The Psalms (Part Two)

By Stern, Philip | Midstream, January 2001 | Go to article overview

The Psalms (Part Two)


Stern, Philip, Midstream


In my first article about the Psalms, I ended with some remarks about Psalm 23, "the Lord is my shepherd." The psalm is attributed to David, and it seems to me that this poem, in its perfection, may have actually been written by King David. It is on a par with David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (II Samuel 1), another poem very plausibly attributed to David. Other scholars may scoff at this, but it is likely if the tradition is accurate that King David was a poet, some of his poems would have been preserved as a precious keep-sake of the legendary king's reign.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that all the poems attributed to David must have been the work of anonymous geniuses of lesser station. Why, in a literate culture, would the Biblical scribes have preserved the works of these geniuses but not the works of David, who was a genius himself?. This is beyond comprehension. There are poems that precede David, such as the "Song of the Sea" (Exodus 15), and poems that postdate David (for example, Psalm 78, which I date to the period immediately following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722-720 BCE), but why would Biblical tradition not preserve any of David's poems, when David was such a huge figure in the Bible?

Thus Psalm 23, which surely is an ancient poem, written in the purest pre-Exilic Hebrew, may be David's. If so, it harks back to the ancient idea in Israel that God alone was king of Israel. Ancient Near Eastern kings called themselves "shepherd," as an epithet for "king" in texts of great antiquity. David, by saying that God was his shepherd, was acknowledging the ancient Israelite belief that God, not man, was the ultimate king.

The poem, which is one of the most beautiful of the psalms, falls into two parts. In the first part, the poet identifies himself with a sheep who can trust his shepherd, even in the "valley of the shadow of Death." Modern Biblical scholars have commented that the quoted phrase simply means "valley of deep darkness," and the point is well taken, as far as it goes. Yet the pointing of the Hebrew word not only indicates a direction toward the more poetic translation, it possibly reflects an even more ancient reading, "the valley of the shadow of Mot," where "Mot" is the Canaanite death god. Such a valley is deeply dark, true, yet the "sheep" doesn't quail before the realm of the (mythical) death god, not with the Lord as his shepherd.

The second part of the psalm abandons the sheep motif, and the man wishes a table to be arranged "in the presence of my enemies." This poem doesn't call for the undoing of the poet's enemies, like other psalms. Instead, it simply asks that God reward the poet, despite the presence of his enemies. David is the man, who, in the book of Samuel, forbore to slay his enemy Saul even though he had ample opportunity to do so.

Later Biblical texts, like the section of Kings that deals with Hezekiah and the Assyrian invasion of Judah, refer to David's special relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah tells his hearers that he will not allow Jerusalem to fall to the Assyrians for the sake of "my servant David." That is also the reason why so many psalms are attributed to David. It seems likely that David really wrote some of them, and myvote is for a Davidic authorship of Psalm 23.

Psalm 24, too, is noted for its surpassing beauty. Here is how it begins:

   The earth is the Lord's and all its fullness, the world, and those who
   dwell there; for He founded it on the seas, and established it on the
   watercourses. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord and who may stand in
   his holy place? The clean of hands and pure of heart, who has not spoken
   falsehoods nor sworn deceitfully, Such will receive a blessing from the
   Lord, justice from the God of his salvation. These are the ranks of those
   who seek him, who seek your presence, O God of Jacob.

The poem names Israel's god, YHWH, as the proprietor of all the world, based on the fact that YHWH created the world in the first place. …

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