Common Concepts

Acrostics. “Acrostic” is a literary form in which the first letters of consecutive lines form a pattern. In alphabetic acrostics the pattern is the alphabet (the first line begins with the first letter of the alphabet, the second line with the second letter, etc.). Other forms of acrostic might spell out a message or a name (for instance, the scribe who composed the work or the deity being honored). There are a number of acrostics in the book of Psalms (9–10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145). Psalm 119 is the most complex in that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is represented by eight consecutive lines. All Hebrew acrostics in the Bible are alphabetic acrostics. The seven examples of acrostics in Mesopotamian literature are name/sentence acrostics (since Akkadian was syllabic, there was no alphabet and, therefore, no alphabetic acrostics) and generally date to the first half of the first millennium. Egyptian examples offer numerical sequences or complex messages that involve both horizontal and vertical patterns. They are more dependent on puns to accomplish their stylistic objective. Acrostics depend on writing and therefore would not be composed orally. They are intended to be read, not just heard, because of the importance of the visual element. This is especially clear in the Babylonian examples, where a variable sign needs to be read with one value in the poem but a different value in the acrostic. Some of the Babylonian examples also contain a pattern in the last sign of each line. Another variation is found in those examples where the acrostic is repeated each stanza.

Afterlife. Sheol is the Hebrew word for the netherworld. Though it may be considered an act of judgment for a person to be consigned to Sheol from life, it is not in itself a place of judgment to be contrasted with a heavenly destiny of rewards. The word is sometimes used as a synonym for grave because the grave was the portal through which one entered the netherworld. Besides “Sheol” the Psalms also frequently refer to “the pit.” This type of terminology occurs as a variant term for the netherworld as early as the Sumerian period. This is entirely logical given the understanding of the grave (a pit dug in the earth) as the entry to the netherworld. The Israelites believed that the spirits of the dead continued to exist in this shadowy world. It was not a pleasant existence, but it is never associated with the torment of hellfire in the Old Testament (the imagery seen in Is 66:24 is not associated with Sheol). It is not clear that in Israelite thinking there were any alternatives to Sheol. People who were spared from Sheol were spared from it by being kept alive rather than by going somewhere else. There was at least a vague idea of somewhere else to go seen in the examples of Enoch and Elijah, who avoided the grave and presumably did not go to Sheol. But those texts are very unclear about what the other alternative was. Lacking specific revelation to the contrary, Israelite beliefs conformed generally to many of those current among their Canaanite and Mesopotamian neighbors.

A composite sketch of Mesopotamian beliefs would suggest that the dead needed to cross a desert, mountains and a river, and then descend through the seven gates of the netherworld. Though described in Mesopotamian literature as a place of darkness where the inhabitants were clothed in bird feathers and ate dust, kinder accounts were also current. The denizens of this shadow world also were sustained by the offerings presented by those who were still alive, and they enjoyed some light as the sun god passed through the netherworld when it was night in the land of the living so he could rise in the east again the next morning. The rulers of the netherworld, Nergal and Ereshkigal, were assisted by a group called the Anunnaki. Despite the depressing descriptions, no one wanted to be turned away from the gates because the alternative was to be a wandering spirit with no access to funerary offerings.

There are some expressions in Psalms that have often been interpreted as a reference to an afterlife in God’s presence, though other explanations are possible. Some psalms speak in terms of awakening and seeing God’s face (11:7; 17:15). In the context of Psalms this is an anticipation not of heaven but of an experience in the temple, as 27:4 and 63:3 make clear. This phrase occurs with the same meaning in Akkadian, where, for instance, Ashurbanipal longs to look at his god Ashur’s face (in the temple) and bow before him. In a hymn to Ishtar it is said that the sick man who sees her face revives. In more general terms the Babylonian sufferer in Ludlul Bel Nemeqi says that he calls to his god, who does not show his face, yet he hopes that the morning will bring him good things. The psalmist also expects his deliverance to come when he awakes in the morning (139:18). A second expression concerns being redeemed from Sheol (49:15). This only means that the psalmist has been spared from death for the moment, not that he will go to heaven instead of Sheol (compare the wording and contexts in 18:16–19; 30:2–3). Again, comparable wording occurs in Mesopotamian literature, where Marduk is considered one who restores life from the grave (see comment on 30:3) or gives life to the dead. Gula, the goddess of healing, states that she can return the dead from the netherworld. These are expressions not of resurrection but of healing. For discussion of resurrection, see comment on Daniel 12:2.

Creation in Psalms. The praise of Yahweh as the Creator in Psalms is focused mainly on his ordering and maintenance of the cosmos. His control and his sovereignty are indicated as he shows his mastery of the heavens, clouds, sun, moon, stars, earth, seas, thunder and lightning. As in the rest of the ancient world, in Israel it is more important who is in charge than where things ultimately come from. Nevertheless, Yahweh is also seen as the originator of every part of the cosmos. This also extends to the inhabitants of the cosmos from people and down through the various species of animal life, no matter how obscure. The poetic language of the Psalms does not hesitate to adopt the imagery of the cosmos that is common to the worldview contained in the mythology and old-world science of the ancient Near East. Though today in our scientifically enlightened world, some would desire to find in the Psalms a scientific accuracy garbed (disguised) in poetic language, such an approach poses a methodological dilemma. The Israelite audience was familiar only with its own cultural perspectives. Since these were not informed by revelation (e.g., God had not told them that a round earth revolved around the sun and was held in orbit by gravity), they would have closely resembled those common in the ancient world. If this is so, then the words, images and ideas used in the text communicated to them what to them was reality, not just poetic language. Nevertheless, God’s sovereign control of nature is the point.

Whether his control of the storm is depicted in the imagery of God armed with lightning bolts and riding on clouds or is understood in his control of high and low pressure systems and the jet stream, the point of his sovereignty remains unchanged. God did not inform them concerning the science of meteorology so that he could give them an “accurate” idea of his control of the weather. He used the understanding that they had. In the same way God did not inform them that the organ they actually used for thinking was the brain, not the heart or the kidneys, as the ancient world believed. Instead he affirmed his interest in their minds, using the understanding that they had of physiology. The ancient worldview concerning the cosmos is evident in many passages of the Old Testament. For a sampling see the comments in Genesis 1:6–8; Deuteronomy 32:22; Job 9:6, 7; 22:14; 26:7, 10; 36:27; 38:1–31; Psalms 8:3; 24:2; 104:1–35; Proverbs 3:19–20; and Isaiah 40:22. There is no instance in which the text supersedes the science of the day or assumes a more sophisticated view of science.

Lament. Laments may be personal statements of despair, such as that found in Psalm 22:1–21, dirges following the death of an important person (David’s elegy for Saul in 2 Sam 1:17–27) or communal cries in times of crisis, such as Psalm 137. The most famous lament from ancient Mesopotamia is the Lament over the Destruction of Ur, which commemorates the capture of the city in 2004 b.c. by the Elamite king Kindattu. For more information on this latter category see the sidebar in the book of Lamentations. In the book of Psalms more than a third of the psalms are laments, mostly of an individual. The most common complaints concern sickness and oppression by enemies. There are a number of technical terms that describe the lament literature in Mesopotamia, and many of them are connected to incantations (that is, magical rites are being performed to try to rid the person of the problem). The petitions that accompany lament are very similar to those found in prayers from the ancient Near East. They include requests for guidance, protection, favor, attention from the deity, deliverance from crisis, intervention, reconciliation, healing and long life.

Praise. Praise psalms can be either individual or corporate. Over a third of the psalms in the book are praise psalms. Corporate psalms typically begin with an imperative call to praise (e.g., “shout to the Lord”) and describe all the good things the Lord has done. Individual praise often begins with a proclamation of intent to praise (e.g., “I will praise you, O Lord”) and declare what God has done in a particular situation in the psalmist’s life. Mesopotamian and Egyptian hymns generally focus on descriptive praise, often moving from praise to petition. Examples of the proclamation format can be seen in the Mesopotamian wisdom composition Ludlul Bel Nemeqi. The title is the first line of the piece that is translated “I Will Praise the God of Wisdom.” As in the individual praise psalms, this Mesopotamian worshiper of Marduk reports a problem that he had had and how his god brought him deliverance.

Private worship. How much of the worship connected to Psalms was associated with the annual festivals at the temple and the pilgrimages made to those festivals? How much of it was associated with sacrifices that were being made? A large percentage of the people who lived in Israel lived many miles from the temple. Only those who lived in close proximity to Jerusalem could visit there regularly (though there would be no reason to if one had no sacrifice that needed offering). The observant Israelite male might have traveled there three times each year as the law required (see comments on Ex 23:15–17), but there is little evidence in the text that such observance ever became commonplace in the Old Testament period. As a result many Israelites would perhaps only see the temple a few times in their life. Certainly, then, there must have been other contexts in which worship could take place. The synagogue is generally thought to be a postexilic invention at the earliest, and the high places throughout Israel were disapproved in the ideal world of biblical religious practice. Sabbath was not clearly designated as a day set aside for worship, though at the temple in Jerusalem, at least, there were worship activities that took place on that day. We know that Israel’s worship centered around sacred space (the temple), sacred times (Sabbath, festivals), sacred rituals (sacrifice) and sacred words (prayers). Additionally we know that the focus of worship was preserving the holiness of God’s presence, preserving the Law and the covenant, and recognition of who God was and what he had done. Nevertheless, we have very little idea of the routine of worship in the individual’s life.

Retribution principle. In its most basic form the retribution principle contends that the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer. On a national level this principle is built into the covenant, with its potential blessings and threat of curses. On the individual level it had been inferred that this was necessary in order for God to maintain justice. Since the Israelites had only the vaguest concept of the afterlife, and no clear idea of judgment or reward in the afterlife, God’s justice could only be accomplished in this life. The Israelites believed that if God were to be considered just, rewards and punishments in this life would be proportional to the righteousness or wickedness of the individual. These beliefs had also then led Israelites to believe that if someone was prospering, it must be a reward for righteousness; and if someone was suffering, it must be a punishment for wickedness. The greater the suffering, the greater the wickedness must be. Because of the retribution principle, suffering had become a source of shame. The authors of Babylonian and Assyrian magical texts describe this same principle of retribution, but since they were not completely convinced of the justice of the gods, it was not as big a theological issue in Mesopotamia.

Temple worship. The temple was not a structure designed for corporate worship. It was a structure to provide a place for God to dwell in the midst of his people. It had to be maintained in holiness and purity so that God’s continuing presence could be vouchsafed. The priests existed to maintain that purity and to control access. The temple idea was not invented so that there would be a place to offer sacrifices. Rather, several of the sacrifices existed as a means of maintaining the temple. God’s presence was the most important element to preserve. The most important acts of worship were those which recognized his holiness and worked to maintain the holiness of his sacred space. For this reason, words of worship often included acts of worship. Though corporate worship at times took place at the temple, it was not a place that was set up for worship to take place. It was designed to adequately house God, and consequently worship there was inevitable. The word most often used for worship in the Old Testament also means “service.” In the ancient Near East most people saw worship as serving the needs of the gods by providing them with food (sacrifice), clothing (placed on the idols) and shelter (luxurious and ornate temples). The God of Israel did not have needs, but it was still appropriate to serve him, as, for instance, the priests and Levites did.

Festivals in the ancient world centered around cycles of nature (New Year’s or fertility festivals), mythological events (enthronement of deity conquering chaos), agricultural events (harvest) or historical memorials (dedications or deliverances). They celebrated what deity had done and sought to perpetuate deity’s action on their behalf. Often these elements were combined. They usually were celebrated at a holy place and therefore often required pilgrimage. The major religious festivals and holy days celebrated throughout the ancient Near East were for the most part agriculturally based. While daily offerings were made to the gods, there were “patron days” in specific towns and villages for locally honored deities as well as occasions when the national god(s) were processed from one town to another, “visiting” shrines and promoting the general fertility and well-being of the land. The single most important of the Mesopotamian festivals was the Akitu or New Year’s celebration. The monarch assumed the role of the chief god, while the high priestess served as his consort and represented the chief goddess. Their performance of a series of intricate sacred rituals and sacrifices were designed to please the gods and thus insure a prosperous and fertile year ahead. During the year, based on a lunar calendar, New Moon festivals were celebrated, as were the events of the agricultural calendar (the coming of the rains or annual flood waters, plowing and harvesting). Some rituals grew out of the changing of the seasons, such as the mourning for the “dying god” Tammuz (or Dumuzi), who could only be released from the underworld through the tears of devotees (see Ezek 8:14). At these corporate festivals individuals were generally little more than spectators. It was not unusual for there to be festivals of one kind or another six or eight times during a month.

Common Metaphors for God

In the ancient Near East it was a common practice to multiply names and titles for deity, sometimes using metaphors, other times just descriptive phrases. At the end of Enuma Elish the champion and new head of the pantheon, Marduk, is praised by having his fifty names declared. Some of the most intriguing, along with part of the description connected to them, include Namtilla, the one who gives life; Namru, the pure god who purifies the path; Agaku, who created human beings to set them free; Shazu, director of justice; and Agilima, who built the earth above the water. Below are a few of the common metaphors used as titles for Yahweh in Psalms.

Horn (18:2; 75:10; 89:17; 92:10; 112:9; 132:17; 148:14). This metaphor is only used for God in one place in the Psalms (18:2). In ancient Near Eastern iconography, rays or horns on the crowns of deities symbolize power. These are related to the divine glory (Akkadian, melammu) that emanated from the gods and especially from their heads or crowns. So, for instance, one text makes reference to the god Enlil “whose horns gleam like the rays of the sun.” It was common in Mesopotamia for kings and gods to wear crowns featuring protruding or embossed horns. Sometimes the sets of horns were stacked one on another in tiers. The winged lion from Ashurnasirpal’s palace has a conical crown on its human head with three pairs of tiered horns embossed on it. Both in the Bible and the ancient Near East, then, the awe-inspiring power of the deity could be invested in humans, particularly the king.

Judge. The judge had the responsibility of making decisions concerning legal cases that were brought before him. In the cultures of the ancient Near East the king represented the highest court of appeals from a human standpoint. In many cases, however, there was simply insufficient evidence to allow a human being to arrive at a confident decision. As a result, cases were often settled by deity, thus giving rise to the concept of deity as the judge who sees all the evidence and gives an informed and just decision. There were three significant mechanisms by which this system worked. First was the oath. An oath was taken in cases where physical evidence was unavailable or responsibility for loss was uncertain (Ex 22:10–13; Hammurabi). In this way God was solicited as a witness, and the person taking the oath laid himself open to divine justice. Second was the oracle. In this situation a priest would oversee a process by which the deity would be questioned concerning the innocence or guilt of the accused party. In the ancient Near East omens were generally used in oracular cases. An animal would be sacrificed and the entrails examined to determine what the deity’s verdict was (favorable meant innocent; unfavorable meant guilty). In Israel the Urim and Thummim were used for this purpose. The third mechanism by which deity was involved was trial by ordeal. “Ordeal” describes a judicial situation in which the accused is placed in the hand of God using some mechanism, generally one that will put the accused in jeopardy. If the deity intervenes to protect the accused from harm, the verdict is innocent. Most trials by ordeal in the ancient Near East involved dangers such as water, fire or poison. When the accused was exposed to these threats they were in effect being assumed guilty until the deity declared otherwise by action on their behalf. In each of these situations, God was understood to be the judge who was rendering verdicts. Beyond these more formal contexts, deity was also understood as the judge in the sense that he maintained justice in society. This meant taking up the cause of the unfortunate, the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed. In Ugaritic literature, Baal is sometimes given the title “Judge,” but more frequently it is associated with Yamm (“sea”), who is regularly called “Judge River” (perhaps alluding to the river ordeal by which judgments were passed). In Akkadian literature the sun god Shamash is the god of justice and therefore frequently cast in the role of divine judge. In Egypt, Amon-Re, also the sun god, was seen as responsible for justice.

King. In the ancient Near East the role of king was attributed to the chief national god, the head of the pantheon. During the Old Testament period this included El or Baal for Canaanites, Marduk for Babylon, Chemosh for Moab, Milcom for Ammon, Ashur for Assyria, Dagon for Philistia, Ra for Egypt, Qos for Edom and Hadad for Aram. The rule of these gods in the divine realm was exercised over the other locally worshiped gods (as head of the divine assembly). In the human realm these gods would be closely identified with the human king as they were involved together in military exploits, building projects (especially temples) and maintaining justice in society. All of the areas that the human king was seen as responsible for, the divine king was ultimately responsible for. Military success meant that the rule of the deity was extended over other national deities whom he had conquered. Thus Sennacherib tried to intimidate Hezekiah by listing the gods that had fallen before him (see comment on 2 Chron 32:11). In the days of Ahab, Yahweh had to compete with Baal for kingship of Israel (see comment on 1 Kings 17:1). In the days of Samuel the people had lost faith in Yahweh’s kingship and sought to replace him with a human king (see comment on 1 Sam 8:7). In Psalms, Yahweh is repeatedly proclaimed as king. Whether or not this is associated with a formal enthronement festival in Israel (see comment on Day of Yahweh in the sidebar in Joel), Yahweh’s position as king recognizes his sovereignty over individual crises and the events that drive them, over national disasters, over the nations and their gods, and over the cosmos and its operation.

Redeemer. In Israelite society the redeemer’s (go’el) role was fulfilled by a kinsman who helped recover the tribe’s losses, whether those losses were human (in which case he hunted down the killer), judicial (in which case he assisted in lawsuits) or economic (in which case he recovered the property of a family member). He was a family member who protected the interests of the family when there had been some intrusion on the rights or holdings of the family. This is the term most frequently used in Psalms. A second term (pdh) refers in the legal sphere to freeing someone from standing claims against them or from obligations they have incurred. So redeeming the firstborn involved freeing him from obligation by paying an agreed price. In the Old Testament neither these words nor any of their synonyms refer to redeeming or saving someone eternally from their sins. Psalm 130:8 is the closest, but even that refers only to freeing from the obligations of punishment the nation had brought on itself. In both Ugaritic and Akkadian this verb is used with deity as the subject.

Rock (18:2, 31; 19:14; 28:1; 31:2; 42:9; 62:2; 71:3; 78:35; 89:26; 92:15; 94:22; 95:1; 144:1). There are two different Hebrew words that are used for this divine title, with no discernable difference in their usage. The title does not occur as such in the literature of the cultures surrounding Israel, but we know that it was used because it can be found as the theophoric element in Aramaic and Amorite personal names. A rock could be a foundation for a building, it could provide protection (to hide behind) or shade (to sit beside), and it could be impervious and unmovable. All of these qualities made it an apt metaphor for describing God.

Shepherd. In the ancient Near East both kings and gods were often portrayed as shepherds of their people. Just as the sheep were totally dependent on the shepherd for their care and protection, people depended on the king and the gods. Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun god and the god of justice, is praised as being the shepherd of all that is below. The Egyptian sun god, Amon, is described as a shepherd who brings his herds to pasture, thus providing food for his suffering people.

Shield (3:3; 5:12; 7:10; 18:2, 30; 28:7; 59:11; 84:11; 144:2). In battle the type of shield would be chosen to suit the type of combat one expected to encounter. If siege was being laid to defend city walls, one would want a body-length shield that would provide protection from arrows and sling stones raining down from the walls. In contrast, hand-to-hand combat in the open field would favor a small maneuverable shield that could be used to ward off thrusts by sword or spear. Nearly all of the examples in Psalms refer to the latter (all of the above except 5:12). The metaphor of deity as a shield is familiar from the ancient Near East in, for instance, a prophetic oracle given to the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, who is assured by the goddess Ishtar that she will be a shield for him. Ishtar, as the goddess of war, is referred to as “lady of the shield,” and her planet, Venus, takes the Akkadian word for shield, aritu, as one of its names.

Stronghold/fortress (9:9; 18:2; 27:1; 31:2; 37:39; 43:2; 46:7; 48:3; 52:7; 59:9, 16, 17; 62:2, 6–8; 71:3; 91:2; 94:22; 144:2). There are three different Hebrew terms that are used in conveying this metaphor, with the occurrences divided fairly evenly. The range of meaning that they cover extends from naturally defensible locations like a rocky outcrop or a cave, to garrison forts, to fortified cities and even to fortified citadels within cities. In an Assyrian text the king is identified as a fortress to the people. There is no sign of this metaphor for deity in Egyptian or Akkadian literature.

Warrior. In the divine warrior motif, the deity is fighting the battles and defeating the deities of the enemy. In Assyria, Nergal is the king of battle, and Ishtar is viewed as a war goddess. The Canaanite Baal and the Babylonian Marduk are divine warriors. In this worldview human warfare is viewed simply as a representation of warfare among the gods. The stronger god would be victorious regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the human combatants. Thunder and lightning were considered to regularly accompany the presence of a deity, often in a battle setting. From the Sumerian Exaltation of Inanna, to the Hittite myths about the storm god, to the Akkadian and Ugaritic mythologies, the gods are viewed as thundering in judgment against their enemies. Baal is depicted as grasping a handful of thunderbolts. In Psalms, Yahweh is sometimes portrayed as the divine warrior coming to the aid of the psalmist against his enemies. Additionally, however, he is depicted as doing battle against the forces of cosmic chaos. Ancient mythologies often portrayed gods in battle against chaos, resulting in the harnessing and organizing of the cosmos. Both Marduk (Babylonian) and Baal (Canaanite) subdue the sea, which is personified in their divine foe (Tiamat and Yamm respectively). The cosmic conflict motif depicts the principal deity overcoming cosmic forces (usually forces of chaos like Death or Sea) to bring order to the cosmos. In the ancient Near East these forces are usually personified as gods, but Psalms preserves a certain ambiguity on that count.

Musical Terms

As would be the case with any hymnal, the text of the book of Psalms also contains instructions on orchestration, which tune to use to perform a psalm, the appropriate tempo, as well as performance markings or rubrics such as pauses, breath marks and the use of crescendo and decrescendo modulations. In modern music much of this information is written in Italian or Latin. A musician or singer must learn these technical terms in order to perform the music properly. However, two thousand years from now the meaning of many of these terms may well be lost to memory. It is not surprising therefore to discover that we cannot translate and do not fully understand some of the technical terms that appear in the superscriptions of the Psalms.

Alamoth. Title of Psalm 46. This term only appears in Psalm 46, but it is also mentioned in 1 Chronicles 15:20, where temple musicians are to play their harps “according to Alamoth.” By comparison with the Greek word ılumos, which means small flute, this may refer either to a high-pitched voice or to playing on the upper register of the instrument.

Death of the Son. Title of Psalm 9. This is an incipit or set of cue words for a tune now lost. There is some difficulty translating ˒alumot. The LXX renders it “the strength of youth.” The translation in the niv is apparently based on connection with the Ugaritic god Mot, “death” (see Ps 48:14).

Do Not Destroy. Title of Psalms 57–59; 75. This is likely an incipit, the opening words of a text or song title (possibly based on Is 65:8). Accompanied by miktam, it may also serve as a shorthand means of forbidding the destruction or removal of an inscription or text.

Doe of the Morning. Title of Psalm 22. This short phrase is a cue given to the director of the psalm to perform it according to a popular tune, “The Doe of the Morning.” It would be a common practice to set new words to an old, familiar tune. Some have suggested a tie to the Ugaritic god s̆ḥr and thus an ancient origin for the song.

Dove on Distant Oaks. Title of Psalm 56. The phrase is a cue for a song title and tune for the performance of this psalm. There is some uncertainty in whether to translate ˒elim as “doves” or “gods.”

Flutes. Title of Psalm 5. It is suggested that the term translated “flutes” here (neḥilot) refers to “lamentation-pipes” such as those that are depicted in Egyptian art of professional mourners. Note also the instruments used by the ecstatic prophets in 1 Samuel 10:5, which may have been flutes. The phrase “to the flutes” may also be a cue for the tune of the psalm.

Gittith. Title of Psalms 8; 81; 84. Some interpreters tie this term to a musical instrument, possibly associated with the Philistine city of Gath. It is also possible that it is a cue word signifying a rhythm, a song or a dance patterned after the work of grape treaders in the winepress (Hebrew gat; see Is 16:10; Jer 25:30).

Higgaion. 9:16. This term may be an orchestration cue to the musicians. It has the meaning “utterance” or “musings” (see Is 16:7 for its use as “mourn”) and thus may indicate a type of glissando or fluttering sound, perhaps by string accompaniment.

Jeduthun. Title of Psalms 39; 62; 77. Since this is the personal name of one of David’s temple singers (1 Chron 25:1–6), it is possible that its appearance in three superscriptions is simply a reference to that person or possibly to a style of performance attributed to him. It may also be a cue to a tune associated with Jeduthun.

Lily of the Covenant. Title of Psalms 60; 80. This is a set of cue words or an incipit for a song title whose tune is now unknown. See also Psalms 45 and 69 and 2 Chronicles 4:5 for the use of this word for “lily.”

Mahalath. Title of Psalm 53. Based on 1 Kings 1:40 this term probably refers to a type of flute or pipe used in celebratory processions. Since it can also be translated as “sickness” (1 Kings 8:37), it is possible that the instrument was used in healing rituals.

Mahalath Leannoth. Title of Psalm 88. The word le˓annoth means “to afflict” and therefore may be added here to coincide with the theme of penitence in Psalm 88. Since this term may be a form of the Hebrew word ˒anah, “to chant” (Ex 15:21), its use along with Mahalath, “flute,” could therefore be a reference to an antiphonal line of music for more than one instrument or alternating chanted and instrumental lines.

Maskil. Title of Psalms 32; 42; 44; 45; 47; 52–55; 74; 78; 88; 89; 142. Since it appears in so many psalms and has the meaning “to comprehend” (from Hebrew sakal), this may have been a general label for a set of didactic or penitential songs (see the possible connection to mourning in Amos 5:16–17). It may also refer to an “artfully crafted” song or argument, with uplifting words, exhorting the people to praise God (see 2 Chron 30:22).

Miktam. Title of Psalms 16; 56–60. This term always appears accompanied by “of David.” The LXX translates the word miktam as stelographia, “inscription carved on a monument,” and thus the word may represent formal declarations or an official song or ritual performance. It may also refer to a song or declaration that was both inscribed on stone and recited publicly in the temple.

Petition (Hazkir). Title of Psalms 38; 70. The root verb, zakar, appears in Leviticus 2:2 and Numbers 5:16 in reference to a cereal offering accompanied by frankincense. Similarly, in Isaiah 66:3 it refers to an offering of frankincense. Elsewhere it is used to refer to invoking God’s name (Ex 20:21; Amos 6:10). Thus it may refer to a public ritual including both an offering and a petition for God’s aid.

Prayer (Tephillah). Title of Psalms 17; 86; 90; 102; 142. This is a term for a psalm designed to call on the people or on a sinner to pray to God for forgiveness (see 1 Kings 8:38). The song takes the form of a lament, recognizing the right of God to chastise the people, and bids them to pray while wearing mourning clothes and engaging in fasting (Ps 35:13).

Psalm (Mizmor). Title of Psalms 47–51; 62–68; 76; 77; 80; 82–85; 87; 88; 91; 98; 100; 101; 108–110; 139–141; 143; 145. This technical term appears fifty-seven times in the superscriptions of Psalms and is accompanied by “of David” thirty-five times. Because of its relation to the Hebrew verb “to prune a grapevine” (Is 5:6), some commentators suggest it refers to a stringed instrument whose strings would be plucked in much the same manner as a vine is snipped by the thumbnail of a vinedresser. However, comparison with the Akkadian zamaru, “to sing,” may point to mizmor simply being a generic term for a song or for a song accompanied by stringed instruments.

Selah. Psalms 3; 4; 7; 9; 20; 21; 24; 32; 39; 44; 46–50; 52; 54; 55; 57; 59–62; 66–68; 75–77; 81–85; 87–89; 140; 143. This is the most ubiquitous of the technical terms in Psalms. It appears seventy-one times in thirty-nine psalms and three times in Habakkuk 3, but never in a superscription. Since it is impossible to determine if the word’s placement is original or is the result of editors or copyists, its exact purpose remains uncertain. Among the suggestions for its meaning is “interlude,” indicating a break in the text or performance. It is also possible that it is a cue for the choir to repeat a litany or affirmation of a statement in the psalm or for a particular instrument, possibly a drum, to be beaten to keep the rhythm or emphasize a word.

Sheminith. Title of Psalms 6; 12. It is possible that this technical term can be translated as “eight-stringed instrument” and that the reference here is either to the use of this device or possibly to the use of the eighth string. This upper register would provide a high pitched sound, imitating the voices of female singers (see 1 Chron 15:21).

Shiggaion. Title of Psalm 7. Based on comparison with the Akkadian s̆egu, “to howl or lament,” it is likely that this term (also found in Hab 3:1) is a label or indicator of a psalm of lament. The word in Hebrew means “to go astray” and in this context may refer either to the subject of the song or poem or perhaps to an exaggerated rhythm or enthusiastic chant.

Song (Shir). Titles of Psalms 46; 48; 65–68; 75; 76; 83; 87; 88; 91; 108. This is simply a generic term for “song,” appearing many times in the Psalms and elsewhere (Ex 15:1; Num 21:17; Deut 31:19). It is placed both in the superscriptions and in the body of some psalms (69:30; 78:63) and is sometimes accompanied by mizmor. As such it must have had both a general as well as a technical meaning within the body of religious music, for instance in the title “Songs of Ascent” (Ps 120–134).

Songs of Ascent. Title of Psalms 120–134. Medieval and rabbinic tradition held that these fifteen psalms were to be sung on the fifteen steps leading up from the court of the women to the court of the Israelites in Jerusalem’s postexilic temple. More likely, however, is the explanation that they were chanted or sung by religious pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem or “Zion” during the three major religious festivals each year (see the comment on Ex 23:17).

Stringed Instruments. Title of Psalms 4; 6; 54; 55; 61; 67; 76. It is unclear whether a specific type of stringed instrument is indicated by this term, neginot, “to run over the strings.” However, reference to the lyre played by David in 1 Samuel 16:16 and the string player in 2 Kings 3:15 and in the Egyptian Tale of Wenamon suggest this is a hand-held instrument (see also Is 23:16).

Tune of Lilies. Title of Psalms 45; 69. This is an incipit or set of cue words for a tune now unknown. It may also be an instruction to accompany the song with a lily-shaped instrument played with either six strings or six bells. It is possible the term for “lily” derives from the Akkadian s̆us̆s̆u, “a shock of,” but that cannot be confirmed.

Wedding Song. Title of 45. Psalm 45 contains the celebration of an Israelite king’s marriage to a princess from Tyre, possibly Ahab to Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31). It only appears here but may have been applied to documents solemnizing the marriage.