The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

2
In the Beginning:
Psalms
Sung in David’s Day

There have always been songs. As long as men and women have used words, they must have used words with rhythm: words with power; words to be repeated; words with which to recall the heroism of battle, to bring success to the hunt, to celebrate the joy of birth and the sorrow of death. Indeed researchers have recently reported that the long songs of the humpback whale give evidence of rhymelike schemes!1 So one may assume that words have been sung as long as there have been men and women communicating at all.

When we look at the ancient Near East, we see wall paintings from earliest times in Egypt depicting dancers, musicians, and singers,2 and bas-reliefs from Assyria of the same sort.3 And we have texts of hymns from both Egypt on the one hand and Assyria and Babylonia on the other.4

Now, when we examine the biblical book of Psalms, what can we say about its origin? The tradition among both Christians and Jews is that King David wrote the Psalms. For example, Heb. 4:7 in the New Testament attributes the words of Ps. 95:7-8 to David, even though that psalm in the Old Testament has no specific notation associating it with David. There is a remark in Jewish tradition from the second century C.E. that implies that David at least edited the Psalms.5

But this tradition seems to have arisen late in the biblical period. Scholars today believe it is altogether plausible that David wrote some psalms, but the tradition that David wrote the whole book of Psalms appears to be a late one that arose when the Psalms were being collected; we shall examine the matter in chapter 6. If David wrote some psalms, then the tradition that he wrote the whole book of Psalms was an expansion of that memory, reinforced by the record of his skill on the lyre (1 Sam. 16:14-23; 18:10), of his laments over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27) and over Abner (2 Sam. 3:33-34), and of his organization of the musicians at the sanctuary in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 6:16-17 [Protestant numeration vv. 31-32]; 16:4-7; 25:1; 2 Chron. 23:18).

Scholars who have worked on the Psalms in the last hundred years or so have detected within them the kind of variations of style and emphasis that suggest that

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