What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 2: David

In part 1 of this post we explored the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs. We noted that this threefold identity had more to do with their function than their context. Although it was clear that using the psalms as poems, prayers and songs requires some answers to the question of the context/s in which they were originally used. In this second part we turn more explicitly to the question of context. We will look firstly at David as a lens, or context, for understanding and interpreting the Psalms.

The Psalms of David
There can be no denial that the Psalms are in some sense Davidic. Quite what we mean by this is much more complex and potentially a matter over which Christians might differ. Some 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are headed as being ‘of David’. This is enough to make the importance of David clear. The precise significance of the designation, ‘of David’ is, however, far from clear. The Hebrew preposition so often translated ‘of’ can mean anything along the lines of: ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘referring to’, ‘belonging to’ as well as ‘of’. It has often been taken to simply imply that David was the author of these specific psalms, but the term need not imply authorship. It might be that they are in some sense dedicated to him, perhaps because of authorship by a particular school of authors. Many Christians of a more conservative background seem keen to hold onto Davidic authorship of the Psalms. Even if we see these 73 psalms as being authored by David, we must face the fact that many of the other psalms have other attributions (and thus possibly authorship) and some have none. Psalms ascribed in some sense to others are:

The Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
Asaph: 50 and 73-83.
Solomon: 72 and 127.
Heman the Ezrahite: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite: 89.
Moses: 90.

Psalm 88 is unusual in having a dual attribution to the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite.

We can also see that many psalms date from much later than the time of David, in terms of both their language and the events which are referred to or implied. Most notable is the shadow cast over the Psalter by the exile, and thus the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Nevertheless David plays a unique and central role in that some of the psalms are specifically tied to events in his life by the use of biographical details, for example psalms 3, 7, 18, etc. Many scholars have argued, however, that such ascriptions are the later additions of editors. Without attempting to establish too precise a demarcation of the meaning of ‘of David’ or deciding upon whether and how many canonical psalms David authored, there are two key points which I think are not controversial.

Point 1: The Psalter is in a very real sense Davidic in its canonical form.
Many psalms take on a whole new life when they are read as if David is either the author or the person saying the psalm. Many of the psalms of lament focused on an individual make sense through this lens. We need get no further than psalm 3:1 to see this, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me’. The so-called Royal Psalms reflect on David and the Davidic line. In short the Psalter can make no sense without David.

Point 2: Seeing David as author cannot make full sense of the Psalter.
There are many reasons why seeing the Psalter through David as a ‘context’, or lens, cannot be all-encompassing. Not least of these is the post-Easter perspective through which Christians understand the Psalms. Using Jesus as an interpretive lens is examined in part 3. There we shall see that, whilst such a lens was alien to the original Jewish Psalter, Jesus the Messiah is naturally coherent with the Davidic lens we have just explored.

Democratisation – Psalms for Everyone

The Psalter is the result of a complex process of collecting psalms, probably in the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. There were probably hundreds, or even thousands, of other psalms written over the same period as the 150 psalms we find in the Bible. The psalms that have made it into the canon must have stood out in order to have been valued and to have ‘survived’.

Some scholars have suggested that the canonical psalms are often those with some real ambiguity in their context—to be valued as a prayer, a psalm needs to be ‘plastic’ enough to be used, or inhabited, by another person or community in worship or prayer. This is termed democratisation, meaning that these poems and songs become the words for anybody and everybody. It illuminates why it is that so many cases the individual psalms have defined attempts to identify their context.

Each psalm will of course have had a context. Some may well have originated with David, as tradition suggests, although scholars debate the titles that ascribe psalms to certain points in David’s life. Some, perhaps even the majority, originated as songs and/or liturgy for worship in the Temple. Some capture a life-changing experience of a now anonymous individual.

Scholars legitimately explore and debate these various contexts. The problem is that such scholarship is subject to both on-going change and the whims of the latest theories. Such discussion is, of its very nature, provisional. The worshiping community and the individual worshiper cannot wait for clarity! The Church and the faithful individual must see this difficulty of discerning context as an invitation to do what followers of Yahweh have done for more than two millennia. In a sense we have permission to make the Psalms our own. This goes against the grain of what we are to do with the rest of Scripture where context is vital in ensuring we do not read into the text ideas, or even doctrines, that are not there.

The key outcome of this line of thinking is that we need to engage with the psalms imaginatively in prayer as a means to transformation. Imagination is required to make these prayers our prayers and it is necessary to ensure we engage at an emotional level rather than just a cerebral one.