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What is a maskil in the Book of Psalms?


Maskil is a term of uncertain meaning found in the book of Psalms. Most Bible translations suggest that maskil is a literary or musical term. Most likely, it relates to the purpose of specific psalms or how they were performed or recited.

Thirteen times, the term maskil (also spelled maschil) occurs in the title of a psalm (Psalms 32, 42, 44—45, 52—55, 74, 78, 88—89, and 142). Certain Bible translations have rendered the word in English, referring to it as “a contemplation” (NKJV), “a well-written song” (NET Bible), “a contemplative psalm” (NHEB), or “an instruction” (YLT). The Hebrew word maskil is also found in Amos 5:13, where it is translated as “prudent” (ESV) or having “insight” (CSB). Many biblical scholars believe that a maskil is meant to be meditative and to impart wisdom.

Psalm 78 by Asaph is an example of the maskil being used for teaching, as it includes information on the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and their time in the desert (Psalm 78:35, 40). The psalmist pleads for the people to “hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth” (verse 1). His goal is that God’s people remember what the Lord had done for them and teach those things to their descendants. Asaph is teaching “things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:3–4). Psalm 44 similarly states the importance of learning from their fathers about what the Lord had done (Psalm 44:1–2).

Multiple writers of psalms used the maskil form, including David (Psalms 32, 52—55, and 142), the sons of Korah (Psalms 42, 44—45), Asaph (Psalms 74 and 78), Heman the Ezrahite (Psalm 88), and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89). A couple of the maskils specify that they were to be performed with “stringed instruments” (Psalm 54:1; 55:1). It’s been suggested that, since maskils were written for instruction and meditation, the songs were sung as a form of teaching in the tabernacle and temple.

Although the exact meaning of maskil is unknown, its use in the book of Psalms highlights the fact that different psalms were written in different styles, for different purposes. Other literary and musical terms, such as selah, higgaion, and michtam, in the largest book in the Bible show how God values songs and the truths they impart.

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What is a maskil in the Book of Psalms?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022