Why Are Psalms Written “for the choir director”?

By my count, Fifty-five Psalms are written “For the Choir Director.” The Authorized Version translates the Hebrew term, “To the chief Musician.” According to Franz Delitzsch, the meaning is simple. “At the head of the Psalms, it is commonly understood of the director of the Temple-music.”1 Albert Barnes agrees, “The idea is, that the psalm is to be performed under his direction; or that the music is to be directed or adapted by him.”2 Charles Spurgeon is in the same camp. “The chief Musician was the master director of the sacred music of the sanctuary.”3 In other words, these Psalms were composed for use in the sanctuary in public worship.

Thirty-nine of these same Psalms are classified, “A Psalm of David.” Thus, they seem to be of a personal and individual nature. Psalm 51 is one of these thirty-nine and has this heading, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Do superscripts like this one individualize the Psalms? Brevard Childs gives this response.

But most significant in the titles is the close connection established with David. The Masoretic Text assigns 73 psalms to David. The LXX increases the number and later rabbinic tradition ascribed all of the Psalter in a sense to Davidic inspiration. Clearly, David came to be regarded as the source of Israel’s psalms as Moses was for the law, and Solomon was for wisdom.4

Childs maintains, “by attaching a psalm to a historical event the emphasis is made to fall on the inner life of the psalmist. An access is now provided to his emotional life.”5 As a result, “they testify to all the common troubles and joys of ordinary human life in which all persons participate.”6 From this perspective also, these Psalms were composed for use in the sanctuary in public worship.

King Hezekiah confirmed this viewpoint when he revived the true worship of God and required the singing of “praises to the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the seer” (2 Chron. 29:30). He did so “according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets” (2 Chron. 29:25).

Therefore, the Psalms were written and passed down, not principally for private devotion, but for public worship. As historian Philip Schaff indicates, “The Psalter is the first hymn-book of the church, and will outlive all other hymn-books. Its treasury of pious experience will never will be exhausted.”7

And so, when preparing the congregation to sing the psalms in worship, remind the people that these songs were written for them and given to them to sing to God and to Christ, their Lord. Remind the congregation to make the words of Psalm 18 their words and to sing from their hearts, “I love you, O LORD.” Encourage the people to confess their sins using the words of Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Teach the people to rejoice in their salvation using the words of Psalm 32, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Call the people to rejoice in Jesus Christ the Lord and confess Him with the words of Psalm 93, “The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty.”

Urge the congregation to seek the defeat of God’s enemies with the words of Psalm 94, “O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!” Lead the congregation in anticipating heaven with the words of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” And tell the people to take the words on Psalm 25 on their lips and confess their faith in their Savior, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” Yes, all these words, and more, are written for the people of the congregation to take on their own lips as their own words to give praise in the public worship to our great God and Savior.

Denny Prutow

  1. Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 1:111.
  2. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament, Psalms, ed. Robert Frew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), 1:32.
  3. C. H. Spurgeon, A Treasury of David (Newark, DE: Cornetstone, 1990), 1:37.
  4. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1979) 520.
  5. Ibid., 521.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Philip Schaff, “Preface by the General Editor,” Commentary on the Holy Scriptures by John Peter Lange, The Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), vi.
2016-11-04T12:05:32-04:00 August 22nd, 2016|