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MUSICAL NOTATIONS IN PSALMS

The Musical Notations in the Book of Psalms

 

Charles David Isbell, Louisiana State University

 

 

Readers of the Bible have long been intrigued by the written notations that appear in a puzzling pattern throughout the biblical Book of Psalms. The etymology of several of these notations suggests both meaning and function, while others have denied scholars anything close to a consensus over the centuries. This paper is an attempt to offer a fresh examination of all of the psalmic notations or musical cues for the purpose of linking them with: [a] Psalm titles that deal with the function of a particular composition; [b] what may be gleaned about music composition and performance elsewhere in the Bible; and [c] the identification of types of musical instruments mentioned by biblical authors both in and out of the Psalter in a variety of places and contexts. Only then is it possible to indicate at least in rudimentary form the role that these notations may have performed in the singing of many of the biblical psalms.

            The familiar English name of the book (Psalms) is taken from the Greek word psalmoi, a reference to songs that were sung to some form of (stringed) instrumental music. Another English designation often seen is “Psalter,” derived from Greek psalterion, a zither-like instrument. Both of these Greek terms highlight the musical dimension of the psalms, but fail to do justice to the Hebrew designation, təhillim, a plural noun rooted in the verbal idea of “Praises” (to God). Related words are the hallel psalms familiar to us from the Siddur, and the well known and widely used (even among non-Jews) Halləluyah, “Praise be to YH(WH).” Thus the Hebrew designation comes closer to an accurate description of the content of the psalms, while the Greek terms hint more broadly at the way in which they were performed in early Israelite/Jewish worship.

            While those who actually performed the psalms musically are linked biblically to various guilds of musicians and singers, one distinct feature of the biblical Book of Psalms is its deeply entrenched association by biblical and later traditions with David. In this regard, the sheer persistency of the biblical idea of David as a musician must be respected, underscored by the various descriptions of David in the earliest biblical texts that mention him. [a] Thus, for example, an off-the-cuff remark attributed to the eighth-century prophet Amos parodies those who, “like David invent musical instruments for themselves” (Amos 6:5), assuming even at such an early date that everyone would know David had been a great musician. [b] One version of David’s first meeting with King Saul specifically titles him “a skillful musician” (yodea‘ naggen, I Sam 16:18), a description buttressed by the accounts of his music being used to soothe the depressive moods of the King (I Sam 16:23; 18:10). [c] The record of David mourning over the death of Saul and Jonathan not only depicts David as having composed the poem that serves as their biblical eulogy (II Sam 1:19-27), but specifically notes that David himself, “chanted this lament about Saul and his son Jonathan” (II Sam 1:17). The verbal form “chanted” [yəqonen] comes from the same Hebrew root from which is derived the noun for a lament or a funeral dirge [nah]. Such personal laments are among the most frequent type of poetry found in the Book of Psalms. [d] After his accession to the throne, the personal involvement of David in music and worship was underscored by the report that in the course of transporting the ark up to the city of Jerusalem, “David and all the house of Israel were celebrating in the presence of God with all their strength, with songs, lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets” (see 2 Sam 6:5; 1 Chr 13:8). [e] The witness of the Chronicler to David’s influence on the forms of Israelite worship extends to the tradition that he had appointed “for worship” [la-‘avôdah] both singers and instrumentalists (I Chr 25:1-8).[1]

As noted, the Book of Chronicles not only portrays David as having performed musically himself, but also traces the formation of specific guilds of musicians and singers to the era of David (1 Chr. 6; 15; 16; 25; 29; and 2 Chr 35:15). By the time of the Chronicler, there is explicit notation of the increasing use of music in a formal liturgical setting that seems to have included a set religious calendar for the performance of specific musical compositions. Again, an additional hint of the early presence of such groups may appear again in the eighth-century book of Amos expressed as the prophet’s perception that “the noise of songs” and “the sound of harps” were no longer pleasing to God (see Amos 5:23). Later in that same century, according to the Annals of Sennacherib, King Hezekiah was required to pay a large ransom for the city of Jerusalem, including male and female musicians (see ANET, 288). These guilds may have been in place by or soon after the time of David, as Nahum Sarna argued (EncJud 13: 1317) on the basis of the biblical evidence just surveyed, but their later prominence is undeniable. Thus the list of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel includes 200 male and female singers (Ezra 2:65) as well as 128 “sons of Asaph” (Ezra 2:41). This is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that although no musicians or choirs are mentioned in the biblical record of Solomon’s formal dedication of the Temple (1 Kgs 8),[2] the dedication ceremony celebrating the laying of the foundation of the restored Temple in the sixth century BCE showcases the “sons of Asaph” performing on trumpets and cymbals as well as singing (Exra 3:10-11). 

            Regardless of the era to which one traces the original formation of musical guilds, the technical terms found in the Book of Psalms seem to indicate clearly a well-organized musical component that was integral to worship. Among the musical notations included in the Psalter, a significant number appear to be generic terms that are best characterized as titles.

            Perhaps the most intriguing of these generic titles is təhillah (“a song of praise”), which, although it is applied specifically only to Psalm 145, yet gives its name in plural form, Təhillim, to the entire book at least as early as New Testament times (cf. biblos psalmōn in Luke 20:42 and Acts 1:20). A similar situation is signaled by the word təfillah (“a prayer”), which occurs only in psalms 17, 90, 102, and 142, although its plural form in 72:20 notes that “the təfillot of David are ended,” not only marking the end of what was an earlier, pre-canonical collection of psalms, but attesting the suitability of the generic term təfillah for many of the psalms currently included in the Psalter.

            Another generic title is mizmôr, found fifty-seven times in the Bible, all in the Book of Psalms, often linked with a personal name like David, the sons of Korah, or the sons of Asaph, to a specific liturgical event: a building dedication (30.1), a [special?] Shabbat (92.1), or to the term mənatzeah (to be discussed below). Despite its frequent occurrence, the precise meaning of the term mizmôr is difficult to determine, although it is probably best viewed as the designation of a specific type of psalm rather than the notation of a specifically musical nature. Its Akkadian cognate zamāru simply means “to sing,” a meaning underscored by the Hurrian-language cultic hymn found at Ugarit which begins, annû zammarum, “this is a zammaru-song” (Foxvog and Kilmer, ISBN III: 447). 

            Similar to mizmôr is the term šîr (or šîrah), a generic term in Akkadian (šēru), Ugaritic (šr), Hebrew, and other Semitic languages for “song” or “singing.” It is found not only in Psalms but elsewhere in a variety of biblical literary genres (see e.g., Exod 15:1; Num 21:17; Deut 31:19). In Psalms, it may appear standing alone (18:1; 46:1), or coupled with mizmôr (nine times). Its most frequent use is in the series of Psalms 120-134, each of which is titled a šîr ha-ma‘alôt.[3] Taking their cue from the root la‘alôt, “to ascend,” the LXX translators of these psalms rendered šîr ha-ma‘alôt by ōdē tōn anabathmōn, and the Vulgate reads canticum graduum, each meaning a “song of steps,” or gradations. Most modern scholars view the Hebrew term as a reference to songs sung by pilgrims marching “up” to the elevated city of Jerusalem for worship, perhaps at the three great agricultural festivals prescribed by the Torah (Exod 23:17; Deut 16:16).

            However, scholars have been unable to discern a unifying theme in the content of the fifteen ma‘alôt psalms. Not all of them lend themselves to a proposed pilgrimage, and not all of them fit into any other singular liturgical context. Yet the ma‘alôt title heading each one surely indicates that the editors of the Book of Psalms believed they belonged together for some reason.  

            Closer examination of these fifteen psalms reveals each of them to be composed in what may conveniently be called a staircase structure. That is, each attests an interesting structural feature that is surely not unrelated to the concept of gradation, repeating key words from one line to another in a process of literary concatenation. At a minimum, such obvious links were probably designed to aid in memorization or recitation. The following charts illustrate this feature.[4]

 

Psalm

Verses

Key Words

Translation

120

2, 3

lašon rəmiyyah

Deceitful tongue

 

6, 7

Šalom

Peace

121

1, 2

‘ezri

My Help

 

3

’al yanum

May (God) not slumber

 

4

Lo’ yanum

(God) will not slumber

 

4

šomer yisra’el

Guardian of Israel

 

5

YHWH šomərekha

YHWH is your Guardian

 

7a

YHWH yišmorekha

YHWH will guard you

 

7b

Yišmor ’et naphšekha

He will guard your life

 

8

YHWH yišmor

YHWH will guard

122

2, 3

Yərušalayim

Jerusalem

 

4, 5

šam

There

 

6a, 7a, 8b

Šalom

Peace

123

1

‘eynai

My eyes

 

2a

‘eyney ‘ăvadim

The eyes of slaves

 

2b

‘eyney šiphhah

The eyes of a slave-girl

 

2c

‘eyneynu

Our eyes

 

3, 4

Buz

Contempt

124

1, 2

Luley YHWH šehayah lanu

Were it not that YHWH is on our side, …

 

3, 4, 5

’azay

Then[1]

 

4, 5

Mayim

Water

 

4, 5

‘avar ‘al naphšeynu

Swept over us

 

7

Naphšeynu

Our lives

 

7a

kətzippor nimleta mippah yoqəšim

Like a bird that escapes from a fowler’s trap

 

7b

Ha-pah nišbar va-’ ănahnu nimlatenu

The trap broke and we escaped

125

1

Har Zion

Mount Zion

 

2

Harim saviv

Mountains surrounding (Jerusalem)

 

1, 2

‘olam

Forever

 

3b, 3c

Ha-tzadiqim

The righteous

126

1

Bə-šuv YHWH ’et šivat tzion

When YHWH restores the fortunes of Zion

 

4

Šuvah YHWH ’et šəvitenu[2]

Restore our fortunes, O YHWH

 

2a, b

’az

Then, at that time

 

2b, 3a

Higdil YHWH la‘ăsot

YHWH has done great things

 

5

Ha-zorə‘im

The sowers

 

6

Mešekh ha-zara‘

The seed-bag

 

5, 6

Bə-rinnah

With songs of joy

 

6a

Nose’ mešekh ha-zara‘

Carrying the seed-bag

 

6c

Nose’ ’ ălummotav

Carrying his sheaves

127

1

Yivneh

Will build

 

1

Bonav

Its builders

 

1, 2

Šav’

In vain

 

3

Banim

Sons

 

4

Bəney ha-nə‘urim

Sons of (one’s) youth

 

4

Gibbor

A warrior

 

5

Geber

A male

128

1

’ašrey

Happy

 

2

’ašrekha

Happy are you

 

1, 4

Yəre’ YHWH

(One who) fears YHWH

 

4

Yəvorakh

Blessed

 

5

Yəvarekha YHWH

YHWH will bless you

129

1, 2

Rabat tzəraruni minn‘uray

Often they have opposed me since my youth

 

1

Yo’mar na’ yisra’el

Let Israel now say

 

8

Və-lo’ ’aməru ha-‘ovərim 

Passersby will not say

130

1, 5, 7

YHWH

YHWH

 

2, 3, 6

’ ădonai

Lord

 

3

‘ăvonot

Iniquities

 

8

‘ăvonotav

His iniquities

131

1, 3

YHWH

YHWH

 

2, 2

Kəgamul

Like a weaned child

132

2

11

’ašer nišba‘ lYHWH

 

nišba‘ YHWH lədavid

How [David] swore to YHWH

 

YHWH swore to David

 

2, 5

la’avir ya‘aqov

The mighty one of Jacob

 

8

mənuhatekha

Your resting-place

 

14

mənuhatî

My resting-place

 

9

kohaneykha yilbəsu tzedeq vahasideykha yerannenu

Your priests are clothed with righteousness, your Hasidim will sing for joy

 

16

kohaneyha ’albis yesa‘ vahasideyha rannen yerannen

Her (Zion) priests I will clothe with salvation, her Hasidim will sing for joy

 

10

mesihekha

Your anointed one

 

17

mesihi

My anointed one

 

11

12

mipperi vitnekha ’asit

 le-khisse’ lakh

 

beneyhem ‘adey ‘ad yesvu

le-khisse’ lakh

I will place on your throne one of your [David] own sons

 

Their sons shall sit upon your throne forever

 

13

’ivvah

He desired

 

14

’ivvitiha

I have desired it

133

2

yored

Descending

 

2, 3

se-yored

That descends

134

1, 2

barakhu ’et YHWH

Bless YHWH

 

3

yevarekhekha YHWH

May YHWH bless you

             

            Another generic title is maskîl, a technical term appended to the titles of thirteen psalms (32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142), and the inclusion of music within its referential field is shown in Psalm 47:8: “Sing a maskîl” (zamməru maskîl). The etymology of maskîl is clear, as is its root meaning of “insight” or “wisdom.” The simplest explanation for the title is attested in Psalm 32:8 in the phrase “I will instruct you” (’askîlkhâ, also from the root s-k-l). Similar connections between the title maskîl and the content of the psalm that follows may also be noted in other maskîl psalms: 42:5 (“these things I will remember”); 44:18 (“we have not forgotten You”); 45:5 (“let your right hand teach you marvelous things”); 53:2 (“a fool” [nâvâl, i.e., the opposite of a wise person] denies the existence of God”); 74, where “remember” in verse 2 and “do not forget” in verse 23 form an envelope structure for the entire psalm, surrounding the central thought of verse 18, that only “a people of fools (‘am nâvâl) has spurned the name of God;” and 142:5-6, where the distressed supplicant, finding neither a friend nor an escape route, “cried out to YHWH,” forced to the understanding that He alone was a true “Refuge.”

Two maskîl psalms stand out from the rest. Psalm 78 is a long historical survey similar in many respects to psalms 77, 105, and 106. However, in literary style, it is closer to Deuteronomy 32 than to these other “historical” psalms. Rather than a simplistic repetition of past events, psalm 78 offers a reflection on the meaning of Israelite history. It is, in short, despite its use of historical events in its subject matter, no less than a “wisdom” psalm, what Arthur Weiser has aptly called, “didactic Wisdom poetry” (OTL, 539). The content itself supports such a designation with its opening line from a worship leader (perhaps a priest) exhorting people, “Listen to my instruction (tôrah), incline your ears to the words of my mouth” (verse 1). But the wisdom link is made even more specific in the following verse: “I will open my mouth with a proverb (mâšâl), pour forth riddles (hidôt) from the ancient past.” It is impossible to miss the connection here to the opening agenda of the Book of Proverbs (1:6), where readers are told that a wise man can be identified as one who has been able “to understand a proverb (mâšâl) and its interpretation, the words of wise men and their riddles” (hidôtâm). 

Perhaps the most difficult psalm to relate to its maskîl title is 88, the whole of which is a petition asking for deliverance from death. Although it is clearly a psalm of Lament, it stands alone among the laments because it lacks the final component of Praise of which a supplicant becomes capable after pouring out his lament in the sanctuary.[5] In other words, psalm 88 is not a complete poem, and this fact seems to have been recognized by the editors of the Psalter when they added psalm 89 immediately following 88. Both receive the title of maskîl, but the two must be taken together in order to constitute a single complete lament. Thus the component of acknowledgement that YHWH “has heard the complaint and that change has been effected,”[6] lacking in 88 must be sought in 89:23: “No enemy shall outwit him (pointing yiśśâ’ for MT yašši’),[7] no son of wickedness oppress him.”

The title mikhtâm[8] is at first glance much more difficult to pin down than maskîl. Radak describes mikhtâm as a unique musical instrument, while Rashi offers a variety of explanations for the term, including the opinion that it described a special musical arrangement. But he also suggests that an alternate translation of mikhtâm might be “a crown,” linking his definition to the plea of the psalmist, “Protect me, O God, for I have sought refuge in You” (16:1b). Ibn Ezra relates mikhtâm to ketem, citing Song of Songs 5:11: “His head is the finest gold” (ro’šô ketem paz). Talmud Sotah 10b renders mikhtâm homiletically as two different words, mâkh (“humble”) and tâm (“innocent”).

These midrashic or homiletical suggestions aside, a survey of the content of all six mikhtâm psalms proves fruitful. One (58) is a lament calling for the punishment of the wicked, while five are laments seeking deliverance for the supplicant. Thus it seems prudent to seek a meaning for mikhtâm from its etymology, clearly provided by the Akkadian verb katāmu, “to cover.” A mikhtâm would thus be defined as a psalm by a supplicant who was seeking covering, protection, or deliverance.[9]  

A final title, šiggayôn (šiggyônôt in Hab 3:1), appears only in the title of psalm 7, and must be traced etymologically to Akkadian šegû, “to howl, cry, lament.”[10]

            With the musical significance of the entire Book of Psalms secured by reference to the generic titles just surveyed, it should not be surprising to note the variety of what may be called “performance notations” affixed to a large number of psalms.[11] The simplest, yet still perplexing, notations of this general type are those that appear to designate a specific event, offering instruction pertaining to the appropriate cultic situation in which a particular psalm may be used. Among these are: [a] “song for the dedication of the Temple” (šîr hanukkat ha-bayit in 30:1); [b] “for the day of Shabbat” (šîr le-yôm ha-šabbat in 92:1) and [c] “for thanksgiving” [or “for the thank offering”] (mizmor lə-tôdah in 100:1). Within this same general category is the phrase šîr yedîdôt (“a song of loved ones” or simply “a love song”) in 46:1.[12]

            The most frequently attested performance notation is la-mənatztzeah, used fifty-five times. Nahum Sarna argued plausibly that, “its absence from II Samuel 22 and its presence in Psalm 18 shows that it has to do with the liturgical performance.”[13] The phrase is usually taken to mean “to the director,” following the majority of medieval commentators who based their views on its generic function in Ezra (3:8, 9; 1) and Chronicles (Chr 23:4; 2 Chr 2:1, 17; 34:13). The connection of la-mənatzeah with music, hinted at by 2 Chronicles 34:12-13, is clearly established in 1 Chronicles 15, in the narrative recounting the transfer of the ark to Jerusalem. Here the Pi‘el verbal form lə-natzeah in 15:21 describes a group of professional musicians who are playing stringed instruments. Since the function of the three cymbalists (vs. 19) is to direct (lə-hašmia‘) the music, lə-natzeah must describe those who are providing the musical introduction and accompaniment, i.e., those who actually “lead” the singing. Such a meaning is also implied by the presence in the narrative of Chronicles of two specific musical notations that later appear in the psalter, ‘al-‘alamot (15:20) and ‘al-ha-šeminit (15:21), as well as by the listing of numerous musical instruments that were employed to accompany the singing (harps, lyres, loud cymbals, trumpets, etc.).

In the Book of Psalms, la-mənatzeah appears in every psalm containing a musical notation describing either a musical instrument or tune by which to sing, and it is probable that la-mənatzeah means simply that a particular song was to be begun by an instrumental accompanist, with the particular type of instrument being specified in thirty of the la-mənatzeah psalms. A clear example of this combination of la-mənatzeah with some notation about a specific musical direction, involves the phrase nəginôt, “stringed instruments,” with which la-mənatzeah appears in combination six times (4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76).[14]    

Many other kinds of “notes” sprinkle the pages of the Book of Psalms, some quite clear and others impossible to interpret with assurance. The most familiar of these terms, and one that stands apart from all others, is the word “Selah” (71 times in 39 psalms). Following the LXX diapsalma, “interlude,” Selah has been widely viewed as a denotation of the place where singing halts for an instrumental interlude or a musical intermezzo. But even this most common word denies us certainty about its meaning, its placement in some but not in other psalms, and its liturgical function in antiquity.[15]

The final group of notations includes a series of phrases on whose meaning there has been no dearth of suggestions from scholars. Many are easily translated, but the simplicity of their meaning as words often fails to give a clear indication of their function at the beginning of a particular psalm. To begin, it should be noted that each phrase is introduced by the preposition ‘al, which it has been the common practice among scholars to translate as “on,”[16] seeking the meaning of each nominal object of the preposition as either a particular kind of musical instrument or a cue-word. Speculation about the identity of a musical instrument leads to a blind alley in most cases, and has often sparked a midrashic explanation that has little basis in linguistic reality.

For example, the phrase ‘al šošannim (45:1; 69:1) translates easily as “on the lilies,” while related phrases ‘al-šušan ‘edût (60:1) and ’el-šošannim ‘edût (80:1) yield “on the lily of testimony” and “to the lilies of testimony” respectively. Yet both Radak and Malbim, followed by several modern commentators,[17] identify the Shoshannim as the musical instrument used to accompany the attached psalms.

The phrase ‘al ha-gittit found in the superscriptions to psalms 8, 81, and 84 is not as easy to translate. One must decide between gittit as a winepress (gat with LXX) or a musical instrument from the Philistine city of Gath (with the Targum). One fanciful explanation relates the phrase to the fact that the ark of the covenant was housed in the home of Oved Edom the Gitti for three months (2 Sam 6:10-11; 1 Chr 13:13-14).

‘al ha-šeminit (6:1; 12:1) “on the eighth,” is clearly not a reference to the modern octave, a mode that was unknown in biblical times. Rashi and Ibn Ezra identify the šeminit as a harp with eight strings, but its precise definition remains elusive.

‘al-mahalat (53:1; 88:1) may refer to a wind instrument of some sort, or it may be translated “for sickness.” Although there is nothing in the content of Psalm 53 to indicate a connection with illness, Psalm 88:10 records the complaint of a petitioner clearly concerned with physical health: “My eye has wasted away (dâ’avâh) because of affliction.”

‘al-‘alamot (46:1) is not difficult to translate (“by the young maidens”), but has been variously identified with either a small flute or pipe as indicated by LXX élymos, or with a “youthful,” i.e., clear, high pitched, or soprano voice.[18] The connection between ‘al mut la-ben (9:1) and ‘al-‘alamot is uncertain. Depending upon the way the phrase is pointed and the word division, it could mean either “on the death of Laben,”[19] or simply “a male soprano.”

’el ha-nəhillôt (5:1) exhibits a variation from expected ‘al, and seems to refer to a wind instrument.

‘al ’ayyelet ha-šahar (22:1) is clearly “on the hind[20] of the morning.”[21]

‘al yonat ’elem rehôqim (56:1), “on the speechless dove far-off” or “on the dove of the far-off terebinths” (reading ’elim for ’elem).

Given the fact that even the easily translated phrases in this category offer no clue to the content of the psalms they introduce, and granted that it is impossible in each case to identify a specific musical instrument, it seems preferable to view each of these notations as sign-posts to a well-known tune, translating the preposition ‘al to mean simply “to the tune of.” Thus these enigmatic phrases should more properly be seen as what Sarna calls “cue-phrases,” or what Artur Weiser deems to be “reference to a secular (?) song to the tune of which the psalm was meant to be sung.”[22] Not only are modern readers familiar with the practice of handing out words that are to be “sung to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’,” or a similarly well-known melody, but this is a phenomenon well documented in Christian hymnals of numerous denominations.[23]

 

CONCLUSION:

The use of the word “musical” in the title of this paper requires three admissions of no little importance. [1] Since music is the most abstract form of art, and since by definition it must blend into one experience the art of composition, the art of performance, and the art of listening (even when composer and performer are the same individual), it follows that the assignment of meaning or value to music must be based upon an aural experience that was simply impossible for biblical authors to have conveyed in writing or for modern readers to appreciate merely by reading. [2] Adding to the complexity of the task is the fact that what is known about music from the written Bible must be linked with function and context, two issues especially in the Book of Psalms about which scholars have no little uncertainty. [3] Yet a third complication lies in the inherent impossibility of performing and hearing a musical composition in exactly the same way more than a single time. The sounds, rhythm, and texture, no less than the context of a specific musical performance do not cohere together as do the parts of a sculpture or the components of a painting. Attempted repetition of the same composition is thus no guarantee that a current hearer has entered into the experience of the original audience, and neither the former nor the latter audience may be assured of having entered into the mind and heart of the composer or performer.

Our survey has shown once again the difficulty involved in studying the musical notations in the Book of Psalms. In the final analysis, the notations that are clearly musical, i.e., not simply Leitwörter suggestive of content, must be understood as indicative of a musical score that once existed either in writing, in the mind of an original composer, or in the common experience of a singing community long ago. We must remember that such a score even in its earliest rescension would have been musique potentielle but not musique véritable.

Simply put, until it is performed, no score is music. And here lies an unsettling truth not only about the music of the Psalms but about all music: some who perform a particular score may live close in time to the era of the composer, whether an individual or a community, and they may attempt to execute what they perceive to be the intention of the composer[s]. Other performers may take a musical score as little more than a launching pad, injecting personal variations of style into their rendition, cheerfully unaware or unfazed by criticism from those who believe they have violated the intention of the original score. Some may simply remain deaf to all but the wooden or mechanical markings indicated by the score, while others may probe the elasticity of the score and offer a musical performance that renders the music more accessible and pleasing to listeners or fellow worshippers. Thus despite our forays into etymology, semantic fields, literary context, and content analysis, the precise meanings of the musical notations in the Book of Psalms remain elusive, ever awaiting the next attempt to perform them in worship. They are suggestive rather than prescriptive, susceptible to the mindset and skill-level of each performer, defined anew each time a psalm is sung in a thousand different synagogues, by trained cantor or willing amateur, professional chorale or volunteer local choir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]This is the poetic spelling for narrative ’az. 

[2]Qere’.



[1]Given this widespread view of David as a musician, it should not be found surprising that almost one-half (73 out of 150) of the canonical psalms are now specifically connected with David by the Hebrew phrase lə-David. Linguistic evidence from Ugarit has illustrated the partitive function of the NW Semitic/Hebrew preposition -. Thus the recurrent Hebrew phrase lə-David may be translated either “(deriving) from David,” or “(dedicated) to David.” This would give sense to the idea that a guild associated with the musician-King, perhaps founded by and originally sponsored by him, had composed these seventy-three lə-David psalms of the Psalter. Understanding that musicians, like prophets and priests, had their own trans-generational professional guild indicates how individual psalms that appear to derive from eras covering many scores of years could accurately be viewed as originating from a common source, though not necessarily composed by or about the king personally. In this respect, the Psalter is rather like the modern Siddur [prayer book], for both contain songs and other material from many different centuries brought together in a single collection for the purpose of helping to interpret the worship service. That is to say, the modern Siddur imposes structural order on modern Jewish worship in a fashion similar to that of the Book of Psalms in earlier times, each drawing on materials that differ in age by literally hundreds of years.

[2]On the other hand, this may reflect “a more focused intent on the part of the writer, who did not choose to crowd his scene with obvious details” (Mathews, “Music and Musical Instruments,” ADB IV, 933). 

[3]121:1 has the alternate šîr la-ma‘alôt

[4] See the Middle Assyrian catalog of songs from Asshur published by E. Ebeling, Keilschrifttexte aus Assur Religiösen Inhalts (Berlin, 1923).

[5]On the lament form, see Volume XXVIII (January 1974) of Interpretation, all articles of which deal with the Lament psalms. Note especially the article by Walter Brueggemann, “From Hurt to Joy, From Death to Life,” pp. 3-19. 

[6]Brueggemann, 6.

[7]Cf. RSV.

[8]Attested in the titles of six psalms: 16, 56-60.

[9]The enigmatic ‘al tašhet in 57:1 and 59:1 does not appear to be a musical notation. In both cases, it is part of a longer superscription (la-mənatzeah ‘al tašhet lə-david mikhtam) and in both cases is followed by a “historical” referent during which the life of David was threatened by Saul. It thus appears to be merely a short prayer, “do not destroy,” for deliverance from the dangers in which David was placed.

[10]Its Hebrew root is š-g-h.

[11]The implications of the rather cryptic notation ləlammed (“to teach”) in the heading of psalm 60 and the note ləhazkir (“to bring to remembrance”) in psalms 38 and 70 are both difficult to ascertain. Each is a simple form easily translated, but their presence at the heading of these three psalms remains a mystery.

[12]The content of the psalm is a celebration of marriage between an Israelite king and a princess of Tyre.

[13]Encyclopedia Judaica 13, 1319.

[14]And in Psalm 61 with ‘al nəginat.

[15]Thus the scholarly guesses about its meaning include even the view that selah was an acronym for siman lishnot ha-qol (“sign for a key/voice change”).  No such guess has found wide acceptance among scholars.

[16]See for example the discussion by Nahum Sarna in “Psalms, Book of,” Encyclopedia Judaica 13:1320-21.

[17]I.e., H. M. Best and D. Huttar, “Music, Musical Instruments,” Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), IV:324.

[18]1 Chronciles 15:20 connects the phrase with public worship, as noted above.

[19]Identity unknown.

[20]’ayyelet may be either a female deer (“doe”) or a gazelle. In modern Hebrew, ’ayyelet ha-shahar means “the morning star.”

[21]Rashi notes the connection to the phrase in Proverbs 5:19, ’ayyelet ’ahavim (“a lovely hind”), and sees ’ayyelet ha-shahar as a term of endearment for Israel.  

[22]Psalms, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 22.

[23]As one example, see the unpublished M. A. thesis by John Knight, The Theology of the Methodist Hymnal (Southern Nazarene University, 1966), where the author documents the practice of theological poetry composed by Charles Wesley that was introduced to crowds of worshippers who were instructed to sing it according to well-known secular tunes from saloons.

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