Psalms For Life
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Who wrote the Psalms?

The question of who wrote the Psalms isn’t as straightforward as many think it is. Most scholars today agree that, while David wrote some, he didn’t write all of the psalms. But they disagree on how many and precisely which psalms David wrote.

We’re told that David was a gifted musician and singer (1 Sam. 16:14-23, 2 Sam. 23:1). His spirituality, as a man after God’s own heart, makes it plausible that he wrote many inspiring psalms (1 Sam. 13:14). The New Testament refers to a number of the psalms as having been written by David. And Hebrew tradition confirms all this in the headings the Psalms compiler gave many of the psalms: 73 of them bear a heading traditionally taken to mean “by David.”

Some today question this understanding. But we have many examples of talented songwriters both in our day and in the past writing numerous songs or hymns. For example, Bob Dylan sold the rights to some 600 songs to Sony in 2022, and hymnist Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns. It’s easy to picture David composing Psalm 23, given his background as both shepherd, God-lover, and king. And many of David’s psalms speak of enemies seeking to kill him, which doubtless refer to his being targeted by King Saul, Absalom, and other enemies.

In addition to the 73 psalms bearing David’s name, 27 others bear the names of Moses, Solomon, Korah’s sons, Asaph, and others. The Hebrew manuscripts of the 50 remaining psalms have no such heading, although the Septuagint, or ancient Greek translation of the Psalms, ascribes another twelve of those psalms to David.

What’s tradition worth?

Some scholars today question David’s authorship of even the psalms that bear his name in the Hebrew manuscripts. They marshal three reasons for doing so:

  • The heading
  • The language
  • The contents

First, the Hebrew preposition lamed used in the headings with David and other psalmists’ names doesn’t always mean “by.” It can also mean “about,” “for” and even “in the mode/style/tradition of.” This has led some almost to assume that the headings mean anything but “by David.” However, since the Jewish community has long held these headings to refer to the psalms’ authors, I see no reason to question it, especially when Jesus and St. Paul agree.

Second, some argue that the language of some psalms ascribed to David point to their having been written long after he died. For example, some Davidic psalms refer to the temple, which wasn’t built till after he had died. However, such psalms may have been updated to suit the preferences of later generations, just as we’ve done to some of our hymns. For example, some hymnals replace the archaic language of older hymns or change a word like “dumb” to “mute.” This could lead us to mistakenly conclude that these hymns were written much later than they were in fact.

Third, arguing that a psalm’s subject matter points to its having been written at a specific time seems to me an even weaker argument. Since poetry so often speaks across generations, its allusive language can mean one thing to one generation and something else to another. And we know this happened, that the psalms have been reappropriated by generations of Jews and Christians down throughout the centuries.

So the debate ends up being a tug-of-war between those who consider tradition generally suspect and those who are more open to its value. Here we need to realize that the Enlightenment unhelpfully imbued much of Western scholarship—biblical scholarship included—with an inbuilt suspicion of all tradition (except the Enlightenment tradition, of course!).

Scholars who doubt that David wrote the psalms bearing his name also doubt the notes given in headings that connect a psalm to various stories or situations. I’ve usually found these headings very helpful. Similarly, my understanding of the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” is enriched by the knowledge that Horatio Spafford wrote it while mourning the loss of his four daughters in the sinking of the ship they were on. Many who love that hymn find its timeless truths meaningful, without knowing its tragic background. Nevertheless, knowing its background helps us appreciate its meaning more fully.

Were any psalms written by women?

Having so long believed that David wrote the entire Book of Psalms, many people have come to assume that all the psalms were at least written by men. In fact, there’s no lack of biblical evidence for women psalmists. Exodus 15 ascribes the great “Song of the Sea” to Moses and his sister Miriam. It also seems that Deborah composed the psalm celebrating her military victory over Sisera in Judges 5. Psalms 18 and 113 are among several songs at least partly inspired by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In addition, we have the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary. We also know that women tend to be at least as spiritual as men, if not more so.

All this points to the important role women played in leading the Israelites to pour out their hearts to God in worship and song. I thus suspect that women wrote many of the 50 undesignated psalms. And I typically refer to their writers as women.


Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.