According to the Center for Study of Religion and American Culture, nearly 48 percent of people who read the Bible on their own turn to Psalm 23. This is not so surprising. For both Jews and Christians, there is hardly a better-known passage in all of Scripture. It is a passage that both Jews and Christians often know by heart. Jews traditionally sing it on the Sabbath, either on Friday night during the Synagogue service or in the waning hours of the Sabbath day towards evening – or both. For me personally, the traditional tune that is used for Psalm 23 is the most haunting, beautiful, and other-worldly in all of Jewish tradition.
Superscriptures in Psalms
In almost all published English translations, Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd”. But in Hebrew Bibles, just before verse 1, it says, “A Psalm of David”, mizmor le’David. These two words are what is known as a “superscripture,” a short introductory title phrase unique to Psalms. Most chapters of Psalms begin with a superscripture. However, since they are not printed in the English translations, many Christian readers don’t know that these superscriptures are a part of the original biblical text. But they are, and they are important.
Besides “A Psalm of David,” other common superscriptures are, “For the conductor,” and “A Song.” Frequently, superscriptures refer to a type of song or a musical instrument. It is common to find the name of the author of the psalm in a superscripture, such as David or Asaph (Psalms 50 & 70-83). Sometimes we find information regarding the circumstances under which the psalm was written (e.g. Ps. 142, Ps. 3) or instructions for proper use of the psalm including times appropriate for its message (e.g. Ps. 92, Ps. 30).
There is much to be said about the differences between these superscriptures. What does each one mean? What does the particular opening phrase tell us about the content of the psalm that follows? Suffice it to say that superscriptures provide critical information to help us understand the theme, context, and purpose of the Psalms. For this study, let’s look at the superscripture for Psalm 23.
A Psalm of David
The superscripture, “A Psalm of David,” is made up of two Hebrew words.
Mizmor – A Psalm
le’David – of David
Numerous psalms open this same way. But we also find several psalms that begin with the same two words in the opposite order. Rather than the opening phrase being, Mizmor le’David, it is Le’David mizmor.
Of David, a Psalm. The earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it. (Psalm 24)
These two superscriptures are made up of the identical two Hebrew words written in reverse order. So what is the difference between Mizmor le’David and Le’David mizmor? After all, the words are exactly the same!
“A Psalm of David” vs “Of David a Psalm”
There is an ancient Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud that proposes the following answer:
When David’s name is stated first, “Of David a Psalm,” we are being told that David was filled with Divine inspiration. As a result of this inspired state, he composed the psalm. On the other hand, when David’s name follows the word mizmor, “A Psalm of David,” it means that David began composing the psalm before being Divinely inspired, and as a result of composing the psalm he achieved Divine inspiration. In the Bible, music is often the result of Divine inspiration, but is also sometimes the cause of Divine inspiration (see II Kings 3:15).
To sum up:
Le’David mizmor, Of David, a Psalm = David was inspired, resulting in a Psalm
Mizmor le’David, A Psalm of David = David composed the Psalm, resulting in inspiration
A few examples of psalms that begin with each of these superscriptures support this ancient tradition.
A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom: Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! – Psalm 3
A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah: You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You; I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. – Psalm 63
A psalm of David: I call to You, Lord, come quickly to me; hear me when I call to You. – Psalm 141
In all of these psalms, David is calling out to the Lord. He is seeking Him out of a sense of crisis and fear. David is pleading with the Lord for help in his time of need.
Now let’s see a few examples of Le’David mizmor:
Of David. A psalm. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; – Psalm 24
Of David. A psalm. I will sing of Your love and justice; to You, Lord, I will sing praise. – Psalm 101
Of David. A psalm. The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” – Psalm 110
Here we see a very different tone. David is not needy. He is not seeking the Lord’s help or comfort. He does not ask the Lord to draw close to him. He feels close to Him already. As opposed to the previous examples, David begins happy, victorious, and confident. At the outset, David is inspired by the Divine Presence. He is filled with the spirit of God. The psalms that follow are the result of this inspiration and closeness to God.
What about Psalm 23?
Psalm 23 begins Mizmor le’David – A Psalm of David. Based on the above, we know that David wrote this psalm while feeling distant and needy. He was not filled with the inspiration of God’s spirit. He wrote the psalm in an effort to reach a state of closeness and intimacy with the Lord. Therefore, we would expect Psalm 23 to open with David in search of the Lord or in need of help. But at first glance, this is not what we find in the opening verse:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
Not only do we not see David calling out to God for help as he did in the other “Psalm of David” psalms, he actually declares that he is not needy at all! I shall not want. I lack nothing. How does Psalm 23 fit the rule that we have just learned about Mizmor le’David?
To answer this question, I ask you to read the upcoming lessons on this psalm. Together, we will read David’s words carefully and closely. As we read, we will discover that despite how things appear on the surface, Psalm 23 describes a troubled soul searching for the peace and tranquility that is to be found only in the presence of the Lord and in the knowledge that He is the shepherd.
Everyone who lives a life of faith experiences both Mizmor le’David, and Le’David mizmor moments. There are times when we feel so close to God that we are filled with His presence and His spirit, and the result is that we sing His praises. At other times, we feel distant and needy. In those darker times, we seek Him, we call on Him, and we again sing His praises. This leads us back into His intimate presence.
The beauty and complexity of the Psalms reflect our ever-evolving relationship with the Divine. Just like the ebb and flow of our own spiritual journeys, these verses mirror the human experience of searching for, finding, losing, and rediscovering faith. The intricate dance of the superscriptures highlights this duality, reminding us that our quest for Divine connection is an eternal cycle, where sometimes we lead with our faith, and at other times, we follow the inspiration bestowed upon us. In both scenarios, it is the unwavering bond with the Divine that lights our path and shapes our soulful melodies.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast