Psalms post/superscripts

The superscripts or titles of the Psalms in the Old Testament have always been quite a puzzling thing. The differences in text between the Masoretic and Septuagintal traditions notwithstanding, the meanings of individual words and phrases continue to elude us, and suggestions for their meanings appear to still be as numerous as the commentators thereon. Aside from these issues of meaning, however, there is the simple issue of the arrangement of these “blurbs,” which some have proposed should actually be split into titles or superscripts, and postscripts or colophons.

In 1904, James William Thirtle managed to notice the key to how these superscripts and postscripts were arranged in the simple example of Habbakuk chapter 3:
Habbakuk 3.1a: A prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth.
Habakkuk 3.19c: To the leader: with stringed instruments.

The superscripts appear to describe (for the most part) genre, authorship and sometimes an historical setting, while the postscripts describe (for the most part) musical directions. There is some occasional overlap (see the list below), but the exceptions appear rather to prove the rule. Thirtle’s entire work, The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained has been put online (thankfully!) by Dr Ted Hildebrandt of Gordon College. Although Thirtle spends quite a bit of time on somewhat passé attempts at deciphering the obscure language of the Psalm superscripts and postscripts, his system of re-arranging the “titles” of the Psalms as partly postscripts of a preceding psalm and superscript of the following is unassailable, based as it is upon the plain example in Habbakuk. Oddly enough, despite its application in the formerly rather popular study Bible called The Companion Bible, edited by E. W. Bullinger (among other things a long-neglected and fascinating example of rhetorical criticism of the entire Bible, and a stunning example of typography), and particularly in light of the relatively recent article by Bruce Waltke, “Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both” (JBL 110/4 [1991], 583-596), which entirely accepts Thirtle’s premise regarding the reapportionment of the titles and indeed augments it with further evidence, this solution has yet to become more widely known or applied in Bible publishing. As Waltke says, “New data further corroborate his hypothesis, and no proof has been justly lodged against it” (op. cit. 585). I highly recommend Waltke’s article, which adds a modern lustre to Thirtle’s hypothesis and brings comparative and contrastive ancient Near Eastern examples (Egyptian and Babylonian, respectively) to the table. His vindication of Thirtle’s hypothesis is solid.

The only mass-produced Bible that I’m aware of utilizing Thirtle’s method of correctly parcelling out these titles as postscripts and superscripts is the above-mentioned Companion Bible. This is quite a shame, as it’s such a simple and obvious solution, which really does make better sense in the Psalms once applied. It particularly solves several problems within the titles themselves, as you’ll notice in the list below. In any case, for the last twenty-odd years, with every new Bible, one of the first things I do with it is to make a small mark showing the separation in the Psalms’ titles between the postscript of the former psalm and the superscript of the following.

In the list below, I’ve listed the postscripts and superscripts according to the NRSV text. Putting the Hebrew on the same line properly is something that this blog software doesn’t seem to want to do, so we’ll just have to deal with the English at this point. In the list “Postscript 3” and “Superscript 4” indicate that the current “title” to Psalm 4 should be apportioned with the “Postscript 3” material as the postscript to Psalm 3, and the “Superscript 4” material as the superscript or title to Psalm 4. The list covers only those “titles” in the Psalms which require such reapportionment; not all do.

Postscript 3: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 4: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 4: To the leader: for the flutes.
Superscript 5: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 5: To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith.
Superscripts 6: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 7: To the leader: according to The Gittith.
Superscript 8: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 8: To the leader: according to Muth-labben.
Superscript 9: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 10: To the leader.
Superscript 11: Of David.
Postscript 11: To the leader: according to The Sheminith.
Superscript 12: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 12: To the leader.
Superscript 13: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 13: To the leader.
Superscript 14: Of David.
Postscript 17: To the leader.
Superscript 18: A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.
Postscript 18: To the leader.
Superscript 19: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 19: To the leader.
Superscript 20: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 20: To the leader:
Superscript 21: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 21: To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn.
Superscript 22: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 30: To the leader.
Superscript 31: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 35: To the leader.
Superscript 36: Of David, the servant of the LORD.
Postscript 38: To the leader: to Jeduthun.
Superscript 39: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 39: To the leader.
Superscript 40: Of David. A Psalm.
Postscript 40: To the leader.
Superscript 41: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 41: To the leader.
Superscript 42: A Maskil of the Korathites.
Postscript 43: To the leader.
Superscript 44: Of the Korathites. A Maskil.
Postscript 44: To the leader: according to Lilies.
Superscript 45: Of the Korathites. A Maskil. A love song.
Postscript 45: To the leader. Of the Korathites. According to Alamoth.
Superscript 46: A song.
Postscript 46: To the leader.
Superscript 47: Of the Korathites. A Psalm.
Postscript 48: To the leader.
Superscript 49: Of the Korathites. A Psalm.
Postscript 50: To the leader.
Superscript 51: A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Postscript 51: To the leader.
Superscript 52: A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
Postscript 52: To the leader: according to Mahalath.
Superscript 53: A Maskil of David.
Postscript 53: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 54: A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”
Postscript 54: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 55: A Maskil of David.
Postscript 55: To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths.
Superscript 56: Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
Postscript 56: To the leader: Do Not Destroy.
Superscript 57: Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.
Postscript 57: To the leader: Do Not Destroy.
Superscript 58: Of David. A Miktam.
Postscript 58: To the leader: Do Not Destroy.
Superscript 59: Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.
Postscript 59: To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant
Superscript 60: A Miktam of David; for instruction, when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.
Postscript 60: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 61: Of David.
Postscript 61: To the leader: according to Jeduthun.
Superscript 62: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 63: To the leader.
Superscript 64: A Psalm of David.
Postscript 64: To the leader.
Superscript 65: A Psalm of David. A song.
Postscript 65: To the leader.
Superscript 66: A Song. A Psalm.
Postscript 66: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 67: A Song. A Psalm.
Postscript 67: To the leader.
Superscript 68: Of David. A Psalm. A Song.
Postscript 68: To the leader: according to Lilies.
Superscript 69: Of David.
Postscript 69: To the leader.
Superscript 70: Of David, for the memorial offering.
Postscript 74: To the leader: Do Not Destroy.
Superscript 75: A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.
Postscript 75: To the leader: with stringed instruments.
Superscript 76: A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.
Postscript 76: To the leader: according to Jeduthun.
Superscript 77: Of Asaph. A Psalm.
Postscript 79: To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant.
Superscript 80: Of Asaph. A Psalm.
Postscript 80: To the leader: according to The Gittith.
Superscript 81: Of Asaph.
Postscript 83: To the leader: according to The Gittith.
Superscript 84: Of the Korathites. A Psalm.
Postscript 84: To the leader.
Superscript 85: Of the Korathites. A Psalm.
Postscript 87: A Song. A Psalm of the Korathites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth.
Superscript 88: A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
Postscript 108: To the leader.
Superscript 109: Of David. A Psalm.
Postscript 138: To the leader.
Superscript 139: Of David. A Psalm.
Postscript 139: To the leader.
Superscript 140: A Psalm of David.

Note especially how the former crux interpretum of the title of Psalm 88 is neatly resolved, with the first phrases of the title recognized as the (slightly repetitive of the title) postscript of Psalm 87, and only the final phrase properly belonging to the superscript of Psalm 88, “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.” Note also the parallel between the postscript of Psalm 55, “To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths,” and the content of Psalm 55.6-7:

And I say, ” O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah

If, as is generally supposed, “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” was a well-known song, to the tune of which this Psalm was intended to be sung, as noted in the postscript, then the appearance of a reminiscence of the theme of this song is not surprising. It it certainly supportive of the Thirtle and Waltke scheme. In any case, this should provide food for thought. On my part, I’m completely convinced, and have been for a number of years, precisely because of the uncontaminated Habakkuk chapter 3 example. Read the Waltke article for more details, particularly the Egyptian comparanda. It would be nice that after more than a century, Thirtle came to be more generally recognized as having proposed the correct answer.

8 Replies to “Psalms post/superscripts”

  1. I may do that, but Waltke seems to have presented everything in Thirtle, with even more. Waltke’s article is rather just a “Yeah! Me, too!” kind of thing. When you look at the Thirtle book, most is a presentation of the Psalms with the titles/colophons distributed according to his plan, and some questionable interpretations of the obscure musical terms in the Psalms. The actual meat of the work is only a very few pages. Two strikes and a home run, I guess. I’ll have to read your Psalms intro. I downloaded it and then got distracted! We should lobby for this to be implemented in Bible printings from now on. There’s really no excuse not to.

  2. I am trying to get a copy of Thirtle’s work on the Psalms which is why I got onto this website. Now I am here I will make a few comments. He was at one time a Christadelphian, a movement owing its existence to the labours of Dr John Thomas M.D. 1805-1871. He rediscovered the Ancient Faith of the Apostles, recognizing through diligent Bible study that the popular doctrine of the immortal soul was a fable inherited by Christendom from paganism, Plato, Egypt, Babylon and the like. That the dead know not anything …in that very day his thoughts perish. (Eccl. 9.5, Pslm.146.4). The true Bible hope is the resurrection of the dead (Acts 20.6), when Christ comes to judge the quick and the dead. Only the responsible will be raised, namely those who have an intelligent understanding of the divine plan and purpose for the earth. Transkyania is a fiction. As far as this planet is concerned, God hath given it to the children of men, but intends to break their rebellion and apostasy, destroy their corrupt enterprises, and establish the reign of Christ and the saints to last for a thousand years (see e.g. Hbk.3, Zech.14, Rev.16, Rev.5, Rev.20). These are amongst some of the things Dr John Thomas discovered in confutation of clerical wisdom proved to be a cloven hoof.
    It strikes me that one of the most imprtant things to establish for a student of the Psalms, is the historical context or background of the Psalm, i.e. when and under what circumstances it was written. This the brings it alive, as it lets us into the thoughts of the psalmist under particular stresses or confronting paticular enemies or contentious political, moral and spiritual issues. Many of them are the thoughts of Israel’s King David, others of Moses or Solomon or the bringing of the Ark to Zion, particular moments in Israel’s history, which provide a universal moral and spritual message for every age and generation relating to the purpose of the Creator through the chosen people, the Jews and their Messiah. Many of them are Messianic in their import, reflecting the suffering, and glory of Christ, his battles against his enemies and conquests on his return. Seen in this way they become a beacon of Hope to the downtrodden and despised.
    The opening Psalm (echoing Genesis 1-3) sets the scene as to the character and destiny of the godly man, and the corresponding fate of the the wicked. The closing two Psalms conclude the drama. “To execute vengeance opon the heathen, and punishments upon the people: to bind their kings with chains, and theor nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all the saints. praise ye Yahweh.”

  3. can you please give me a typed example of how to type a manual suprscript behind a quote reference scripture, ex.
    (John 25:14)2.
    My question is should the superscrpt number(2) be typed behind the parenthesis , within the parenthesis or before the number 2 superscript number?
    Blessings and thanks

  4. The correct manner of typing superscripts after or before a paranthesis depends on how the paranthesis is being used. So:
    Hammond says (in his exhaustive work2) that “….
    Whereas: End” (Hammond)2.
    Note: Can’t find how to turn the figures into superscripts in this box.

    I have copies of both of Thirtle’s works.

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