Christian Pilgrim


14. Psalm Titles

The titles to the Psalms are part of inspired Scripture. However, their translation into English has been much abused, particularly in the area of seeming to condone the use of  musical instruments.

Firstly, it is obvious from the title "A Psalm" or "A Song" that the Book of Psalms is what is referred to in the phrase "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritiual Songs" mentioned in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. These passages therefore give no warrant for the use of uninspired songs in the worship of God. That is clear.

Secondly, we encounter quite a few psalms with the title "To the Chief Musician." Now far from this warranting instrumental music in the worship of God, this could simply mean the "cantor," to use the language of the synagogue, i.e. the man who leads the singing. It does not mean the organist, or anyone leading the singing by use of a musical instrument, which we can so easily think because of our familiarity with such like.

The third type of psalm title are those Hebrew words which are not directly translated. There are only two of these, namely "Maschil" and "Michtam." These purely indicate the mood of the psalm, and therefore the type of tune to sing it to. i.e. "Maschil" means "song of contemplation" and "Michtam" is an uncertain term, but clearly indicates the mood of the psalm.

The fourth thing we may encounter are the Hebrewisms which occur in the titles of some of the psalms. In some modern translations, these are translated as, for example, "on stringed instruments" and "on the flute" etc. I tabulate all of these below, indicating which psalm they belong to and the usual translation:

On Neginoth [On stringed instruments] Psalms: 41, 54, 55, 61, 67

Upon Nehiloth [For flutes] Psalm 5

Upon Sheminith [On eight] Psalms: 6, 12

Upon Gittith [For the harp] Psalms:8, 81

Upon Muthlabben [dying] Psalm 9

Upon Aijelath Shahar [On the deer of the dawn] Psalm 22

Upon Jonath-Elemrechokin [Concerning the silent dove afar off] Psalm 56

Al Taschith [Do not destroy] Psalms: 57, 58, 59, 75

Upon Shoshannim [for the lilies] Psalms: 45, 69

Upon Shushan-Eduth [On the lily of the testimony] Psalm 60

Upon Shoshannim-Eduth [On the lily of the testimony] Psalm 80

Upon Mahalath [on Mahalath (seems to be the title of a popular song)] Psalm 53

Upon Mahalath-Leannath [On mahalath, to make humble] Psalm 88

It is obvious from these that the vast majority do not refer to musical instruments at all, but seem to be simply the name of the tune. If we take these out of the above list, only three remain:

On Neginoth: This is usually translated "on stringed instruments," but whilst it can have the meaning of plucking strings (like "psallo" in Greek, where we get our word "psalm" from), it can also have the meaning simply of "a song."

On Nehiloth: This is usually translated "for flutes" but the word means "nostril," so does not necessarily signify a musical instrument.

Upon Gittith: This is usually translated "for the harp," but it can also mean an inhabitant of Gath, and could simply be a title of a tune.

This therefore solves the problem of the psalm titles. People see the word "upon" or "on" and immediately think of playing "on" or "upon" a musical instrument. The Authorised Version of the Bible specifically and correctly avoids any reference to musical instruments in the psalm titles, and prefers to keep the Hebrew word untranslated. This is correct, as it is then obviously a tune title, rather than instruction for the use of a musical instrument.