How Valuable Are the Superscriptions in the Book of Psalms?
IN YOUR Bible reading, you have probably noticed the headings or superscriptions found at the beginning of numerous psalms. These identify the writer, furnish background material, provide musical instructions or indicate the use or purpose of the psalm.
For many centuries the superscriptions were, with rare exceptions, viewed as part of the inspired Word of God. But in the latter part of the eighteenth century their authority came under serious attack. This trend has continued so that most modern scholars question the historical value of the superscriptions. This viewpoint being so prevalent, it might appear that they are of little value. But is this really the case? More importantly, can a wrong view of the superscriptions hinder our getting a better understanding of the Psalms?
An examination of the Bible reveals that introductory material like that in these superscriptions is not unique with the Psalms. Other poetic portions are frequently prefaced by comments much like those in these superscriptions. These introductory remarks are clearly an integral part of the Bible text.—Ex. 15:1; Deut. 31:30; 33:1; Judg. 5:1.
The evidence of ancient manuscripts supports the conclusion that the superscriptions originated either with the writers or the collectors of the Psalms. Even in the Dead Sea Psalms Scroll (dated between 30 and 50 C.E.) the superscriptions are part of the main text.
SUPERSCRIPTIONS ARE HELPFUL
Were it not for the superscriptions, quite a number of the psalms would be more difficult to understand. This is because the superscriptions at times provide just the information we need to locate other scriptures that illuminate a particular psalm.
By considering the background of the Psalms, to which background information the superscriptions lead us, we are helped to appreciate that the Psalms are based on actual happenings. They are more than beautiful poetry. The Psalms depict life as it really is—the joys, blessings, sorrows, fears and disappointments. We are thereby enabled to identify ourselves with the circumstances depicted. And God’s dealings with his servants can prove to be a real source of encouragement and comfort.
A case in point is Psalm 57 sup. According to its superscription, this Psalm pertains to the time ‘when David ran away because of Saul, into the cave.’ In the book of First Samuel we find that David on one occasion hid from King Saul in the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1) and another time in a cave in the wilderness of Engedi. (1 Sam. 24:1, 3) The psalm itself points to the cave in the wilderness of Engedi as the probable setting. Ps 57 Verse six of this psalm reads:
“A net they have prepared for my steps;
My soul has become bowed down.
They excavated before me a pitfall;
They have fallen into the midst of it.”
Yes, Saul and his men were hunting down David. They had, as it were, excavated a pitfall for him. But what happened? First Samuel 24:3, 4 reports that “Saul came in to ease nature” in the very cave where David and his men had concealed themselves. This made it possible for David to kill Saul, if that had been what he wanted to do. Thus, by entering the cave and coming to be at the mercy of David, Saul fell into the very pitfall that he had dug for David.
Like David, Jehovah’s faithful servants today are often plotted against. But, as Saul failed in his attempts to bring David to ruin, they, too, can rest assured that those seeking their injury will fail, getting ensnared by their own schemes.
As revealed in its superscription, Psalm 51 sup deals with an entirely different situation. It concerns the time ‘when Nathan the prophet came in to David after he had had relations with Bath-sheba.’ Since David gained Jehovah’s forgiveness, this psalm can be a real source of comfort to those overtaken in serious transgression. It helps one to appreciate what true repentance is and how one should respond to correction such as was given to David by Nathan. Were it not for the superscription, much of the force of Psalm 51 would be lost.
Even the mere mention of a name in a superscription can be helpful. Psalm 101 sup, for example, is a melody attributed to David. So when reading Psalm 101, we are actually considering King David’s manner of administering affairs of state. Realizing this, we now learn from the Psalm that, as his servants or officials, David selected only faithful persons. He could not put up with arrogant individuals and did not tolerate slander. Daily he was concerned about bringing wicked ones to justice.
How encouraging this should be to us! The permanent heir of King David, Jesus Christ, will likewise be concerned about upholding justice. In fact, he will do so to perfection. Never will the rule of Jesus Christ and his associates become corrupt and oppressive. It is primarily with reference to his kingship that the prophetic words of Psalm 72 apply:
“May he plead the cause of your people with righteousness
And of your afflicted ones with judicial decision.
Let the mountains carry peace to the people,
Also the hills, through righteousness.
Let him judge the afflicted ones of the people,
Let him save the sons of the poor one,
And let him crush the defrauder.
In his days the righteous one will sprout,
Surely if we want to enhance our understanding of the Scriptures, we should never ignore the superscriptions. As opportunity affords, we can locate the historical basis for various psalms in other parts of the Bible. Often this will take us to First and Second Samuel, which Bible books narrate the major events in the life of David, the one to whom the composition of a large percentage of the Psalms is ascribed. The specific events alluded to in the superscriptions can readily be located by using a Bible with cross-references.
The superscriptions are indeed a valuable part of the Holy Scriptures. Both internal testimony and external evidence in the form of ancient manuscripts confirm this. So why not let the superscriptions assist you in getting the full impact of the inspired Psalms? You will be spiritually enriched.