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Who wrote the Psalms?

The question of who wrote the Psalms isn’t as straightforward as many think it is. Most scholars today agree that, while David wrote some, he didn’t write all of the psalms. But they disagree on how many and precisely which psalms David wrote.

From elsewhere in scripture, we know that David was a gifted musician and singer (1 Sam. 16:14-23, 2 Sam. 23:1). His spirituality, as a man after God’s own heart, makes it plausible that he wrote such inspiring psalms (1 Sam. 13:14). Given David’s background as both shepherd and king, it’s easy to imagine him composing Psalm 23. Many Davidic psalms speak of enemies seeking to kill him, which could easily refer to David’s being targeted by either Saul or Absalom. Thus, according to Hebrew tradition, David wrote many of the psalms, and 73 of them bear a Hebrew heading long taken to mean “by David.” I see no reason to question this tradition. We have many examples of talented songwriters both in our day and in the past writing numerous songs or hymns.

In addition to the 73 psalms bearing David’s name, others bear the names of Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Korah and others. The Hebrew manuscripts of 50 psalms have no such heading, although the Septuagint, or ancient Greek translation of the Psalms, ascribes another twelve of those psalms to David.

What’s tradition worth?

Some scholars today question David’s authorship of even the psalms that bear his name in the Hebrew manuscripts. They marshal three reasons for doing so:

  • The heading
  • The language
  • The contents

First, the Hebrew preposition lamed used in the headings with David and other psalmists’ names doesn’t always mean “by.” It can also mean “about,” “for” and even “in the mode/style/tradition of.” This has led some scholars to assume that the headings mean anything but “by David.” However, since the Jewish community has long held these headings to refer to the psalms’ authors, I see no reason to question it.

Second, some argue that the language of some psalms ascribed to David point to their having been written long after he lived, such as after the Israelites’ exile. Similarly, some Davidic psalms refer to the temple, which wasn’t built till after he had died. However, such psalms may have been updated to suit the preferences of later generations, just as we’ve done to some of our hymns. For example, some hymnals replace the thees and thous and sexist language of older hymns or change a problematic word like “dumb” to “mute.” Looking at such hymnals, we might mistakenly conclude that their hymns were written much later than they were in fact.

Third, arguing that a psalm’s contents point to its having been written at a specific time seems to me even weaker. Since poetry so often speaks across generations, its allusive language can mean one thing to one generation and something else to another. And we know this happened, that the psalms have been reappropriated by many generations of Jews, throughout the centuries.

All these arguments are weak. So I think the debate really boils down to the tug-of-war between those who are generally suspicious of tradition and those who are more open to tradition’s value. The Enlightenment has imbued much of Western scholarship—biblical scholarship included—with an inbuilt suspicion of all tradition. I believe the Enlightenment has misled us here.

Scholars who doubt that David wrote the psalms bearing his name also doubt the notes given in headings that connect a psalm to an event or series of events in David’s life. I’ve usually found these headings very helpful. Similarly, my understanding of the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” is enriched by the knowledge that Horatio Spafford wrote it after learning of the sinking of the transatlantic ship his four young daughters were on. Most people who love that hymn don’t know its tragic background. But they still find the hymn meaningful because it’s so timeless. Nevertheless, knowing its background helps us appreciate its meaning more fully.

Were any psalms written by women?

Having so long believed that David wrote the entire Book of Psalms, many people have come to assume that all the psalms were at least written by men. In fact, there’s no lack of biblical evidence for women psalmists. Exodus 15 ascribes the great “Song of the Sea” to Moses and his sister Miriam. It also seems that Deborah composed the psalm celebrating her military victory over Sisera in Judges 5. Psalms 18 and 113 are among several songs at least partly inspired by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In addition, we have the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary. We also know that women tend to be at least as spiritual as men, if not more so. All this points to the important role women played in leading the Israelites to pour out their hearts to God in worship and song. I thus suspect that women wrote a great many of the undesignated psalms, and I typically refer to their writers as women.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.