Do You Preach the Superscriptions of the Psalms?

For some reason unbeknownst to me, English translations of the Psalms decided not to number the superscriptions of the Psalms. This breaks with other printed practice, since the superscriptions are numbered in printed editions of the Hebrew text as well as the Greek and Latin translations. The verse numbers are not original to the authors of the individual Psalms, nor are they original to the collection of the Psalter. The verse references were added in the middle ages. For some reason, early English translators decided not to number the superscriptions, and they remain unnumbered down to the present. The problem with not numbering the superscriptions is that it gives the impression that they don’t belong with the biblical text.

Not only do the superscriptions go unnumbered, translations often put them in a different font, whether in small caps (such as in the ESV) or a smaller font (such as in the NASB and NIV), but one way or another the superscriptions are marked off as being somehow different from the rest of the text of the Psalm. This is fine, as long as it doesn’t result in the superscription being ignored.

My fear is that many serious students pay as much attention to the superscriptions as they do to the boldface subheadings some editors of modern translations have inserted into the text of the Psalms, that is, none! Concluding that the “real text” of the Psalms is not what the editors have added, serious students skip straight to verse 1, ignoring all that irrelevant prefatory text up top.

Some teachers of the Bible have also presented theological or literary arguments against interpreting the Psalms in light of the superscriptions. Worse still, some modern scholars have invented a whole set of supposed “genres” for Psalms, then their labels become procrustean beds on which the Psalms are made to lie. So instead of interpreting the texts as they stand, taking into account all the textual evidence present, they bring in a controlling theory of how the Psalms are to be classified, then they read the Psalms in light of their theory.

I have no interest in dissecting these arguments except to say this: the choice to ignore the superscriptions of the Psalms is nothing less than a radical text critical decision to exclude from consideration evidence that is in the text. We have no manuscript of the Psalms that lacks these superscriptions. Let me say that another way: every manuscript of the Psalms in our possession has the superscriptions. It is true that there are places where the superscriptions vary from one another, just as there are textual variants all over the rest of the Bible. But we have no warrant at the level of textual evidence to ignore the superscriptions of the Psalms.

These Psalms are not abstract installments in the world’s poetic registry. No, these Psalms are to be interpreted in the context of the canon, and the superscriptions are there to guide readers as to where the Psalms fit in the canonical story.

So here’s my conclusion: Are you a world-renowned Old Testament textual critic who has consciously decided that on the basis of your analysis of the manuscript evidence you cannot accept the superscriptions as belonging to the inspired, original text? Fine. Don’t preach them. But if that isn’t why you don’t preach the superscriptions, then my question for you is this: what reason can you give for ignoring part of the inspired text?

Preach the word! All of it. . .

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Programming note: this post originally appeared as a guest post on Moore to the Point.

11 Responses to Do You Preach the Superscriptions of the Psalms?

  1. Dan Phillips May 9, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    Agreed. Even apart from the textual evidence, the fact that some superscriptions bear no obvious relation to the contents is to my mind a strong argument in favor (i.e. why attach that superscription to that psalm, unless it was original?).

    I’ve had chats with a number of Bible readers in church, who get up to read Psalm ___, and the start with what the Hebrew text calls verse 2. Don’t skip the first verse!

  2. Joseph Justiss May 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    Great Post. Another topic of interest along these lines is whether or not part of the superscript is actually to be read as a post-script of the preceding Psalm as Waltke has argued for here.

    http://www.andywittonline.com/psalter/Waltke%20-%20Superscripts,%20Postscripts,%20or%20Both.pdf

    If his thesis is correct it would also help us understand why the author of the book of Hebrews understood Psalm 8 as containing a reference to the death of the Messiah. If Waltke’s theory is correct then עלמות לבן in the superscription of Psalm 9 is referring to Psalm 8 and could be understood, with only slight amendment as “Concerning the death of the Son”.

    Your thoughts?

    • JMH May 10, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

      What text in Hebrews are you referencing?

      I don’t buy Waltke’s argument,

      JMH

      • Joseph Justiss May 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

        In Hebrews 2:9 he says that the reason Jesus was crowed with glory and honor was because of the suffering of death. Psalm 8 only mentions that the Son of Man was crowned with glory and honor, but it does not say this was because of His having suffered death as the author of Hebrews takes it. So it seems to me he understands Psalm 8 to be a Psalm about the Son’s death somehow. The only thing I can think of is that he is guided by the superscriptions, but I admit there are perhaps other ways of understanding what the author of Hebrews is up to here. I may be reading too much into it, but I don’t know why he seems to use Psalm 8 to support his declaration that Jesus is crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death unless he sees that Psalm as teaching such.

        • JMH May 11, 2011 at 8:55 am #

          I think the author of Hebrews is setting out to reconcile Psalm 8 (you put all things under his feet) with Psalm 110 (sit at my right hand UNTIL I put all things under your feet), and I think he’s explaining the development of these two comings – the first to die and the second to reign.

          It seems to me that his explanation is moving in line with Luke 24 – it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and then to enter his glory . . .

          So I think there are more texts being interpreted here than just Psalm 8.

          Blessings!

          JMH

          • Joseph Justiss May 11, 2011 at 10:36 am #

            The question is whether or not the author of Hebrews sees a reference to Messiah’s death in the phrase from Psalm 8 which reads, “You made him for a little while lower than the angels…” It seems to me, though I admit it is not clear, that he may be suggesting that this is an allusion to Messiah’s death. That is to say, he is saying that the sense in which Messiah was made for a brief time lower than the angels was in the short time he suffered death and burial. Am I reaching here, or is that a possibility in this Heb 2 text? It’s as if he interprets the Psalm as a subtle way of speaking about Messiah’s death in language about “being made lower” than angels.

          • JMH May 11, 2011 at 10:42 am #

            I think that’s just referring to the incarnation, thus the focus on the solidarity between the Messiah and his people in Heb 2:10–18.

          • Joseph Justiss May 11, 2011 at 10:59 am #

            Incarnation implies suffering and death since all humans must face them. Also I’m not sure humans are ontologically lower than angels because we will one day judge them according to Paul, and it is difficult theologically to have the Messiah ontologically less than an angel even for a short period. The author in chapter 1 also goes to great lengths to demonstrate Messiah’s superiority to the angels. I enjoy your sharpening me, I’m just pushing back for sake of refinement. I am trying to get at why the author of Hebrews just straight up declares that the glory and honor Messiah is crowned with is from his faithful suffering of death. It seems like he wants Psalm 8 to support that declaration, and I am trying to figure out exactly how that could be the case without saying he just arbitrarily associated Messiah’s glory and honor with his humble death.

  3. Rajesh Gandhi May 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I appreciate your exhortation to focus on the entire text of Scripture! I’m reading through the Psalms in the LXX right now; your post encourages me to pay more attention to the superscriptions. Thanks.

  4. Corey July 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m having to read Tremper Longman’s “How to Read the Psalms” for OT II right now and I just finished a section on “The Titles” and “Historical Titles.” I found it interesting that Longman concludes that they are not canonical.

    As I was reading this section of the book, I remembered a blog post about this (and thankfully was able to find it again!).

    Thank you for helping me work through this and especially for your concluding question.

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