Saturday, May 27, 2017

Random facts and figures about the Psalms

When preparing an answer for the question about superscriptions in the Psalms I did some research which confirmed information and ideas I had, plus gathering new information. Some of that information is placed in this blog post for a source of information for others.

Hebrew Name: תְּהִלִּים‎‎ or תהילים‎, Tehillim, (meaning “praises” or “songs of praise”)
Septuagint Name:  Ψαλμοὶ (plural of psalm, meaning, perhaps originally, “a song sung to the harp”) (Apparently called Psalterion in the Codex Alexandrinus, which I have not seen)
Latin Name: Liber Psalmorum (book of Psalms)
English Name: Psalms (meaning “sacred songs” to most English-speakers)

Though not noticeable in the English Bible, the Book of Psalms is usually considered to be divided into five sections, as follows:
  • Book I, Psalms 1–41 (v. 13 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen.)
  • Book II, Psalms 42–72 (v. 19-20 And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen. The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended)
  • Book III, Psalms 73–89 (v. 52 Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen, and Amen.)
  • Book IV, Psalms 90–106 (v. 48 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye the Lord.)
  • Book V, Psalms 107–150 (v. 6 Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.)
Thus, each book closes with a benediction of blessing, praise and/or agreement (amen). Some students of the Bible believe this five section division is designed on the basis of the five-fold division of the Torah (the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

There are 150 biblical psalms in the Old Testament book of Psalms. 34 of the Psalms carry no introductory inscription whatsoever. 116 of them have some kind of title or superscription.[i] 16 of these 116 have an inscription which is only a general or musical reference such as “psalm” or “prayer.” 100 of these 116 Psalms mention the name of the author – or in some cases possibly a person it was written “to” or “for”.[ii] Of the superscribed Psalms:
In addition to these, others are mentioned. “Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite” (1 Chronicles 15:19; 1 Kings 4:31) is mentioned in one of the psalms that is “for the sons of Korah.” “To Jeduthun” (1 Chronicles 16:40-42; 1 Chronicles 25:1) is mentioned in two of the psalms of David and one of the psalms of Asaph. King Saul is mentioned in the superscriptions of 5 psalms – Psalm 18, Psalm 52, Psalm 54, Psalm 57, and Psalm 59.

Psalms are attributed to David elsewhere in the Bible, which confirm or add information (since four are not attributed to him in the superscriptions in the book of Psalms).
Bob Utley cites perceived contradictions against the superscriptions being part of the inspired original, writing, “It seems that at least two of them disagree with other canonical texts.”[iv]
  • Title Psalm 34 vs. 1 Samuel 21:10ff – the name of the Philistine king is different, Abimelech vs. Achish. An objection based on name differences is fairly light, considering how many people in the Bible had more than one name. But, most likely in this case, Achish is the name of the king and Abimelech is a title for Philistine kings (Cf. Genesis 20:2; Genesis 26:1).
  • Title of Psalm 56 vs. 1 Samuel 21:10 – Utley asks “how did David get to Gath?” I must admit that I neither understand this objection nor see any contradiction.
  • Title of Psalm 60 vs. 2 Samuel 8:13 and 1 Chronicles 18:12 – the number of enemies killed. It is common for modern scholars to claim numerical discrepancies in the text of the Old Testament are copyist errors and move on (though not the best way, imo). Here Utley applies a higher standard to the Psalm superscription than he would to the rest of the Old Testament. Others have dealt with the discrepancies in various ways. For example, Johann Peter Lange writes, “The difference in numbers also (here and in Chron. eighteen thousand, in Psalm 60. twelve thousand) is unimportant; there is no need to suppose an error of copyist in the last passage (Ew.) to explain it. It receives a simple explanation from the various statements about the battle in different authorities. In the last German-French war the reports of the numbers of killed or prisoners often differed by thousands. How much more might such differences arise at a time when so exact countings were not provided for.” Both Ellicott and the Pulpit Commentary see it as two separate battles in the same war. The so-called discrepancies of these passages extend beyond the superscription of Psalm 60, and have been dealt with by numerous conservative commentators.
The superscriptions of the Psalms in the Septuagint use the following words (see below) for songs, which compare interestingly with terminology found in Ephesians 5:19 (ψαλμοις, υμνοις and ωδαις πνευματικαις) and in Colossians 3:16 (ψαλμοις, υμνοις and ωδαις πνευματικαις).[v]
  • ψαλμος (Psalms 3-9, 11-15, 19-25, 29-31, 38-41, 43-44, 46-51, 62-68, 73, 75-77, 79-85, 87-88, 92, 94, 98-101, 108-110, 139-141, 143)
  • συνεσιν (Psalms 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, 142)
  • υμνοις (Psalms 6, 54-55, 61, 67, 76)
  • ωδη (Psalms 4, 18, 30, 39, 45, 48, 65-68, 75-76, 83, 87-88, 91-93, 95-96, 108, 120-134)
I hope these random facts and figures prove interesting and useful to you.

[i] There are more superscriptions in the Greek LXX (Septuagint) than are found in the Hebrew Masoretic text or English Bible translations.
[ii] Search and comparisons made with the King James Bible published Cambridge University Press and used at
[iii] The preposition “l” (in “ledawid”) in a superscription relates the psalm to David in some way. The most likely way of understanding this is the attribution of authorship to David. It can possibly mean “to David” or “for David” instead of “of” or “by” – but we know from elsewhere in the Bible that David was a singer and composer. For example, 2 Samuel 23:1-3 and 1 Chronicles 16:7.
[iv] Though he says two, he lists three; Introduction to the Psalms
[v] The list is based on The Titles of the Psalms in the Septuagint. I have not checked it for errors, but believe it is correct or substantially so. Psalm numbers are those of the Septuagint, which differ slightly with the English Bible numbering.

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