King David, Author of the Psalms
The Bible itself is not a single book as many people think, but actually a collection of many books written by men of all walks of life over thousands of years. Likewise, the book of the Psalms is not a single book, in and of itself, but a collection of many poems and other similar works composed mostly by King David, along with a few of his musical composers, one by Moses, and even a few by unknown authors after the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians. David was the second king of ancient Israel around 1000 B.C. Probably the majority of Americans have heard of David’s duel against the giant Goliath, the Philistine, whom he slew with a single stone from his slingshot. However, what is not as well known about him is that he did not always have an attitude of self-confidence, as he showed against the giant, but many times was in despair and trouble. Despite these struggles, David’s writing in his psalms show he had unwavering trust in his God, Yahweh, alone. In addition, many other themes are expressed in the psalms such as repentance, hatred of evil, humbleness, prophecy, perseverance, praise, and more.
David’s writings in the psalms are extremely varied and display many of his emotions and experiences throughout his life. They chronicle his encounters as a young shepherd boy (the youngest of his family), his time fighting the enemies of Israel as well as his own enemies, his leadership while in the kingship, and much more. In addition, these were not just poems but many times were lyrics for songs played in the temple and throughout Israel to be accompanied by the harp, lyre, trumpet and other musical instruments. David’s psalms show a wide range of human emotion and contain very vivid language and choice of words. Some may say the psalms can be depressing as they often go from despair to joy, but everyone knows that someone with a heart rate that is flat-lining is a dead corpse; for this reason, the psalms can be very useful for those going through hard times as a source of encouragement and inspiration.
Without a doubt, the language of the Psalms of David would trouble many modern-day “Christian” teachers whose doctrine is all about promoting personal self-esteem and wellness. The popular “Purpose-driven” series of Rick Warren and “Your Best Life Now” teachings by Joel Osteen are not to be found anywhere in the psalms. If anything, their writings are the very opposite. David continually writes that he is a “worm and no man” and says in Psalm 86:1, “Bow down thine ear, Yahweh, hear me: for I am poor and needy.” David’s writings show that he trusted God to conquer his own weaknesses and be the one to strengthen him, and he did this by humbling himself. Along with the story of Job, David recognizes that the righteous do not always prosper in this physical life but that they are to trust in God alone. He explains how suffering can happen for no apparent reason, even though a person does good, and also that those who do evil often times have blessings as evidenced in his advice, “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity” (37:1). In fact, Psalm 73 deals entirely with the author’s frustration that the ungodly prosper in this world and that his own life of righteousness may have been in vain.
The psalms show David’s belief that there is an afterlife and that, in the end, God is truly just and gives to everyone what he deserves. In the aforementioned Psalm 73, it is written that the prosperity of the wicked was too painful to even think about until he considered what their end was: that God would bring them into destruction and desolation in a moment. David states over and over that his soul, not just his flesh (“Thou hast brought up my soul from the grave”), will be eternally with the Lord, and that because of Yahweh’s mercy alone, not because of David’s actions. He also vividly describes the opposite that “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all nations that forget God” (9:17). These views strongly combat what many university professors of religion teach that there was not a belief in hell or eternal suffering in Judaism.
One of the most admirable characteristics David possessed, as shown by his writings, was his passion for what he did and believed. He instructs his readers not just to abstain from evil, but actually to hate it (97:10). Many times he states that he would seek God early in the morning and in the middle of the night. These were not repetitive prayers, as he would “cry out” to God and declare God’s name “with a shout.” David does an excellent job at creating vivid images in the minds of his readers of what he believes and feels; 42:1 describes, “As the deer pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God.” Even a simple glance at one of the psalms will show that David believed we should follow God with all of our heart and with a willing spirit, not just something to be done for religion or society’s sake. His relationship with God was a very personal relationship like one would have with his own parents, friend, or spouse. To David, Yahweh was not just the “big man in the sky” or some far off, unfeeling, unmoving judge.
An extremely revealing theme of the psalms that shows the true condition of David’s heart was his continual repentance and acknowledgement of sin. He believed that men “go astray as soon as they be born,” that we were “conceived in iniquity,” and that he of all people were not innocent of these charges. David did not believe he had to go to some priest or religious leader for confession, but he sought forgiveness from Yahweh alone and continually confessed his sin before God. Since many of these were put into song, he also made his sin open to his own people over which he ruled and to his fellow soldiers in battle. His unique style of writing is seen in Psalm 38:5, “my wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness,” and the enormity of the way he saw his sins, “mine iniquities have taken hold of me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head: therefore my heart faileth me” (40:12). It is common today to hear “he/she is a good person” while David, a king, recognized he could not even count his sins - being more than the hairs of his head.
A very interesting yet subtle aspect to the psalms is the amount of prophecy and allusions to the expected Messiah included in them. Psalm 22 details how evil men have surrounded him, pierced his hands and feet (almost a millennium before the Romans practiced crucifixion), and have divided up his garments and cast lots upon them. Stating the first and last verses of a psalm or chapter was an ancient Jewish form of telling the audience of it in a shortened way, which is what Jesus did on the cross with this psalm by first repeating “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (22:1), and following with “it is finished” (22:31 lit. He has done this/he has completed it). Also, in the psalms, many allusions are made to God having a son and being a single, yet multiple form deity. When mentioning Yahweh’s “Anointed One” or “Messiah” (which are the same in Hebrew), David says, “Yahweh said unto me, thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” as well as, “Yahweh said unto my Lord, Sit at my right hand.” He even states “that Yahweh God might dwell among them.” To delve deeper into the matter, David often talks about rejoicing and trusting in “Thy salvation.” The actual Hebrew name of Jesus is a variant of Yahushua/Yeshua, which literally means “Salvation of Yah” (Yah/Jah being a commonly used short form of Yahweh, such as in EliJah, halleluJah, etc).
The dominating theme in the psalms of David is his praise of God and trusting in Yahweh despite the enemies and troubles surrounding him. David’s enemies included neighboring peoples, foreign invaders, those of his own house, and even his very own temptations and thoughts (“in the multitude of my thoughts within me, thy comforts delight my soul”). One of the most quoted lines from the psalms ever, even still today in secular movies, is from the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Just as Israel today is a tiny country completely surrounded by many nations and people who want nothing else but her complete destruction, so was Israel in its first days in the land of Canaan. David stated, “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people that have set themselves against me round about” (3:6) and that his enemies may trust in chariots and horses but “we will remember the name of Yahweh our God.” David did not look at the physical conditions of the battle but looked to whom is in charge. This attitude set up a strong standard for what we interpret courage to mean today: that courage is not about being ignorantly brave but about being in danger and having faith and strength in the midst of it. His unwavering hope in God is shown in its most basic sense that even through death he will stay faithful to God: “He will be our guide even unto death” (49:14).
By the sheer openness of the writings of the psalms of David, it is clear that he was real with himself, his God, and his people. He was not like the many religious leaders of our day and in the past who have been consumed with ritualistic ways who try to conceal their ways in secrecy, nor was he like those who have a false idealistic attitude that everything will be happy and peaceful. David knew that life was full of things like war, struggles, failure, temptation, and despair; yet David continually trusted in Yahweh as his father, protector, teacher, and savior. The psalms reveal that he did this with a willing and passionate heart that is made plain, yet imaginative, to people of all ages who may be dealing with any number of trials and tribulations. King David’s writings show that we must have a passionate heart with God that perseveres and remains humble, and that we should let this naturally spill over into our actions.