Sing It Again

A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the music director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A [a]Maskil of Heman [b]the Ezrahite.  Psalm 88:1 (Hebrew)

Music director – Of course you know that many of the psalms (mizmôt) are really lyrics for songs.  No news there.  But some of these songs are particularly interesting—and troubling.  This one, for example, is attributed to the sons of Korah.  We’ve looked at the problem with this attribution (see April 18, 2021 HERE and July 2, 2019 HERE)

“For the music director.”  We should note that only a few psalms include this instruction.  As we discover, the reason is that this particular lyrical poem requires some special musical skill.  In other words, it’s difficult.  Difficult to play, difficult to sing, difficult to interpret, and perhaps, difficult to accept.  The instruction tips us off that we are entering rugged terrain.  “The interpretation ‘chief musician’ or ‘choirmaster’ for the expression mĕnaṣṣēah in the psalm superscriptions cannot be far from correct, especially since its translation in LXX (telos ‘end’) has a use in classical Greek of ‘the last, highest station’ in civil life: a magistracy, high office. Some scholars have proposed an earlier psalter called the ‘Director’s Collection,’ from which thirty-nine Davidic, nine Korahite, five Asaphic, and two anonymous selections were made for the full Psalter (plus that found as Habakkuk 3), but this is only one of several theories proposed as explanation for the terminology.”[1]

Then we have māḥălat.   This technical musical term of uncertain meaning is found in the headings of Ps 53 and 88 [H 53:1 and 88:1]. Most versions simply transliterate the term. The NASB suggests a connection with ḥālâ ‘to be weak, sick,’ hence a sad tune. Others relate it to mĕḥōlâ, a round dance. In Ps 88, where it is joined with ‘Leannoth,’ the NIVsays it may possibly be a tune, ‘The Suffering of Affliction.’ For other such terms see selâ.”[2]  Bottom line?  No one really knows.

All of this followed by maskîl, that is, “poem.”  But not simple poetry.  “Except for its first occurrence (Ps 32), maśkîl is always linked with an individual or the Sons of Korah. David is included in Ps 52–55 and 142, Asaph in 74 and 78 and Heman in 88 and 89. The root, śkl, denotes ‘insight’ or ‘wisdom,’ so these psalms may be noted for their special instruction or their musical difficulty.”[3]

Lots of background in Hebrew that is relegated to small print introduction in English Bibles (so, why bother to read it, right?  Just get to the real text of verse 1—in English).  But wait, we’re not quite through.  Who is Heman the Ezrahite?  It turns out that even the name is important for this psalm.

הֵימָן S1968 GK2124 Heman (faithful, cf. Aramaic מְהֵימָן, ܡܗܰܝܡܰܢ (mhayman)) a wise man with whom Solomon is compared 1 K 5:11, where app. son of Mahol (Klo sons of the dance); named with 3 others, one being Ethan the Ezrahite; 1 Ch 2:6 a Heman is named with same 3 + 1 other, & all called sons of Zerah of Judah; Heman appears ψ 88:1 also as the Ezrahite (v. sub זרח), cf. Ethan supr.; in other passages Heman is a Levite; specif. Kohathite, son of Joel, called the singer (הַמְשׁוֹרֵר) 1 Ch 6:18 (|| Asaph v 24, Ethan v 29); [4]

Did you notice 1) the meaning of his name, and 2) the fact that his tribal identity shifts.  An important man who is virtually unknown in most religious circles.  Important enough that he is specifically named in connection with this unusual musical poem, perhaps because of the content we are about to examine.  Do you think that he is named because it takes a special kind of insight to deal with the rest of these verses?  I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?

Topical Index:  mĕnaṣṣēah, choir director, māḥălat, maskîl, Heman, Psalm 88:1

[1] Fisher, M. C. (1999). 1402 נָצַח. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 593). Chicago: Moody Press.

NIV New International Version of the Bible

[2] Harris, R. L., Archer, G. L., Jr., & Waltke, B. K. (Eds.). (1999). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., pp. 287–288). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Ibid.

S Strong’s Concordance

GK Goodrick/Kohlenberger numbering system of the NIV Exhaustive Concordance.

Klo A. Klostermann.

+ plus, denotes often that other passages, etc., might be cited. So also where the forms of verbs, nouns, and adjectives are illustrated by citations, near the beginning of articles; while ‘etc.’ in such connexions commonly indicates that other forms of the word occur, which it has not been thought worth while to cite.

  1. vide, see.
  2. confer, compare.

supr. supra, above.

|| parallel, of words (synonymous or contrasted); also of passages; sometimes = ‘see parallel,’ or ‘see also parallel.’

v verse.

[4] Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 54). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Richard Bridgan