Putting the Psalter Together: How the Superscriptions Tell the Story

bibleIn canonical studies on the Psalms (i.e., studies that read the Psalter as one unified book, intentionally arranged to communicate a message of messianic hope), Jim Hamilton has provided a helpful reading of the Psalter by paying attention to the superscriptions of the Psalms. Because this Sunday’s message will depend heavily on the superscription in Psalm 20 (“to/for/about David”), I have asked Jim if I could share a large section of his explanation of the Superscriptions and how they relate to the whole of the Psalms.

The following excerpt is taken from his excellent survey of the Bible, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. (You can find more about his book here, with ideas for incorporating it into your Bible reading).

The songs of the Hebrew Bible are not to be read as abstract poetic installments in the world literary register. Rather, the songs are to be read in light of the story the Old Testament tells. The more detailed superscriptions invite readers of the Psalter to compare the song at hand to the Old Testament narratives referenced by the superscription. Often this locates a psalm at a specific point in the Old Testament narrative, and the song functions as a commentary on the narrative. . . .

The Psalms are presented as five books: book 1, Psalms 1 – 41; book 2, Psalms 42 – 72; book 3, Psalms 73 – 89; book 4, Psalm 90 – 106; book 5, Psalms 107 – 50. . . .

This discussion of the Psalter will seek to trace out the implicit story line that seems to be reflected in the arrangement of the Psalms, the titles that accompany them, and some of the relationships between individual songs. Some preliminary observations on the superscription in the Psalter and the arrangement of the songs will put us in a position to follow the story.

Only book 5 of the Psalter contains more songs than book 1: book 1 has forty-one Psalms and book 5 has forty-four. This is significant because of the heavily Davidic nature of book 1. Thirty-eight of book 1’s 41 Psalms have a superscription that names David; the remaining three psalms (Psalms 1, 2, and 10) have no superscriptions at all. David is also prominent in book 2, where his name occurs in the superscriptions of eighteen of book 2’s thirty-one psalms. The final psalm a book 2, Psalm 72, is addressed “To Solomon,” and it concludes with the notice, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended” (Ps 72:20).

Some superscriptions contain information alluding to events in Old Testament narratives, but these are largely confined to Books 1 and 2 (see the superscriptions to Psalms 3, 7, 9 NKJV, 18, 30, and 34 in book 1, and in Book 2 see Psalms 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, and 63).  There is no historical information in the superscriptions in book 3, while three Psalms in book 4 contain what appeared to be statements about when the song was to be sung (“ for the day of the  Sabbath” in Psalm 92; ”for thanksgiving” in Psalm 100; and “when he faints and before Yahweh pours out his complaint” in Psalm 102). The only historical notice in book 5 is found in the superscription to Psalm 142.

These observations on the superscription give the impression that books 1 and 2 provide poetic commentary on the life of David down to the transition to Solomon, the despair over the end of the Davidic line at the end of book 3 in Psalm 89 indicates that the seventeen songs of book 3 sing the story of Solomon to exile, with Psalm 74 and 79 reflecting the violation of the temple (see Pss. 74:3–8; 79:1).

Only two names are mentioned in the superscriptions to the 17 songs in book 4: Moses and Psalm 90 and David in Psalms 101 and 103. Psalm 102 mentions, “the one who is afflicted” in its superscription, and situated between the mention of David in 101 and 103, this recalls David’s affliction. The psalms of book 4 seem to respond to the exile at the end of book 3 by pointing back to Moses, celebrating the fact that Yahweh reigns, remembering David’s path or affliction to exaltation, and recalling Yahweh’s past faithfulness to Israel. All this serves to inspire hope that through the judgment of the exile, Yahweh might again save his people for his own glory.

This hoped-for-salvation appears to be what is celebrated in the forty-four Psalms of book 5. Psalms 108–10 have Davidic superscriptions, and Psalm 110 sings the triumph of what appears to be a new David, one who will rise after the exile scene in book 3 and the period of waiting endured through book 4. In book 5 this new David sees Yahweh crush the head of his enemy (110:6). The response to the victory of the new David can be seen in the “hallelujah!”! superscriptions to Psalms 111–13, and the praises continue through Psalm 118. Interestingly, in Psalm 118 the king enters the gates (118:19–26), then in Psalm 119 he extolled the blessing of the Torah. The Song of Ascents that follow in Psalms 120 –134 appear to herald the return from exile made possible by the triumph of the new David. A “hallelujah” follows in Psalm 135, and Yahweh’s enduring steadfast love is the refrain of Psalm 136. Psalm 137 blesses the one who will rise to crush the heads of the seed of the serpent (137:8–9), and then Psalms 138 – 45 all mention David in their superscription as the new David leads a chorus of praise to Yahweh, which culminates in hallelujahs! Psalms 146–50 each begin with that happy word. If this reading of the story line of the Psalms is correct, it has profound implications for understanding not only the book of Psalms but also what the songs reflect of Old Testament theology, as well as the interpretation of the Psalms seen in the New Testament. (276–279)

I am convinced Hamilton’s reading of the Psalter is fundamentally correct, and when we preach from the Psalms we must give attention to the individual Psalms and their placement in the Psalter.

The superscriptions are given to guide us through the majestic terrain of Israel’s redemptive history—moving from David in the Old Testament to David in the New. As Hamilton concludes, “The Psalms, then, recount the history of Israel from David to the exile, and then they look beyond the exiled to the new David will arise and lead the people back to the land.”

As you read and study the Psalms, may you rightly see how they fit together. And to do that, let’s not forget the superscriptions. They provide a wealth of commentary on what God has given us in the unified book of the Psalms.

For a meager attempt at trying to put the Psalms together in one sermon, see last month’s message, “Seeing Christ in the Psalms.”

Soli Deo Gloria, ds