Of David (Psalms)

What does it mean when you see “Of David” in the heading of a Psalm?

What does Of David mean in the heading of a psalm? Is it from David, or about David, or …? Or are these headings later additions that we should just ignore? Your answer affects how you hear the psalm.

I’m planning a post on the final Davidic Psalm. It begins like this: Praise. Of David. I will exalt you, my God the king, and bless your name to all ages forever. (That’s a literal rendition of Psalm 145:1 in Hebrew.)

The most natural way to understand this in ancient Hebrew culture would be to say, “We’re listening to David’s voice. The king is drawing everyone’s attention to the heavenly sovereign whose reign he represents on earth. He’s honouring the authority of the God whose reign endures through all ages.”

That’s essentially how the Psalm has been heard through the ages. But a few hundred years ago, Enlightenment scholarship told us, “There’s no way David could have written all the psalms that bear his name.” Why? Well, Davidic psalms refer to things that didn’t exist in David’s time, such as the temple (Psalms 5:7; 11:4; 18:6; 27:4; 29:9, etc.).

Conservative scholarship responded by saying, “Well, the titles weren’t part of the original psalm. They were added when the psalms were compiled, so we probably shouldn’t treat them as inspired.” That’s why we’ve largely ignored the titles for centuries now.

The kingship is the story

In 1985, Gerald Wilson published a landmark study titled The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series). He argued that the five Books within the Psalms were meaningfully arranged to tell the story of Israel as God’s kingdom, with royal psalms at the seams. The 2014 Oxford Handbook on the Psalms describes how Wilson’s research has been embraced:

Some scholars still claim that the Psalter is a random compilation of smaller collections without any purposeful editorial shape. However, Wilson’s conclusions have been widely accepted. (p.351)

Mays and others built on this work, observing that the main message of the Psalms is, The Lord reigns. The macro-structure of the Psalms is therefore the story of God’s reign:

In Books I and II, David’s house represented God’s reign on earth.

In Book III, the kingdom disintegrates. The northern part (Israel) falls first (Psalm 80), with the Davidic kingship falling in the final psalm (Psalm 89).

In Book IV they’re in exile, yet they keep asserting the Lord still reigns as king (93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 97:1; 98:6; 99:4). Since God formed them as his nation in the first place, they are still his people, the sheep of his pasture (100:3).

In Book V they’re still living under foreign rule as they return from exile, and yet the hope of Davidic reign returns. We hear 15 Davidic psalms. (Books III and IV had only three between them.).

With this basic overview of the structure of the Psalms, we can see the mistake Enlightenment scholars made with the titles. A Davidic psalm is not merely about the individual who lived in the tenth-century BC. It’s about God’s enduring reign through David in all generations.

David the anointed ruler, not David the individual

When God said, I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever (1 Chronicles 17:14), he was not saying that the tenth century individual would never die. He was saying that David — the dynasty, not the individual — would represent God’s kingship forever. Only a dynasty can represent God’s undying reign; a mortal never could.

That’s how Israel thought of David. Every generation was called to serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them (Jeremiah 30:9). The northern kingdom had not served David since Solomon’s time, yet God promised to bring them back: Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king (Hosea 3:5).

David refers to the house of David, not merely an individual from the past. David’s enthronement in each generation makes him the son who represents the reign of his Father in the heavens (Psalm 2:7).

The Davidic voice is therefore the king in each generation who cries out to God as he confronts their enemies (Psalms 20–21), presents his laments to God when he’s defeated (Psalm 22), recognizes the great Shepherd whose reign he represents (Psalm 23), and declares the glory of the king who reigns above him (Psalm 24). The Davidic voice honours God in each generation, not merely in one 40-year period of history.

David’s connection to Christ

And that’s the reason the New Testament connects the Davidic voice with Jesus. Matthew 1:1 opens by declaring Jesus to be the anointed son of David (Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ). The claim is that Jesus is the David of his generation, or at least he would be if the world was running right. He traces the rise of David from Abraham (Matthew 1:2-6), the glory days when David reigned for 14 generations (1:7-11), the sons of David who did not reign because they were captive to foreign powers (1:12-16), and then names Jesus as anointed king: Jesus who is called the Messiah (1:16).

That’s why it’s no surprise when the New Testament puts the Davidic words in Jesus’ mouth. He is the David anointed by God to reign with his Father’s authority, for the kingdom is being restored him. Jesus was the David to come (Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25).

The long-awaited Branch from the stump of David’s kingship has come to life. The joyful news is the kingdom re-established in him.

Maybe it’s giving David too much credit to say the kingship was rooted in him: in God’s plan, Jesus was the root of David (the kingship) all along. That’s what Revelation 5:5 and 22:16 makes of Isaiah 11:1.

Traditional interpretation

It may take some time to process this way of thinking about David in the Psalms — as the kingship rather than the individual. But this isn’t a new interpretation; it has a long-standing history, in Jewish and Christian writings.

For example, the Talmud gave this special Shema-like blessing to Psalm 145: Whoever says the Psalm, ‘Praise of David’ (Ps. 145) three times a day may be assured that he belongs to the world to come (b Ber. 4B). The rabbis understood this psalm as anticipating the future restoration of the David’s reign. They were looking forward to the David to come, not backwards to the David who died long ago.

While the Talmud did not view Jesus as the promised David, Augustine did:

The title is, “Praise, to David himself.” Praise to Christ Himself. And since He is called David, who came to us of the seed of David, yet He was our King, ruling us, and bringing us into His kingdom, therefore “Praise to David himself” is understood to mean, Praise to Christ Himself.
— Augustine, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed Philip Schaff 8:657.

The Eastern Orthodox church also identifies the expected David with the Christ:

The previous psalm, as we saw, was much taken up with the image of Christ as King … Each mounting crescendo of this psalm abounds with the life of the victorious Christ: “Generation after generation will praise Your deeds, and make declaration of Your might. …” The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; it is truly eternal and transcendent and belongs to heaven.
— Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000), 289–290.

Martin Luther understood Psalm 145 as relating to Christ. The Reformation Commentary on Scripture offers this summary:

A Psalm on Christ. Martin Luther: Psalm 145 is a psalm of thanksgiving, thanking God for the future kingdom of Christ. It lays strong emphasis on the great work of praising God and of glorifying his power and kingdom. For Christ’s kingdom and power are hidden under the cross.
— Herman J. Selderhuis and Timothy George (eds.), Psalms 73–150, RCS (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 375.

Conclusion

We need to get past the Enlightenment preoccupation with individual authorship, so we can regain the communal sense of David representing God’s kingship in each generation. That’s the Davidic voice in the Psalms.

As we do, we can appreciate the meaning of the Christ. God’s anointed is restoring God’s reign not only to Israel but to the whole earth. That’s the good news, and it’s what the New Testament does with the Psalms.

As we’ll see, this approach makes striking sense of Psalm 145, the ultimate Davidic Psalm. More on that next time.

What others are saying

Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013):

The main assault on the Psalms took the form of discarding the titles. It was argued that the titles were later additions to the text and were therefore worthless as a guide to the authorship of psalms or their content. At a stroke they were no longer the psalms of David or Asaph or the sons of Korah, dating from the time of the early monarchy — i.e., tenth century BC — but anonymous compositions mostly from the postexilic era down to the Maccabean era, roughly 500 to 150 BC. By writing off the titles in this way, skeptics eliminated the clearest marks of order in the Psalter. In the Psalms’ final form the sequence of titles does point to careful arrangement.

Mark D. Futato, The Book of Psalms, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2009):

Can we trust that the titles are giving us accurate information about the author of a particular psalm? Even among evangelical scholars there is no consensus on this issue. (For example, compare the views in Craigie 1983:31, Kidner 1973a:32–33, and Young 1949:307.) Dillard and Longman indicate that the “nature and origin of the titles are tricky issues that must be handled with care and scholarly humility” (2006:214). My position is that the preponderance of evidence leads to the conclusion that the titles should be considered canonical. … The ancient tradition of the Masoretes accents the titles along with the text and thus does not separate the titles from the rest of the text. And the New Testament is at times willing to base a theological argument on information in a title (see Acts 2:29–31).

Nancy L. Declaissé-Walford, “The Meta—Narrative of the Psalter,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, ed. William P. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 374:

If the story of the Psalter is the story of Israel’s struggle for survival and identity in the aftermath of the Jerusalem’s destruction, the exile, and the return to the land, then how does the reader construe David’s reappearance in Book V? Psalm 145, the last psalm in the book before the five-fold doxological ending, provides the key. Its superscription reads, “Praise. Of David,” and it is a masterful alphabetic acrostic that celebrates the kingship of God over the community of faith and all creation. … David, the great king, acknowledges God as king and calls on Israel and all creation to join with him in celebration.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

5 thoughts on “Of David (Psalms)”

    1. “It is Scripture,” the Rabbi said. And he’s right. It’s part of the text in Hebrew, and we need to receive it as such. In the next few posts, I plan to take that approach to Psalm 145.

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