There are only a total of 17 psalms in Book Three. Book Four also has 17 psalms. In Book Three 11 of the 17 psalms are attributed to Asaph, and 4 to the Sons of Korah one to Ethan the Ezrahite, and one to David. We saw in Book Two seven psalms attributed to the Sons of Korah and one to Asaph. Thus between Books Two and Three (the only books where they are found) there are 12 by Asaph and 12 by the Sons of Korah or Ethan. Twelve is the symbolic number for the people of God. 24 psalms (12×2) is very appropriate because Heman, Asaph, and Ethan led the people of God in worship.
Heman, Asaph, and Ethan
No doubt you remember that Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, led a rebellion in the book of Numbers against Moses and Aaron. So Korah was one of the Levites and he rebelled together with a couple Reubenites. And everyone in their family who refused to separate themselves from that rebellion were swallowed alive by the earth (Numbers 16).
But then the new census of Israel made this interesting aside: ”But the sons of Korah did not die” (Num 26:11) – meaning that his line did not end because some separated themselves from their father’s rebellion.
We discover the sons of Korah, according to Chronicles, were very involved in the worship of the people of God before and after returning from the exile. Though many scholars think we are hearing about occupational ”descendants.” We read the following in 1 Chronicles 6: ”These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of YHWH after the ark rested there. They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting until Solomon built the house of YHWH in Jerusalem, and they performed their service according to their order. These are the men who served and their sons. Of the sons of the Kohathites: Heman the singer the son of Joel…the son of Korah…son of Kohath…And his brother Asaph who stood on his right hand, namely, Asaph the son of Berechiah…son of Gershom, son of Levi. On the left hand were their brothers, the sons of Merari: Ethan the son of Kishi…son of Merari, son of Levi. And their brothers the Levites were appointed for all the service of the tabernacle of the house of God” (1 Chron 6:31-48). (And after the exile, 1 Chronicles 9:19 says: ”Shallum the son of Kore, son of Ebiasaph, son of Korah, and his kinsmen of his fathers’ house, the Korahites, were in charge of the work of the service, keepers of the thresholds of the tent, as their fathers had been in charge of the camp of YHWH, keepers of the entrance.” The firstborn of Shallum ”was entrusted with making the flat cakes” (1 Chron 9:31).)
But it was King David that put Heman, Asaph and Ethan, in charge of the ministry of music for the tabernacle (and then the temple) of YHWH. 1 Chron 15:19 says concerning the ark being brought to Jerusalem: ”The singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound brass cymbals.’ ‘This together with the fact that one psalm in Book Three is labeled as ”a prayer of David” makes it clear that the Psalter continues to be associated primarily with him and his coming Messianic son.
Book Three Subtitles: Part I
Note that the first seven psalms of Book Three follow a chiastic pattern: ”a psalm of Asaph,” ”a maskil of Asaph,” three psalms of Asaph, ”a maskil of Asaph,” ”a psalm of Asaph.” And among those three psalms of Asaph at the center the first and last apparently give us the name of the tune and the one in the middle is with stringed instruments. These subtitles are as follows: Psalm 73 – A psalm of Asaph, Psalm 74 – A maskil of Asaph, Psalm 75 – To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A psalm of Asaph. A song, Psalm 76 – To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A psalm of Asaph. A song, Psalm 77 – To the choirmaster: according to Jeduthun. A psalm of Asaph, Psalm 78 – A maskil of Asaph, Psalm 79 – A psalm of Asaph.
Jeduthun, if our understanding of the subtitle is right that this is the name for a tune, was likely a music composer because there is a musician by that name in 1 Chronicles. Heman and Jeduthun are mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:41-42. And 1 Chronicles 25:1 says, ”David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals.” 1 Chronicles 25:3 notes that Jeduthun’s six sons: ”under the supervision of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied, using the harp in thanksgiving and praising YHWH.”
Heman is called ”the king’s seer” in 1 Chronicles 25:5. Seer is an old title for prophet. So those who led worship as musicians were considered prophets.
Book Three Subtitles: Part II
The next four psalms, like the first seven, are attributed to Asaph: Psalm 80 – To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A testimony. Of Asaph, a psalm, Psalm 81 – To the choirmaster: according to the Gittith. Of Asaph, Psalm 82 – A psalm of Asaph, Psalm 83 – A song. A psalm of Asaph.
Book Three Subtitles: Part IV
Aside from the ”prayer of David” (Psalm 86): Psalm 84 – To the choirmaster: according to the Gittith. A psalm of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 85 – To the choirmaster. A psalm of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 87 – A psalm of the Sons of Korah. A song, Psalm 88 – A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite, Psalm 89 – A maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.
Most curious are the subtitles of the last two psalms in Book Three: Psalm 88 – A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite and Psalm 89 – A maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.
Ethan the Ezrahite was renowned for his wisdom as he is the first of those listed that King Solomon was wiser than in 1 Kings 4:31 (English verse numbering). The confusing part is Psalm 88 saying, ”Heman the Ezrahite.” We have seen thus far that Heman, Asaph, and Ethan were the primary music leaders. Not sure how Ethan came to be known as Ethan the Ezrahite. The title is clear that Psalm 88 is a psalm of the Sons of Korah, so calling Heman “Heman the Ezrahite” is not meant to deceive us, we know who they mean, but is done for another reason. Perhaps that reason the author is called ”Heman the Ezrahite” is that we are meant to count Psalm 89 by ”Ethan the Ezrahite” together with the psalms of the Sons of Korah to make twelve (as we counted earlier).
Wisdom that Is Prophetic
In any case, we are reminded that the Psalter is a book of wisdom (Ethan the Ezrahite) that is prophetic (the discussion regarding Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun). 1 Chronicles 25:7 says, ”The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to YHWH, all who were skillful, was 288.” The word ”skillful” is a wisdom word.
Chiasm of the Writings
Part of the reason for examining Chronicles for information about the Psalms is that the two books are parallel.
Ending and Content
The ending of Book Three is as follows: ”Blessed be YHWH forever! Amen and Amen” (Psalm 89:52). This simply repeats the phrases common to both the endings of Books One and Two.
As to the content of the psalms in Book Three we here find the one lament psalm that does not have a positive ending (Psalm 88). We also find the inspiration for song ”Better Is One Day” (Psalm 84).
Opening and Closing Psalms
The Psalm that opens Book Three is a wisdom psalm. In it Asaph addresses how to deal with doubt and we find that getting in the presence of God and getting a new perspective on life is the answer. And the psalm that closes Book Three is a royal Messianic hymn. Interestingly, like the royal Messianic hymn ending Book Two it also uses the sun and the moon as images of forever (Psalm 89:36-37). Also given the comment noted earlier about Solomon as more wise than Ethan the Ezrahite, it is interesting that Book Two ends with a psalm by Solomon and then Book Three with a psalm by Ethan the Ezrahite. These wise men are mentioned as the authors of these prophetic royal Messianic hymns rather than as the authors of wisdom psalms.
It is worth noting then that these psalms were all designed for public worship by those who led worship and thus they are not limited to the setting in which they were written. Some would argue that this means we should not pay attention to these subtitles, but you should be able to see by now why I would not agree.