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What is the meaning of shigionoth in Habakkuk?

Question: "What is the meaning of shigionoth in Habakkuk?"

The plural word shigionoth and its singular form, shiggaion, each appear in the Bible once. Habakkuk 3:1 mentions shigionoth, and the title of Psalm 7 mentions the shiggaion. Since no one really knows what the shigionoth or shiggaion is, the translators left the words untranslated, giving transliterations instead. The prophet Habakkuk introduces his closing song this way: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.” The ESV says, “According to Shigionoth,” instead of “On shigionoth.” The title of Psalm 7 says, “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjamite.”

The whole book of Habakkuk is poetry, but the final chapter comprises a unique song—actually, a prayer set to music, according to Habakkuk 3:1. The shigionoth mentioned in Habakkuk 3:1 could be a reference to the content of the poem, the accompanying instrument, or to the song’s meter, its musical setting, or its tone. Most commentators think the word shigionoth carried the idea of “strong emotion,” “erratic wandering,” or “wild tumult.” Thus, the song was composed as a dithyramb (a vehement, impassioned poem).

Comparing Habakkuk 3 with Psalm 7, we find similar themes. Both songs paint a picture of dire trouble. Habakkuk 3 speaks of earthquakes, crumbling mountains, pestilence, floods, arrows, spears, and calamity; Psalm 7 describes vicious lions, trampled lives, rage, swords, flaming arrows, and violence. Both songs end with praise to the Lord for His deliverance from the surrounding trouble. And both songs mention the shiggaion or shigionoth.

David classifies his song as a shiggaion. Habakkuk says that his song should be sung in the manner of the shigionoth. As best we can tell, the tumultuous poetry of Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 7 was to be accompanied by music that fit the theme. “On shigionoth” probably meant “with impassioned triumph,” “with rapidity,” or “with abrupt changes of tune.”

Recommended Resource: Holman Old Testament Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah by Trent Butler

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