Heman, the afterlife and the “shades” of the dead (Psalm 88)

Following on from my last post, it seems that while we don’t know the cause of Heman’s death, it appears that he was afflicted with a disease from a relatively early age and had been slowly dying for a long time: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up” (v. 15). It’s possible, of course, that he was exaggerating his situation and may have been overly dramatic (although he did die from it!), but in the process of describing his condition, which as I suggested earlier may have caused an untimely and perhaps sudden death, the writer gives us an interesting list of synonyms for the afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) doesn’t say much after the afterlife, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that the writers had any concept of souls living on after death in heaven or hell. The idea of some souls going to a place of reward while others go to a place of punishment is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and while it later became popular with Christian and some Jewish writers the idea doesn’t have any roots in the Hebrew Bible. Even the idea of a physical resurrection of the body at some point after death was a relatively late development. The only place in the Hebrew Bible which seems to clearly suggest the idea is the book of Daniel although there may also be a hint of it in Isaiah. Daniel describes a time of trouble such as never was, to be followed by a “resurrection” (12:1-3):

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This text poses a few questions. What does it mean to “sleep in the dust of the earth”? Is the writer describing death, or something else? Is his description of these people waking up similar to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), which is a metaphor for the national restoration of the nation of Israel, or is he describing something else?  Who are these “wise” ones who will shine? What does it mean to “shine like the brightness of the sky” or “like the stars”? Is this literal or figurative? The writer of Daniel may very well have been describing the restoration to positions of power or influence of a group he knows as “the wise ones”, in a way similar to Ezekiel’s description of the revival of the nation. Or, he may have been describing the actual coming to life again of people who have died. If the latter, then this is probably the earliest mention of resurrection in the Bible, and, as Daniel was almost certainly written in the period of the Maccabees around 164BCE, it would suggest that the idea of resurrection was a late development in pre-Christian Jewish thought.

There may also be a hint of a similar idea in Isaiah 26:19

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

This verse is part of a poetic description of a time of crisis for the nation of Judah, and, similar to Ezekiel and Daniel, it may be describing a revival of the nation following the crisis. Or, it could be describing a physical bodily resurrection of certain individuals. If so, its position within this poetic piece would certainly be odd. Either way, we can’t be certain. (I dealt earlier with a text in Job which appears to refer to resurrection, and argued that it does nothing of the sort).

Apart from these possible references to resurrection, the Hebrew Bible says nothing about the dead going to places of reward or punishment. In fact, it says little at all about the afterlife. One thing is clear: the writers of the Hebrew Bible thought everyone at death goes to the same place, and this place is most often described by the Hebrew word sheol.

Psalm 88 is interesting because of the number of synonyms it uses for sheol and the way it describes the state of the dead:

  • my life draws near to Sheol (v.3)
  • I am counted among those who go down to the pit (v.4)
  • like one set loose among the dead (v.5)
  • like the slain that lie in the grave (v.5)
  • like those whom you remember no more (v.5)
  • they are cut off from your hand (v.5)
  • You have put me in the depths of the pit (v.6)
  • in the regions dark and deep (v.6)
  • in the grave (v.11)
  • in Abaddon (place of destruction) (v.11)
  • in the darkness (v.12)
  • in the land of forgetfulness (v.12)

While this description doesn’t tell us a lot about sheol it does suggest that normal consciousness doesn’t continue and that people who go there forget and are forgotten. However, in the midst of this description the writer uses a strange expression in a (rhetorical?) question about whether anyone in sheol praises God (verse 10):

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

The expression here translated “the dead” appears earlier in verse 5 where it is translated the same way  – it is a common Hebrew word for the dead, מתים metim from the root meaning “to die”. But it is followed here by a term translated variously as “the dead” (KJV), “the departed” (ESV), or “the shades” (NRSV). Here the word is רפאים rephaim. This word is used in the Hebrew Bible as a person’s name, and for a race of giants who inhabited the land before the conquest under Joshua [1]. There are also a few places where it seems to refer to the dead [2].  Its meaning is uncertain and some translations use the term “shades” (a popular Hebrew dictionary gives the translation “shades, ghosts, name of dead in She’ôl” [3]). However, the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, presents a completely different idea:

Wilt thou work wonders for the dead? or shall physicians raise them up, that they shall praise thee?

Where does this translation “physicians” come from? The Hebrew word רפאים rephaim comes from the root רפא rapha = to heal and the plural noun for physician or healer would be spelled the same way as our word for “the departed” in verse 11. It’s understandable why the Septuagint translators thought the writer of Psalm 88 was asking a rhetorical question and saying something like “once someone is dead surely it’s too late for a physician to work a miracle!”

So where did the translation “the departed” come from? The references to the race of giants may provide a clue, as do the so-called Rephaim texts from Ugarit. These texts, in Ugaritic, a semitic language which has many similarities with Hebrew, refer to a group of people called rephaim whose identity is still a mystery, but may be a group of princely or divine beings, or the spirits of the dead. Some scholars argue that these Ugaritic texts are “conclusive” in identifying the rephaim as the spirits of the dead [4], while others argue from the same texts that they are almost certainly gods, minor deities who served as acolytes of Baal, or cultic functionaries who accompany the king [5]. The connection between them, and with the root רפא to heal is most likely that one of the titles of El was “the healer” (which was also a title of YHVH, the god of Israel, e.g. Exodus 25:6), from the same root, so his acolytes were also described as “healers”. By extension, it is argued, the term for these gods was eventually also applied to (some of) the dead who also took on a god-like status.

In my view, the Septuagint translation is most convincing. It suggests that at the time it was translated (3rd century BCE), there was still no place in Judaism for “departed spirits” in sheol and that the dead had no memory or ability to praise God.


[1] Gen. 14:5; 15:20; Deut.2:11, 20; 3:11 ,13; Josh. 12:4; 13:12; 17:15.

[2] Isa. 14:9; 26:14, 19; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 2:19; 9:18; 21:16; Job 26:5.

[3] Brown, Francis, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

[4] For example, Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[5] L’Heureux, Conrad. “The Ugaritic and Biblical Rephaim.” The Harvard Theological Review 67, no. 3 (1974): 265-274. 


The Ezrahite Psalms (88 & 89)

Two psalms are attributed to “Ezrahites” – the superscription to Psalm 88 says it is “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” and Psalm 89 “A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite”. Book III of the psalter (Psalms is made up of 5 books) concludes with these two psalms.

Psalm 88, as it stands in the Masoretic Text and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. James Thirtle [1] argued 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. 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?” [2] 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. [3]

Psalm 88 is distinguished as possibly the most negative, pessimistic psalm in the Bible! The writer complains that his life is miserable, that he is at the point of death, and, in a very Job-like way, describes his situation as being abhorent to his companions who shun him. He further complains that God has turned away from him, and blames God for his misfortunes. It ends abruptly without a glimmer of hope.

It’s not unusual for writers of Psalms to complain about their situation. In fact, “complaints” are the largest category of psalms. Typically, however, these psalms end with the writer turning to God in their misery and praising him for delivering them from their calamity. Not Psalm 88! Heman doesn’t have a positive word to say about his situation and he has apparently has no reason to praise God. So what went wrong? Why is this psalm different? My theory is that it’s an unfinished work and that the writer died before it was completed. Having described his situation as worsening, and complaining that he was at the point of death, it makes sense that he abruptly died!

Perhaps Psalm 89 was an attempt by a relative to “balance” the despair and hopelessness of Heman’s complaint with a more positive and hopeful psalm. It opens by praising God for his steadfast love and is mostly positive throughout.


[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained. London: Henry Frowde, 1904, p13-14

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

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

Titles of Psalms (Postscript 2)

The use of על in Psalm titles

This post is a more ‘technical’ note and readers without a working knowledge of biblical Hebrew may choose to gloss over it.

As על occurs in several psalm titles it needs to be considered in further detail.[1] Herbert May argues that על is a rubric which should be given a relatively uniform interpretation referring to “the title of the ancient melodies to which the psalm was sung, indicated by the first words or word of the ancient hymn from which they were taken”. He further argues in relation to the occurrence of על in the Psalm titles that “It is not impossible that as a result of outside influences on the temple cult, especially on the music – for it is with the music that this rubric [על] is probably to be associated – changes in the temple cult made this rubric obsolete, so that its significance was forgotten, although it was still inscribed in the superscriptions.”[2] Others have also argued that the same may be true of other terms in the Psalm titles whose meanings have been lost. Thirtle, on the other hand, objects to על being interpreted as relating to a tune, arguing that it means on, concerning, or related to but cannot mean set to. A similar term, אֶל, also occurs in some psalm titles: for example, the Psalm 79 postscript (Ps 80:1) has אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת which here could mean to or possibly in connection with. It should be noted that the interchange of על and אל is a well known phenomenon in biblical texts.[3] However, Thirtle argues that they should be distinguished in the Psalm titles and given different meanings, so he may not have been aware of this phenomenon or he was overly optimistic about the MT’s preservation of linguistic details. [4] In the אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת psalms (56, 57, 58, 74 [postscripts]) the particle עַל gives way to אַל although here, according to several translations, it is used as a negative particle, namely do not destroy.[5] All occurrences of על or אל are in Books I to III, mostly in the Davidic and Elohistic collections. According to Thirtle’s thesis they all occur in postscripts to the preceding psalm, with the exception of על־דברי־כוש בן־ימיני concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite. This is found in the superscript of Psalm 7 and appears to be a historical title.[6] The difficulty here is that this would be the only use of על in the Psalm titles as an historical referent. Childs argues that the preposition rather indicates that Psalm 7 “is to be sung ‘according to the words of Cush’ … and belongs to a liturgical setting.” If he is right then this is actually not an historical title.[7] It would still, however, be the only occurrence of the על rubric in a superscript rather than a postscript.


[1] See Table below

[2] May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” 71-72.

[3] Ian Young, et al., Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), Vol 1, 40.

[4] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 126.

[5] It should be noted that in these superscriptions the MT has אַל (rather than אֶל).

[6] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), drawing on Talmudic sources (BT Mo’ed Qatan 16b and Midrash Tehillim), regards the term “Cush” to be a reference to Saul and the historical context to be David’s cutting of Saul’s garment in 1 Samuel 24:6. Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms 1-89 (Books I-III): With English Translation, Introduction and Notes (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 69, 71.

[7] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

Table: The אל/על rubric

Title אל Psalm (postscript except where indicated) Collection
אל־הנחילות אל 4 Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִית 5, 11 Book I Davidic
עַל־דִּבְרֵי־כוּשׁ בֶּן־יְמִינִֽי

(Possibly an historical title: “Concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite”)

7 (superscript) Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַגִּתִּית 7



Book I Davidic

Book III Asaph

Book III Elohistic

עַל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים 44


Book II Korahite/Elohistic

Book II Davidic

עַֽל־עֲלָמֹות 45 Book II Korahite/Elohistic
עַֽל־מָחֲלַת 52 Book II Davidic
עַל־יֹונַת אֵלֶם רְחֹקִים 55 Book II Davidic
אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת אל 56, 57, 58


Book II Davidic

Book II Asaph

עַל־שׁוּשַׁן עֵדוּת 59 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־נְגִינַת 60 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־יְדוּתוּן 38



Book I Davidic

Book II Davidic

Book III Asaph

אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת אל 79 Book III Asaph
עַל־מָחֲלַת לְעַנֹּות 87 Book III Elohistic

Titles of Psalms (Postscript 1)

Collections of Psalms within the Psalter

It would be clear to any reader that the book of Psalms contains several groupings with common authorship or style, or similar themes. Many translations provide headings for the five major groups as Book 1, Book 2, etc. Within these five books there appears to be other collections such as ‘Songs of Ascent’. It is possible that some or all of these groups of psalms existed independently at some stage and were brought into the book of Psalms in the process of bringing together a larger collection.

The following table may be helpful for understanding the various “collections” within the final form of the “Book of Psalms”. The “Davidic collection” refers to psalms with the title le-David which is discussed elsewhere.

“Elohistic” psalms are those which use the title “elohim” but not the name of God (Psalms which use the divine name are often called “Yahwistic” psalms). It is possible that these psalms were written using the elohim title and never contained the divine name. It is also possible that at some stage an editor decided to replace the divine name with elohim. There is evidence in the Psalter that an ancient editor replaced the divine name in some Psalms with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. In at least one case both versions (the older “Yahwistic” psalm as well as the edited elohistic one) were kept in the final form of the Psalter. Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name. Psalm 82 also shows some evidence of having being altered at some stage to remove the divine name. The Elohistic psalms may have been written or compiled for the use of a group within Israel which preferred elohim over the divine name and these collections were later absorbed into the book of Psalms. This editing may have occurred in the period in which Israel began to avoid pronunciation of the divine name. (There are some hints in the book of Daniel that it was also written against a similar background as it shows a preference for adonai over the divine name.)

Structure of the Psalter

Books (Postexilic division) Collections Psalms Stage of redaction[1]




Davidic collection 3-41 Exilic


Elohistic collection 42-83 Exilic
Korahite collection (part of Elohistic collection) 42-49 Later preexilic
Davidic collection 51-72 Exilic


Asaph collection 78-83 Later preexilic
Elohistic collection 84-89 Exilic


YHVH Enthronement 96-99 Later preexilic


Davidic collection 108-110 Exilic
Hallelujah psalms

(Only in Books IV and V)

111-118 Later preexilic
Songs of Ascent 120-134 Exilic
Davidic collection 138-145 Exilic
FRAME Five-fold Doxology 146-150 Post-exilic

[1] According to Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 29.

Titles of Psalms (6)


There are several implications in Thirtle’s thesis for the study of the development of the Psalter. Thirtle agrees with many scholars that the original use of several terms in the Psalms titles had been lost before the time of the LXX translation “as is evident from the disordered state in which they are presented even at that age”, and argues that it then follows that these titles must be very old: if the liturgical terms attached to the psalms are archaic, then it is likely that the psalms themselves were also ancient.[1] He concludes from this that almost the whole of the Psalter is very old.[2] However, almost all the Psalms assigned to “the chief musician” and containing musical notations or the על rubric are contained in the first three books, mostly in the Davidic, Elohistic and Asaph collections, and while Gerstenberger asserts that these psalms were redacted in the exilic or late preexilic periods,[3] a case could also be made for at least some of them being written in the monarchic period. We cannot conclude from this, as Thirtle does, that this is evidence for almost the entire Psalter being from the earlier period. It is arguable that the majority of historical titles are from the exilic or post-exilic periods, and the LXX and Qumran provide evidence of a growing later tendency to attribute psalms to David or to at least make connections to Davidic events or themes. The evidence from Qumran in fact, suggests that Books I to III were stabilised by the beginning of the Qumran period and that Books IV and V remained fluid into the first century CE. The almost complete absence of the rubrics למנצח ,עלמות ,על־ששנים ,שגיון, and על in these later books may support Thirtle’s claim that the key to their understanding was lost early, or it could suggest that they were regarded as archaisms and no longer relevant in the period when the Psalter was completed and stabilised.

David Carr refers to the difficulty of dating biblical psalms, specifically the royal psalms, and urges caution in identifying early monarchic materials in the psalms.[4] While proceeding cautiously he follows by noting that, even if some of the psalms originated in the early monarchic period, “they also have undergone centuries of oral-written tradition before being incorporated into the later Hebrew Bible”.[5]

Some aspects of Thirtle’s work are tenuous, such as his identification of גתית gittith (Pss 8, 81, 84) as pertaining to Tabernacles and ששנים shoshannim (Pss 45, 69) to Passover, and that the psalms with these terms in their titles were to be sung on these occasions. However, he argues convincingly that the rubrics למנצח and על indicate that these psalms were intended for cultic purposes, and should be placed as postscripts to the preceding psalms. The evidence from the LXX and Qumran is that the meaning and cultic purposes of these psalm titles were lost early, and that later editors were inclined to add historical headings in a midrashic style. An analysis of the various collections within the Psalter, paying special attention to the placement of these titles, could provide further opportunities for rewarding insights into the editing and development of the Psalter.


[1] See Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 151-159.

[2] Thirtle makes an exception for the possibility of Psalm 137 being post-exilic.

[3] Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 27-30.

[4] Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction, 386.

[5] Ibid., 402.

Titles of Psalms (5)

Initial Reception of Thirtle’s thesis

When J.H.A. Hart reviewed Thirtle’s book soon after it appeared in 1904 he commended it as “a forcible and convincing presentation of a new point of view” noting that “the clue which the writer has discovered is obvious once it is discovered and explained”.[1] Thirtle’s view, he concluded, “deserves serious consideration”.[2] By 1915 The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia included the key points of Thirtle’s theory in its article on the Book of Psalms.[3]

Citations in Commentaries

E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) followed Thirtle’s structuring of the psalm titles in The Companion Bible, a work which he edited and for which he wrote most of the notes and appendices.[4] He claimed that “The Companion Bible is the first edition of the Bible in which the Psalms are thus correctly presented in harmony with the two Psalm-models, Isa. 38.9-20, and Hab. 3.”[5] He acknowledged that the “key” to the proper structuring of the psalms was “discovered by Dr. J.W. Thirtle” and “admirably set forth” by him in his two works[6] having “been lost for so many centuries”.[7]

In his Music in Ancient Israel[8] Alfred Sendrey referred extensively[9] to Thirtle’s arrangement of psalm titles. He noted that “after closely investigating the textual relationship between the psalms and the terms contained in the headings, [Thirtle] has made the important discovery that some of these terms apply not to the following, but to the preceding psalm”.[10] Though Sendrey considers this arrangement clarifies the meaning of most of the musical instructions, he expressed his surprise that “none of the innumerable biblical scholars ever sensed even the remotest possibility of the headings belonging as subscriptions to the preceding psalm”.[11]

Indeed, given the positive reception by some commentators to Thirtle’s thesis it is surprising that others have ignored it completely. Gerald Wilson, for example, has written extensively on the Psalms, including a commentary on Psalms in the NIV Application Commentary series[12] as well as articles dealing with the editorial shaping of the Psalter.[13] One reviewer of his commentary on the Psalms observed: “Unfortunately, in his discussion of psalm titles (75-81) the author makes no mention of the work of James Thirtle … Thirtle’s theory deserves discussion in any serious commentary on Psalms”.[14] Bruce Waltke thinks that Wilson missed the opportunity to gain even more rewarding insights into the editing of the Psalter by ignoring the superscript-prayer-postscript phenomenon.[15] Mitchell Dahood,[16] in an otherwise extensive commentary, tends to gloss over the psalm titles with comments such as “the historical significance of these superscriptions is still a matter of dispute”,[17] while ignoring completely the musical notations.

On the other hand, Dale Brueggemann,[18] Bruce Waltke,[19] Alfred Sendrey[20] and Derek Kidner (although somewhat cautiously),[21] have all referred positively to Thirtle’s postscript idea, with the most thorough validation of Thirtle’s thesis being Waltke’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature titled “Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both”. Commentaries tend to support Thirtle’s thesis positively, or ignore it completely. There does not appear to have been any thorough review which has dismissed the thesis as unsound.

To be continued …


[1] J.H.A. Hart, “Review: The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained by James William Thirtle,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 16, no. 3 (1904): 594.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book Of,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (eds. Orr, et al.; Chicago: Howard-Severance Company, 1915) [cited 3 July 2014]. Available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/psalms-book-of.html.

[4] The Companion Bible was originally intended as a six volume work. Only four volumes, covering the Old Testament, were published in Bullinger’s lifetime (from 1909) with the New Testament being completed by colleagues from Bullinger’s notes in 1922. It has continued in print to the present as a single volume.

[5] Ethelbert William Bullinger, The Companion Bible: The Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Critical, Explanatory, and Suggestive Notes and with 198 Appendixes (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, 1969, fp 1909).

[6] The second work being Old Testament Problems.

[7] Bullinger, Companion Bible, Appendix 64.

[8] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969).

[9] There are twenty one references to Thirtle listed in the index.

[10] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel, 114.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

[13] Including G. H. Wilson, “The Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa) and the Canonical Psalter: Comparison of Editorial Shaping.,”   59, no. 3 (1997); Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Society of Biblical Literature, 1985); Gerald H. Wilson, “Evidence of Editorial Divisions in the Hebrew Psalter,” Vetus Testamentum 34, no. 3 (1984).

[14] William Barrick, “Book Review: Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary By Gerald H. Wilson Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2002),” Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (2003).

[15] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” 585.

[16] Mitchell Dahood , Psalms, Translation and Notes. 3 vols., (The Anchor Bible 16. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, vol. 1, 1965, vol. 2, 1968, vol. 3, 1970).

[17] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I: 1-50 Introduction, Translation and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 16.

[18] Dale A. Brueggeman, “Psalms: Titles,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (ed. Enns; Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 615.

[19] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both.”

[20] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[21] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973).

Titles of Psalms (4)

Septuagint (LXX) and Qumran superscriptions

There are several instances where the LXX deviates significantly from the Masoretic Text in the titles and these should be noted. Five Psalms are attributed to David in the LXX but not in the MT (27, 71, 97, 143, 144), perhaps going some way to repairing the deficiency of the twenty four “orphan psalms”.[1] Several Psalms in English translations have the title “Of David” translating the Hebrew prefix (the letter ל lamed) as “of” or “by”. The attribution לדוד (le-David) is much discussed in the literature and is beyond the scope of this post, except to note Nahum Sarna’s useful observation:

If le-David indeed originally indicated authorship, then it is of interest that the form is unique to the psalms’ literature (cf. Hab. 3:1) for the ascription of no other biblical book to a historic personality ever involves the use of the lamed formula (cf. Song, Proverbs). Yet the Psalter is internally consistent in its employment of the same construction with other names such as the Korahites (Ps. 42, et al.), Asaph (Ps. 50, et al.), Solomon (Ps. 72), Heman (Ps. 88), Ethan (Ps. 89), and Moses (Ps 90).[2]

He asserts that “in Psalm 72 lamed must mean ‘about’ or ‘dedicated to’, and in Psalm 102 le-‘ani can only mean, ‘for [recitation by] the afflicted man’.”[3] If commentators expect to see consistency by the redactors of the Psalter in their use of lamed (not that this should be necessary) then לדוד could just as readily mean about David, or of a Davidic style or genre, as denoting authorship. The question is certainly not settled, and Childs asserts that, “whatever the expression לדוד may once have meant, the claim of authorship now seems most probable. This point is confirmed by the final clause in those titles which specify a particular historical incident in David’s life as providing the occasion for composition.”[4]

Adrian Curtis argues that the superscriptions provide evidence of the beginnings of a process of ongoing interpretation of the psalms, and that the presence of more such titles in the psalms from Qumran and in the Septuagint show that this process continued after the formation of the Psalter as a single collection.[5] Childs argues from the Hebrew version of Psalm 151 from Qumran (11QPsa) and the further expansion of titles in the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms, in the Targum and in the Peshitta, that this process continued for some time.[6] The difference in historical titles in the various sources (MT, Qumran, the Syriac and LXX) “suggests that titles were not fixed and that there was some fluidity”.[7]

Gerstenberger argues that most superscriptions betray later theological and liturgical interests, without heeding the original intentions of the psalm. For him, technical musical terms such as למנצח “to the choirmaster” or what he regards as obscure references to tunes (understanding על as being an indicator of a tune) would have been of interest only to the ritual expert or the leader of community worship. The frequent indications of authorship (David, Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses), and the linkage with incidents in the life of David, made the psalms authoritative and edifying so that the people might expect that their prayers and songs in both private and communal worship would have the same powerful and beneficent effects as of old.[8] Norman Whybray finds confirmation in the historical headings that the editors intended the readers or worshippers to find encouragement and models for their own behavior in the life of David.[9] There is a hint here that these “historical” psalms may have been intended for personal use by the pious rather than for cultic purposes.

References in the titles to historical events provide some of the most convincing evidence that titles may not have been part of the original work but were added by later editors in a style similar to rabbinic midrash.[10] In the MT all the historical titles are in Books I and II (with one exception in Book V). The LXX has a further fourteen historical titles, mostly in Book V.

The evidence from Qumran

Psalms scroll from Qumran. Tehillim 11QPs

Thirty nine Psalms manuscripts have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. The largest extant, and best preserved, Psalms scroll found at Qumran is 11QPsa . It contains forty nine (or fifty) compositions, or parts thereof, including thirty nine psalms found in Books IV and V of the Masoretic Psalter, and ten (or eleven) additional compositions including four which were previously unknown. It “diverges radically from the Masoretic Psalter, both in arrangement and by the inclusion of additional compositions.”[11] Differences in the order of psalms are also evident in seven manuscripts from cave 4 and a second Psalms scroll from cave 11.[12] Flint summarises the evidence and the opinions of several scholars and concludes that Psalms 1 to 89 (Books I to III) show a high degree of stabilisation during the Qumran period with no major deviation in content from the MT, and with only minor deviations with respect to the ordering of the psalms.[13] However, he finds abundant evidence of major deviations from the MT in Psalms 90 to 150 (Books IV and V), both in content and ordering. This supports the proposal that the compilers of 11QPsa may have regarded this collection as a “work in progress” and Flint concludes that the Book of Psalms was probably finalised in two stages: the first part (Psalms 1-89) was stabilised before the beginning of the Qumran period (which he puts at about 150 BCE); the second part (Psalms 90-150) remained fluid into the first century CE.[14]

This is important to note for an investigation of the superscripts and postscripts, as Thirtle’s theory relies on the ordering of the Masoretic Psalter. Interestingly, almost all the psalms containing the למנצח to the chief musician rubric in the superscript (or postscript, according to Thirtle), and therefore important for Thirtle’s thesis, are in Psalms 1 to 89 (fifty two psalms, with only three in Book V[15]). Thirtle argued that the “key” to the interpretation of the musical and liturgical notes in the superscripts was “lost early”. The concentration of these terms in Psalms 1 to 89 while almost completely absent in the remainder of the Psalter, together with the evidence from Qumran, supports his thesis and suggests that the understanding of these terms was lost before the compilation or stabilisation of Books IV and V.

To be continued …


[1] A Talmudic term for psalms without a superscription (Av. Zar. 24b)

[2] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 669.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

[5] Adrian H.W. Curtis, “”A Psalm of David, when …”: Reflections on Some Psalm Titles in the Hebrew Bible,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines (eds. Aitken, et al.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 59.

[6] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 143.

[7] Curtis, “Reflections on Some Psalm Titles,” 55.

[8] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 1, With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (ed. Rolf P. Knierim; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1988), 30.

[9] Roger Norman Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a book (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 21.

[10] See Elieser Slomovic, “Toward an Understanding of the Formation of Historical Titles in the Book of Psalms,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 91, no. 3 (1979); Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis.”

[11] Peter W. Flint, The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 39-40.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 141. The manuscripts for Psalms 1-89 are much more fragmentary than for Psalms 90-150, so caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions about these sections of the Psalter.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] In the MT appearing as superscripts to Psalms 109, 139 and 140.

Titles of Psalms (3)

Musical Notations and Instruments

It is common for some translators to comment (typically as footnotes or marginal notes) regarding many of the terms in the psalm titles that “the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear” and that the terms are probably musical notations of some kind. Thirtle, not content to leave matters as “unclear” or too difficult, distinguishes the terms in the superscripts from those in the postscripts. He claims on the one hand that the superscripts contain information about authorship and sometimes historical background, as well as using literary terms which describe the type of psalm. On the other hand, the postscripts contain musical terms, including references to instruments, and certain liturgical terms. The most important term for his thesis, primarily because it occurs in Habakkuk which provides a “key” to its correct placement in the Psalms, is למנצח “for the leader” or “for the Chief Musician” or “to the choir master” which occurs in fifty five Psalms. It is rendered in LXX by εἰς τὸ τέλος  for the end, or regarding completion, apparently reading the Hebrew as a niphal participle לנצחת enduring or for eternity.[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), referring to the verbal root נצח meaning “leading” and citing Ezra 3:8, understands the term to refer to the Levites who lead the instrumental music in the Temple.[2]

The title מזמור mizmor, from the root זמר , is attached to fifty seven Psalms (predominantly in Book I but spread across all five books) and seems to be connected with playing instruments.[3] The Septuagint translates it ψαλμὸς psalmos which is derived from psallein which means to pluck and presumably refers to stringed instruments which were plucked. Montagu suggests that these psalms may therefore have been performed with musical accompaniment and that the psalms titled שיר a song were sung. That may further suggest that the fourteen psalms which have both words (“A Psalm, a Song” in some translations, or better, “A song with musical accompaniment”) were sung with musical accompaniment. This then raises the question as to how those described as מזמור mizmor (“with musical accompaniment”) only were to be performed, as the words must have been heard somehow, if not sung. “Unfortunately, no such correlations wholly work and the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that we really do not know what these words imply”.[4] Psalm 81:2 uses the phrase שאו־זמרה using another word also derived from the root זמר together with a word meaning “to lift up” (cf. Psalm 24:7, 9) and the directive probably means “lift up the zimrah. This suggests that the zimrah was a particular instrument, or class of instruments. Accompaniment by musical instruments is also indicated in seven psalms as well as Habbakuk 3:19 which use the term בנגינות which probably means “with stringed instruments”.[5]

According to Rabbinical interpretation a number of other terms in psalm titles also refer to musical instruments: “Menahem [b. Jacob Ibn Saruq] explained that all of the terms nehiloth, alamoth (Ps. 46:1), gittith (Ps. 8:1; 81:1; 84:1), and Jeduthan (Ps. 39:1; 62:1; 77:1) are names of musical instruments and that the melody for the psalm was made appropriate to the music characteristic of the particular instrument named in the title of the particular psalm.”[6] Against this, Thirtle argues that עלמות, which literally means young women,[7] refers to a female choir (while שמינית refers to a male choir[8]), and ידיתון refers to the choir originally under the control of the Levite thus named.[9] Sendrey concurs and lists several biblical texts where female singers are mentioned.[10] Thirtle understands נחילות inheritances to refer to a commemoration of the taking possession of the promised land under Joshua,[11] a view also taken by the aggadic Midrash Tehillim which interpreted נחילות as “inheritance”, although Rashi disputes this meaning “as the subject matter of the psalm does not refer to inheritance”.[12] However, if this is read as a postscript to Psalm 4 not only is this objection removed, there are, in fact, several expressions in that psalm which might allude to the occupation of the land (Psalm 4: 8, for example, refers to dwelling in safety, a strong Deuteronomic theme). The LXX also adopted this meaning with its translation ὑπὲρ τῆς κληρονομούσης over her that inherits.

To be continued …


[1] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 673.

[2] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 60.

[3] Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible, 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 668.

[6] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

[7] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, 835.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 110.

[9] 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 16:1; 25:1

[10] 2 Samuel 19:36; 2 Chronicles 35:25; Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67, and Ecclesiastes 2:8. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 172.

[12] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

Titles of Psalms (2)

Thirtle identified in the stand-alone psalm of Habakkuk a pattern for interpreting the structure of psalms elsewhere. The prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 is remarkably similar, leading Brevard Childs to comment:

The most striking feature of Isa. xxxviii. 9 is the similarity of form between the superscription and those of the Psalms. The similarity reaches to the technical Psalm classification, the designation of the author, and the specification in the infinitival form of a setting which referred to a historical event known elsewhere in the Old Testament.[1]

This similarity further validates Thirtle’s thesis.

Habakkuk 3:1-19


תְּפִלָּה לַחֲבַקּוּק הַנָּבִיא עַל שִׁגְיֹנֹֽות׃

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.


לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינֹותָֽי

To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.

Isaiah 38:9-20


מִכְתָּב לְחִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה בַּחֲלֹתֹו וַיְחִי מֵחָלְיֹֽו׃

The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness


יְהוָה לְהֹושִׁיעֵנִי וּנְגִנֹותַי נְנַגֵּן כָּל־יְמֵי חַיֵּינוּ עַל־בֵּית יְהוָֽה׃

The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.

If Thirtle is correct then the merging of the postscripts with the superscripts of the following psalm must have happened early, before the translation of the psalms into Greek and before the production of the manuscripts from which the Qumran Psalms scrolls were copied, as both the earliest accessible Septuagint manuscripts and the Qumran scrolls include the postscripts and the superscripts on the same line without any distinguishing separation marks. However, the Isaiah and Habakkuk texts indicate that the arrangement of psalms into superscript, psalm and postscript was still understood in the late monarchic period.

There is some evidence in the Greek translation of the Psalms that the translators had difficulty in determining where one psalm ended and the next began.[2] For example, the LXX adds the word αλληλουια alleluia (functionally equivalent to הללו יה hallelujah) to the beginning of nine psalms: 105, 107, 114-119 and 135. In all but Psalms 115 and 118 the hallelujah belongs in the MT to the preceding psalm. In the MT הללו יה hallelujah occurs at the end of Psalms 104, 105, and 115 but appears at the beginning of the subsequent psalms in the LXX. Psalms 9 and 10 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 9. Psalms 114 and 115 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 113. Psalm 116 has been divided in the LXX and numbered as 114 and 115. Psalm 147 in the MT has been divided in the LXX into 146 and 147. Wilson argues that this was deliberate and that “the LXX rectified the ‘nakedness’ of Psalm 114 in the MT and Targum by shifting the הללו יה postscript of Psalm 113 to the beginning of Psalm 114, by combining Psalms 114 and 115, and by shifting the postscripts of Psalms 115, 116, 117 to the beginnings of Psalms 116, 117, and 118”.[3] It could equally be the case that there was uncertainty as to where some psalms ended and others began, and that the translators did not know whether הללו יה concluded or introduced a psalm (or both, in the case of Ps 113 in the MT). [4] There may have been some confusion about where one psalm ended and the next began, although it is also possible that the translators had access to a variant Hebrew Vorlage which reflected a different tradition of the arrangement of these Psalm headings.[5]

Psalm 48 concludes with the strange phrase הוא ינהגנו על־מות he will lead us unto death and Kidner notes that if the final words על־מות are joined, as in some Hebrew manuscripts, they can be vocalised as עֹלָמוֹת evermore, which he regards as an intact postscript.[6] The LXX apparently followed this reading with its εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας to the ages (commonly translated as for ever). Herbert May argues that the על מות at the end of Psalm 48 may be an allusion to a melody, and “really belongs to the superscription of Ps. 49:1, as most commentators agree”.[7] However, there is also the possibility that these words have been corrupted and should be read as על־עלמות as in Psalm 46:1 (which Thirtle understands to be a postscript to Psalm 45). Oesterley notes a similarity to Psalm 9:1 and the possibility of a corruption and suggests that עלמות לבן should read על־עלמות as in Psalm 46.[8] If he is correct than the expression על־עלמות occurs three times in the Psalms: as a postscript to Psalm 48 and a superscript to Psalms 9 and 46. Perhaps all three should be read as postscripts, following Thirtle’s thesis, and the MT of Psalm 48 provides evidence of an original postscript. If so, it would be an example of an intact postscript retained in Psalms.

Commenting on Thirtle’s suggestion that the musical directions were originally attached as postscripts to the preceding psalms, Jeremy Montagu raises the issue that “there is no certainty that the psalm which precedes any title now has always done so – the order of the Psalter has almost certainly changed over time”.[9] This valid point highlights the view that Thirtle appears to have given little if any consideration to the likely development of the Psalter over a long period of time. While the connection between the titles of certain psalms with material in the preceding psalm is persuasive, in other cases Thirtle’s attempts to find a connection seem somewhat strained. So, in the case of Psalm 9 the title עלמות לבן is interpreted as עַל מוּת לַבֵין concerning the death of the champion and certain phraseology in the preceding psalm is interpreted in the light of this rendering to refer to the death of Goliath. He appeals to the similarity with אִישׁ־הַבֵּנַיִם in 1 Samuel 17:4, 23 and the Targum of Psalm 9 which has על מיתותא דגברא רי נפק מביני משריתא “concerning the death of the man/warrior who went out between the armies”.[10] However, the connections between Psalm 8 and the death of Goliath are strained and unconvincing. It is possible, if the title of Psalm 9 did indeed refer to the death of the champion Goliath, that it was attached as a postscript to another psalm which has been displaced, as Montagu’s caution might suggest.

Psalm 22 (21 in LXX) has the Hebrew title על־אילת השחר on (or concerning) the doe (or hind) of the dawn but in the LXX is ὑπὲρ τῆς ἀντιλήμψεως τῆς ἑωθινῆς  Over the support at dawn. Thirtle suggests this may have been an attempt by the translators to relate the title to the words of verse 20 (19). [11] “But you, O Lord, do not put my help far away! Attend to my support!” The Hebrew is enigmatic and this has led to several possible explanations. Thirtle regards this as a postscript to Psalm 21 which he considers to be a kind of “national anthem” for Davidic Israel.[12] Other scholars agree that Psalm 21 belongs in the class of “Royal Psalms” with echoes of Judah’s most ancient royal traditions.[13] Thirtle therefore reads “hind of the dawn” as a kind of term of endearment for the king, a description of him in royal beauty. This, however, is hardly more convincing than any other explanation of this difficult phrase. Again this could very well be another case of a postscript which was originally attached to another psalm which once stood immediately before Psalm 22 but was displaced in the process of compiling and editing the various collections which eventually became the Psalter.

To be continued …


[1] Brevard S Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16, no. 2 (1971): 142.

[2] It should be noted that the earliest extant complete manuscripts of Greek translations of the Psalms are the uncial codexes, Vaticanus (c. 325-350 CE) and Sinaiticus (c. 330-360 CE). Uncial manuscripts were written in scriptio continua with very few divisions between words. Although scrolls and fragments in Greek of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomony and the Twelve Prophets have been found at Qumran, no Greek portions of Psalms have been discovered.

[3] Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 180.

[4] Nahum M. Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (ed. Skolnik: Macmillan Reference, 2003), 665.

[5] Peter Flint has provided considerable evidence which suggests that, “while the Vorlage of the Septuagint Psalter is not evident in any single Psalms manuscript, several shared variants and passages show that the translator’s Hebrew text contained many readings found in specific scrolls but not in the Masoretic Text.” See Peter W. Flint, The Psalters at Qumran and the Book of Psalms (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertations Publishing., 1993), 199-207.

[6] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 181 n.1.

[7] Herbert Gordon May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58, no. 1 (1941): 77.

[8] W.O.E. Oesterley, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), 13.

[9] Jeremy Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 73.

[10] Edward M. Cook, The Psalms Targum: An English Translation (2001 [cited 12 July 2014); available from http://targum.info/pss/ps1.htm.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 17.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] For example, David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 389.

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.

Elohim in the assembly of elohim (Psalm 82)

I have been prompted by a discussion on Dustin Smith’s blog in connection with his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God to share some thoughts about the divine council in Psalm 82. Dustin critiqued Ehrman’s analysis of this psalm and argued that the Psalm speaks of human judges as elohim, using the regular Hebrew word for God (or ‘gods’) and applying it to “the human rulers who judge on God’s behalf, thus effectively taking the title of elohim onto themselves as God’s agents”. I read this psalm differently.

Some scholars regard Psalm 82 as being one of the oldest psalms in the collection, and showing evidence of Canaanite influence. It is also argued by some that Psalm 82, and others, may have been written at a time in Israel’s development when its religion was monolatrous (i.e worshipping one god while allowing for the existence of others), rather than monotheistic (recognising the existence of only one god). The psalm begins with what appears to be a reference to a heavenly council and in this detail shares some similarity with Canaanite texts. Mitchell Dahood argues that it is directed aginst the Canaanite gods: “the first section (vss. 1-4) is a depiction, or rather a vision, of the heavenly tribunal where God passes judgment on the pagan deities (vs. 1) and a summation (vss. 2-4) of the charges on which they are convicted.”1 The introductory verse is chiastic2:

אֱֽלֹהִים נִצָּב                                            God [אלהים elohim] presides

 בַּעֲדַת־אֵל                                                    in the divine council,

 בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים                                                in the midst of the gods [אלהים elohim]

 יִשְׁפֹּט                                                   adjudicates.3

There appears to be an intentional ambiguity here with אלהים elohim presiding in the midst of the אלהים elohim. Most translators translate the first אלהים elohim as “God” and the second as “gods” or “divine beings”. Some scholars attempt to resolve the difficulty by arguing that the first אלהים elohim should be replaced by the divine name יהוה (YHVH) on the assumption that the divine name was replaced by an ancient Elohistic editor.4 If we accept this emendation יהוה YHVH is consequently represented as a participant deity in the council of gods led by El (and subordinate to El) as an accuser against the other אלהים elohim/gods, and rather than “presiding” over the council he “takes a stand” (נִצָּב) as a prosecutor.5 Other scholars variously identify the second אלהים elohim as human officials (although the expression כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן “you will die like men” in verse 7 would seem to rule out the possibility of these אלהים elohim being human), angels, heathen gods, or “divine kings”.6

There is an interesting chiastic structure in Psalm 82 suggested by the second and third grammatical persons. This structure could further indicate that there may be two (or three) speakers and the juxtaposition of the voices suggests a forensic setting.

Section Verse            Person Subject matter Speaker
A 1 Third person singular אלהים/יהוה in the divine council. Psalmist
B 2-4 Second person plural The charges: question and a series of imperatives addressed to the accused. אלהים / יהוה as Prosecutor
C 5 Third person plural Those addressed in 2-4. Psalmist
B1 6-7 Second person plural The verdict and sentence. New speaker? Possibly Presider over council.
A1 8 Second person singular Addresses אלהים/יהוה using an imperative to judge. Psalmist

We could call this a grammatical chiasmus with sections A and A1 in the singular, either addressing or referring to אלהים/יהוה, the god of Israel, sections B and B1 in the second person plural, and section C (at the crux) in the third person plural. Verse 6 seems to introduce a new speaker with אֲֽנִי־אָמַרְתִּי “I, I have said …”,7 although this could also be read as the verdict in response to the charges brought in verses 2-4, and the speaker would therefore be the presider over the divine council. Perhaps the psalmist envisages a council where אלהים or יהוה, the god of Israel, is both prosecutor and judge.8 In verse 8 אלהים9 elohim is called on to קוּמָה and שָׁפְטָה, “arise, judge”, and Dahood claims that קוּמָה here “designates the intervention of God as judge and ruler”.10

The crux appears as an aside, almost parenthetical, and is possibly the psalmist’s own verdict on the accused.11 He claims that the injustice and lawlessness of the accused אלהים elohim shakes the very foundations on which the earth is ordered (the “foundations of the earth are shaken”), possibly suggesting that they are responsible for cosmic disorders, although, more likely, referring to the disrupted ‘order of things’ in society.12  The world is founded on justice for the poor, the oppressed, the needy, and the disenfranchised; and injustice disrupts this order and causes chaos. The frequent mention throughout the psalter of the antagonism between the righteous and the wicked, the oppressed and their oppressors, suggests the existence of an enmity in Israelite society between two primary classes: (1) the poor, but pious, and (2) the rich and powerful.13

According to several scholars Psalm 82 shows signs of possible Canaanite influence. However, it may have been written as a polemical response to Canaanite religion rather than merely mimicking its forms, using the language of the Canaanite texts while delivering a message against the gods of those texts. It may in fact be a caricature or parody of the Canaanite idea of a divine council, in which the god of Israel stands up among the gods of the surrounding nations and accuses them of failing to do what gods are meant to do, asserting that Israel’s god alone acts righteously.

1 Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes Vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 268.

2 We could also call this an introverted parallelism.

3 Following the translation of Mitchell Dahood , Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968).

4 James M. Trotter, “Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131.2 (2012): 221-239,222-224. There is evidence elsewhere in the Psalter of an Elohistic editor replacing the divine name with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. For example, Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name.

5 Morgenstern, however, argues for “presides” (Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 29– 126, 71). The inferences drawn from the meaning of נצב in this context are crucial in determining whether יהוה is standing as Prosecutor or Judge. In this text it appears as a niphal participle (HALOT 714f: to place oneself, to be positioned, stand; BDB, 662: station oneself, take one’s stand). It has the sense of supervising (to be set over) when accompanied by עַל (HALOT) but this is absent in Ps. 82:1. It differs from עמד which suggests standing motionless.

6 Trotter, argues for “divine kings” (Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82, 230ff) and against Morgenstern who argued that the content of vv. 2–4 “can refer only to human beings who discharge the judicial function in a consciously and grossly corrupt manner.” (Morgenstern, The Mythological Background of Psalm 82, 31).

7 Dahood translates this as “I had thought …”, arguing that the speaker is the psalmist, and noting how אָ֭מַרְתִּי introduces one clause, followed by אָ֭כֵן introducing a second clause, which suggests “I had thought … but …”. “The psalmist has been under the impression that the pagan deities were of some importance, but now realises they are nothing, because they are quite incapable of defending the poor and rescuing the downtrodden.” (Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 270).

8 In a similar way, God is portrayed in the book of Job as both defendant and judge, so reading God in Psalm 82 as having dual-roles is not unreasonable.

9 Or יהוה if we accept the possibility of an Elohistic emendation, as in verse 1.

10 Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 271.

11 Surprisingly, Oesterley says this verse “seems to have little to do with the rest of the poem, and is best regarded as an accidental insertion”. (W.O.E. Oesterly, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: SPCK, 1962), 373.) My own view is that this is a disappointing way to deal with what seems to me to be the crux of the psalm.

12 A similar metaphor appears in Psalm 75:3-4 where equitable judgment is said to keep firm the pillars of the earth.

13 Oesterley argues for this antagonistic theme in his chapter “Saints and Sinners in the Psalms”. (Oesterley, Psalms, 56-66).

In praise of the storm god (2)

In the final lines of Psalm 29 the writer repeats some terms used earlier, connecting the concluding lines with the opening statements. The Psalm begins by ascribing strength to the LORD and concludes with the benediction “May the LORD give strength to his people”. The central section describes the chaos and terror of a violent storm and the conclusion has a call for the LORD to “bless his people with peace”. The two concluding couplets declare that the LORD is enthroned “over the flood”, a term which probably refers either to the primeval chaos in the Canaanite myths or the chaos of the great flood described in Genesis.6 Either way there appears to be a deliberate contrast between chaos and peace and the structure of the psalm forms a tight unit.

Both lines of the penultimate couplet declare that “the LORD sits enthroned”. In the 1960s Sigmund Mowinckel wrote a thorough analysis of what he called the “enthronement psalms” which are characterised by an acclamation that the LORD is King and the use of language pertaining to the ascent of the throne. Mowinckel argued that these psalms had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles.7 Significantly, Psalm 29 in the Septuagint has a superscription ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”, which could possibly indicate that it was sung on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles. Strangely, Mowinckel did not identify Psalm 29 as an enthronement psalm, despite these notable characteristics. The Festival of Trumpets and the Festival of Tabernacles are closely associated in the Hebrew calendar, both being in the seventh month. If Mowinckel is right this could also explain the possible connection between seven trumpets and the seven thunders in The Revelation.

Other scholarshave also noted similarities between the enthronement psalms of Israel and the enthronement festivals of Ugarit and identified several features in Psalm 29 which could possibly have Canaanite origins. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that almost every word in Psalm 29 can be found in earlier Canaanite texts. Aloysius Fitzgerald asserted that “it is clear that the typical Canaanite presentation of Baal as the god of the rainstorm which characterizes each of these texts has been used by Israelite poets in speaking of Yahweh, and such connections can be spotted with relative ease.”9 He concluded that Psalm 29 was originally Canaanite and simply adapted for Israelite use by changing “Baal” to the name of the God of Israel. Theodor Gaster argued, perhaps over-enthusiastically, that

There is a complete correspondence in details between the Hebrew psalm and the texts to which we have referred [Enuma elis and the Poem of Baal], and several passages of the former which are at present difficult of interpretation are at once clarified and illuminated by comparison with the latter.10

The introduction to Psalm 29 says it is לדוד ‘of’ or ‘pertaining to’ David.  It is therefore possible that it was composed with reference to an event associated historically with David and David’s two attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem might qualify as this historic occasion. In connection with the first attempt to relocate the Ark the Chronicler wrote:

And David and all Israel went up to Baalah [Kiriath-jearim]… to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6).

The tradition which understood the Ark as the throne of God may have prompted the composition of the psalm for the purpose of commemorating that event. While the first attempt failed the second succeeded, and this may be behind the exclamation in Psalm 29:9 that ‘in his temple all cry, “Glory!”’, referring to the Ark’s eventual resting-place in the Jerusalem Temple. The intriguing superscription in the Septuagint (ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”) would therefore refer to the departure of the Ark from its location in the Tabernacle at Kiriath-jearim and the ‘enthronement psalms’ might possibly commemorate the enthronement of the LORD on the Ark of the Covenant.

The main similarities between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic or Canaanite motifs are: (a) the reference to the divine council and the Sons of Elim/El; (b) geographical references in the psalm (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon], and the Desert of Kadesh [in Syria]) suggesting it may have originated from that region; (c) thunder is representative both of the voice of the LORD and the voice of Baal; and (d) enthronement over the flood in the psalm may reflect Canaanite creation conflict themes. However, Robert Alter has noted that “None of these arguments is entirely convincing.”11

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

So is Psalm 29 a Canaanite poem? While Fitzgerald asserted that it is a Baal poem transformed to become a poem to worship the LORD using a simple substitution of Baal with the name of the LORD, the psalm may equally have been intentionally composed by an Israelite using Canaanite ideas and poetic conventions. It is possible that in this psalm the God of Israel is deliberately described in the terms of pagan gods to appeal to Israelites who were tempted to worship pagan gods or as a polemic against Baal worship.12 Leland Ryken thinks that “Psalm 29 imitates (and ultimately parodies) the motifs of Canaanite poems written about the exploits of Baal.”13

My own view is that the Canaanites and Israelites both drew on poetic conventions and literary practices which were widespread throughout the region, producing literature which inevitably had many similarities in language and style but with different purposes and objects of devotion. Psalm 29 was probably written to be used liturgically as part of an ‘enthronement festival’, possibly associated with the Festivals of Trumpets and Tabernacles in the seventh month, commemorating the enthronement of the God of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple, and may have drawn on historic traditions about the relocation of the Ark to Jerusalem by David.


6 The Hebrew word for “flood” (מבול) occurs only here and in Genesis with reference to the great flood.

7 S. Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, 106

8 For example, A.R. Petersen, The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit? (Sheffield: Sheffield academic Press, 1998)

9 A. Fitzgerald,  “A Note on Psalm 29” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 215 (Oct., 1974), pp. 61-63

10 Theodor H. Gaster, “Psalm 29” The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jul., 1946), pp. 55-65 University of Pennsylvania Press, 57

11 R. Alter, The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)

12 So argues A.P. Ross , A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (1-41), (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 653

13 L. Ryken, and T. Longman III (eds.) A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 50

In praise of the storm god (1)

stormPsalm 29 may be one of the oldest psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Its beginning is set in a heavenly council and is addressed to the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. This terminology is very similar to Psalm 82:1 and Psalm 89:6-7 which respectively refer to the עדת־אל “council of El” and the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. These texts in turn are similar to the frame narrative of Job which is partially set in a divine council of the בני האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim”; and the narrative of the interbreeding of the בני־האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim” with the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6.  Some scholars have noticed the similarity of this divine council with the Canaanite myths of the council of El.1

The central section of Psalm 29 describes the voice of the LORD in terms of an intense storm which forms over the sea (“the waters” and the “many [or mighty] waters” in verse 3 probably means the Mediterranean Sea) and then moves eastwards over the land (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon] and on to Syrian Kadesh), following the east-to-west pattern of weather in Canaan2 and breaking the cedar trees in its path (v. 5) and stripping the forests bare (v. 9), causing animals to flee (v. 6) and in their terror to prematurely give birth (v. 9), sending bolts of lightning (v. 7) and making the ground to shake (v. 8). In a striking parallelism the psalm refers seven times to “the voice of the LORD” and after the first use of this expression says “the God of glory (or, “the Glorious El”) thunders”. John Day saw this as reminiscent of the seven thunders of Baal in Ugaritic poetry3, specifically in the following lines from two poems:

Seven lightnings (he [Baal] had),  Eight storehouses4 of thunder were the shafts of (his) lightnings. (RS 24.245 lines 3b-4) 

And you [Baal], take your clouds, your wind, your chariot team, your rain, take with you your seven servitors and your eight boars, take Pidriya daughter of dew with you, and Taliya daughter of showers with you. (CTA 5.v. 6b-11) 

The identity of the “seven servitors” and “eight boars” here is uncertain, but because the other metaphors in this section of the poem are meteorological so Day takes them to be the same as the “seven lightnings and seven thunders” mentioned previously. Psalm 29 concludes with the ‘enthronement’ of the LORD and Day observed that the Ugaritic text RS 24.245 commenced with a similar enthronement statement:

Baal sits enthroned, having the mountain as a throne, Hadad (the shepherd) like the flood in the midst of his mountain, the god of Zaphon in the (midst of) the mountain of victory. (RS 24.245 lines 1-3a)

Several scholars have noted the similarity between the language of Psalm 29 and Ugaritic poems about Baal. For example, Tremper Longman III asserts that

It is well known that the Canaanite god Baal was a storm-god. He was the one who dispensed rain, flashed lightning, and created thunder. Psalm 29 pictures Yahweh as a storm-god in language reminiscent of Baal.5

There is a possible intertextual link between the “seven voices/thunders” of Psalm 29 and the apocalyptic New Testament book of The Revelation where the narrator heard an angel call out “with a loud voice … When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (Revelation 10:1-4). The use of the definite article suggests that there were seven specific thunders he had in mind. Elsewhere he heard seven angels blow on seven trumpets “and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:2-5). The similarity in the language suggests that the writer either had the language of Psalm 29 in mind (and the Psalms are among the most quoted biblical books in early Christian literature), or was drawing on the same pool of metaphors which inspired the writer of Psalm 29. The mention of seven trumpets along with seven thunders and the frequency of Temple imagery in The Revelation further suggest that the writer may have been referring to a liturgical use of trumpets in connection with the language of Psalm 29, and I will return later to this connection.

 … to be continued

1 For example, at Ugarit there were seventy sons of the gods (KTU 1.4:VI.46).

2 R.J. Clifford,, Psalms 1-72, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 155

3 J. Day,, “Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 29, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1979), 143ff.

4 Day understands the juxtaposition of ‘seven” and “eight” to be a poetic device for emphasis meaning “seven”, hence “seven lightnings and seven thunders”.

5 Temper Longman III “Psalms: Ancient Near Eastern Background” in Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns (eds.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 603

God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

Which biblical manuscripts are ‘right’: Qumran, the Septuagint, or the Masoretic Text?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (7)

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (ESV)

Commentaries usually propose two possible sources for this quotation in the New Testament from the Hebrew Bible:  Psalm 97:7 and Deuteronomy 32:43. Psalm 97 looks to be the closest match for this phrase, especially once we realise that the Septuagint occasionally translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos (the Hebrew MT of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels), and it is generally thought that the writer of the NT book of Hebrews usually quotes from the Septuagint (but more about this shortly).

But why Deuteronomy 32:43? If we are reading the King James Version (or one of many others) there doesn’t appear to be any connection. This is how the KJV translates the verse:

Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

The KJV follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Initially it looks like it has no connection to the quotation in Hebrews. However, several modern translations (such as the ESV below, with footnotes) include the additional words which I have underlined:

“Rejoice with him, O heavens;[a]
bow down to him, all gods,[b]
for he avenges the blood of his children[c]
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him[d]
and cleanses[e] his people’s land.”[f]


  1. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Rejoice his people, O nations
  2. Masoretic Text lacks bow down to him, all gods
  3. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text servants
  4. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text lacks He repays those who hate him
  5. Or atones for
  6. Septuagint, Vulgate; Hebrew his land his people

It is evident from the footnotes in the ESV that there are several differences between the Masoretic Text and other ancient translations such as the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Latin Vulgate. Just to complicate things further, Romans 15:10 may also be quoting this verse in Deuteronomy:

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

If Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 in Romans then he is following the Masoretic Text with Gentiles or nations,  where  the Septuagint has “rejoice O heavens“. There could be a clue here that the writer of Romans is not the same person as the writer of Hebrews, but having said that, one Qumran version (think ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) of this text reads “Praise, heavens, his people” (1QDtb) while another reads “Praise, nations …” (4QDtq) so we have two different Qumran-Hebrew texts of this verse and the Masoretic Text represents one Hebrew text while the Septuagint corresponds to another. Romans follows one version, while Hebrews appears to follow the other. The ancient Aramaic version known as Targum Onkelos has an Aramaic equivalent to the Masoretic Text with “Praise, Gentiles, his people”. The Samaritan Pentateuch has the same reading as the Masoretic Text.

Interestingly, in an article by George Howard published as early as 1968 he argued that Hebrews may very well have been following a Hebrew text which was different to the Masoretic text, rather than following the Greek Septuagint, and that Hebrews 1:6 is closer to Qumran Deuteronomy than to the Septuagint. He found that some quotes are actually closer to the Aramaic versions (Targum Onkelos and the Peshitta) than to either the Hebrew or Greek.

“It has been popular in the past to begin a commentary or an introduction to the Epistle by stating that the writer always uses the Septuagint version of the OT (sometimes in the form of Codex Vaticanus, but more often in the form of Codex Alexandrinus) and never shows acquaintance with the Hebrew). Since the discovery of the Qumran Literature and the impetus given by it to the study of the pre-Masoretic text, it is now probable that the text used by the author of Hebrews is, on occasion, closer to a Hebrew recension more ancient than the Masoretic Text.”[1]

But what about Psalm 97:7? If the writer of Hebrews is quoting from this psalm then we can forget the difficulties with Deuteronomy. There are some problems here too, although possibly not as much as with a Deuteronomy source. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the main difference between the two texts is that the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels). To many scholars this isn’t much of a difficulty because we know that the Septuagint translators sometimes used ἄγγελοι angels in place of אלהים gods. However, Hebrews has “angels of God” rather than simply angels and this suggests the writer was tranlating from Hebrew בני אלהים sons of God rather than simply “gods” [elohim]. Interestingly, 4QDtq from Qumran has “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:43, so this may steer us back to a Deuteronomy source and away from Psalms.

It looks like a bit of a mess! At least two versions of one biblical text, with the New Testament writers quoting from both versions. How can they both be ‘right’? The problem is actually a modern one. Timothy Law, in an interview with  Peter Enns, has concluded rather well: ‘We know now that there were many other variant forms of the Hebrew scriptures circulating before the time of Jesus … the existence of multiple forms of scripture (Greek and Hebrew) in antiquity, both before, during, and after the time of Christ, did not bother early Christians. The search for an “original text” on which to ground one’s faith is a distinctively modern worry’ (his emphasis). It seems to me that the New Testament writers reflected current and earlier scribal practices where it was not necessary to copy or translate the exact form of words, but rather to faithfully transmit the ideas and the essential message.

[1] George Howard, “Hebrews and the Old Testament Quotations”, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 2/3 (Apr. – Jul., 1968), pp. 208-216

Who laid the earth’s foundation? Quoting Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews opens with a series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible in support of the proposition that the Son of God is superior to the angels. The series ends with a quotation from Psalm 102, which appears to suggest that the world was created by the Son:

10 “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.” (ESV)

However, Hebrews appears to give this Psalm a different meaning to that which it had in its original context. This is not unusual of course. The New Testament writers often took texts from the Hebrew Bible and reinterpreted them in new contexts. We need to be cautious about taking the ‘new’ meaning attached to the words by the New Testament writers and reading it back into the earlier text, as though that was the intended meaning of the original author.

With that caveat I would like to look at the way Hebrews quotes Psalm 102. Understanding the Chiasm in Hebrews 1  might help to understand the purpose in quoting Psalm 102. I think the structure of the argument provides a clue as to what the writer meant. He quotes seven texts from the Hebrew Bible (mostly Psalms) about the superiority of the Son to the angels, and presents them in a chiastic structure (chiasm is common throughout Hebrews). The chiasm follows the pattern A, B, C, D, C1, B1, A1:

A. To which of the angels did God ever say “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”. Psalm 2:7

B. “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” 2 Sam 7:14

C. “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Psalm 97:7 (“worship him, all you אלהים elohim” [or possibly Deut 32:43 LXX and DSS])

D. “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” Psalm 104:4

C1. “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Psalm 45:6

B1. “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will roll them up like a robe;

like a garment they will be changed.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.” Psalm 102:25-27

A1. To which of the angels did God ever say “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. Psalm 110:1

The first clue to this being chiastic is in the recurrence of the words “to which of the angels did God ever say” in introducing the first and last of the seven texts, forming an inclusio. D is the central or climactic text and is consequently the only one to receive a commentary at the end (v. 14).

The other thing we should notice is that these quotations are mostly from Messianic Psalms. Psalm 2 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”) is actually about the enthronement of the King/Messiah in Zion, not his birth. It is followed by a reference to the promise to David about the Messiah-King who will sit on his throne (“I will be his father and he will be my son.”) Psalm 45 is also about the King-Messiah (“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever …) as is Psalm 110 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”). Psalm 97 is also arguably Messianic (e.g. the reference to the “lord [אדון adon a term referring to a human leader as distinct from אדוני adonai which is a term reserved for God] of all the earth” [v.4] whom the angels are called to worship).

There is a clear pattern here in the use of Messianic texts about the King enthroned in his glory. The exception is the central text about the angels (“He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” OR “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants”). As the commentary in verse 14 shows, this text is placed in the centre of the chiasm to highlight the inferiority of the angels to the Son and their subordinate position.

So where does Psalm 102 fit in with this structure? It is another Messianic Psalm (e.g. Ps 102:16 says “For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory”; verse 18 says “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD”; the Psalm up to verse 22 is speaking of the restoration of Zion and the Messianic Age) and in my view the mention of the heavens and earth has to be metaphorical within that context. That is consistent with the metaphorical use of these terms in similar texts (especially in Isaiah).

In Heb 2:5 he goes on to say that he has been speaking (in chapter 1) about the age to come.  I think the quote from Psalm 102 is best understood in that context as a reference to the Lord Messiah King in the age to come.

To speak well of God (1)

At the end of the Book of Job the LORD (twice) says to Job’s three friends:

לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב

“You have not spoken the truth about me as did my servant Job” (42:7-8 JPS), or, as some translations put it, “you have not spoken well of me”.

In a comment here Jen asked a very good question: “Does Job speak well of God in his confessions (40:3-5 and 42:2-6), or is it of his speeches in general that God tells the friends that Job was correct in his presentation of God?”

The comment addressed to the friends “You have not spoken the truth about me” could only refer to their speeches during the dialogue with Job, so I would be inclined to think that the words “as did my servant Job” referred to Job’s speeches during the same dialogue, and not to his final brief response to the LORD. I agree with Norman Habel [1] when he says “The blunt and forthright accusations of Job from the depths of his agony are closer to the truth than the conventional unquestioning pronouncements of the friends … Job’s answers correspond with reality. They are devoid of dissembling and flattery”.

This reminded me of something I’d read in Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to Psalms [2]:

‘Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lves out in the open before God …

‘In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Gramatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couch in cultured language.’

Peterson went on to encourage ‘raw honesty and detailed thoroughness in our praying’ and I am convinced that this is how the Book of Job encourages us to approach God. Not with carefully worked out theological ‘truths’, but with raw honesty, articulating our despair, anger, disappointment and frustration. To speak well of God is to challenge him when his world appears to be unfair and his ways unjust.

David Wolfers [3] came to this conclusion about how Job spoke the truth concerning God:

‘Job has penetrated to the truth about the moral conduct of the world, that the quality of an individual’s life is unrelated to his moral deserts; that disaster is a random occurrence as likely to befall the righteous as the wicked; that God does reject the innocent and reward the wicked as individuals as aften as He does the reverse. What Eliphaz and his friends have maintained, from 4:7 … to 20:29 … is sentimental rubbish, at odds with all experience of life.’

As a slight digression, Habel [4] makes this interesting observation about Job’s priestly role in acting as mediator for his friends:

‘Job is reinstated as mediator even before his family and possessions are restored. He is again to act as a patriarchal intercessor like Abraham (Gen 18:23ff.). Job had previously looked for a friend who would support him against God if necessary (6:14), an arbiter who would handle his case with God (9:33), an advocate who would defend his suit with God (16:19-20), and a redeemer to vindicate him after his death (19:25). But Job stood alone and achieved his own meeting with God. Now the one who sought a mediator becomes the mediator.’

So it seems to me that to ‘speak the truth concerning God’ is less about correct theology (the approach taken by the friends) and more about being honest, blunt if necessary, and being based in reality.

[1] Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985), 583

[2] Peterson, E., Psalms (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1994), 3f

[3] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 462

[4] Habel, 584