Titles of Psalms (1)

I must apologise for not posting anything for so long, and I won’t bore you with excuses, but I will make every effort to post more regularly in future. My current research is focussed on unusual linguistic features in The Twelve Prophets in general and Jonah in particular, so I will definitely be posting about that in future. In the meantime I will post some thoughts about the titles of the Psalms.

In 1904 James Thirtle, a relatively little known biblical scholar, wrote The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained.[1] Thirtle argues that the meaning of many of the titles of the psalms, especially those using musical terms, had been lost relatively early, but that the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk 3 was an example of a structure to be applied to many of the other psalms and provided a key to the meaning of the titles.

J.W. Thirtle’s Thesis

Thirtle argues that the meanings of several terms which appear in the titles to many psalms in the Masoretic Text[2] of the Hebrew Bible were lost even before their translation into Greek in the Septuagint.[3] There were two main reasons for this: first, in many cases what we now understand as the “titles” were originally postscripts to the previous psalm which merged with the superscript of the following psalm, so that their original connection with the previous psalm was lost. Second, the term למנצח to the leader, or chief musician[4] was a rubric designating the psalm’s assignment for liturgical use in the first Temple, and associated terms therefore often served a liturgical purpose, providing directions to the chief musician concerning the occasion for its use, the type of choir, and so on. Thirtle came to these conclusions primarily by comparing the psalms in the collection with the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk which has a superscript תפלה לחבקוק הנביא על שגינות “A Prayer of the prophet Habakkuk in the mode of Shigionoth” and concludes with a postscript למנצח בנגינותי “for the leader; with instrumental music” (NJPS[5]).

Thirtle deduced from this arrangement that other psalms with similar phraseology should be set out similarly: namely, musical notations such as “for the leader” and “with instrumental music” should be placed as a postscript to the preceding psalm, while notes which appear to relate to authorship, descriptions of the type of psalm (prayer, miktam, maschil, etc.), and those of a literary or historical nature should remain in the superscript. He further deduced from the psalm of Habakkuk that “in the mode of Shigionoth”,[6] being included in the superscript rather than with the musical notations at the end, served some special literary or liturgical function rather than indicating a musical type.[7]

By dividing some of the titles into a postscript which should be attached to the end of the preceding psalm, and a superscript, Thirtle removes the difficulty in the title of Psalm 88 which, as it stands in the MT and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. He argues that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88.[8] He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?”[9] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content.[10]

In a similar way, Thirtle’s thesis makes sense of the title of Psalm 56 (על־יונת אלם רחקים which NJPS leaves untranslated with the note “meaning of Heb. uncertain” but which other translations render as “A Dove on Distant Oaks” [NIV] or “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” [ESV]). This title seems to bear no obvious relationship to the psalm which follows, but is preceded by Psalm 55 which includes the lines “Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest; surely I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness” (Ps 55:6-7). Several commentators[11] have observed the similarity between the words of Psalm 55 and the title of Psalm 56 “but it seems never to have occurred to them to go behind appearances and thoroughly to examine the entire system of psalm inscriptions”.[12]

To be continued …


[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained (London: Henry Frowde, 1904). Dr Thirtle (1854-1934) also wrote Old Testament Problems: Critical Studies in the Psalms and Isaiah (London: Henry Frowde, 1907). He was the editor of The Christian between 1887 and 1934 and was a close friend of several better known scholars, including E.W. Bullinger and Joseph Rotherham, the author of The Empasized Bible (he delivered the eulogy at Rotherham’s funeral in 1910). In The Christian in 1904 he advertised for sale the library of Charles Spurgeon, suggesting that he may also have been close to the well-known preacher. However, relatively little is known about Thirtle himself.

[2] Hereafter MT.

[3] Hereafter LXX.

[4] The meaning of this term will be further considered in a later post.

[5] Bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[6] The term על in the mode of, or for will be discussed in a later post.

[7] The Habakkuk psalm superscript is similar to Psalm 7:1 which has the words שגיון לדוד “Shiggaion of David”.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 13-14.

[9] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), vol iii, 24..

[10] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592.

[11] Including Delitzsch, Psalms, vol ii, 166.

[12] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 15.

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