Did David Really write all those psalms?

King David playing the harp

When reading through the book of Psalms, one can’t help but notice how often the name “David” pops up. Of the 150 psalms, a full 73 have the following note in their introductions:

  • לְדָוִיד
  • lĕdāwîd
  • (belonging) to David

The Hebrew proposition ל־ (the letter lamed) which begins this phrase is used in a bunch of different ways. How should we understand the point of it here? Did David actually write all these psalms? Or, as Robert Alter’s translates it, does the phrase mean “A David psalm.” That is, it just tells us that somewhere along the line of history people believed that David was somehow associated with these psalms—maybe as author, maybe as inspiration.

These same questions apply—to a lesser extent—to the psalms which name other authors: Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Sons of Korah, Heman, or Ethan. Did they really write these psalms?

Here is the short answer: there is no definitive way to prove they did or they didn’t.

A longer answer is worth thinking about.

The “no, David did not write this psalm” arguments

To spare the long, winding, circuitous, and generally self-referential arguments scholars make about the issue, here is a brief summation of the main arguments people call upon to support the position that David didn’t write the psalms attributed to him:

The dating of individual psalms has long been a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand. The one safe conclusion is that the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past. Although many psalms include the name David in the superscription supplied by the editors, the meaning of the Hebrew particle le that usually prefixes the name is ambiguous. It is conventionally translated as “of,” and in ancient seals and other objects that have been discovered, it does serve as a possessive. But le also can mean “for,” “in the manner of,” “suitable to,” and so forth. The present translation seeks to preserve this ambiguity by translating mizmor ledawid as “a David psalm.” David was no doubt identified by the editors of the collection as the exemplary psalmist because in his story, as told in 1 and 2 Samuel, he appears as a poet and the player of a stringed instrument, and at the end of the narrative is given the epithet “the sweet singer of Israel.” But the editors themselves ascribed psalms to different poets—Asaph, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heyman the Ezrahite, the Korahites, and others. One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David, though it is difficult to gauge the likelihood (and some scholars altogether doubt David’s historicity).”

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, 13

In short, Alter notes it is technically possible that David did write some of these, but he (along with lots of scholars) view the evidence as strongly against such a conclusion.

The “yes, David wrote this psalm” arguments

There are three core arguments suggesting that David wrote the psalms attributed to him.

“of David”

First, consider the example from Habakkuk 3.1:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.

In Hebrew, the “of Habakkuk” is the same construction as the “of David” we see in our psalms. One scholar notes:

“Habakkuk seems to have employed a recognized formula for designating oneself as the author of a psalmic prayer.”

James M. Hamilton, Jr. Psalms 1-72, 44

The prayer in Habakkuk clearly is Habakkuk’s prayer. Since Habakkuk is close in time and culture to the time when the psalms were composed, this serves as reasonable evidence that the “of David” formula intends to claim that David is the author of those psalms in whose introduction it appears.


Second, the superscriptions are part of the text. Most of the psalms have some sort of superscription. Like these:

  • Psalm 18: For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: (NIV)
  • Psalm 19: For the director of music. A psalm of David. (NIV)

You will note that in English Bibles these are not given verse numbers. The lack of verse numbers can give the mistaken impression that these superscriptions are not an original part of the text (in the Hebrew, they are numbered, as well as in every other language I have checked). So, what are these?

Simply put, every ancient version of the text of the Old Testament we have, in whatever language we have it, has these superscriptions in some form or another. While that does not prove that they are original to the poems they go with, it does strongly indicate that the book of Psalms as a canonical book of the Bible has never not had the superscriptions. Which means, among other things, that all the information in them is quite ancient.

That doesn’t prove that David wrote the psalms that say “of David.” But it does suggest that there was never a time, for as long as we can go back in recorded history, where people did not believe and pass on that David wrote those 73 psalms which say “of David” at the beginning. This ancient tradition supports that David was, in fact, the author of the psalms in question.

biblical evidence

Finally, the biblical evidence robustly supports understanding David as the actual author of these psalms (and likewise, the other listed authors). I bring this up last because the strength of this argument rests entirely on the general view of Scripture which you bring to the question.

Within the New Testament, we see various people claiming that David wrote various of the psalms which are ascribed to him in the book of Psalms. Jesus (Mark 12.35-37), Peter (Acts 1:16; 2.25), and Paul (Rom 4:6) all do so.

Of course, it is possible that they were passing on knowledge which they had learned and assumed and which everyone more or less agreed upon. And this evidence from the New Testament authors doesn’t mean that we can verify David as the author of those 73 psalms without a doubt.

For those of a confessional attitude that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me,” this information from the New Testament settles the question. At the very least, the information from the New Testament testifies to a long standing and continuous tradition amongst the Jewish and then early Christian believers accepting as true the superscriptions we find in the psalms.

Does it matter: no, and yes

In closing out this brief reflection on the superscriptions of the psalms, we ask ourselves, “does it really matter?” The answer to that question is no… And yes.

First, in one sense it doesn’t matter. Many of the books of the Bible are formally anonymous. Many of the psalms within the book of Psalms are anonymous. Whoever it was who spent the painstaking time to organize the whole book of Psalms remains formally anonymous. That we can’t pin a text to a specific historical person is not a deep problem.

In another sense, Davidic authorship does matter. While we often cherry pick psalms as disconnected praises or laments to God, the whole book is deeply and intricately structured. Noting the way that the psalms of David are spread throughout the book of Psalms suggests that the final editors put the book together to reflect the life of David. And especially to reflect how the life of David demonstrates the hope God’s people have in a coming king from his line who will bring God’s people into the full blessings of his covenant with them. James M. Hamilton, Jr., writes:

“The collage of the Psalter is not merely about David’s own life but God’s purposes in the world and how and where David fits in that wider project.”

Psalms, Psalms 1-72, 51

For my own part, I lean toward assuming the superscriptions are historical. That is, that they preserve for us through traditions across the generations actual notes about who wrote what and, on occasion, what the life circumstances of the composition were. I couldn’t dogmatically prove that, or a great many other things which I believe. But there is rational evidence which at least points in this direction both inside and outside the book of Psalms.

Psalm 145: God’s greatness from A-Z

King David praises God with lyre in field with animals

Psalm 145 is one of a handful of acrostic psalms. Acrostic psalms follow the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with the next letter. You’ve probably written acrostic poetry in English in elementary school. Something like this:


Depending on your view of cats, you may or may not like that last line (being mildly allergic to them, when I am in a cat house “tormentor” is an appropriate word to use). That aside, the acrostic poem uses the pattern of letters as part of the poetry.

Hebrew acrostic poems seem to work in a similar way. They follow the pattern of the alphabet to lend a sense of totality and comprehensiveness to their treatment of theme. Psalm 119 is the most well-known of these acrostics. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet gets 8 lines!

Acrostic poems like this work better in Hebrew than English. Virtually no one even bothers trying to mimic the alphabet structure in translation. Here are a few reasons why:

  • English word order is less easily manipulated than Hebrew;
  • Certain English letters—like Q and X—do not begin many useful words; and
  • There are more letters in the English alphabet (26) than the Hebrew (22/23, depending on how you count), meaning that you run out of Hebrew text to translate before completing the English alphabet.

But some intrepid translators give it a shot anyway. I’m not sure if the result is the same. The lack of completion in the English alphabet seems to hamstring the attempts, but they are interesting.

Check out this acrostic translation of Psalm 145 by Rabbi Sam Seicol.

A couple quick notes about what you will see.

  1. The text of Psalm 145 begins following the title (Psalm 145). Hebrew is on the left; English is on the right. Remember that Hebrew reads in the opposite direction from English, so the letter closest to the center of the screen in either language is where the line begins.
  2. The lines follow the order of the alphabet.
  3. What happened to the “N” line? In the standard Hebrew text from antiquity, this line is missing. That seems like a copyist mistake. Our ancient translations testify to a Hebrew line which somehow fell out of the main Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text). We have since found at least one ancient Hebrew manuscript which has this “N” line as well. Modern Bibles all have it as the second half of verse 13.
  4. The psalm ends “and all flesh bless the holy Name forever and ever.” There are a couple lines after that which are part of the Jewish worship setting for the psalm, not the psalm itself.

This translation is a nice stab at providing an English translation which visually parallels the effect of the Hebrew poem. It also shows part of the reason why translators don’t do this: it’s hard, and the effect in English is pretty uneven. Finally, Rabbi Sam Seicol’s translation here is more like an aid for reading Hebrew than an attempt to render the psalm into an English translation which can stand strong on its own two feet.

Those weaknesses acknowledged, read it. Ponder it. Enjoy it. Whether acrostic psalms work in English or not, in Hebrew they remind us that praising God’s greatness fills up the alphabet, A—Z ,and still is unsearchable.

Jesus at the heart of Psalm 8

We recently tackled Psalm 8, focusing on how the question “what is man” plays a key role in God’s name being majestic in all the earth. The message to proclaim the majesty of God’s name by being benevolent overlords is an important one. Yet, there is more. Another important point we barely touched upon shines through when we consider Hebrews 2:6-8, a quotation from Psalm 8, pointing towards Jesus. As the author of Hebrews continues:

“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Hebrews 2.9, ESV

The author of Hebrews shows us that the position of humanity in general within creation testifies to the position of Jesus the Son of God in particular within his role of redemption.

Humanity in creation

There are several psalms celebrating creation (see, for instance, 33, 104, and 145). Psalm 8 is unique in that it positions humanity at a key position: as God’s agent of governance within creation. A thoughtful reader of Genesis 1-2 will arrive at that conclusion. David, the traditional author of this psalm, certainly was a thoughtful reader reflecting on those very passages from his Genesis scroll.

Yet it takes little imagination, then or now, to see that humanity is not the greatest choice for the job. The question “What is man?” (v. 4) no doubt involves a certain amount of disbelief. Why in the world, God, would you place us in this position?

But, there appears to be more. Because David was not just a thoughtful reader of his Genesis scroll, but also of God’s unfolding promises to his people—including the promise God had given him in 2 Samuel 7.12-16.

The enemy and avenger

Psalm 8.2 seems like an odd little detour from the rest of the psalm:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, / you have established strength because of your foes, / to still the enemy and the avenger. (ESV)

There are no obvious connections between this verse and the rest of the psalm. None, that is, unless we read Psalm 8 against the background of God’s on-going work of redemption.

There is a consistent “enemy of God” throughout the Bible: Satan. And he wages a war against God in the realm of redemption. That is, Satan seeks to direct the heart of mankind away from God and toward destruction. The mention about God establishing strength “out of the mouths of babies and infants” could very well be a mediation on God’s promise to Eve, that her seed would successfully do battle with the serpent, Satan. There is a generally truism that in God’s work, he tends to use the weak to shame the strong, yet this also ties into looking for the Seed of Eve who will bring ultimate victory.

God’s battle is redemption and there is a babe who will defeat the Enemy.

Ending futility

As Hebrews reminds us, Jesus was for a time a little lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and honor. God put humanity at center of creation account in Gen 1-2 because redemption through Jesus is the great action of God in the world. We might say that all the world’s a stage…for Jesus.

Psalm 8 reflects on the position of humanity within creation. Why is it that humanity plays a central role in creation proclaiming the majesty of God’s name? Because humanity is a placeholder for Jesus within God’s work. The “rule” of humanity over “all the works of God’s hands” is preparatory and partial…and is giving way to the complete rule of Jesus.

Brueggemann insightfully comments on this facet of Psalm 8:

“Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.”

Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 38.

Jesus is the man, the New Adam, who stands fully in both earth and heaven and is fit to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation because he is God, as well as man.

In Romans 8, we read about creation groaning for redemption from futility. Creation is longing for the true king. Its experience under humanity as ruler is a mixed bag and hardly anything to brag about. Yet, as Psalm 8 joins in the biblical reflection on creation and on the special place of humanity therein, it points us to the broader hope that through Adam and Eve a Redeemer will come. One who will enable all creatures and all creation to become what God intends for them.

Psalm 8 is well aware that a merely human king like David can’t pull that off. But one who is a little lower than the angels for a while, and is then crowned with glory and honor as God of the Universe?

Well, Jesus can do that.

Hurt and Hope

If you are following along on the read through the book of psalms plan during our sermon series on Psalms, then you are probably somewhere around Psalm 22 today/this week. Consider with me briefly a few verses from the beginning of this famous psalm: verse of hurt and hope.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Psalm 22.3-5 (NIV)

Reading a little more will make one things clear: David trusts that God did great acts of deliverance in the past; David feels like God is not acting to deliver him in his moment of despair.

When ‘Faithful’ Hurts

The memory of past faithfulness comes up in the midst of present torment, of uncertainty, of pain. Allowing for poetic license on the part of David, things at the point of his life Psalm 22 reflects on must have been pretty low. The nations gathered against him, friends turned out to be enemies, enemies turned out to be stronger than expected. He feels as helpless as an emaciated, skeletal body going into the Octagon to fight MMA with the heavyweights.

Two reflections come up. First, this Psalm feels so true to life. We feel the punch of crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22.1). We know the times when sure hope of deliverance are distant memories, obscured behind the enemies, mountains of muscle, who are poised to rip us limb from limb.

Second, the language in this Psalm of desperate uncertainty and pain felt so literal for Jesus, as his enemies conspired against him, as the Roman soldier MMA-heavyweights tore his skeletal body apart.

Hope and Rescue: Past, Present, Future

What value is the hope and rescue of the past in such a time of present despair?

That is a fair question to ask and one which, we can only trust, our lives will force us to wrestle with again and again and again.

Psalm 22, like so many other psalms, completes the journey from past hope to hope for the future. While aspects of Psalm 22 are unique because of the way that it foreshadows Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, the journey David travels in this Psalm is a familiar one.

The past gives way to the present which gives way to the future. In the verses we began with, we see the eye of longing gazing back to the past where things worked. Where God proved to be a deliverer in the time of difficulty. Reciting this history is not an intellectual exercise; reciting this history is a prop for faith. Sometimes no more than a flimsy prop for flagging faith, but a prop nonetheless. For when our eyes look around and see nothing but enemies and oppressors, failure and defeat, problems too great for us to deal with, where else shall we turn?

The Journey to Praise

The journey which Psalms teaches us to walk again and again is the journey back to the great acts of God. The journey back to God’s faithfulness in our past. And, in walking this journey, God cries out, sometimes forcefully, sometimes with a plaintive plea, “Hold on! The rescue of the past will be true again. Hold on!”

Reviewing God’s past faithfulness is not for the purpose of mocking our present pain, but of restoring our hearts to hope-filled praise. To praise for a God who became flesh to take on the tortures of humanity—and so much more—delivering hope to any who will join him “in the midst of the congregation” praising God (22.22).