Psalms and Hymns: Preach the Psalm Headings

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The psalm is a hymn that is sung to an instrument, either a lyre or a psaltery. According to the spiritual or analogical sense, the poem is a contemplation of truth that happens not only in the mind but also in the music as with measured harmony. The psalm denotes actions that are done according to right reason; so as one sings he follows the way of an effective life; he sings who follows a life of contemplation.[1]

Didymus the Blind (ca. 313–398 AD) was an Alexandrian exegete whom Jerome admired. Origen influenced Didymus in his exegesis and theology. Origen interpreted, taught, and preached from the Psalter’s headings. Other Church Fathers who accepted the psalm headings as Scripture included Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Augustine, Diodore of Tarsus, and Pseudo-Athanasius. Listen to Jerome’s (ca. 347–420 AD) insistence upon the significance of the psalm headings:

There are many who insist that the titles do not belong to the psalms but who really do not know why they hold such a view. If the titles were not found in all the manuscripts—Hebrew, Greek and Latin—their position would be tenable. Since, however, there are titles in the Hebrew books, . . . I am amazed at the implication that there can be anything in Scripture without reason. If it be true that “not one jot or one title shall be lost from the Law,” how much more shall not a word or a syllable be lost?[2]

Yes, it is true that many of the Church Fathers interpreted the psalm headings allegorically (Origen is a good example of that) and performed a large amount of eise-Jesus in doing so. But, that’s what they did with the main body of the psalm as well. Note, however, that they treated the headings and the body the same—as God-revealed Scripture. At this point, if you find yourself doubting the inclusion of the Psalter’s headings in inspired Scripture, check out my personal blog defending their inspiration and authority.

Sing to the LORD!

The psalm headings exemplify the responsibility of believers to “sing to the LORD” (Psalm 7 heading; Psalm 13:6; Psalm 96:1). References to the use of musical instruments (Psalm 4 heading; Psalm 5 heading) preserve the forms of Tabernacle and Temple worship that called upon Israel to

Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with lute and harp!
Praise Him with tambourine and dance;
Praise Him with strings and pipe!
Praise Him with sounding cymbals;
Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! (Psalm 150:3–5 ESV)

Conduct an Orderly Worship Service

Addressing and sending a psalm to “the choirmaster” (Psalm 4 heading) speaks of orderly management of the worship service as well as of the music ministry itself. Compare that with Paul’s exhortation regarding the early church services that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). When he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, David appointed musicians to play instruments and to sing thanksgiving to the LORD (1 Chronicles 16:4–7). They then sang parts of Psalms 96 and 105 (1 Chronicles 16:8–36). Verse 36 concludes with a brief description of the corporate worship that took place: “Then all the people said, ‘Amen!’ and praised the LORD.”

Musical worship, instrumental and vocal music, personal worship, and orderly corporate worship—the psalm titles testify to all of these. We readily preach Paul’s instructions on the character, tone, and order of church worship from 1 Corinthians 14. Why not do the same from the psalm headings in the Psalter? Part of the problem arises from the confused state of the psalm headings as preserved since about the fifth century B.C. To restore the psalm headings to their proper relationships we must place the musical instructions at the conclusion of the previous psalm and leave the literary and historical information at the head of each psalm.

Let’s look at just one example—the current heading on Psalm 56:

To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. A Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

First, place the delivery instruction and the tune title at the conclusion of Psalm 55 (as the subscription). Second, leave the rest as the heading (superscription) of Psalm 56. Note immediately how “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” matches David’s prayerful wish in Psalm 55:6–7,

And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah . . .”

Every good minister of church music knows that the hymns and songs that he selects for a service should match and enhance the theme of the pastor’s sermon. Such correlation helps to direct the minds of the congregants to that theme both before and after the sermon. Preaching the psalm headings presents the preacher with an opportunity to instruct the congregation in the reasons for music ministry and the necessity of having responsible leadership in that area of the church’s ministry. The psalm headings exemplify just such a carefully organized and purposeful musical ministry.

Preach the Historical Context of a Psalm

Too often in our preaching we address the historical background only when psalm headings involve events in David’s life. However, the lives of other psalmists bear careful examination. “The Sons of Korah” stand out as worthy of attention when we preach from Psalms. They produced, among other songs, Psalm 49. No pastor should preach this psalm without reading and drawing attention to the incident of Korah in Numbers 16:1–40. With the backdrop of the event involving Korah, Psalm 49:10–14 take on a heightened sense. Korah and his partners in rebellion perished like the beasts that fell into the La Brea Tar Pits! On the one hand, the rebels rejected the Lord as their Shepherd and Moses as His under-shepherd. On the other hand, they discovered what it means to have death as their shepherd–what a picture!

You see, Numbers 16 is not the end of the story. In Numbers 26:10–11 we find out that God graciously and mercifully delivered Korah’s sons from the destruction that their father experienced. In other words, they were a remnant of divine grace. Korah’s sons had learned the meaning of divine redemption through no merit of their own. Those sons and their descendants (belonging to the tribe of Levi and the line of Kohath, Numbers 26:1) continued to serve in the ministry of the Tabernacle and even in the Temple. Scripture identifies Heman “the singer” as one of those descendants of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:33–38). Parallels between Numbers 16 and Heman’s Psalm 88 demonstrate that Korah’s descendants retained the awful memory of God’s judgment on Korah. But, those descendants loved the Lord’s wonderful grace and relished the themes of salvation (including the new birth, Psalm 87) and redemption (Psalm 87). As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story”—for our purpose, a story filled out by the psalm headings.

Preach the Word. Preach all of the Word. Preach the Psalms. Preach the psalm headings.

Footnotes

[1] Didymus the Blind, “Fragments on the Psalms 4, Prologue,” in J.-P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Graeca, 166 vols. (Paris: Migne, 1857–1886), 39:1165.

[2] Jerome, “Homily on Psalm 5,” in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 134 vols. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1947–2017), 48:15.

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