What Should We Do with Those Psalm Headings? A Theory

Reposted with permission from Toward Conservative Christianity.

Thirtle’s Theory

I have been among those who committed the error of publicly reading a psalm and omitting to read the title. I reasoned that these titles probably belonged in the same category as the chapter and verse numbers of our Bibles: helpful, but by no means inspired.

I’ve since been divested of that view, and now see these titles as God-breathed, like all Scripture. One sees evidence for this in several ways. For example, the title of Psalm 18 is found within the text of 2 Samuel 22:1, showing the psalm title’s authenticity. It was not a later rabbinic interpolation. Further, some of the psalm titles (e.g. 46 & 58) were merely transliterated by the translators of the Greek Septuagint (c. 300-250 B.C.). This suggests that their meaning had already been lost by the time of the Septuagint, which in turn suggests great antiquity. They are much older than a post-exilic rabbinic commentary. Finally, Scriptures like Luke 20:42 quoting Psalm 110) take the title as true, for nowhere else is it stated that David himself wrote the psalm.

I was recently introduced to the fascinating theory of James Thirtle regarding the psalm titles. To quote the ISBE, Thirtle’s hypothesis is that

…both superscriptions and subscriptions were incorporated in the Psalter, and that in the process of copying the Psalms by hand, the distinction between the superscription of a given psalm and the subscription of the one immediately preceding it was finally lost. When at length the different psalms were separated from one another, as in printed editions, the subscriptions and superscriptions were all set forth as superscriptions. Thus it came about that the musical subscription of a given psalm was prefixed to the literary superscription of the psalm immediately following it. (John Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book of,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939. 4:2487-94.)

Thirtle’s justification for his theory was a study of passages such as Habukkuk 3. In verse 1, a superscription of authorship is given, while in verse 19, a musical subscription is given. The same thing is seen in Isaiah 38:9-20. Thirtle gave evidence for this being the pattern in Hebrew poetry: personal and occasional historical information given at the beginning of the psalm, and the musical instructions given at the end.

In other words, many of our Psalm titles are unfortunate combinations of the musical subscription of the previous psalm, and the superscription of the following psalm. That is, the superscription of Psalm 3 is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” However, the musical subscription is found in most Bibles as part of Psalm 4: “To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments.” The superscription of Psalm 4 ought to simply read “A Psalm of David”.

When you follow this theory, it has very interesting, possibly corroboratory, results. For example, Psalm 55:6 speaks of David’s desire to have the wings of a dove. If this theory is true, then the musical subscription of Psalm 55 is “To the Chief Musician. Set to ‘The Silent Dove in Distant Lands’ ”, while the superscription of Psalm 56 is simply, “A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.”

Another example is seen in Psalms 87 and 88. The tone of Psalm 87 is exceedingly cheerful, while Psalm 88 is among the most mournful in all the psalter. Should Psalm 88 really be entitled “A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to ‘Mahalath Leannoth [Dancings with Shoutings]’”? It seems this tone of rejoicing belongs to Psalm 87. Further, this solves the apparent contradiction in the title of Psalm 88 which seems to have the psalm belonging to both the sons of Korah as well as Heman the Ezrahite. Instead, the superscription of Psalm 88 is simply “A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.”

Thirtle’s theory becomes illuminating as you begin to apply it when reading the psalms, and see a number of places where it truly seems to fit. Practically speaking, if we take this to be true, then it does affect how we would publicly read the psalm titles. After all, they’re inspired; the numbers before or after them are not.

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There are 7 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks for this fine article. I have long believed that the superscriptions in the Psalms are part of the text; in some versions (LXX and Vulgate), they are assigned as the first verse.

I had never heard the theory about the subscription from a previous Psalm being incorrectly transferred as a superscription to the following Psalm. It makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for sharing this.

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SBashoor's picture

Too bad we don't versify the superscriptions. A lot of readers assume they're chapter headings added by the translators.

I've always been intrigued by Thirtle's Theory, though I'm not yet convinced of it.

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

Rob Fall's picture

The Russian Bible also makes the superscriptions the first verse. It's something to take into consideration when translating.

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Thanks for this fine article. I have long believed that the superscriptions in the Psalms are part of the text; in some versions (LXX and Vulgate), they are assigned as the first verse.

I had never heard the theory about the subscription from a previous Psalm being incorrectly transferred as a superscription to the following Psalm. It makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for sharing this.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

...I managed to never hear this theory before... or slept through that part of class. I don't think I had realized either that at least one of the headings is quoted in another passage. The transliteration argument rings true as well.
So I have learned more than just Thirtle's Theory.

JohnBrian's picture

At first glance I thought the title of the thread was about Palm Reading Theory, and was about to create a new anti-SI blog to decry SI's slide into... whatever it was that SI was sliding into. I even had decided on a name for my new blog - SI in the Aluminum Stainless Steel Cookware.

Then I read the thread title again!

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Aaron Blumer's picture

Biggrin ...but your anti SI-Palm Reading post would have been so entertaining!
Here's an idea (I wonder why no one has thought of this): you could pretend you didn't notice it was "Psalm" and launch your new blog anyway. As long as you never let on that you know it's really "Psalm," and not "Palm" it'll work fine. And you could post quotations with the word "Psalm" omitted... in order to help readers see the reality of SI's secret palmistry agenda.
(You'd also have to be careful not to link to any anti-palmistry articles or posts... that would ruin everything)

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Might provide a fresh venue for Lou M.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

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