Notations in the Psalms

Many psalms are annotated with information about the author, the historical setting, the recipient, the liturgical use, the musical arrangement, etc., but it has become common to ignore these notes. Some may overlook them because they don't understand them, while others may dismiss them because they don't seem to have much "spiritual" benefit. Whatever the case may be, neither option is acceptable for Christians, who affirm the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. We dare not set ourselves up as an authority over the word of God.

Whether these notations were written by the original author of the psalm or by a Spirit-inspired compiler (for example, a scribe like Ezra or Nehemiah), the fact is that they must be regarded as divinely inspired along with the rest of the psalm. Even if we don't understand all the terms or immediately see the value in these titles, they are still the word of God and must be treated with all due respect and attention. People who edit out parts of Scripture that don't seem important or relevant always end up with a very small "Bible".

But what do we make of these notations? Are they postscripts (footnotes)? Are they superscripts (headings)? Which note goes with which psalm? Given the lack of punctuation, paragraph markers, capitalization, etc. in the Hebrew manuscripts of Scripture, it's understandable that there would be some confusion on this matter. Fortunately, Habakkuk 3 includes a psalm by the prophet Habakkuk, which is especially helpful because it stands on its own—apart from any other psalms. Because Habakkuk's prayer is not in a collection of psalms, there is almost no chance of confusing postscripts and superscripts. This is the pattern we see in Habakkuk 3.

A prayer of Habbakuk the prophet, according to the Shigionoth.

[Psalm/prayer of Habakkuk]

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

As you may have noticed, this pattern doesn't fit the way that our English versions arrange the psalms in the Book of Psalms, despite the fact that numerous Bible scholars have pointed out the template provided for us in Habakkuk.

Below are the two main ways that notations in the psalter are understood. The first option is the way most English versions arrange things, with any notations between psalms being understood as titles of the psalm that follows.

OPTION 1 (only prescripts)

Psalm 2


A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Psalm 3


To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A psalm of David.

Psalm 4


To the choirmaster: for the flutes. A psalm of David.

Psalm 5


To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to the Sheminith...


The second option divides the notations between psalms so that the musical instructions are treated as postscripts of the psalm before and notes about the author or historical background are treated as prescripts/titles of the psalm that follows.

OPTION 2 (postscripts and prescripts)

Psalm 2


A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Psalm 3

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.


A psalm of David

Psalm 4

To the choirmaster: for the flutes.


A psalm of David.

Psalm 5

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to the Sheminith.


This second option follows the pattern found in Habakkuk 3 and makes more sense in light of the Hebrew text of the Psalter.


Bibliography

Bruce K. Waltke, "Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both", JBL 110/4 (1991)

James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms (1904)

www.archive.org/details/titlesofpsalmsth00thiruoft

The Meaning of Selah
Israel & the Rich Fool (Lk. 12:13-21)

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