psalm 7, A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.
  • Psalm 18, To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:
  • Psalm 34, Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
  • Psalm 51, To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
  • Psalm 52, To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
  • Psalm 54, To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”
  • Psalm 56, To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
  • Psalm 57, To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.
  • Psalm 59, To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.
  • Psalm 60, To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.
  • Psalm 63, A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
  • Psalm 142, A Maskil of David. When he was in the cave. A Prayer.

Psalm 51 is the best known of these, and it is hard to read that psalm without thinking of David’s adultery and murder reported in 2 Samuel 11. Some of the situations referenced in these superscriptions are either unknown from the historical books (e.g., Psa 7) or they are difficult to reconcile with the account in Samuel (contrast Psa 34 and 1 Sam 21:10–15; Psa 60 and 2 Sam 8:13). One of these historical superscriptions is corroborated by the account of Samuel, as 2 Samuel 22 includes the same poem (in slightly altered form) as Psalm 18 and is preceded by a note that closely matches the superscription to Psalm 18. 

Superscripts or Postscripts?

The Psalms were originally unnumbered, as they are in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it is possible that some of the material was improperly divided when numbers were added to the text. This is the case, for example, with Psalms 9–10; that these two were originally one poem, as they are in the LXX, is clear from the fact that together they form an acrostic. It is also probable that some of the superscriptions of the psalms were actually intended to be postscripts of the previous psalm. The example of Habakkuk 3, a psalm with a superscript and a postscript, clarifies the pattern, which can be applied profitably to many of the psalms. One problematic superscription that can be explained in this way is found before Psalm 88.

A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite

Psalm 88 superscription

Here we seem to have two author ascriptions: the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite. It may be that part of this superscription was originally a postscript for Psalm 87, which itself is titled “Of the Korahites. A Psalm. A Song.” Using Habakkuk 3 as a model, we can transfer most of Psalm 88’s superscription to the end of Psalm 87, so that only “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” is left before Psalm 88. (For other details and arguments, see Waltke.) 

Septuagint

The Psalter was translated into Greek in the second century BC. This LXX Psalter is available now in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) and other translations (such as LES). The LXX Psalter is typically characterized as a very literal translation of the Hebrew, so it is surprising that the superscriptions differ as radically as they do (see Flint, pp. 118–134). The LXX increases the number of superscriptions so that there are only two orphan psalms (Pss. 1 and 2), though some of the “extra” superscriptions seem to have arisen merely by transferring the closing Hallelujah of the previous psalm to the beginning of the next (e.g. Psalm 105; 114; 116; etc.). David is credited with 12 additional psalms in the Greek translation (Pss. 33; 43; 71; 91; 93–99; 104; this is according to Pietersma’s reckoning in NETS), bringing his total to 85. 

Dead Sea Scrolls 

Thirty-six manuscripts containing one or more (biblical) psalms were found at Qumran, and three such manuscripts elsewhere in the Judaean Desert. Some of these manuscripts are closer than others to the MT in terms of wording and structure, while some (e.g. 11QPsa) diverge radically from it. The Dead Sea Psalms scrolls attest several changes in the superscriptions. In the various manuscripts, David is credited with four more psalms (Psa 33; 91; 104; 123) but is actually removed from the superscription to Psa 144. However, the evidence is not consistent among the various scrolls. There is also a prose paragraph in 11QPsa that praises David and his 4050 songs, which he composed prophetically. 

THE HISTORICAL VALUE OF THE SUPERSCRIPTIONS

Debate about the value of the superscriptions has continued since ancient times. In the fourth century AD, Diodore of Tarsus asserted that the superscriptions represented merely the guesswork of post-exilic editors, while his contemporary Gregory of Nyssa composed an entire treatise on the superscriptions in full assurance that they were inspired and contained divine mysteries. Most modern scholars tend toward Diodore’s view, but Mark Futato, for instance, has argued that the superscriptions are canonical. Within churches of Christ, Burton Coffman declared that “these ancient superscriptions have no claim to having been written by inspiration” (his comment on Psa 34, here), though he did consider them trustworthy in general (as in his comment on Psa 3; likewise Eddie Cloer, p. 10).

The two main problems with taking the superscriptions as inspired are (1) that they were clearly added after the composition of the psalm and (2) that the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls attest alternative superscriptions. Even Futato (p. 119) considers the superscriptions later additions to the text, based on three reasons:

  1. the superscriptions are composed in the third person, thus appearing editorial rather than authorial
  2. the superscriptions vary according to the MT, LXX, and 11QPsa
  3. Psalm 14 is identical to Psalm 53 except for the superscriptions, so at least one of the superscriptions had to have come later

As for the second point, the alternative superscriptions in the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the superscriptions were not considered inspired by the translators/editors, as E. J. Young (p. 307) pointed out long ago. It was a fluid tradition, subject to change, and there is no guarantee that the same process that led to multiplying superscriptions in the LXX and 11QPsa did not also happen in the MT. 

In behalf of the superscriptions, it can be said that they appear (in one form or other) in every ancient manuscript of the Psalter. They were clearly ancient, as seen from the mistranslations in the LXX Psalter, which could have happened only if their composition preceded the translation by a long age. Futato establishes his belief in their canonicity on (1) his assertion that the New Testament treats the titles as scripture, (2) the repetition of the superscription from Psalm 18 in 2 Samuel 22:1, and (3) his belief that the inspiration of the superscription in Habakkuk 3 implies the inspiration of the Psalter’s superscriptions. However, the citation of a psalm under David’s name (e.g. Mark 12:35–37) is hardly evidence that Jesus and the apostles granted inspiration to the superscriptions, and the examples from 2 Samuel 22:1 and Habakkuk 3 cannot legitimately be applied to the entire Psalter. Just because a superscription is canonical in one part of the Bible does not make it so in another part, especially where the evidence is so problematic, as we have seen. 

This essay is a revised version of one published originally with the proceedings of the 2009 Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship.

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