Exegesis and Application
The fact that faithful Jews of the Old Testament were the subject of mocking, satirical and derisive popular songs from their unbelieving culture is repeated throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Job. 30:9; Ps. 69:12; Lam. 3:14). Clearly, God’s people knew the popular musical culture that surrounded and made fun of them. In the poetry of God’s people in the Old Testament we see every shade and quality of sentiment, moods and feelings expressed. Not only the antitheses of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, faith and doubt, but love and hate as well. James Millar notes, “It is hardly possible to suppose that the people who originated all that wealth of emotional utterance should have been without a corresponding ability to invent diversified melodies, or should have been content with the bald and colorless recitative usually attributed the them.”
*Job 21:12, Job cites the songs (Hebrew = kohl) that the wicked sing (or “lift up”) which express their entertainment values.
*Ps. 6 & Ps. 12 we find the phrase “To the tune of sheminith” in the title. The Hebrew word “sheminith” means “octave” or “eighth.” We find it used in 1 Chron. 15:21. Carl Cornill maintains that given the context of the term in 1 Chronicles this Psalm tune may be most suited for male voices. Calvin asserts “I am rather inclined to the opinion that sheminith refers to the tune.”
*Ps. 46 we find the phrase “To the tune of alamoth” in the title. The Hebrew word means “young women” or “maidens” which might mean that this Psalm was to be sung by high or soprano voices (cf, Ps. 68:25). Better still, the term might indicate the tune which is to accompany these lyrics, thus Calvin writes, “the word alamoth means the commencement of some common and well-known song.” August Tholuck renders the title of this Psalm to the popular song “To the tune of ‘The Virgins.’ Ernst Hengstenberg and Francis Vatablus agree with Calvin, and so do I. In 1 Chron. 15:21 we find the phrases “to play the lyres according to alamoth” and to ply the harps according to sheminith.” The Hebrew word “alamoth” in this context might be literally translated “after the manner of young women.” The early 20th century German theologian, Carl H. Cornill, has an interesting interpretation of this verse: “This passage teaches that a circle of temple musicians played upon the harp after the manner of maidens and another on the lute after the eighth. By the designation ‘after the manner of maidens’ can only be meant the high clear voices of women and then it is natural to see in the ‘eighth’ the deeper voices of the men an octave lower. If this combination is correct, we see clearly proven the existence of a scale of seven intervals.”
*Psalms 8, 81 and 84 we find the phrase “according to gittith” in the title of the Psalms, which could be translated “according to the tune of ‘Winepress.’” There is some dispute over the exact meaning of this Hebrew word but most commentators agree that it is a musical term and probably title of current song. I take the meaning to be a melody named after the annual wine harvest (gat)(81:10, 16; cf, Neh. 13:15). The Septuagint translates it so, as does Jerome. My bias is influenced by the titles of some other Psalms.
*Ps. 9 we find the phrase “To the tune of ‘The Death of the Son’” in the title. The Hebrew phrase “muth-labben” can also be translated “upon the death of a son” or “the secrets of the son” (LXX), or “the youth of the son” (Peter of Aquila). Derek Kidner thinks this phrase does not refer to a tune, but I disagree.
*Ps. 22 we find the phrase “To the tune of ‘Help in the Morning’ in the title. Some commentators translate the word “help” as “doe” but it seems that the context of the psalm (vs. 18; cf, Ps. 88:4) would favor “help” or “strength,” rather than an animal reference. Jerome comments that because the promised Messiah would rise on the third day it is “at that hour of dawn” that we experienced the fullness of God’s kindness. Thus, this Psalm is to be sung to a tune called “For the Protection at Dawn.” The Jewish Midrash kind of agrees. I agree with Calvin and Adam Clarke that the correct title really doesn’t make any difference since, in any case, David is referring to a popular Jewish tune to sing this lyric. John Calvin holds this view (“a common song”), as does H. F. W. Gesenius. That is nice company.
*Ps. 33:3, we find the interesting Hebrew word for “blow” (“teruah”) which is translated in this verse as “shout for joy” or “a loud noise” and was the term used for a rapid, oscillating cymbal or trumpet pattern in war and alarm; think of US Army cavalry charges in John Ford movies. The point of all of this is that we may have here a biblical example of syncopation and rhythmic beat.
*Psalms 45, 60, 69, 80 we find the phrase “to the tune of ‘Lilies’” in the title. In Ps. 45 the phrase “A Love Song” is uniquely added to the title giving a Song of Solomon flavor of marriage bliss. In Ps. 60, the title reads “The Lily of the Covenant,” and in Ps. 80 the title reads “The Lilies of the Covenant.” Lilies (Hebrew = susan) have a romantic connection in at least 8 places in the Song of Solomon and in Hosea 14:5, so we can see a popular love song being conscripted for worship.
*Ps. 56 we find the phrase “To the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks’” in the title. The phrase is literally translated “To the tune of ‘A Silent Dove of Distant Ones.’” There can be fanciful and spiritual interpretations to this odd phrase but I agree with Marvin Tate who states that “the best guess is that the expression refers to some sort of tune or recitative patter for use with the psalm” (Samuel Bochart and William Mudge agree). There could be a connection between the “dovish” tune in this psalm and Ps. 55: 7. Keil and Delitzsch call this “a standard song” being used by the Psalmist.
*Ps. 57, 58, 59 & 75 we have the phrase “To the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy’” in the title which Kidner states is a melody based on a popular regional saying of the time as recorded in Isaiah 65:8 (see also Deut. 9:26 and 1 Sam. 26:9).
*Ps. 88 we find the phrase “To the tune of ‘The Suffering of Affliction’” in the title which is the Hebrew “mahalath leannoth” which can be translated “tune of sickness or affliction”. “malalath” is used alone without description in the title of Ps. 53 as a “tune” or as Jerome translates it “a round dance.” A Hebrew root of Mahalath may link the word to “whirl,” “dance” and “pipe.”
*Ps. 96:1 we read, “sing to the LORD, all the earth” and we see the metaphorical allusions, so prevalent in American popular songs, used repeatedly in the Bible: “fields” sing (Ps. 96:12), “trees in the forest” sing (Ps. 96:12), the “sea” sings (Ps. 96:11), the “heavens” sing (Ps. 96:11), the critters of the field sing (Ps. 96:12), the “mountains and the hills” sing (Ps. 98:8), the “rivers clap their hands” (Ps. 98:8), the “morning stars” sing (Job 38:7).
*Psalm 137:3, we see the Jews weren’t alone in appreciating tuneful melodies for the surrounding pagan culture (i.e. Babylonians) knew of the Israelite songs for it celebrated and requested Jewish tunes that spoke to their souls. The Mesopotamian cultures loved their popular tunes.