Since the superscriptions of the Psalms are “valuable guides” that “give accurate and reliable information,” categorizing them may be helpful to the Bible student for gleaning information and understanding. In An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Revised and Expanded, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007, pp. 143-145), C. Hassell Bullock says concerning the titles or superscriptions of the Psalms that “We can distinguish five different categories among the titles in the Hebrew (and English) Bible”:
- Historical origin
- Literary features
- Liturgical use
- Musical notations
In his “Introduction to the Psalms,” F. A. Leslie (The Abingdon Bible Commentary, New York, NY: Abingdon Press, 1929, pp. 509ff.) gives 4 categories:
- Technical designations
- Explanation of purpose
- Cultic (i.e., with reference to religious rites and ceremonies)
- Musical references
Using these and other categorizations as a guide – and not being a scholar – I have developed the following categories that work for my simpler understanding.
- Personal information
- Historical information
- Functional information
- Ceremonial information
- Musical information
Personal information. Information about people. The superscriptions with personal information are those that relate the psalm to a particular person – A Psalm of David, A Psalm of Asaph, A Psalm for Solomon, etc. These may indicate the author (as in the case of David; Cf. Matthew 22:42-45, Acts 1:16), or perhaps someone the psalm is written for or dedicated to (Cf. Psalm 72). More than one person may be mentioned, but there is usually one central figure. Many of the superscriptions fit this category.
Historical information. The superscriptions with historical information establish the setting of the time when or circumstances under which the psalm was written. There are 14 of these superscriptions, all of which are Psalms by David – 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 35, 51, 52, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63 and 142.
Functional information. The superscriptions with functional information outline a genre, use or purpose – such as describing the psalm as prayer (86, 90, 102, 142), praise (100, 145), thanksgiving (99, in the Septuagint). The maschil superscriptions apparently mean an instructive or didactic hymn. In Psalm 47:7 the related term sakal is rendered “with understanding.”
Ceremonial information. The superscriptions with ceremonial information suggest relevant times and uses for the psalm. For example, Psalm 92 is “A Psalm or Song for the sabbath day.” Psalm 38and Psalm 70 are “to bring to remembrance.”
Musical information. The superscriptions with musical information are believed to contain notes on how psalm should be played and/or sung. These references are somewhat obscure to us today. For example, six superscriptions – 4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76 – contain the prepositional phrase “on Neginoth,” meaning songs with instrumental accompaniment or “on stringed instruments,” as it in rendered in Habakkuk 3:19. Another musical term is “upon Sheminith.” In Notes on the Bible, Albert Barnes tells us “The word Sheminith - שׁמינית shemı̂ynı̂yth - means properly ‘the eighth,’ and corresponds exactly to our word ‘octave,’ the eighth.”
The categories are not mutually exclusive, but overlapping. The Psalm 54 superscription illustrates this well, containing four of the five categories: “To the chief Musician[i] on Neginoth [musical], Maschil [functional], A Psalm of David [personal], when the Ziphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us? [historical].”
Perhaps my growing awareness of the meaning of these superscriptions will provide some help to the readers of this blog.