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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Titles of the Psalms and Selâ.


Although the titles of the psalms are not part of the original poems, they are important as revealing some of the earliest interpretations, and NEB was mistaken in omitting them (REB has put them back; GNB includes abbreviated, and misleading, forms of the titles as footnotes). The main details supplied by the titles are names (David, Solomon, Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite, and perhaps Jeduthun), situations in the life of David, descriptions of the type of psalm (psalm, song, prayer, song of ascents, maskîl, miktām), an expression of unknown meaning which NRSV translates as ‘To the leader’, and a number of varied words and phrases which are usually thought to be the titles of the tunes to which the psalms were sung (e.g. ‘the Dove of the Dawn’), or the accompanying instruments (e.g. ‘with stringed instruments’, ‘for the flutes’) (Anderson 1972: 43–51, Mowinckel 1962: ch. 23, and Kraus 1988: i. 21–32 provide good surveys).


The titles probably have little historical value. The phrase translated ‘of David’ (lĕdāwid) almost certainly intends authorship, despite claims that it means ‘on behalf of’ or ‘for’ David (i.e. dedicated to the Davidic king at the time) or ‘belonging to the Davidic collection of songs’. (For the tradition of David as a musician and author of psalms see 1 Sam 16:15–16, 23; 2 Sam 1:17–27; 3:33; 6:5; 23:1–7; 1 Chr 23:5; Am 6:5; Sir 47:8–10; 2 Sam 22 ascribes Ps 18 to David; in the Mishnah a casual reference speaks of the ‘Book of Psalms by David’ (m. ᾽ Abot 6.9), and the same belief is reflected in Mk 12:36–7; Rom 4:6–7; 11:9–10 . According to 1 Chr 6:39; 15:17; 16:5–6; 2 Chr 5:12 Asaph was one of David's chief musicians, a further example of the Davidic tradition.) Since, however, nothing is known about David outside the OT, there is no way of determining whether he wrote any of the psalms, and, indeed, the date of most of them is unknown. The editors of the Psalter appear to have searched the books of Samuel and Chronicles for suitable occasions in which to place the psalms, and added such references to thirteen psalms (Ps 3; 7; 18; 34; 51; 52; 54; 56; 57; 59; 60; 63; 142 : only one title (Ps 7 ) cannot be readily linked with the biblical narratives).


Within the length of this commentary it is not possible to comment on all the terms found in the titles, but the following brief notes discuss some of them. Where a word or phrase occurs only once it is noted in the commentary.


Psalm (mizmôr), found in the titles of fifty-seven psalms, occurs only in the Psalter and probably denotes a religious song accompanied by harp or other stringed instruments. The LXX translated it by psalmos, hence our word.


Song (šîr) (Ps 18; 30; 46; 48; 65–8; 75; 76; 83; 87; 88; 92; 108 ) is the normal word for religious and secular songs. It occurs with ‘psalm’ in all but two psalms (Ps 18; 46 ), and the difference between the two terms is unknown.


Prayer (tĕpillâ) (Ps 17; 86; 90; 102; 142 ; in the rubric in Ps 72:20 , and in Hab 3:1 ) is the normal Hebrew word for prayer. It has been suggested that it denotes laments, although there are far more laments in the Psalter than those with the title.


Miktām is found in Ps 16; 56–60 . The meaning is unknown. The LXX and Targum translated it by ‘pillar inscription’. Luther's ‘golden jewel’ linked it with the Hebrew word for gold. Mowinckel (1962: ii. 209) connected it with atonement.


Maskîl occurs in the titles of Ps 32; 42; 44; 45; 52–5; 74; 78; 88; 89; 142, and Ps 47:7; 2 Chr 30:22 ). The Hebrew root from which this word comes is usually taken to mean ‘to have insight, to teach, to prosper’, and hence ‘efficacious song’, ‘didactic song’, ‘meditation’, ‘artistic song’ have been suggested.


A Song of Ascents (šîr hamma῾ălôt). This is usually held to indicate a pilgrim psalm, but some think (improbably) that it refers to their ‘step-like’ structure, others connect the fifteen psalms with a reference in the Mishnah (m. Middot 2.5) to the fifteen steps from the court of the women to the court of Israel in the temple and infer that this is where they were sung, although the Mishnah does not say that they were, and others again take it to refer more generally to festal processions.


For the leader (lammĕnaṣṣēaḥ) is the NRSV and REB translation of a term of very uncertain meaning, found in the titles of fifty-five psalms and also in Hab 3:19 . The LXX appears not to have known what it meant and rendered it ‘To (for) the end’. The Targum offers ‘for praise’. Mowinckel (1962: ii. 212) proposed ‘for the merciful disposition (of YHWH)’, ‘to dispose YHWH for mercy’, or even ‘for homage (to YHWH)’, linking the word with a verb in 1 Chr 15:21 , but the meaning there is probably ‘to make music’. Possibly the meaning is ‘for musical performance’. RSV has ‘To the Choirmaster’, as does NJB, and NIV's ‘For the director of music’ gives the same sense, all linking the word with a verb meaning ‘to excel, lead, be at the head, direct’ in 1 Chr 23:4 and 2 Chr 2:2 . The meaning is really unknown.


To (according to) Jeduthun (lîdûtûn) (Ps 39; 62; 77 ). Jeduthun is the name of one of David's musicians in 1 Chr 16:41 , and while it may refer to him in the psalm titles it has also been proposed that the word signifies ‘confession’.


For the memorial offering (lĕhazkîr) (Ps 38 and 70 ). Mowinckel (1962: ii. 212) thinks the psalm is to ‘remind’ YHWH of the psalmist's distress, and it may be linked with the memorial sacrifice (Lev 2:2; 5:12 ).


With stringed instruments (binĕgînôt) (Ps 4; 6; 54; 55; 61; 67; 76 ) refers to accompaniment with harp and lyre, probably in contrast with other noisier instruments.


The Gittith (῾al-haggittît) (Ps 8; 81; 84 ) is of unknown meaning. The LXX translated it ‘for the wine-press’. Other suggestions are ‘a vintage melody’, ‘according to the Gittite melody’, ‘with the Gittite lyre’, and even that it refers to Obededom, the Gittite (2 Sam 6:10–11 ), and hence is related to a procession with the ark.


Do not destroy (᾽al-tašḥet) (Ps 57–9; 75 ). Mowinckel (1962: ii. 214) notes that all four psalms contain references to pagan oppressors and suggests that it may refer to some rite which the psalm accompanied. It is often supposed that it is the name of a tune (cf. Isa 65:8 ).


Selâ is found within the body of thirty-nine psalms, seventy-one times in the MT and ninety-two in the LXX (details in Kraus 1988: 29). Outside the Psalter it is found in the psalm in Hab 3:3, 9, 13 . The meaning is totally unknown, but various guesses have been made. Aquila, Jerome, and the Targum translated it ‘always, for ever’, and the LXX diapsalma (presumably, ‘interlude’). If it comes from a verb meaning ‘to lift up’, it might refer to ‘lifting up’ one's voice (‘sing louder’), ‘lifting up’ one's eyes (‘repeat the verse’), or ‘lifting up’ the music (with loud instruments or an instrumental interlude). An alternative derivation suggests that it indicated points when the congregation fell prostrate in worship. Kraus (1988: 28) draws attention to the LXX translation of Ps 9:16 , ‘song of diapsalma’, which seems to suggest the ‘singing’ or ‘sounding’ of the ‘interlude’ and may point to a musical intermezzo or a doxology.

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