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