Introduction: Faith and Psalms | Davidic Authorship: Historicity and Psalms

Part I: Psalm 6 | Part II: Psalm 38 | Part III: Psalm 51 | Part IV: Psalm 32

I believe we would all agree that the psalms teach a great deal on the subject of faith. We often hear people exclaim that they read this or that psalm and how it touched them, what it means to them. Traditionally, individual psalms have been connected to specific people or events during the span of Old Testament history; recent studies claim a specific historical connection cannot be known and therefore focuses instead on the possible cultural or theological significance of each psalm. Current trends in theological studies, while problematic, are not the focus of this study; it is the impact these conclusions have on faith which concerns me. To best explore this concern, three commentaries expressing three distinct views were surveyed; one expressed the traditional view while the other two articulated contemporary views. The aim of this inquiry is not to look at the hermeneutical principals behind each view but to determine how a particular view affects a person’s faith. The Penitential Psalms 6, 32, 38, and 51 were expressly chosen due to their distinctly personal nature and specific traditionally held historical situation. At this point I would like to clarify one aspect of this discussion, I am not claiming that traditional views should be capriciously held on to; a position, even if historically traditionally held, should be searched out by individuals and all aspects—all ramifications of said position—must be taken in to account. It is for this reason that I have delved into this particular avenue, I believe the end result of specific views will affect one’s faith to detrimental ends. It does not matter what a specific psalm means to an individual, it only matters what said psalm means as intended by God; the social context of a psalm is far more speculative then determining whether the traditional historical setting is correct; and the theological significance often rests on where one places a psalm in relation to the cultural/historical backdrop within the Old Testament. In short, every view held will affect one’s latticework of theology and consequently one’s faith.

The first commentary examined was The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary by Samuel Terrien. In all four psalms, he contends David’s sin with Bathsheba was just an assumed setting by whoever compiled the various psalms. Other than Psalm 32, which he holds as being unknown, Terrien places these psalms during the final years of Judah, prior to the Babylonian captivity. His presentation depicts an author who struggled under Manasseh’s reign; a spiritually sick prophet; a writer who had an obsessive awareness of sin; and a ‘semi-Pelagian.’ Consequently, Terrien has effectively removed Davidic authorship and the subsequent connection to an awareness and confession of personal sin. Far more serious, Terrien’s management of these psalms leaves the reader wanting, barely scratching the effects of sin on life; and in the case of Psalm 32 presents an author who holds to a soteriological view which was deemed heretical over 1,500 years ago. In summary, Terrien’s commentary provides suspect academic research. His discussion on Davidic authorship places David as a legendary figure which haunted the imagination of the Jewish culture and therefore not the author of Psalms but one who is attributed authorship. All of this fundamentally affects faith negatively by removing a powerful Biblical illustration of repentance out of the reach of the average layman. Woe to the church which has a Sunday school teacher leading his class through the psalms using this commentary.

The second commentary read was Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1-41 by John Goldingay. Taking a different approach, Goldingay espouses the view that the historical setting of a psalm cannot be known. Therefore, he removes discussion of chronology from the table. In its place Goldingay focuses on ancient Hebraic culture and the possible function each psalm had within the Jewish community. Pertaining to authorship, Goldingay notes that attributing a psalm to David carries several meanings, only one of which connotes physical authorship. Therefore, he chooses to leave the question of authorship completely open to personal interpretation. As for the cultural setting/function of these four psalms, Goldingay explains that Psalm 6 is best interpreted as non-penitential; Psalm 32 as expressing a personal relationship with God; and Psalm 38 written communally for those who suffer with various physical and spiritual maladies (Goldingay’s commentary on the Psalms does not currently cover the 51st Psalm). Pertaining to Psalm 32, Goldingay appropriately observes worshipers must come before God with an open heart instead of attempting to deceive or hide ones sins. The problem is he appears to project two distinct views, for in Psalm 6 Goldingay holds that everything expressed in that psalm does not necessarily require an awareness of unconfessed sin. Both psalms are highly personal in nature; I find it difficult to accept opposing views on similar subject matter. Lastly, relegating Psalm 38 to a communally written prayer practically removes any vestiges of faith. Faith is personal in nature, when you remove a singular author as a possibility you are left with at best a nebulous remnant of personal conviction and hollow worship. In conclusion, Goldingay’s commentary provides some supplementary information for Psalm 32. While his conclusions are not as detrimental as Terrien’s, a person who uses this text to gain a greater understanding of the psalms will have unnecessary barriers to first overcome. On the aspect of faith, the ambiguousness of authorship along with conflicting views on the awareness and confession of personal sins leaves the reader unsure as to the importance of the Psalms in general. Where few negative effects on faith are observed, there are no positive effects to be noted.

The final commentary studied was Commentary on the Old Testament by Keil and Delitzsch. Presenting the traditionally held view, Keil and Delitzsch not only agree with the superscripts of the Psalms, and therefore Davidic authorship, but they explore the Old Testament setting of each psalm. They hold that all four Psalms form a chronological series beginning with Psalm 6 where a proper fear of God forms around a transition from distress to complete confidence. In Psalm 38 we see David distressed over the realization of his self created situation. And the connection between Psalms 32 and 51 are best described by the authors themselves: “For a whole year after his adultery David was like one under sentence of condemnation. In the midst of this fearful anguish of soul he composed Ps. 51, whereas Ps. 32 was composed after his deliverance from this state of mind. The former was written in the very midst of the penitential struggle; the latter after he had recovered his inward peace.” Hence, Keil and Delitzsch’s presentation takes much more into account; they deal with the historical setting, they explore theological implications, and delve into the original text at a fundamental level. In the end, this commentary provides a deeper scholarly understanding of the text. Most important are the implications this view has upon faith. Here one sees a an individual who expresses a proper fear of God; who has a heart after God’s own heart; who understands that all sin is against God and God alone; and has repented. If one were to just read over these four psalms without any commentary you would come to the same conclusion, the author exemplifies a penitent individual. Therefore, a deeper understanding of these psalms is gained through reading the commentary by Keil and Delitzsch, which in turn can only broaden one’s faith and understanding of God.

In conclusion, commentaries on the Psalms can drastically affect one’s faith. By removing the historical context of a Psalm, fundamental absolutes begin to break down. Faith in God, and what God has done for His people is altered by what we read. This is not to say that reading is bad, by no means; but reading must always be done against the backdrop of established Scripture. Discernment in choosing study aids is essential to today’s church; for each generation establishes itself upon the foundation of the prior generation. If churches today teach and/or preach without the benefit of discernment, a watering down of faith and understanding God’s purpose for His chosen will result. Worship will continue to change from glorifying God to an experiential incident. Faith will become ambivalent and essentially an unnecessary element in our churches unless clear Biblical discernment is employed.

[1] For a complete presentation on each psalm and subsequent authors’ views, please refer to relating posts; links are provided at the top of this post.

[2] Terrien, The Psalms (pp. 110-116, 294, 328, 403-410).

[3] Goldingay, Psalms (pp. 134-141, 452-454, 538-552).

[4] Goldingay presents the following possible associations: 1) addressed to David; 2) belongs to David; 3) for David, or a Davidic king; 4) for David to learn from; 5) on behalf of David; 6) about David (i.e. historical event); or 7) authored by David (Psalms, p. 12).

[5] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5 (pp. 78-82, 251, 289-292, 365-366).

[6] Ibid., pp 251-252.