George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

1. Psalm Structure

Most psalms consist of three parts:

Perfect examples of this order may be seen in Habakkuk 3:1-19 and Isaiah 38:9-20; in these places the psalm is isolated from other psalms — so there is no question to which psalm the superscription and subscription belong.

The Hebrew text of the Psalms carries no distinctive breaks between the psalms, only a number in the margin; and in the AV translation the mistake was often made of placing the musical direction at the beginning of the next psalm, instead of at the end of the preceding psalm.

Consider Psalm 68, for example: The superscription is “a Psalm or song of David”. (“To the chief musician” belongs to 67.) The subscription is “To the chief musician upon Shoshannim”. (“A Psalm of David” belongs to 69.)

A good general rule is that the historical or other introduction belongs to the psalm following it; the musical instruction often appearing at the beginning of a psalm is properly the subscription to the previous psalm.

This approach has been suggested by that eminent scholar, J.W. Thirtle, in his work The Titles of the Psalms. He wrote: “The key [to the Psalm titles] was lost very early.” Further, he quotes Franz Delitzsch concerning the misplacement of the musical terms: “The LXX found them already in existence, and did not understand them; they cannot be explained even with the aid of the Books of Chronicles (including the Book of Ezra, which forms a part of these) in which much is said about music, and in which they make their appearance, like much else, as the revival of choice old expressions, so that the key to their comprehension must have been lost very early.”

And Thirtle again: “When the Septuagint translation came to be made (about 250-200 BC), the work fell to men who knew nothing of the liturgical use of the Psalms in the Temple service of praise. The glorious tradition of bygone years had passed out of mind, and the translators were, in consequence, without safe and effective guidance.”

Under the heading “The Key Found”, Thirtle writes: “The so-called musical titles have come down to us, alike in the Massoretic recension of the Hebrew text (copies about AD 900) and in the Greek and other early versions (codices dating from about AD 400) in a form that has, even to the present day, caused great confusion. Yet, all down the ages, the Canonical Scriptures have supplied us with a psalm, which, standing by itself, claimed to be studied as a model in all its various features, literary and musical. That psalm appears in Habakkuk 3.

“It opens with:

‘A Prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth’

and it ends with:

‘To the Chief Singer on my stringed instruments’.

“In other words, at the head of the psalm we have a statement of its class (a Prayer), its author (Habakkuk), and its special character (Shigionoth). These particulars are literary; they deal with the writer and the writing.

“At the end, we have a statement that is musical, and exclusively so: The psalm has been adopted by the Chief Singer (the same word that has been rendered ‘Chief Musician’ in the Psalms), and it is one for orchestral rendering in the worship of God.”

The notes on the titles of the psalms in the work that follows will, for the most part, take into account the ground-breaking work of J.W. Thirtle — to whom all subsequent students of the Psalms owe a great debt.
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