Psalm Titles: Inspiration and Thirtle’s Theory. Pt 1.


“The delightful study of the Psalms has yielded me boundless profit and ever-growing pleasure.”[1] These words, written by the great pastor and theologian Charles Spurgeon could be sincerely echoed by myriads of believers of all contexts and cultures. With the rest of Scripture, the book of Psalms is the very word of God. It expresses the mind of God. However, it is unique in that it also expresses with particular clarity the hearts of His saints in all manner of life situations; in the heights of joyful praise, and the very depths of despair. It has a peculiar way of teaching God’s people that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. We might elaborate endlessly on the various ways in which the book of Psalms uniquely contributes to the edification of the saints, but that is not our precise purpose here. In what follows we will consider a particular aspect of the book of Psalms which has been sorely neglected since the inception of the Church; namely, the Psalm titles. When properly understood as to their nature and placement in the Psalter, the Psalm titles help to shed a measure of light on the passages to which they properly belong, subsequently increasing the benefit that we derive from our study of the Psalms.

Two points will be argued. First, in this post it will be argued that it is plausible that the Psalm titles are “theopneustos”; a part of the text of Scripture proper, and the very word of God. Second, in the next post arguments will be offered in favor of a theory propounded by James Thirtle in 1904. Thirtle argued the following:

In a proper arrangement of the material, the lines at the top of a psalm should do this and no more- (1) describe the piece, whether a Song, a Psalm, Michtam, &c; (2) state the author, David, Asaph, sons of Korah, &c; (3) set out the circumstances of it’s composition, as is the case in thirteen historical psalms (Doeg, Ziphites, When Saul sent, &c.); or the object for which it was written (‘To bring remembrance,’ ‘For the Sabbath day,’ &c). Anything not coming within this description belongs to the preceding psalm.[2]

It appears that in the transmission of the psalms, many of the postscripts were partially or entirely removed from the psalm to which they properly belonged, and wrongfully tacked onto the superscript of the following psalm.[3] To give a brief example from the outset for clarity, it appears that the first half of the superscript of Ps 56 “To the Choirmaster: According to the Dove on Far-Off Terebinths” actually belongs to the postscript of Ps 55.[4] This will be demonstrated further below, but a quick comparison of what was just quoted with Ps 55:6-7 where David expresses his desire to have “wings like a dove” so that he could wander “far away” ought to suffice at present.


When considering the importance of the Psalm titles for the interpretation of the psalms, we ought to first establish the relative reliability of the Psalm titles. If the Psalm titles are dubious and unreliable, we have very little reason to waste our time dealing with a theory about their proper placement in the Psalter. The weight which people ascribe to the Psalm titles varies greatly. Some consider them inspired of God.[5] Others would say they are not inspired, but “they contain reliable information.”[6] Many believers, we may surmise, view them no differently than the passage titles added by the editors of the various translations which have absolutely no claim to being a part of the original text. The importance of this issue is difficult to overstate. One need only consider the solemnity of the warnings in the Scriptures to those who would “add” or “take from” God’s word to immediately grasp how high the stakes are in what we are currently considering (Deut 4:2, Prov 30:6, Rev 22:18-19). In dealing with the Psalm superscripts and postscripts, we are dealing with what may be the word of the living God. We ought to tread very carefully, and be slow to speak dogmatically unless we have a high degree of certainty. Because of a lack of certainty, what will be argued here is that it is plausible that the Psalm titles are inspired. It seems prudent, therefore, to leave a dogmatic statement to someone whose research has given them more assurance one way or the other, or to those who live in a time where more conclusive evidence has come to light.

The Current Consensus

The general consensus in the believing community today seems to be that the Psalm titles are uninspired.[7] If you consult your English Standard Version bible you will find that the Psalm titles are set in all caps, seemingly to distinguish them from the rest of the text. If you consult the the Good News Translation, you simply won’t find the Psalm titles; they are not there.[8] In his commentary on the Psalms, John Goldingay notes that there seem to be indications that the psalm headings were later additions to the content of the Psalms.  Operating upon the assumption that it is only the autographs[9] that are inspired, this would mean that the Psalm titles as later additions were not inspired. One of these indications is that some titles “look as if they reflect adaptations of the psalm to new circumstances.”[10] Goldingay cites the example of the “Psalms of Ascents” (Ps 120-134). This title seems to suggest that these psalms were used in pilgrimage, but Goldingay believes that the actual content of these psalms does not support the idea that they were originally written for pilgrimage. He argues further that there are extra headings in the LXX and Qumran Psalter, suggesting a continual development of the headings up to around the time of the close of the Canon.[11]

A Case for the Inspiration of the Psalm Titles

However, the New Testament at the very least indicates the reliability of the Psalm titles, and may actually hint at their being “theopneustos.” Arguing to prove His deity, Jesus asked “‘How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, “sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is He his son (Mark 12:35-37)?” Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, the most often quoted psalm in the NT, and attributing it to David. However, there is nothing in the psalm to indicate that David wrote Psalm 110; nothing that is, except the superscript. It may be argued that Christ is simply speaking conventionally.[12] However, it very well may be that Christ spoke this way because the Psalm titles are theopneustos; the very word of God. Hovland notes, “In the face of the most extreme opposition imaginable, Jesus built a case for his Sonship on the Psalm titles.”[13] Because the text does not indicate on what basis Christ made this association, this statement goes somewhat beyond what is warranted. It must be granted that Christ may have based His statement about the Davidic authorship of this psalm on something other than the title as Hovland himself acknowledges in a footnote.[14]

Acts provides us with a few other examples of Davidic authorship being affirmed in psalms where David’s name is only found in the heading. Acts 1:16-20 speaking of Psalm 69:25, Acts 4:25 speaking of Ps 21:1-2, and Acts 13:35 referencing Ps 16:10 all cite David as the author. With the exception of the Acts 13:35 these also relate that the Holy Spirit was speaking through David. Again, it is quite possible that the reason for the disciple’s confidence about the authorship of the psalms lies in the inspiration of the psalm superscripts.

Further, the poetic superscripts and subscripts found elsewhere in Scripture, which we know are God-breathed, increase the plausibility that those we find in the psalms are likewise inspired. The psalms would not be the only book containing occurrences of God-breathed superscripts and postscripts. Here we will consider Hab 3:1, 19; 2 Sam 22:1 and Isa 38:9, 20.[15] Waltke notes additional occurrences in Ex 15:1; Judg 5:1; 1 Sam 2:1; and Jonah 2:1.

Habakkuk 3:1, 19

This psalm has both a superscript and a postscript. Concerning this psalm, Thirtle wrote,

All down the ages, the Canonical Scriptures have supplied us with a psalm which, standing by itself, claimed to be studied as a model in all it’s various features, literary and musical. That psalm appears in Habakkuk 3. Being alone, it cannot have taken anything from a preceding composition, nor can any concluding words have been misconstrued as belonging to some succeeding composition. It proclaims itself as normal- as a model, a standard psalm.[16]

The superscript deals with compositional matters. It relates the author of the psalm (Habakkuk), and includes the compositional note “according to Shigionoth.” The postscript includes the musical directions “To the choirmaster”, and “with stringed instruments.” As we will see, the inclusion of compositional elements in the superscript, and musical directions in the postscript is the general format for the psalms.[17] Here in Habakkuk, the superscript and postscript are clearly a part of the original inspired text. Thus, we have reason to expect that we might find other inspired superscripts and postscripts.

2 Samuel 22:1

The striking thing about this text is that 2 Sam 22:1 and Psalm 18 are extremely similar. In fact, it appears that “David adapted the psalm as recorded in 2 Samuel and gave it to the choirmaster for liturgical purposes.”[18] Both 2 Sam 22:1 and Ps 18 contain a superscript. The major difference in the superscripts is that Ps 18 begins with “To the Choirmaster”, which as we will argue, actually belongs to the postscript of the prior psalm. Regardless, we have in 2 Sam 22 another example here of a superscript that is clearly inspired, and an almost identical superscript annexed to Psalm 18.

Isa 38:9, 20.

Here in Isaiah we have another example of a superscript with the content Thirtle proposes: the author and the occasion. We read, “A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness (Isa 38:9).” We then find what appear to be musical instructions in a postscript in verse 20 , again matching the content proposed by Thirtle: “The Lord will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD (Isa 38:20).” Waltke notes, “The switch from singular to plural in the last line, together with its independent superscriptions and the radical break between vv. 20 and 21, shows that this hymn, like Habakkuk 3, at one time had a life of it’s own in the temple cultus.”[19]

Waltke also notes the content of superscripts of Egyptian hymns that correlate with the content of the superscripts according to Thirtle’s theory. This may suggest both the antiquity and potential inspiration of the Psalm titles, and that Thirtle is correct in his division of these titles.[20] Further testimony to the ancient nature of the Psalm titles may be found in the fact that the LXX translators found the Psalm titles in already existence, but did not understand them.[21] Thirtle notes, “the key to their comprehension must have been lost very early.”[22] Sam McFall writes, “It would appear that the superscriptions were ancient by the time the Septuagint came into being, because the translators did not understand many aspects of the superscriptions. Instead of translating they transliterated or else made a guess as to their meaning.”[23] To all of this may be added the fact that, as Raymond Dillard writes “there is no textual evidence that the psalms ever lacked titles.”[24] Considering the testimony of the NT, the superscripts as we find them elsewhere in the OT,  the evidence from Egyptian hymns, and the manuscript evidence it is virtually certain that the Psalm titles offer reliable information, and plausible that they are “theopneustos.”

[1] Spurgeon, Charles H. The Treasury of David: Containing an Original Exposition of the Book of Psalms, a Collection of Illustrative Extracts from the Whole Range of Literature, a Series of Homiletical Hints Upon Almost Every Verse, and Lists of Writers Upon Each Psalm. Vol. Ps. 1–26. I. Passmore and Albaster, 1870. 5.

[2] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained (Memphis: General Books LLC, 2012), 5.

[3] Waltke. 585.

[4] Waltke. 592-593.

[5] Mike Hovland, “The Inerrancy of Psalm Superscriptions and Thirtle’s Theory.” Paper presented to Dr. Michael Grisanti- OT 796 July 17, 2015. 1.

[6] John MacArthur, ed., The MacArthur Study Bible:ESV Text Edition (2012; repr.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson,1997), 733.

[7] Brevard S. Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971): 137.

[8] Hovland. 3.

[9] Considered here as the documents as they were originally written.

[10] Goldingay, James. Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms). Baker Academic, 2006. 26.

[11] Goldingay. 28

[12] Goldingay. 28

[13] Hovland. 9.

[14] Hovland. 9.

[15] James A. Barrick, “Psalm Inscriptions: Inspired?” Dr.Barrick.Org, June 24, 2016.

[16] Thirtle. 3-4.

[17] Bruce Waltke, “Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature, (The Society of Biblical Literature 100, 1991), 586.

[18] Hovland. 5.

[19] Waltke. 588.

[20] Waltke. 587.

[21] Hovland. 7

[22] Thirtle. 3.

[23] Leslie McFall, “The Evidence For A Logical Arrangement Of The Psalter,” Westminster Theological Journal

  1. 2 (Fall 2000): 227.

[24] Raymond B. Dillard, and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 214.


2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s