Authorship of the Psalms

Although only 73 psalms may be traced surely to David and are attributed to him, early Jewish tradition attributed the entire book to him. The psalms are commonly called The Psalms of David.” This is generally borne out by ancient Jewish writings. For example:

  • II Maccabees 2:13 refers to Psalms as “the writings of David.”
  • The Septuagint adds a Davidic superscription to Psalms 33, 43, 71, 91, 93-99, 104 and 137.
  • Qumran scroll 11QPSa, 27:4-5, 9-10 ascribes to David a library of 3600 psalms and 450 songs.
  • The Talmud remarks on correspondence between the five Books of Moses and the five books of Davidic psalms.

Date Of The Psalms

Although 19th century scholarship was inclined to date the Psalms in the Maccabean period (the intertestamental period), modem scholarship has exposed this viewpoint as untenable. Here are four reasons in support of the early date:

  • There is no Hellenizing influence in the Psalms, as would be expected if they were Maccabean.
  • We find no historical reference in the Psalms to any person or event after the first monarchy, with the possible exception of Psalms 126 and 137, which refer to the exile.
  • The Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, also called LXX) shows great confusion as to the meanings of certain technical musical terms found throughout the Psalms. If they were indeed late as critics claim, the LXX writers would have had no difficulty translating them.
  • Ancient pre-Israelite psalmic literature has been found which proves that the literary style was extant in Davidic and in pre-Davidic times.

Use Of The Psalms

The Old Testament ascribes the sacrificial system to Moses, but connects the music-poetry-worship system to David’s name. As in the case of other Near Eastern cultures (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit and Canaan), there were guild singers and musicians in Israel who were connected with the Temple worship. For example, the music guilds of Asaph and Korah are mentioned—guilds instituted and developed under the tutelage of David.

According to the Mishnah, certain psalms were recited on certain days of the week in the Temple:

The following are the Psalms that were chanted in the Temple. On the first day, they used to say, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24). On the second day, they used to say, “Great is the Lord and highly to be praised, in the city of our God, His Holy mountain” (Psalm 48). On the third day, they used to say, “God standeth in the congregation of God, in the midst of the judges He judgeth” (Psalm 82). On the fourth day, they used to say, “O Lord, Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth” (Psalm 94). On the fifth day, they used to say, “Sing aloud unto God our strength, shout aloud to the God of Jacob” (Psalm 81). On the sixth day, they used to say, “A Psalm. A song for the sabbath day (Psalm 92). A Psalm, a song for the time to come, for the day that will be all sabbath and rest for everlasting life.”

In addition to these, other psalms were also recited in the Temple. There were special psalms for certain holy days and special psalms to coincide with certain liturgical events and functions. Those psalms have continued to be associated with such events and functions in post-exilic Jewish life. For example, the psalms that were recited for each of the days of the week in the Temple are still utilized for those days in the modern synagogue.

In all, 73 psalms are found in the standard Jewish liturgy, as well as at least 250 scattered individual verses.

In private life as well, the observant Jew uses all or parts of various psalms to mark and facilitate almost every life-function. There are traditional psalms for after meals, drought problems, a journey, night prayers, mourning, consecration of a house, consecration of a tombstone, prayers for and by the sick, etc.

Recitation of the Psalms is regarded by Jewish tradition as the prayer par excellence. It is not surprising, then, that in European communities and other places as well, there arose, and continue to exist among the Orthodox, Psalm societies. Called Hevrot Tehillim, they exist solely for the purpose of reciting the Psalms as a sort of “blanket protection” and prayer for the entire Jewish community. It is not rare to find observant Jews who know all of the Psalms by heart.