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Interlude: Thirtle’s Theory

I have been among those who committed the error of publicly reading a psalm and omitting to read the title. I reasoned that these titles probably belonged in the same category as the chapter and verse numbers of our Bibles: helpful, but by no means inspired.

I’ve since been divested of that view, and now see these titles as God-breathed, like all Scripture. One sees evidence for this in several ways. For example, the title of Psalm 18 is found within the text of 2 Samuel 22:1, showing the psalm title’s authenticity. It was not a later rabbinic interpolation. Further, some of the psalm titles (e.g. 46 & 58) were merely transliterated by the translators of the Greek Septuagint (c. 300-250 B.C.). This suggests that their meaning had already been lost by the time of the Septuagint, which in turn suggests great antiquity. They are much older than a post-exilic rabbinic commentary. Finally, Scriptures like Luke 20:42 quoting Psalm 110) take the title as true, for nowhere else is it stated that David himself wrote the psalm.

I was recently introduced to the fascinating theory of James Thirtle regarding the psalm titles. To quote the ISBE, Thirtle’s hypothesis is that

…both superscriptions and subscriptions were incorporated in the Psalter, and that in the process of copying the Psalms by hand, the distinction between the superscription of a given psalm and the subscription of the one immediately preceding it was finally lost. When at length the different psalms were separated from one another, as in printed editions, the subscriptions and superscriptions were all set forth as superscriptions. Thus it came about that the musical subscription of a given psalm was prefixed to the literary superscription of the psalm immediately following it.1

Thirtle’s justification for his theory was a study of passages such as Habukkuk 3. In verse 1, a superscription of authorship is given, while in verse 19, a musical subscription is given. The same thing is seen in Isaiah 38:9-20. Thirtle gave evidence for this being the pattern in Hebrew poetry: personal and occasional historical information given at the beginning of the psalm, and the musical instructions given at the end.

In other words, many of our Psalm titles are unfortunate combinations of the musical subscription of the previous psalm, and the superscription of the following psalm. That is, the superscription of Psalm 3 is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” However, the musical subscription of Psalm 3 is found in most Bibles as part of Psalm 4: “To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments.” The superscription of Psalm 4 ought to simply read “A Psalm of David”.

When you follow this theory, it has very interesting, possibly corroboratory, results. For example, Psalm 55:6 speaks of David’s desire to have the wings of a dove. If this theory is true, then the musical subscription of Psalm 55 is “To the Chief Musician. Set to ‘The Silent Dove in Distant Lands’”, while the superscription of Psalm 56 is simply, “A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.”

Another example is seen in Psalms 87 and 88. The tone of Psalm 87 is exceedingly cheerful, while Psalm 88 is among the most mournful in all the psalter. Should Psalm 88 really be entitled “ A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth [Dancings with Shoutings]”? It seems this tone of rejoicing belongs to Psalm 87. Further, this solves the apparent contradiction in the title of Psalm 88 which seems to have the psalm belonging to both the sons of Korah as well as Heman the Ezrahite. Instead, the superscription of Psalm 88 is simply “A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.”

Thirtle’s theory becomes illuminating as you begin to apply it when reading the psalms, and see a number of places where it truly seems to fit. Practically speaking, if we take this to be true, then it does affect how we would publicly read the psalm titles. After all, they’re inspired; the numbers before or after them are not.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

  1. John Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book of,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 5 vols., ed. by James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 4:2487-94. []