Question: What are the notes at the beginning of some of the Psalms? For example, Psalm 3 has a note that says “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.”
These notes are found in all English Bibles (that I have checked) on 116 of the 150 Psalms.[i] These notes are usually called “superscriptions”[ii] or “titles”. Unlike the subscriptions at the end of the letters of Paul, most conservative biblical scholars have accepted them as part of the inspired text. Steven J. Cole in Psalms An Overview: God’s Inspired Hymnbook writes, “Many psalms contain a superscription, which sometimes identifies the author, the historical setting, and other features. For example, Psalm 3 begins, ‘A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom.’ These psalm titles are a part of the original Hebrew text (they are verse 1 in Hebrew, thus making the Hebrew verse numbering differ in many places from the English) and are just as inspired as the rest of the psalm.” On the other hand, in his Introduction to the Psalms on the same web site, Bob Utley presents a more modern critical view, “I think they [titles or superscriptions, rlv] are not inspired. I will not comment on them in this commentary.”
These statements by Cole and Utley reveal the basic views on the topic – (1.) that they are in Masoretic text (Hebrew) and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and are, therefore, canonical; or (2.) that they were not part of the text of the original writers, were added later and, therefore, should not be viewed as inspired. In The Authenticity of the Psalm Titles, James H. Fraser expands and categorized seven views as “representative of some of the attitudes of scholars toward the psalm titles”: the Inspired Scripture View, Authentic-Tradition View, Critical-Tradition View, Psalter-Compilation View, Midrashic-Exegesis View, Cultic-Setting View, and Higher-Critical View.[iii]
I was brought up in a tradition that views these superscriptions as part of the original text[iv] – and yet sometimes inconsistently might not read or refer to them when studying a Psalm. If they are original and inspired, then we should not ignore them, even if in some cases we don’t understand them. If we consider these inscriptions inspired, what proof might help sustain that view? Here are some considerations.
Internal/biblical evidence (New Testament references)
New Testament passages refer to David as the author of certain psalms, which authorship is maintained in the superscription. For examples:
In Luke 20:42 Jesus refers to Psalm 110 and says “David himself saith in the book of Psalms.” Only in the superscription and nowhere else in the text of the psalm does it state that David wrote the psalm. Jesus’ use of the emphatic Greek personal pronoun αὐτὸς (autos, himself) emphasizes he intends Davidic authorship specifically and not just as a general relationship between David and the Psalms. We observe the same thing in Peter’s reference to Psalm 110 as recorded in Acts 2:34-35.
Both Peter and Paul cite Psalm 16 (v. 10; in Acts 2:29-32 and Acts 13:35-36), making the point that David himself was speaking, but that he was not speaking of himself. That David was the author/composer of this psalm occurs only in the superscription and not in the text of the psalm itself.
Internal/biblical evidence (Old Testament similarities)
The superscription of Psalm 18 is “To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who spake unto the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul: And he said…” This is also found in 2 Samuel 22:1-2, where it is included as part of the inspired text introducing this song: “And David spake unto the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul: and he said…” This clarifies the superscription as part of the scriptural introduction to the song. [bold emphasis mine]
Other Old Testament passages of songs bear similarities to the Psalm superscriptions and are part of the inspired text.
- Habakkuk 3:1 “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.”
- Habakkuk 3:19 “…To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.”
- Isaiah 38:9 and Isaiah 38:20 show Hezekiah’s psalm beginning with an inscription of information on the author and historical setting.
These instances (2 Samuel 22:1-2; Isaiah 38:9,20; Habakkuk 3:1,19) occur outside the book of Psalms. Consistency suggests that in all places these should be read and included as inspired Scripture. Other biblical song/poetic evidence outside the Psalter/Psalms that should be considered include: Exodus 15:1 (Moses’ song), Exodus 15:21 (Miriam’s song), 1 Samuel 2:1 (Hannah’s prayer) and 2 Samuel 1:17ff (David’s lament).
External evidence (related to the Old Testament)
Students of the titles have called attention to several external factors that support viewing the superscriptions in the Psalms as part of Scripture.
The structure and style of the Hebrew Bible. According to Fraser, the Hebrew Bible “incorporates them into the text of the psalm so that when the verses were numbered in the sixteenth century they were counted as the first verse or part of the first verse. Thus, indicating that in the Massoretic tradition of the Hebrew Bible they were regarded as an integral part of the text.”[v]
Translation in the Septuagint. The fact that “some of the psalm titles (e.g. 46 & 58) were merely transliterated by the translators of the Greek Septuagint (c. 300-250 B.C.)” suggests at least the antiquity of the superscriptions because “their meaning had already been lost by the time of the Septuagint.”[vi]
Presence in the Dead Sea Scrolls. J. H. Fraser writes that “the Dead Sea Scrolls have become crucial in the study of the OT text and in determining the validity of the psalm titles as they are found in the MT.” Though Utley claims “the Psalms found in the Dead Sea Scrolls do not have these titles and superscriptions,”[vii] Fraser says these Dead Sea texts “are found to be in essential agreement with the MT in the assignment of titles to the various psalms they contain except for a few minor variations.”[viii] He even provides an appendix comparing the Masoretic and Dead Sea superscriptions.[ix]
External evidence is not convincing in itself, but supports the internal evidences we find in the Bible. The internal evidence displays use of superscriptions in biblical writings outside the Psalms, as well as New Testament support for the authority of the superscriptions. “The titles are valuable guides to the interpretation of the Psalter. They give accurate and reliable information concerning the authors, historical settings and liturgical use of the psalms in question.” That being true, we should use them as guides. In his Bible commentary Matthew Henry writes, “The title of this psalm and many others is as a key hung ready at the door, to open it, and let us into the entertainments of it; when we know upon what occasion a psalm was penned we know the better how to expound it.” The superscriptions are intimate parts of the Psalms to which they are attached. We should not lock the door and throw away the key![x]
[i] 34 of the Psalms carry no inscription whatsoever, 16 have an inscription which a general reference such as “psalm” or “prayer.” 100 Psalms mention the name of the author (or in some cases possibly a dedicatee). 73 of these Psalms are attributed to David. There are more attributions in the Greek LXX (Septuagint) than are in the Hebrew Masoretic text or English Bible translations.
[iv] J. W. Thirtle describes the traditional position this way: “In days gone by, reverent souls who found a mystery in every word of Holy Scripture, regardless of text or version, approached the Psalm inscriptions in the same submissive spirit as they studied the Inspired Word itself, assured that each and every title had some message to deliver in harmony with the general trend of Revealed Truth.” (The Titles of the Psalms Their Nature and Meaning Explained, James William Thirtle, London: Henry Froude, 1904, p. 1 )
[vi] What Should We Do with Those Psalm Headings? A Theory; Fraser states, “Some of the terms used in the titles had lost their meaning by the time the LXX translation was made, indicating that the liturgical instructions of the titles had been in disuse for years.” (Introduction)
[vii] Introduction to the Psalms; Utley also claims “that at least two of them disagree with other canonical texts”: Psalm 34’s title vs. 1 Sam. 21:10ff and Psalm 56’s title vs. 1 Sam. 21:10. These raise questions, but ultimately are no more difficult than other textual difficulties we encounter in Old Testament interpretation.
[x] Matthew Henry, Commentary of the Whole Bible, Volume III, McLean, VA: McDonald Publishing Co., n.d., p. 247