What About Those Psalm “Titles”?

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.  (The heading before Psalm 3:1.)

David de Bruyn, a pastor in South Africa, has an interesting article on SharperIron about the headings or titles of the Psalms.  (Disclaimer:  the SI forums are kind of a mess recently with some threads sounding like some people aren’t even clear on what salvation is.  Don’t get lost in the maze if you wander over there.

If I were to boil Pastor de Bruyn’s article down to two points, it would be these:

  1. These headings are not just helpful information, but part of the inspired (“God-breathed”) text described in II Timothy 3:16, and are as authoritative as the verses that follow.
  2. Parts of these headings are in the wrong place in our Bible — the musical instructions should not be at the head of the Psalm, but actually belong at the foot of the preceding Psalm, where (he thinks) they were in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts.

I would say he has not proved the first statement, and if the first is true, it makes the second problematic.  Nor do I believe the second argument fits with all the data, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion, which may or may not be profitable.  The first point, however, is much more important, because it deals with the question of the boundaries of inspired Scripture.

Let’s look at his reasons for considering these headings inspired.  I’ll insert numbers in the text to take his arguments one by one:

One sees evidence for this in several ways.  (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) 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.

(1) This is hardly conclusive.  For all we know, the Psalm title was added later, maybe centuries later, based on the text of II Samuel 22:1.  Even if they were roughly contemporaneous, it proves nothing.  Jude quotes a prophecy by Enoch, a citation which also appears in the spurious “Book of Enoch”.  We do not thus assume that the “Book of Enoch” is inspired and canonical.  II Samuel does not say it is citing Scripture, it just states a fact.  Shared factual information with a canonical source does not prove inspiration.

(2) As a side note, it is very hard to establish exactly when Septuagint translation took place, nor does transliteration prove the meaning was lost, but the point of antiquity is well taken.  The headings are obviously ancient.  Of course, so was the book of Jasher (whatever that book was) mentioned in Joshua 10:13.  There are other ancient books mentioned in Scripture, and the Apocryphal books are ancient.  Antiquity does not prove inspiration.

(3) Yes, we can assert confidently that the title of Psalm 110 gives us accurate information.  Does this prove that God gave this or the other Psalm titles by inspiration?  If we are going to read Christ’s statement of Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 in Luke 20:42 (and Peter’s similar statement in Acts 2:34) as affirming inspiration, what do we do with the apostolic affirmation of Davidic authorship of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25?  Is that telling us that the title of Psalm 2 attributing that Psalm to David is inspired?  (Psalm 2 has no title. :))  We properly take Acts 4:25 as a statement of fact not verified elsewhere in Scripture.  Why should we view Luke 20:42 and Acts 2:34 any differently?  The Scriptural proof of the accuracy of at least one Psalm title (Psalm 110) does not prove the inspiration of one or all titles.

Are the Psalm titles inspired, “God-breathed”, as Pastor de Bruyn asserts?  None of the evidence he cites is particularly compelling.  There is no direct Scriptural evidence to support his contention.  His evidences are all the types of things we might expect to see if the Psalm titles are indeed inspired Scripture, but none of them are particularly strong evidence, and taken together add up to little more than an indication that the Psalm titles are accurate in at least some cases, and we may presume they are probably accurate in others as well.

Perhaps the best evidence for the inspiration of the Psalm titles is that we still have them.  From all that we can see, the text of the Psalm titles has been preserved down through the centuries.  The Dead Sea Scrolls essentially match the Masoretic Text titles.  The Jews saw fit to include them in their copies of the Scriptures, and since Christ came the church has continued in that vein.  While they have not necessarily always been accepted as inspired, they have been generally accepted as at least true.

This is at least close to what we would expect of Scripture.  We would expect God to preserve His Word, and attest to it by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people, so that they would keep and cherish it.  This is the means by which God has confirmed to us the canon of Scripture, and ultimately this is a question of canonicity — which words are included in the Scripture inspired by God?  Canonicity cannot be determined by rationalistic evidence, but by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people through the church.

Spurgeon quotes John Mason Good as mentioning Augustine and Theodoret among those who believed in the inspiration of the Psalm titles.  Good’s introductory statement, however, was, “With regard to the authority of the Titles, it becomes us to speak with diffidence….”

Believers have certainly not been united in considering these titles to be authoritative, inspired Scripture — scholars such as Calvin, H.C. Leupold, Merril Unger, and R.D. Wilson are a few of the many who have not.  The overwhelming majority of believers have seen them as at least fairly reliable and accurate traditions, but there does not appear to have been a consensus, down through the centuries, on the question of inspiration among Bible-believing Christians.

To claim inspiration is to claim canonicity, preservation, inerrancy, and authority.  We see evidence that might be consistent with Biblical preservation, but not that which would be consistent with Biblical canonicity.  Too many Christians have said and continue to say, “It becomes us to speak with diffidence….”  We would have to declare the legal verdict, “Not proven.”  The Scriptures contain no direct attribution of inspiration to the Psalm titles, and the testimony of the Spirit through the church is cautious.

The antiquity of the Psalm titles (they obviously pre-date the Dead Sea Scrolls, and almost certainly go back to before the Exile, very near the time of writing of the Psalms) means that they are likely to be accurate when they cite the authorship of a Psalm.  There is every likelihood that they are true when they give historical context to a Psalm, and every likelihood that this historical context may help us understand the Psalm better.  If they were false, it seems hard to believe that a providentially working God would have allowed them to remain as closely associated with His Word as they have, and we have conclusive evidence (as Pastor de Bruyn has cited) that some of them, at least, are historically accurate.

However, reverence for Scripture, and the fearful responsibility of saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” compels us to great caution in attributing inspiration to these Psalm titles.  In the Old Testament, a false prophet, one who claimed that his words were inspired by God when they weren’t, was to be put to death.  To claim inspiration is a very serious matter.

We live in an age when it is sometimes treated as a light thing to claim prophetic authority.  We would be better to keep our “thus saith the Lord” statements to those which are indisputable, the clear canon of Scripture to which the Holy Spirit has attested down through the centuries.  I appreciate Pastor de Bruyn’s writing and position on many topics, and I commend his desire to accept ALL of Scripture, but the Psalm titles have not had the attestation of the Spirit that we see with the rest of Scripture.  It’s not enough to say, “I think those are Scripture.”  To endorse as Scripture something which the church, historically, has been reticent to accept as inspired is highly doubtful.  The canon of Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation.

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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13 Responses to What About Those Psalm “Titles”?

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jon

    I’m just catching up on some of your older posts. There is a book by E. W. Bullinger on the Psalm titles, “The Chief Musician, or studies in the Psalms and their Titles.” Bullinger follows the teaching of someone else (can’t remember who) who espouses the view that de Bruyn is writing about. A major source of the theory is Habakkuk 3. Bullinger is worth reading. I wouldn’t say that he is conclusive, but he is interesting. When you go through the psalms and divide the titles the way he suggests it does put them into interesting settings. Bullinger also gives exegetical meanings for the obscure words, as I recall.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thanks, Don, I didn’t know about Bullinger’s role. He seems to have built on Thirtle’s work (that de Bruyn cited), according to Thirtle’s wikipedia page. Do you know if he added any further support to Thirtle’s argument? Have you seen his book? £19 on Amazon looks a little scary. 🙂

      I’m not sure the theory of splitting the titles stands, but it’s not a great concern of mine. If someone really thinks they are inspired, though, as de Bruyn argued, the best argument for that is that God providentially preserved them down through the centuries in the text. That is problematic for the view, then, that He preserved them (or part of them) in the wrong place (at the start of the Psalm rather than the end). That’s why I see a contradiction between his two arguments.

      Ultimately, I don’t care much whether someone thinks Thirtle’s idea is sound, which is why I didn’t spend much time on that part of the question. My concern is the idea that we can simply decide that we think something is inspired. That seems to me to open a dangerous can of worms. It’s not the question of Psalm titles that bothers me, it’s the precedent.

      Furthermore, no one really acts as if the musical instructions are inspired and thus authoritative. Psalm 46 is to be sung by female voices (“Alamoth”), perhaps soprano. Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress” as a version of the Psalm, so if you’ve ever sung it in a group of men, you’ve violated the authoritative title, I guess. 🙂

      I just find the whole “I think it is inspired” approach somewhat sloppy and dangerous. Which is surprising from de Bruyn, actually, from what little I’ve read of him — he’s not typically sloppy.

    • Kashif Sohail (Pastor) Pakistan says:

      I have read that agree sir he followed J W Thirtle the amazing work on psalms I didnt read ever.

      • Thirtle’s work is extremely sloppy. For example, he tries to apply the Psalm 9 heading “almot labben” ‎ עַלְמ֥וּת לַבֵּ֗ן to Psalm 8. “almot” ‎ עַלְמ֥וּת means “virgins” or “hidden things”. “labben” ‎ לַבֵּ֗ן means “for /of/ through the son”.
        Many insert a space between “al” and “mot” and then translate it (wrongly) “upon the death of the son”, but let’s assume it is right.
        Thirtle then says “ben”, son, refers to “‎ הַבֵּנַ֡יִם” champion, which Goliath is called in 1Sam 17:4,23. Then he imagines that Psalm 8 has to do with the death of Goliath.
        You can read Thirtle’s book online here:

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Hello, Steven, I apologise for this getting stuck in moderation. The blog was dormant for a long time.

        Thank you for the comment, and the link, that’s useful.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Good point re the preservation of the titles in the wrong places. Certainly has to be added into the mix when thinking about this. Yes, Thirtle is the guy that Bullinger works off of.

    And yes, Bullinger is pricey. I do have the book. Maybe you could find it used?

    I do like Bullinger. He tends to shy away from musical instruments, as I recall (the book is at the office, no internet there…) He goes into word studies and derives meaning from the words or their etymology, etc. Can’t remember it all.

    Regardless, there is, I think, some profit in thinking about the psalm titles in Bullinger’s fashion. In certain cases they make interpretation much easier (if the theory is correct).

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      What a wise idea (no Internet at the office, I mean).

      OK, you’ve dragged me into this theory discussion against my better judgment, so I’ll give you one of my “complaints” about it, and you can tell me if Bullinger answers it. Look at Psalm 46. “To the chief musician for the sons of Korah, a Song upon Alamoth,” or taking out supplied words/punctuation, “Chief musician sons Korah upon Alamoth.”

      Alamoth is the plural of alma, “virgin” or “young woman” (not wanting to open a can of worms on Is. 7 here, though). Perhaps the music went very high so you wanted sopranos. In any event, “Alamoth” here certainly appears to be part of the musical instruction, right? So that would make “for the sons of Korah” part of the musical instruction (under the Thirtle/Bullinger theory), and thus the entire title actually belongs with Psalm 45 according to them.

      If we therefore assume that “for the sons of Korah” is part of a musical instruction subscript, then we go back just a few Psalms to 42, and we find “To the chief musician, Maschil, for the sons of Korah.” Since this one concludes with “for the sons of Korah”, we can safely conclude (under the theory) that the entire title is actually a subscript for the prior Psalm, and therefore “Maschil” is a word which makes its home within subscripts, rather than titles.

      Now that we’ve established the proper home for “Maschil” we go to Psalm 32, which says, “A Psalm of David, Maschil”. Since Maschil is subscript, “A Psalm of David” must be subscript, too. And if “Psalm of David” is subscript, we’ve just blown the theory into silliness.

      Now, it’s fixable. You can fix it by deciding that sometimes “Sons of Korah” is part of the title (Psalm 42) and other times part of the musical instruction (Psalm 46 and others). That would solve the problem, I think, then in 42 and everywhere else you can say “Maschil” is actually part of the title. I’m not enthusiastic about it, but it works. Or, you can say that Maschil is usually part of the title, but occasionally (for some reason) was put in the subscript (that’s even more dubious, I think).

      Another way to “fix” the theory is by saying that the titles aren’t inspired, the early scribes didn’t consider them inspired, and when they copied them they weren’t as careful as they were with the inspired text, so the word order could easily have been jumbled in a few cases. Then, you don’t have to worry about trying to reconcile the kind of stuff I just went through.

      The best way, in my view, is to say, “That’s interesting, but if it is really true and matters, how come it was forgotten for thousands of years, and why, once Thirtle/Bullinger came out with it, didn’t a whole swath of believers and scholars say, ‘YES! That explains it!'” I guess the argument is, “Novelty always makes me suspicious anyway, and why isn’t the Lord leading people to accept this?” That’s not conclusive, of course, but it makes me suspicious.

      So, my argument is probably full of holes, and I’m just too daft to see them. 🙂 But you could colour me agnostic on the theory, leaning very skeptical.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Actually, I think Bullinger would make “For the choir director, according to Shoshannim” the subscript of 44 and “A Maskil of the Sons of Korah, a song of love” the superscript of Ps 45. I don’t think the theory prevents words like Maskil being in the title. I’ll try to remember to check when I get to the office today.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      OK, that sort of works, but it’s arbitrary, isn’t it? Sometimes it is “for the Sons of Korah” when your theory wants it to be musical instructions but it is “of the Sons of Korah” when you want it to be a title.

      But if , as you say, the superscript of 45 is “A Maskil of the Sons of Korah, a song of love,” how can the subscript (from what I’d call the title of 46) be “To the chief musician for the sons of Korah upon Alamoth”? Is it a teaching of the sons of Korah for the Sons of Korah? Although looking at the two Psalms, I guess I could understand where the female voice might fit better with Ps. 45 than with 46.

      Now that we’re into this, I’ll probably bug you until you look it up and see what E.W. says. 🙂

  4. Don Johnson says:

    Ok, here’s Bullinger on Maschil:

    “Unlike the Michtam Psalms, these thirteen Maschil Psalms seem to be Public rather than Private. That is to say, they are specially characterized as being for Public instruction, after the character of the ‘Homilies’ of the Church of England.

    “The word is from ____ (sakal), to look at, scrutinize, to look well into any thing (1 Sam 18.30). Hence the noun will mean understanding arising from deep consideration, discernment (Prov 13.15, Neh 8.8). Hence the Septuagint rendering ____ (suneseos) understanding or ___ _____ (eis sunesin), for understanding. It is our old verb to skill.

    “In view of this, the general idea that it means to play skillfully seems trivial to the extreme. But the commentators, being tethered by tradition, cannot get beyond the length of their tether, and can see nothing but music.

    “But the moment we look at the Psalms themselves our attention is fixed upon the very first of these (Psalm 32), and, on looking more closely into it, shall soon see that we have the basis of all true instruction in the knowledge of how or how sin is to be put away and forgiveness enjoyed.

    “In verse 8 we have the scope expressed: —

    ‘I will instruct thee,
    And teach thee in the way that thou shouldest go …’
    ‘Be not as the horse or the mule, which have no understanding.’

    “And Psalm 45.10:–

    ‘Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear.’

    “Here we have meaning and sense which accords well with the word Maschil, which appears in the title; but has no connection whatever with music or musical instruments.” [pp.85-86]

    That should give you a sample of how Bullinger makes his points. Your point about him being unnoticed on this point is a strong one. One would think that if he was right many others would have adopted his views.

    Nevertheless, I found his study to be interesting.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thanks, Don. I think his assessment of the import of “Maskil” is very good. I’d imagine there’s a lot of benefit in his study even if you end up disagreeing on his division of the titles. He went in for some things like a version of the “soul sleep” teaching, but he was obviously a diligent student.

  5. David says:

    Hello, Jon,
    An interesting caveat on this discussion is that some traditions include what the English Bibles call “titles” as verse 1 of the Psalms and all the subsequent verses are shifted down by one number. I know for certain that the Russian Bible (in several translations/versions) does this.
    But in general I like your approach. It’s something that I appreciated from reading Spurgeon’s “The Treasury of David.” He quoted several sources saying one way or another. (In other words, it isn’t clear in a lot of cases.)

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, David. My apologies, this got lost when the blog went silent. You make a very good point, that there are places where the titles are generally considered part of the Bible. I believe it is also true in the Czech and Polish Bibles. As far as I’m aware, however, there’s been no real consensus on the matter.

      The discussion above about the Thirtle / Bullinger theory just demonstrates further that there’s not a consensus. I think it would be hard to simultaneously hold to that theory, to the view that the Psalm titles are inspired, AND to a Biblical view of the preservation of Scripture.

      I’m not sure it makes a huge difference to anyone whether we consider these Psalm ‘titles’ to be Scripture or not, but I do think we need to be careful about asserting Divine origin of anything without considering how the Scriptures tell us to recognise Divine words.

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