Historical Psalms and “Verse Zero” Labeling

Historical Psalms and “Verse Zero” Labeling
Psalm 18:0

For the choir director. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.

First of all, our scripture citation for this Bible Bit is Psalm 18:0, and there is of course no such number citation as 18:0.

We are referring to the description or title line provided for this psalm, which is part of the original source text of the psalm, but is not numbered. You’ve noticed these before in your printed Bible. They read “A Psalm of David” or some such thing. They are those unnumbered little descriptive labels given prior to many, but not all of the psalms. When reading the Bible at online websites, those web applications will include these bits of text in verse one, but Christian Bibles have always printed these lines without verse numbers. The Jewish TANAKH has however traditionally given these lines the verse number one, and the next line — which we Christians number as one — is given verse number two.

All this however is an aside. This Bible Bit addresses the fact that many psalms were written in response to specific historic events, and in a few of these, the psalm writer explicitly tells us so.

There are fourteen psalms which explicitly provide their historical circumstance in their “verse zero” labeling: 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, and 142.

We know that others beyond these fourteen were inspired by specific events, and close readers of our Bible have been able to associate specific psalms with specific events in the Old Testament’s historical writings. This is not always easy. The often generalized language and word choices of Hebrew poetry, meant for corporate worship, do not always make it easy to identify the exact historic circumstance expressed in the psalm.

For Psalm 18 however, this is especially easy. Not only does the “verse zero” labeling describe number 18 as:

For the choir director. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul,…

but the entirety of this psalm — all 50 verses — is reproduced almost verbatim in 2 Samuel 22. If you want to know what inspired Psalm 18, just go read the chapters leading up to 2 Samuel 22.

Having said this, we will also point out that the internals of Psalm 18 do not read like a journalistic account of David’s troubles with King Saul. They do not tell us what outfit Saul was wearing, the brand of sword he was carrying, or the color of his horse on the day he was defeated by David. And David’s descriptions of rocks, fortresses, waves of death, torrents of destruction, cords of Sheol, earthquakes, smoke from God’s nostrils, fire from God’s mouth, darkness from heavens, and cherubs on the wing are likely applicable to David’s victories over a number of other foes.

So while Psalm 18 was inspired by a specific event, it is not a distinctive account of that event. It is praise poetry. As a song and as a psalm, it is written for use for corporate praise and prayer over a broad range of times and circumstances.

The ESV Study Bible goes on to observe a distinction between Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22, even though they are worded almost identically:

“The two songs differ, however, in their context: Second Samuel 22 is David’s personal expression of gratitude to the Lord, while Psalm 18 is the adaptation of that song for the whole people to sing, because their well-being is now tied to the offspring of David (2 Sam. 7:4–17). When God’s people sang this, then, they were to give thanks for the Davidic line and to pray that its heirs would be faithful to the Lord and would be valiant military leaders, so that Israel might carry out its God-given purpose of bringing light to the Gentiles.”

Your detailed commentary might also note the finer details of differences in Hebrew scripting between the two songs, which do not present themselves in English renderings. We’ll leave it to you to discover these. The ESV Study Bible touches on this. Can you find a more detailed presentation?

The Reformation Study Bible provides us with our list of fourteen psalms labelled with historic circumstance. Here is the opening line of all fourteen, taken from the New King James Version:

Psalm 3:1 A Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son. LORD, how they have increased who trouble me! Many [are] they who rise up against me. (NKJV)

Psalm 7:1 A Meditation of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite. O LORD my God, in You I put my trust; Save me from all those who persecute me; And deliver me, (NKJV)

Psalm 18:1 To the Chief Musician. [A Psalm] of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. And he said: I will love You, O LORD, my strength. (NKJV)

Psalm 30:1 A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the house of David. I will extol You, O LORD, for You have lifted me up, And have not let my foes rejoice over me. (NKJV)

Psalm 34:1 [A Psalm] of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed. I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise [shall] continually [be] in my mouth. (NKJV)

Psalm 51:1 To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. (NKJV)

Psalm 52:1 To the Chief Musician. A Contemplation of David when Doeg the Edomite went and told Saul, and said to him, “David has gone to the house of Ahimelech.” Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The goodness of God [endures] continually. (NKJV)

Psalm 54:1 To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments. A Contemplation of David when the Ziphites went and said to Saul, “Is David not hiding with us?” Save me, O God, by Your name, And vindicate me by Your strength. (NKJV)

Psalm 56:1 To the Chief Musician. Set to “The Silent Dove in Distant Lands.” A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath. Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up; Fighting all day he oppresses me. (NKJV)

Psalm 57:1 To the Chief Musician. Set to “Do Not Destroy.” A Michtam of David when he fled from Saul into the cave. Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; And in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, Until [these] calamities have passed by. (NKJV)

Psalm 59:1 To the Chief Musician. Set to “Do Not Destroy.” A Michtam of David when Saul sent men, and they watched the house in order to kill him. Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; Defend me from those who rise up against me. (NKJV)

Psalm 60:1 To the Chief Musician. Set to “Lily of the Testimony.” A Michtam of David. For teaching. When he fought against Mesopotamia and Syria of Zobah, and Joab returned and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt. O God, You have cast us off; You have broken us down; You have been displeased; Oh, restore us again! (NKJV)

Psalm 63:1 A Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah. O God, You [are] my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water. (NKJV)

Psalm 142:1 A Contemplation of David. A Prayer when he was in the cave. I cry out to the LORD with my voice; With my voice to the LORD I make my supplication. (NKJV)

Please read and compare Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22.

If you wish to reply to our Bible Bit, please cite scripture and include commentary from current or historic scholarship.

Read the Actual Bible for Yourself and blessings to you!

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