David and His Psalms

Gerard van Honthorst, King David Playing the Harp, 1622,
Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth century AD, Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia, wrote a commentary on the Psalter in which he ascribed all of the psalms to David. Even the psalms with superscriptions listing other authors (e.g. Psa 42, to the sons of Korah) he attributed instead to David. Even psalms that Theodore interpreted as describing events hundreds of years after David’s time, such as the Babylonian Captivity (e.g. Psa 73) or the Maccabean revolt (e.g. Psa 74), were written by David prophetically. This view is also found among the Rabbis (cf. b. Pes. 117a; contrast with b. B. Bathra 14b–15a). The result was that “David” became one of the titles by which the Psalter was known (possibly reflected in 4QMMT C 10). It is not uncommon for Christians today to believe that David produced the Book of Psalms as we have it. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Psalter was composed over many centuries and was completed long after David’s death. The great Israelite king wrote many psalms, but some psalms are set during the Babylonian exile (e.g. Ps. 137) and have no connection to David. This study will briefly address the questions of the authorship and compilation of the Book of Psalms. 

WHO WROTE THE PSALMS?

The Old Testament Portrait of David the Psalmist

It is with good reason that David has become known as the “sweet singer of Israel.” Still in his youth, he gained such a reputation as a musician that his name was on the lips of Saul’s advisors when the king needed comfort from the evil spirit sent by the Lord (1 Sam 16:14–23). He commemorated the death of Saul and Jonathan with “The Song of the Bow” (2 Sam 1:18). When he had finished his life’s battles, he composed a psalm (2 Sam 22; cf. Psa 18). David’s “Last Words” (2 Sam 23:1–7) also form a psalm. David was also a patron of musicians. He appointed Levitical singers (2 Chron 23:18; cf. Ezra 3:10) and saw to the construction of musical instruments (1 Chron 23:5; 2 Chron 7:6; 29:26; cf. Amos 6:5). Despite the translation of 1 Chron 16:7 in the KJV and NIV, the text does not say that David wrote the psalm(s) in that chapter, but rather designated “Asaph and his kindred” to sing at the bringing in of the ark. They sang a medley of psalms found separately and without superscriptions in our Book of Psalms (Psa 105; 96; 106, in that order).  

The New Testament Portrait of David the Psalmist 

New Testament authors quote the Psalter 79 times, more than any other OT book. Collectively, they attribute to David the authorship of seven psalms, five of which have superscriptions in the traditional Hebrew text associating the psalm with David. 

PsalmAttribution in SuperscriptionNT Passage
2:1–2No SuperscriptionActs 4:24–28
16:8–11DavidActs 2:25–32
32:1–2DavidRomans 4:6–8
69:25DavidActs 1:16, 20
95:7–8In Greek, not HebrewHebrews 4:7
109:8DavidActs 1:16, 20
110:1DavidMark 12:35–37; Acts 2:33–35

Authorship in the Superscriptions?

Most Christian scholars are unwilling to ascribe inspiration to these technical notes preceding many of the psalms. (See the end of this post.) However, that they are ancient is clear from their inclusion in the second century BC Greek translation; in fact, some of the more technical terminology was mistranslated into Greek, indicating that at least those parts of the superscriptions are so old that their meaning was forgotten by the time of the translation.

Seven or eight different personal names appear in the superscriptions, together covering one hundred psalms. 

NameFrequencyPsalms
David733–9, 11–32, 34–41, 51–65, 68–70, 86, 101, 103, 108–110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138–145
Asaph1250, 73–83
Korahites11 (10?)42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88 (see next lecture on Ps. 88)
Jeduthun339, 62, 77
Solomon272, 127
Moses190
Heman188
Ethan189

David, Solomon, and Moses are known to every child in Bible class. Asaph (1 Chron 16:4–7), Korah (1 Chron 9:19), Jeduthun (2 Chron 5:12), Heman, and Ethan (1 Chron 15:17) all were temple workers and musical performers. It is not clear whether “Jeduthun” in the superscriptions functions as a personal name, as it is never the only personal name in a superscription. In two of the psalms wherein it appears (Psa 62; 77), “Jeduthun” is preceded by a preposition that seems to mean that it is a tune or an instrument.

Meaning of the Lamed

Each of these names (except Jeduthun twice) is preceded by the Hebrew preposition lamed, e.g.  le-David (לדוד), which is not the most obvious way of indicating authorship, at least not to us moderns. A first-year Hebrew student is more likely to translate it as “to David” or “for David,” though it could also mean “about David,” or “by David.” Though many scholars doubt that the lamed functions as an ascription of authorship, Longman and Dillard (p. 243) provide a reasonable case for understanding the preposition in this way. They point to Habakkuk 3:1, where le-Habakkuk cannot easily mean anything other than that Habakkuk wrote the following psalm. Furthermore, the superscription to Psalm 18 follows le-David by saying specifically that he “addressed the words of this song to the LORD” (cf. Psa 7). Longman and Dillard conclude: “This psalm title provides the expanded literary context that is lacking in the other titles and that enables us to see the function of the preposition in the titles.”

Israel’s Many Songwriters

What does the Bible say about the authorship of the Psalms? The New Testament ascribes to David seven psalms; no other writer of Psalms is mentioned in the New Testament. Psalm 18 parallels 2 Samuel 22. That is all the information the Bible provides, except for what is contained in the superscriptions of the Psalms. These superscriptions attribute to David 73 psalms. Other people are also listed as authors, but we have no tradition about authorship for the many psalms without superscriptions. Some of these latter psalms are clearly exilic, which shows that the Psalter was a long time in the making. How did these many disparate psalms written by many different writers over a period of centuries come to form one collection?

COLLECTIONS OF PSALMS

Early Christians had several theories about how the Psalms were arranged, including the view that they were not arranged logically at all, but Ezra put them in the order that he found them after they were scattered during the exile (see, e.g., de Lange, p. 54). Nevertheless, it is obvious that the psalms were collected and organized in stages. Psalm 72 ends with a note that says, “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended,” even though 18 psalms attributed to David come after Psalm 72. Since the first 72 psalms are almost completely Davidic (according to the superscriptions), it is probable that they formed an early collection of songs with a postscript signaling their conclusion. 

Probably this “Davidic Psalter” constituted one of many earlier, smaller collections of psalms before the Psalter as we have it was finally put together. Clues to these earlier collections can be found in the author and genre “clusters” that still exist within our present Psalter. We have seen that many of the Davidic psalms are grouped within the first two books. Psalms without superscriptions (“orphan” psalms) dominate the last two books. Asaph’s psalms are collected in Psalms 73–83, except for Psalm 50. The psalms of the Korahites are also grouped together, though more loosely. The one grouping that is completely consistent is that of the fifteen Songs of Ascents, all united within Psalms 120–134. It may be that each of these groups constituted an earlier anthology of psalms later incorporated within our present Psalter. 

One of the larger pre-canonical Psalms collections integrated many of the Korahite, Asaphite and Davidic psalms within what is now called the “Elohistic Psalter,” a title derived from its preference for the name Elohim (“God”). It was first recognized in the nineteenth century that Psalms 42–83 are peculiar in their use of God’s name. These 42 Psalms contain almost half the verses in the entire Psalter (740 of 1527 verses). The Divine Name Yahweh (the Tetragrammaton) appears in the entire Psalter 695 times, but only 6.5% of these appearances come in Psalms 42–83 (45 total occurrences). On the other hand, the word Elohim (“God”) appears 197 times in Psalms 42–83, but only 19 times in the other psalms. A striking example of the contrast between the Elohistic Psalter and the rest of the psalms is found in the comparison of Psalms 14 and 53, which are identical except for the name of God (cf. also Psa 40:13–17 and Psa 70). 

Since exilic psalms are included in our present Psalter (e.g. Psa 74; 89; 137), it is evident that the final editor worked no earlier than the Persian era. He took up prior collections such as David’s psalms, Asaph’s psalms, the Elohistic Psalter, etc., and arranged them into their present shape, finishing the collection with more Davidic psalms and orphan psalms. Early Jewish and Christian tradition identified this editor with Ezra, but this is probably just a guess coming hundreds of years after the fact. Whoever the editor was, we can say that he was very faithful to his sources, judging from his retention of the note marking the end of the Davidic Psalter (72:20), even when it no longer applied. The goals and methods of this final editor of the Psalms have been the subjects of intense research since the late Gerald Wilson published his dissertation The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter in 1985. Many interesting and beneficial insights for both scholar and Bible teacher have come to light through this new line of research. Here we note briefly the most obvious example of this editor’s organizational principles.

The fivefold structure of the Psalter has been recognized since ancient times (see again de Lange, p. 54). Doxologies appear after Psalms 41; 72; 89; and 106, which divide the Psalter into five “books”. The final five praise psalms (146–150) form the doxology to the fifth book. 

Book 1Psalms 1–41
Book 2Psalms 42–72
Book 3Psalms 73–89
Book 4Psalms 90–106
Book 5Psalms 107–150

Most English translations now insert the headings “Book One,” “Book Two,” etc., before the appropriate psalms, but these headings are not included in the manuscripts. Rather, the close of a book is indicated only by the doxology, a structuring principle found in other ancient Near Eastern literature, as well (Wilson, pp. 13–24). Jewish tradition compares the five books of the Psalter to the five books of Moses (see Midrash on Psalms 1.5). This may have been the editor’s intention, for just as Moses provided instruction (torah) for service to God, so the Psalter provides, as it were, “a teaching manual for worship and prayer” (in the words of Goldingay, p. 23; see also Bonhoeffer’s reflections on praying the Psalms in Life Together, pp. 27–32).

This essay is a revised version of one originally published with the proceedings of the 2009 Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship.

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