THE AUTHOR OF THE PSALMS
"Excellent Psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam 23:1)
A painting by Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
For many years, people believed that the psalms were written by King David. In the words of the Holy Scripture, David was “the excellent psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1). Recently, however, many modern scholars have advanced the idea that King David might not be the only author of the Psalms. Some even doubted whether David was truly the author of the psalms traditionally attributed to him.
Many modern scholars think that King David wrote only 73 of the 150 psalms listed in the Book of Psalms. This is because David’s name appears in the “title” of the psalms in only 73 of these psalms. On the other hand, other names or authors appear in some titles, including Moses, Solomon, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman the Ezrahite, Asaph, and the sons of Korah. After adding together all the psalms with identified authors, there remain about 51 more psalms whose authors have not been identified. Because the authors were not identified in the titles, the scholars assumed that the authors were different from King David.
In addition to the fact that the name of King David is missing in some of the psalms, there are also internal indications that some of the psalms, suchas Ps 137, were written during the Babylonian captivity, which was way past the time of King David. Therefore, the scholars again contend that these psalms could not possibly have been written by King David.
Some comments need to be made regarding these opinions:
First, the fact that the name of King David is not in the “title” of a particular psalm does not itself prove that he did not write the psalm. For example, his name does not appear in Psalm 2, but he was the author of it according to Acts 4:25. Likewise, Ps 95 appears without a title in the newer translations, but King David was the author according to St. Paul in Heb 4:7. Therefore, it is possible that the 51 psalms, without a specified author, could also have been written by King David.
Second, the fact that a name other than David appears in the title of a psalm does not necessarily indicate that the psalm was not written by King David. For example, Psalm 90 has the title, “A Psalm of Moses.” However, this does not prove that the psalm was written by Moses. In the Bible, there is a book called “The Wisdom of Solomon,” but it was not written by King Solomon! It was just assigned to Solomon by honorary attribution. In the same manner, the so-called “psalm of Moses” could have been written by King David but assigned to Moses to honor him. The same may be said of the psalms “of Asaph” (a musician in the court of King David). The psalms could have been written by King David but were awarded to Asaph in recognition of his dedication and service to the royal court. It appears that the authorship of any psalm or book cannot be established based solely on the name that appears in the title.
Third, the fact that a particular psalm reflects a time period outside of King David’s milieu does not prove that King David did not write it. The principal author of the psalms is the Holy Spirit, who is not restricted to conveying descriptions and emotions pertaining only to the time of King David. Many of King David's psalms reflect circumstances and events in Christ's life that occurred a thousand years later! If the prophetic King David could write descriptions reflective of Christ’s historical setting, why would it be impossible for him to write descriptions that reflect settings at any other future time, such as the Babylonian captivity in Ps 137?
For these reasons, it cannot be asserted with certainty that King David was not the author of some of the psalms. There is a possibility that he did write all the psalms. In fact, St. Augustine, in the City of God, Book 17, Chapter 14, found it quite credible that King David was the author of all the psalms.
Confidence in David’s authorship is based on the fact that, in addition to David’s name being in the title of many of the psalms, there are several external references, both in the Old and New Testaments, that point to David as the true author of the psalms. For example, the following references are found in the Old Testament: 2 Sam 1:14 for Ps 105:15; 2 Sam 22 for Ps 18; 1 Chr 16:7-22 for Ps 105:1-15; 1 Chr 16:23-33 for Ps 96; and 1 Chr 16:34 for Ps 107:1. And in the New Testament: Acts 4:25-26 for Ps 2:1; Acts 2:25-28 for Ps 16:8-11; Romans 4:6-8 for Ps 32:1-2; Acts 1:16 for Ps 41:10; Acts 1:15-20 for Ps 69:26 and Ps 109:8; Heb 4:7 for Ps 95:8; Luke 20:41-44 and Acts 2:34 for Ps 110:1; and Acts 2:29-30 for Ps 132:11.
Also, in at least some of the psalms, the title does not merely cite the name of David but even gives the historical circumstances surrounding David’s writing of the psalm. This is evident in Pss 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, and 142. These facts point strongly to King David as the author of the psalms.
Unlike King David, the other “authors” of the psalms, whose names were cited in the psalm titles, have no external references that confirm their authorship, nor do the psalms give any historical allusion supporting their authorship of the psalms. Also, the other “authors,” such as Asaph, Ethan, Heman, and the sons of Korah, were musicians working in the service of King David. They, therefore, received instructions from King David on praising the Lord. King David made Asaph his chief musician (1 Chr 16:7). It is not unreasonable to think that King David would compose a few psalms and award them to him (by honorary attribution) to honor his dedication. If Asaph wrote a psalm, it was most likely under David's direct supervision. If that was the case, then David could still be regarded as its author. Even today, the work of the employee is often credited to the employer.
The reasons above do not constitute demonstrative proof that King David wrote all the psalms. At best, it can be said that he wrote a great majority of the psalms, if not all. If modern scholars find it problematic to call the psalms the “Psalms of King David” just because David's name was not mentioned in some of the psalm titles, there is at least no mistake in calling them the “Prayers of King David.” Because David prayed, recited, and sang the psalms and directed others to do the same, regardless of whether they were composed by him or by others.