When we consider the Divine titles given in the Psalms, we encounter considerable difficulty.  There are many words in these titles that our translators have failed to translate, so they appear to us to be unintelligible, foreign words.  Other versions attempt to translate these titles, but come up with silly or meaningless translations such as “for flutes” or “to the tune of ‘Death of the Son’” or some such other worthless information.  Thus many view the Psalm titles as being of little importance, not including them in readings and so forth.  In fact, some Bibles (like the Gideon New Testament with Psalms) do not even include them.

Some people do not even realize that this is an issue.  Many Bibles are chock-full of man-invented titles to various passages.  Some of these are correct and helpful, and some are incorrect and confusing, such as the NIV’s titles in the Song of songs.  So when many come upon these Psalm titles, they do not see any difference between these and the other titles added into their Bibles, and so view them as being of the same importance as the other titles.  But this is not the case.  The titles added in other books are the mere words of men, but these titles were written by God and form part of the inspired record of the Word.  Thus they are of extreme importance, as much as any lines of the Psalms themselves, and offer us divine commentary upon what the Psalms mean.  Yet the fact that many of them are untranslated makes it seem almost impossible for us to get the truth out of them that God intended.  Why is this?  Why can scholars not translate these words for us?

I believe that the many of the problems can be cleared away if we can make a proper division of these titles.  The fact is that many of the titles given are actually attached to the wrong Psalm.  This is explained by a quote from the Companion Bible:

“All ancient Hebrew manuscripts, with the early and best later printed editions, show no break whatever between the lines of one Psalm and another.

“The Septuagint translators had been many years in Babylon, and the oldest among them must have been very young when carried away thither.

“There were none who had full knowledge and experience of the ancient usages of the Temple worship.

“Consequently, when they came to their task some 197 years after the latest carrying away to Babylon, there was nothing to show them where one Psalm ended and where the next Psalm began.

“Hence, when they came to the word lamenazzeah, “To the chief Musician”, they took it as being the first line of a Psalm, instead of the last line of the preceding Psalm which they had just translated.  All subsequent versions, in all languages, have followed them in this mistake.  For mistake it was, as we may see from the only two examples of independent Psalms given us in the Scriptures: viz. Isa. 38. 9-20, and Hab. 3.”  (The Companion Bible, Appendix 64, page 91)

The Septuagint translators were those who translated the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, the language of the New Testament.  This was the Bible in use at the time of Christ, and most of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are taken directly from the Septuagint (although God does not have to follow this imperfect translation, and does not always do so.)  However, the Septuagint was translated in the second century BC, and these translators had no clue as to when one Psalm ended and the next began, as they ran onto each other line to line with no break.  Thus, as the quotation above points out, they took the phrase “To the chief Musician” as always indicating the beginning of a new Psalm.  They also apparently concluded that Psalms have only titles or superscripts and no postscripts.  As is pointed out above, however, the issue can be resolved by turning to other Psalms given in other books of the Bible.  For this purpose let us examine Habakkuk 3.

This tiny section of the Minor Prophets ends in Habakkuk 3 with a Psalm that is in fact a prayer of Habakkuk, as we read in the first verse.  The title there tells us, “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on Shigionoth.”  This is exactly as we see the Psalm titles in Psalms, except for the fact that here the translators have included the title in the text as the first verse of the Psalm.  This should have been done throughout the book of Psalms, but was not.

Yet we learn the most when we turn to the end of the chapter.  For at the end of verse 19 of Habakkuk 3 we read a subscription to the Psalm that reads:

“To the Chief Musician.  With my stringed instruments.”

Thus we see from this isolated Psalm the truth.  The words “To the Chief Musician” do not go at the beginning of a Psalm as our versions suppose, but rather at the end.  Not only that but words like “With my stringed instruments” are also misplaced unto the wrong Psalm!  Thus we see that the Psalm titles are all in confusion.  Yet often this is easily cleared up, for many of the Psalm titles are thus, with things like the name of the author and the circumstances of the Psalm’s writing at the front, and the dedication and information about the Psalm given at the end.  Thus we can be guided in our reading of the Psalm titles to recognize which parts of the titles really belong with the Psalm they are assigned to and which really belong with the previous Psalm.

This clears up one difficulty, but it still does not clear up the meaning of these strange, untranslated words.  Why would God wish us to know about stringed instruments?  Why would He include strange musical terms in His inspired writings that no one can figure out?

The answer is related to the problem above.  I believe that the reason so many scholars have been baffled by words in the Psalm titles is because they were trying to figure out what they meant by looking at the WRONG PSALM!  For a word that might have no relation to the Psalm given after it might be very apropos to the Psalm before it.  Thus when the translators come upon these words and do not find any meaning for them related to the Psalm in question it is simply because of the mistaken Psalm titles that they do so.  When we take these words and attach them to the proper Psalms, however, their meaning and relation to the Psalm immediately become obvious.

Thus we have the key to solve the mystery of the Psalm titles.  They are not frivolous information about music or performance.  Rather they contain important teaching related to the Psalm in question.  Thus if we are to glean the truths God intended from these titles we must first ascribe them to the correct Psalms and then understand what these untranslated (or incorrectly translated) words mean so that we can see how they related to the Psalm in question.  But these titles and subscripts are divinely inspired and should always be included as integral parts of the Psalms in question, and we should not read or quote these Psalms without making reference to them.

All that remains is to state the meaning of the various words used in the Psalm titles.  To help the student of the book I have listed these words, their meanings, the Psalms in which they occur, and their relationship to the Psalms in question below. Most of this information is taken directly from the Companion Bible, an invaluable resource for all who are interested in finding the truth in the assiduous study of the Scriptures.

1.  Aijeleth-Shahar.  “The Day Dawn.”  Psalm 21 subscription.  Refers to the day dawn “in which beams of light from the rising sun are seen shooting up (like horns) above the horizon before the sun actually appears.”  (Companion Bible)  Speaks of the approaching glory of the Messiah in Psalm 21.

2.  Al alamoth.  “Relating to maidens.”  Psalm 45 subscription.  Was the song for the maidens to sing in the going up of the Ark in I Chronicles 15.  There were three groups of singers mentioned: the Levites, the maidens, and the men-singers.  This Psalm was used by the maidens.

3.  Al-taschith.  “Destroy not.”  Psalms 56, 57, 58, and 74 subscriptions.  A crying out at a crisis.

4.  Gittith.  “Winepresses.”  Psalms 7, 80, and 83 subscriptions.  Speaks of the autumn and thus the autumn festival of Tabernacles.  Thus would be much like our modern “Christmas carols,” Psalms designated for a specific holiday.

5.  Higgaion.  “Soliloquy.”  Calling for meditation.  Used internally in the Psalms.

6.  Jeduthun.  Psalms 38, 61, and 76 subscription.  This man was apparently one of three chief Musicians from each of the three families of Levi.  He was a Merarite, also named Ethan.  Understanding that his name is given in the subscript clears up the apparent error of two authors being given in two of the three Psalms following his Psalms.

7.  Jonath-Elem-Rechokim.  “The Dove in the distant Terebinths.”  Psalm 55 subscription.  David is the dove, moaning over the trouble that has come upon him through his son Absalom.

8.  Leannoth.  See 10.

9.  Mahalath.  “The great Dancing.”  Psalm 52 subscription.  Refers to the dancing associated with David’s victory over Goliath as mentioned in I Samuel 18: 6-7.

10.  Mahalath Leannoth.  “The great Dancing and Shouting.”  Psalm 87 subscription.  Refers to the bringing up of the Ark to Jerusalem by David, when he danced before the Lord and all the people shouted, as mentioned in II Samuel 6: 14-15.

11.  Maschil.  “Understanding” or “Instruction.”  (Public.)  Psalms 32, 42, 44, 45, 52, 53, 54, 55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142 superscription.  These Psalms are for the instruction of the general populous.  Since the words belong in the superscription, they are attached to the proper Psalms in our Bibles.

12.  Michtam.  “Engraven.”  Psalms 16, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60 superscription.  Refers to something written permanently or “graven” because of its importance.  Also carries the meaning of death and resurrection, so often specifically relates to Christ.

13.  Muth-labben.  “The Death of the Champion.”  Psalm 8 subscription.  Refers to the death of Goliath of Gath.

14.  Neginah.  Singular of 15.

15.  Neginoth.  “Smitings.”  Psalms 3, 5, 53, 54, 60 (sing.), 66, 75, and Habakkuk 3.  Refers to deliverance from personal smitings or strikings.  Has nothing to do with the smiting or striking of stringed instruments.

16.  Nehiloth.  “Inheritances,” or “The Great Inheritance.”  Psalm 4 subscription.  Refers to the LORD, the inheritance of His people.  Has nothing to do with flutes.

17.  Psalm.  Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 29, 31, 38, 39, 40, 41, 47, 49, 50, 51, 62, 63, 64, 73, 77, 79, 80, 82, 84, 85, 98, 100, 101, 109, 110, 139, 140, 141, and 143 superscriptions.  Hebrew Mizmor, which means “a psalm” and is always translated correctly as such.

18.  Selah.  “To pause” or “to lift up.”  Once in Psalm 7, 20, 21, 44, 47, 48, 50, 54, 60, 61, 75, 81, 82, 83, 85, and 143; twice in Psalm 4, 9, 24, 39, 49, 52, 55, 57, 59, 62, 67, 76, 84, 87, and 88; thrice in Psalm 3, 32, 46, 66, 68, 77, and 140; and four times in Psalm 89.  Always occurs internally in the Psalm.  Indicates a close connection between the truth preceding it and the truth following it.

19.  Sheminith.  “The Eighth Division.”  Psalms 5 and 11 subscription.  A special division of singers characterized by the fact that they were circumcised on the eighth day according to the law (and thus were faithful worshippers.)  This was part of the male contingent of singers that were one of the three divisions of singers that went before the Ark on its journey to Jerusalem.  In I Chronicles 15:21 we are told that they were “to lead” the procession with harps, although this is translated “to excel” in the old King James, and is completely ignored in the NKJV which I use!  These two Psalms were composed for them to sing in the procession.

20.  Shiggaion.  “A crying aloud.”  Psalm 7 and Habakkuk 3 superscription.  Refers to the loud cries of David and Habakkuk in those psalms.

21.  Shoshannim.  “Lilies,” or “The Spring Festival.”  Psalms 44 and 68 subscription.  Refers to the spring festival of the Passover.  These again were songs similar to our Christmas carols in that they were written for this specific feast.

22.  Shushan (and Shoshannim) Eduth.  “Instruction as to the Spring Festival, or the Second Passover.”  Psalm 79 subscription in singular “shushan” and Psalm 59 subscription in plural “shoshannim.”  Refers to testimony about keeping the festival of the Passover in the second month rather than the first when the need arises.  Both Psalms speak of enemies in the land, which occurrence could necessitate such an arrangement.

23.  Song.  Psalms 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 134 (Songs of the degrees,) and Psalms 18, 45, and 46, all in the superscription.  Hebrew Shir, which means “song” and is always correctly translated as such.

(In writing this message I am greatly indebted to Dr. J. W. Thirtle, who first formulated these ideas, and the Companion Bible, which promotes them.)