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Biblical vocabulary: מזמור (song of praise)

A psalm

The noun “mizmor” is derived from the Hebrew verb “zimmer” which means to sing, to sing about, to praise, to glorify, to sing praise and particularly to sing with musical accompaniment, to make music. This verb, which occurs predominantly in the psalms, mainly refers to singing accompanied by strings and often has the meaning of singing praises with a psalm.[1]

This basic meaning of the verb “zimmer” is expressed in the words: “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm!” (Psalm 47: 6-7). The noun “mizmor”/song of praise, hymn, psalm[2] is derived from this verb “zimmer”/to sing praise with a psalm. The term “mizmor” refers to a psalm of various nature and content: song of praise, prayer, supplication, complaint, testimony.

Mizmor in the book of Psalms

The word “mizmor”/psalm occurs only in the Psalms, especially in the titles. For example, “A “mizmor”/psalm of the Sons of Korah. A Song…” (Psalm 87: 1). This indicates that these psalms were sung with musical accompaniment, especially when played with strings. It is about music and singing to God’s honor. Of the 73 Davidic psalms, 35 are referred to in the title as “mizmor”/psalm. All twelve Asaf psalms – Psalms 50, 73-83 – are also marked as “mizmor”/psalm in the title.[3]

The title of the 11 psalms of the Korahites also contains the designation “mizmor”/psalm (Psalm 42, 44-49, 84-85; 87-88). In the preamble of these psalms it is indicated that they are intended as “mizmor”/psalm to sing and to make music. Based on the meaning of the stem from which “mizmor”/psalm is derived, it should be clear to us that this word indicates a song of praise, meant to magnify and honor the Lord God with voice and strings. The purpose of this was and remains: to praise and glorify the Lord God and to gratefully proclaim all His benefits. Whoever knows the Lord personally will also be able to declare and sing about His gracious blessings….

Praise and “mizmor”/psalm

On the one hand, this praise was given by separate and skilled ministers for the ministry of vocals and music, such as the children of Jeduthun and Heman, who “were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful…” (1 Chronicles 25:3-7). These were highly skilled singers and musicians, committed to the musical study to serve God with this. After all, it is about praising the Most High! For this, one should give the best to His honor and not to the honor of the performers. On the other hand, it is apparent that a “mizmor”/psalm – and often several sung consecutively – were joined in by the believers.

For example, the “mizmor”/psalm was sung along in the temple, accompanied by the Levitical singers and musicians. This was also the case during the difficult period of reconstruction after the Babylonian exile. They passionately sang responsively “praising and giving thanks to the Lord For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” (Ezra 3:10-11). But a “mizmor”/psalm was especially sung by the individual believer in all circumstances: in joyful times of happiness and prosperity, but very often in dark periods of sorrow, suffering, pain and loneliness. As a psalmist, David knew this all too well… and wrote a penetrating “mizmor”/psalm of praise in deep grief and distress.

In You, o Lord, do I take refuge…” (Psalm 31:1-2).

Song of praise in joy and misery

The Psalms teach us that a “mizmor”/psalm of praise can be sung or said in situations of joy, peace, and silence. Who does not know David’s shepherd psalm in which only peace resounds and confidence in the Shepherd is sung? (Psalm 23). That confidence is also echoed in the hymn to God’s House where even the little sparrow – that is me (Luke 12:7) – finds a place (Psalm 84). A “mizmor” may be a testimony that begins and ends with a supplication, “Give ear, o Shepherd of Israel…” (Psalm 80:1,19).

It is telling, however, that a “mizmor”/song of praise resonates mainly in grief and tears. Thus it may have been a prayer in great distress: “O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before You…” (Psalm 88:1). A “mizmor” can also be an intense complaint prophetically describing the vicarious suffering of the Messiah … (Psalm 22). In joy and sorrow, the psalms call on us to praise the Lord with a song that never ages: “O sing to the Lord a new song…” (Psalm 98:1).

[1] In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, approximately 3rd century BC) the Hebrew verb “zimmer” is mainly translated with “psallo” (strumming, playing a stringed instrument, singing praise), of which the well-known word “Psalterium” (Psalter/Psalms) is derived.

[2] The root letters zmr of the verb “zimmer”/singing psalms are reflected in the derived word “mizmor”.

[3] In the Greek translation this word “mizmor” was rendered with “psalmos”, from which the word “psalm” resulted.

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Dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk

© Copyright dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk
Dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk studied Semitic languages and Cultures in Leiden and Judaism and archaeology in Jerusalem. Her specialism is Hebrew and the Old Testament. She worked for many years as a teacher in various theological colleges and co-authored the (Dutch) Study Bible of the CvB
and the HSV bible translation. She works as a teacher, author and speaker.

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