Titles in the book of Psalms

Are the titles in the first verse of many of the Psalms part of Scripture?

Frequently one finds people omitting the titles when reading the Psalms publicly. Presumably they do not think that these titles are part of Scripture. This arises because in many versions of the Bible the title is made a separate verse, and in many modern versions it is separated from the body of the Psalm as a title, or put in brackets as though it is not to be read.

Bible verses are not numbered in the earliest manuscripts of the underlying, authoritative Hebrew text, and there is no distinction between the title and the remainder of the Psalm.  This shows that the titles, unlike the subscriptions to the epistles in the New Testament, are part of inspired Scripture and should be read with the rest of each Psalm.  The verse numbers were added in the 16th century. The first Bible in English to use both chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible published in 1560.

The verse numbering in the Hebrew Bible, which is followed by the LXX (the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew, completed about 132BC) and the Statenvertaling (the Dutch translation in 1637), sometimes gives the title a separate verse number (e.g. Ps 12 and 13; indeed, the title in Ps 60 takes up two verses) and sometimes does not (e.g. Ps 11, 14 and 15). However, the King James Version of the Bible does not follow this inconsistency, and it always includes the title as part of verse 1 of the Psalm. This discordant numbering of verses between the Hebrew and the English Bible is complicated further by the LXX, in which whole Psalms have discordant numbering from each of the other versions.

The King James Version thus makes it easier to see that the titles of the Psalms are part of the inspired text of Scripture and ought to be read as such. The titles have not been put into metre in the Scottish metrical version of the Psalms, just as Ps 72:20 has not been versified for singing. Just as we read Ps 72:20 and consider it to be part of inspired Scripture, so ought we to do the same with the titles. This does not apply to the additional information added to the end of the epistles of Paul, which are not reliable and are not part of the inspired text.

It is not easy to remember the verse numbering in the Hebrew, LXX and DSV version in comparison with the KJV. Consulting Ps 72-90 in each version will quickly demonstrate the inconsistency of versification in these other versions, the only consistent one being the King James Version. If one wishes to cite a Psalm in the Hebrew Bible or LXX, it is safer to look it up rather than rely on one’s memory from the KJV.

The vast majority of Psalms have titles. Only 34 of the 150 Psalms have no title (1, 2, 10, 33, 43, 71, 91, 93-97, 99, 104-107, 111-119, 135-137, 146-150) and, as a rule of thumb, if there is no title, the verse numbering will be the same in the Hebrew and LXX; but the Psalm number in the LXX will be different because the LXX joins Ps 9 and Ps 10 together, and splits Ps 147 in two! Even if the title is short, the Hebrew and LXX may or may not have an additional verse number. This shows how confusing it is, and it is safer simply to consult the relevant version. However, as a quick rule of thumb, as a mnemonic, because Ps 9 and Ps 10 are joined together in the LXX, just subtract one from the English Psalm number if it is between Ps 10 and Ps 147 and you will have have the LXX number. If the Psalm has a title, you will probably have to add one to the verse for the correct verse number – for example, Ps 67:6 is Ps 66:7 in the LXX.

17 Jun 2017: this variable numbering of the verses in the book of Psalms makes it difficult to be dogmatic about the middle verse of the Bible.

One thought on “Titles in the book of Psalms

  1. Pingback: Biblical mnemonics – Donald's Thoughts

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