The Hebrew inscriptions among the Psalms (superscriptions/headings, subscriptions/footnotes, as well as the “Selah” & “Higgaion” markings/inscriptions) are often obscure, and thus controverted among Bible commentators, and therefore they have remained untranslated, though where it was more plain, the KJV translators have placed the sense in the margin. The overwhelming presence of these inscriptions when coming to the Psalms, can be troubling, due to the questions which they pose to the conscience, which typically will go unanswered for a lifetime. This is so troubling to the conscience, particularly of one who is cleaving to the eternal value and weight of “every word of God”, and here we can hardly approach a Psalm, without being thus confronted with some unknown term, which we dare not discount as uninspired, and yet we feel that a sound working knowledge of them is beyond reach. We have (and will continue to) read, quote, write, and even sing these words, and therefore an understanding is vital; notwithstanding, a good conscience alone must not be the only inducement that draws us to garner a good understanding upon this point.
It seems in general that the purpose of these annotations was more to annotate the musical performance of the song than to establish the vital key of interpretation, and so have been thought to be somewhat obsolete due to the various revolutions in music over the past 2-3k years since these Psalms were written. And though secularly there is little to be known concerning the understanding of Hebrew music, yet within the sacred scriptures we are permitted to learn much of what the Jews (under the spiritual inspiration and guidance of David) knew of music. Thus the history of David’s establishment of the musical-Levites in the Tabernacle/Temple is of vital importance (with the Psalms, particularly, coupled with the recorded improvements thereupon of subsequent generations in the infallible history) in forming a spiritual understanding and conclusions on this wise.
“After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.”
— Acts 15:16,17
Holy obligation is upon us, therefore, as the Spirit of God begins to rebuild — to perfection — the fallen Tabernacle of David (namely, the spiritual Temple of the Gentile Church, according to James’ verdict in Acts 15:16,17), that we would, by the selfsame Spirit which inspired David of old to declare “the pattern” thereof (I Chron. 28:11,12,18,19), be directed into an acceptable form of worship and praise to the worthy King of Israel. Thus it behoves us, as the ancient ruins are being raised up (Isa. 58:12), to look into the heart of David (the Psalms), and while looking therein, fall into a holy contemplation awhile of what tone he set his songs to, and upon what instruments they were played — not in some futile pursuit of self-conceited vain imaginations, but rather by embarking into the lawful, though uncharted, waters of what was WRITTEN… Unto those who affectionately know the God of David, and through consecration, have begun to tread the paths of righteousness he was made to take (Psa. 23:3) — to these, the heart of David will be discovered, and words which were forever shrouded in mystery and wonder, will soon burst into the full vibrance of some luminous garden, shining of sights and colors rare and wonderful to behold!
To those who are thus acquainting themselves with the God of David, and his experience, such inscriptions will become suddenly very relevant to their progress down these pathways of pleasantness (Prov. 3:17). They feel these to be as beacons upon the mountains, beckoning them still further upwards, till their souls, all enraptured in the excellencies of divine worship, are made to sing as one with “the sweet psalmist of Israel” himself (II Sam. 23:1) — being so led by “the selfsame Spirit” (I Cor. 12:11)!
It is truly a sweet thing to find oneself in the same inner chamber of communion with the King as one of those, His beloved-ones of old… To find that, though you knew it not, you were singing the same song as them! How much more profound to discover that it was to the very same tune! Surely the Spirit of the living God will so guide His saints into the very same spiritual discoveries of grace and glory, though they be sundered across many centuries of time, and musical reformations. The Spirit of God does not change, and what edified His saints 3k years ago, still edifies them today! Don’t be deceived, as though David was mumbling around with some backslidden, dark-aged Gregorian chant upon his lips, as if thereby to “make His praise glorious” (Psa. 66:2)!
The praises of Israel were truly, “LIFTED UP”! This was actually the fundamental understanding they had of singing: it was a LIFTING UP of voice, a LIFTING UP of musical instruments — “And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of musick, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy” (I Chron. 15:16) — a LIFTING UP of hands (Psa. 63:4; 134:2), a LIFTING UP of heart (Lam. 3:41), and a LIFTING UP of soul (Psa. 25:1)! We must reconcile ourselves to the praises of the man after God’s heart (I Sam. 13:14), or we will bereave ourselves of our own mercies. If we cannot learn to weep like him, then we will never know his triumph, and if we fail to attain to his victories, then perhaps it is that we have not yet learned that secret to conquest which he well knew — PRAISE.
“I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies.”
— Psa. 18:3
David was not anxiously awake by the candle light of his tent reviewing his stratagems of war, the night before some historic — truly epic — and eternity altering battle! No! Knowing full well the stakes which awaited the never-dying souls of myriads and myriads of men, he awoke up his harp, and played some solemn sound upon the strings, while his host huddled round about the curtain walls, hanging their souls upon those hopeful notes! These were truly age-ending revival hymns, with age-ending revival tunes! O with what confidence, and blessed assurance did they march forth to war with perfectly tuned hearts to sing his grace! And though beloved David was not found worthy to experience this Age-Ending Revival, notwithstanding, he was worthy to prepare the generations to come! O how we must learn this heart of David, these ways of David, this patience in the presence of God which David exemplified above all other men, or else we must be abandoned to the darkened understanding of those who have failed the elementary principles of worship!
Thus do these holy, and inspired, directions of praise, offered in the Hebrew inscriptions present to us a glance within the tent of David, as to what instrument he takes in hand, as to what tuning he sets his song, at which point he rises, and when does he pause… Let it not be an empty endeavor that we would look upon these little directives, and enquire at the Lord as to what posture of spirit is being commanded by the heart of David therein.
- Alamoth — This term literally means “young maidens”, and is first referenced in I Chronicles 15:20, and seems to intend, not only the way in which these psalteries would be played, but more so, how that these holy Levites here named were to direct these sisters to order their praise acceptably unto the Lord, when they would come into his house.
As an anecdote to set forth how that the Spirit of the Lord has not changed, even through the many centuries, millennia, and musical tradition, I will share of one of the first times that we had ever sung Psa. 46 (the only instance in the Psalms where this inscription appears) with musical instruments in a corporate setting. As we began to sing, a dear sister’s voice suddenly began to ascend through the others, and establish an astonishing, and deeply edifying to the spirit, harmony! Afterwards, upon hearing the recording, I was overwhelmingly aware in the Spirit that this was inspired of the Lord, and was compelled to call all of the sisters (“young maidens”) to learn this part, and to begin singing it from thenceforth… Little did I know at that time that I was merely establishing what was anciently declared by David of Psa. 46, that it was to be sung “upon Alamoth”!
- Altaschith — Three of these four Psalms that contain this inscription, are declared to be written by David (Psa. 57-59), while the other (Psa. 75) is written by “Asaph the seer” (II Chron. 29:30), which itself was most likely prophetically declaring the trials of David. This term, signifying, “Destroy not”, is a clear illustration of the relationship of David to his God in the midst of all of his tribulation; namely, how that his appeal was still to God — not Saul — for mercy, even seeing his own sin before the Lord Himself enough to condemn his soul, if God would but “mark his iniquity” (Psa. 130:3), though Saul was unjustly seeking his soul to destroy it. This was an indelible mark of David’s humility, and an undying testimony to the spiritual realities which are the all consuming visions of the saints of God in the earth; which, when clearly observed, tend to swallow the soul into the higher realms of spirituality (where God alone rules and works all things), and draw them away from the broken cisterns of man, and carnal confidence in this lower world.
- Gittith — This is some musical instrument (as it would appear, from Gath), or perhaps some special tone whereupon to set these three specific Psalms (8, 81, 84). I tend to believe that it was upon a harp he picked up while in Gath, which was of some peculiar quality, or more likely, which would carry with it rich affection of this particular season of his sojourning. Thus if we can call to memory this specified season of David’s wanderings, and God’s unfailing faithfulness therein — or better yet, if, after bethinking ourselves thus, we are able to apply his glad experience to our own, and so take up these Psalms into our mouths, then we have, effectually, sung “upon Gittith”.
- Higgaion — Once inscribed in all the Psalms, in the midst Psalm 9, and coupled together with a “Selah” — as if declaring what was just stated to be of the utmost significance to provoke a standing to attention, and a period of silence and sober reflection of what was just stated. This term is the same which stands behind the English words, “meditation” 0f Psa. 19:14, and “solemn sound” of Psa. 92:3, and more than likely describes some solemn sound to be struck in the musical orchestration, which would provoke sober meditation upon the words uttered.
- Mahalath — This is very obscure, and appears alone in Psa. 53, and in connection with the word “Leannoth” (meaning “affliction”) in Psa. 88. It is more than likely denoting some doleful mode upon which these two peculiarly plaintive Psalms were to be sung.
- Maschil — These 13 Psalms (Psa. 32,42,44,45,52-55,74,78,88,89,142) where this term, indicating, “instruction”, stands at the head of them (though not exclusive to them alone), represent certain Psalms wherein some precious lesson had been learned through prophetic experience, and was deemed invaluable for all of God’s people to thereby be instructed, to the end that a vital degree of corporate unity among the people of God might be achieved, that the name of God might be magnified through the assembly of saints. For instance, consider Psa. 44,74,78, and 89 — these four “Maschils” — how that they would have been of vital necessity in the generation where the kingdom of God was being greatly established (under David, and subsequently Solomon) through the singular act of God’s repentance, to the acknowledging and performance of his own covenant. It is a dreadful consideration, the thought of what this generation would have done, had they not had the vital elements of the faith ministered unto them, which are so illustriously instructed in these Psalms!
- Michtam — There are 6 Psalms (Psa. 16,56-60) which bear this inscription, and according to the translators it seemed to clearly to denote, “Golden”. This could be due to certain undeniable messianic attributes these Psalms bear, though not all of these are so eminent among many other Psalms which do not have this title. It would seem to me, therefore, that this title signifies more of a personal significance in the heart of David, that these Psalms epitomized something “golden” in his own experience — though could it really be argued that there was not something “golden” in every Psalm? And thus should the saints, walking in the ways of David, feel that they have found “gold” when they look upon these words.
- Neginah(oth) — Multiple Psalms bear this term in their title, and it means, indisputably, “Stringed instrument(s)”. This is plain to see when comparing with the subscripts/footnotes of Hezekiah’s & Habakkuk’s songs (Isa. 38:20; Hab. 3:19), when they declare these to be played upon the “stringed instruments”, which stands for the Hebrew, “Neginoth” (the plural form of “Neginah”).
- Nehiloth — This seems to denote “wind instruments”, and is only used in Psa. 5. It seems that many times David was relegated to the use of whatever instrument he could find, or make, or purchase abroad (for instance in Gath, see “Gittith”); and therefore, at times he may have only had space for a pipe to carry with him (like when he fled from Saul out of the window of his house, I Sam. 19:11-24; Psa. 59). And when in one of his various haunts, he would pen these Psalms, and would make use of whatever instrument he had occasion to take with him — Lo! — as he would play he would find that even the very instrument upon which he played was inspired, though brought to him by such a seeming chaos of circumstances!
- Selah — This marking, appearing overwhelmingly more than any other, though found in no title, but as inscriptions throughout the Psalms, was doubtless the most prominent way they would govern the dynamics of their praise in the house of God. It stands apart from “Higgaion”, in Psa. 9:16, and thus cannot carry the common misnomer, “meditation”, often given it, as that is the certain significance of “Higgaion”. Therefore the understanding is, accurately, “pause”, and probably being extracted from the Hebrew word “Shelah” (meaning, “to rest”), would mean a resting from (or upon) the former thought, or from the singing, thereby allowing the musical instruments to swell, causing a musical interlude to be given place unto. This latter understanding would tend to reconcile a controversy over the term as well, as another primary (though less justifiable) conjecture has been that this term was extracted from the Hebrew, “Saalal”, signifying, “to lift up”, and therefore was taken to mean not a pause of the music, but rather a emphasis upon the music. Well, if this indeed is a pause to the singing, giving way to the lifting up of a musical interlude (as an emphasis of the words just spoken, or as an appropriate introduction to the words soon to be declared), then this would fully reconcile all principle schools of thought upon the matter — to the glory of God!
- Sheminith — Appearing for the first time in I Chronicles 15:21, immediately after “Alamoth” (I Chron. 15:20), these musical-Levites ordained to play upon their harps, were charged to play upon “Sheminith” (meaning, “the eighth”), and being that it was directly following the Alamoth directive, it would seem this was to be some lower, more masculine part, that would cause the music “to excel”!
- Shiggaion/Shigionoth — This term is used in two places only, and both represent very solemn instances of God “arising” in judgment (Psa. 7; Hab. 3:1). Thus the common understanding of these terms to be “Prayer(s)” seems to be self-evident, but with further clarification, that these prayers were most solemn, and dreadful.
- Shoshannim/Shushan — This term means, “Lily”, which was a common, yet remarkably beautiful flower in Israel (Song 5:13; Matt. 6:28). This title, therefore, would set these Psalms upon a common, and remarkably beautiful tune, though by no means a light and treacherous tune, as in all of these Psalms there are found tragic elements lacing, if not dominating, the song.