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:
- 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.
- 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.