John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: March 4

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: March 4


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Authors of the Psalms

If you stop the first ten persons you see coming out of church, and ask them, “Who wrote the Psalms?” it is likely that nine, and it is possible that all the ten, would answer, “David.” The “wise” may smile at this as “a vulgar error.” An “error” it doubtless is, yet not altogether a “vulgar” one; for it is upheld by the Talmud, by many of the Fathers, and by some modern writers of good repute. Yet how can this be, seeing that the titles give the names of several other authors than David? Respecting the authority of the titles, we have already expressed our opinion; but even those who submit to the authority of the titles, find no difficulty in meeting this objection by urging, that the other names are not those of authors, but of persons to whom they were sent or addressed by David for use in the temple services. So, for instance, when we read, “Psalm of Asaph,” or “of the sons of Korah,” we should read, “to or for Asaph,” “to or for the sons of Korah,” simply indicating that the Psalms in question were addressed to them as masters and leaders of the choral services of the temple. There is no denying that the prefixed particle may denote to, for, or of: but in that case, as it is the same which is used when a psalm is ascribed to David, it is plain that in such cases we must say, “a Psalm of David,” not “to David;” because there is no reason why Psalms should be addressed to him, and because any other interpretation would take from him even the Psalms to which his name is prefixed; and if it must be taken to mean of in his case, we have no right to make it signify something else in all other cases. Others who entertain this opinion as to the general authorship of David, surmount in another way the difficulty created by the presence in the titles of other names than his. This they do by the supposition, that these names belong not to the authors, but to persons whom David, in composing these Psalms, prophetically represented. The Talmud, which is in favor of this view, particularly explains that David wrote these Psalms by tradition from, or in the succession of, or after the manner of Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, the children of Korah, and others still earlier—even up to Adam himself.

The general opinion does not, however, concede this exclusive authorship of the Psalms to David; but affirms that the titles denote authorship, and must be taken as furnishing the names of the authors. To this we assent, subject to the remarks already made upon the authority of these titles. In other words, we apprehend that the titles intend to indicate as the authors the persons whose names they furnish. This must, however, be subject to one qualification, which is, that when we see a Psalm ascribed to “the children of Korah,” it must be understood as the composition of one of that body; but as the name of the individual was unknown to the writer of the titles, he was content to ascribe it in a general way to the Korahites.

We must also qualify a remark lately made, by admitting, that in a very few instances the name is not that of the author, but of the subject. Looking at the contents, nothing can be plainer than that Psalms 22 is not by David, but of or concerning David; and that Psalms 72 is not by, but of or concerning Solomon.

To Moses the titles ascribe but one Psalm—being the ninetieth. But the rabbis give to him also the ten Psalms that follow it, under the operation of a fantastic critical dogma laid down in the Talmud. This is, that all the pieces without names, must be regarded as belonging to the author whose name last occurred; and as the ten Psalms that follow the ninetieth are anonymous, they must necessarily belong to Moses. Many Christian interpreters have assented to this rule; but it is not now regarded as tenable. It is doubted that even this one Psalm should he ascribed to Moses. But the objections are of little weight. There is about it an antique air, which only those who read it in the original can appreciate. It is grave and full of majesty and authority; and both in thought and language it stands more by itself than any other Psalm, while there are in it a series of allusions to the Pentateuch, particularly to the poetical passages, and especially to Deuteronomy 32.

But, after all deductions, it is David who stamps his individuality on the Book of Psalms, as the most distinguished and fruitful contributor to the collection. Seventy-four—being only one less than one half the whole number of the Psalms—are in the titles ascribed to him. The ancient Greek translation gives him ten more, Note: Psalms 33; Psalms 43; Psalms 91; Psalms 94-99; Psalms 104. and it is likely that they found his name in the Hebrew copies from which they translated. Besides this, some authorities assign to him a large portion of the thirty-four anonymous Psalms. It is, however, clear that several of the Psalms which bear the name of David cannot have been written by him, as they contain allusions to the siege of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, to the Babylonish captivity, and to other events of a later age, besides occasional Chaldaisms which point to the same periods. Note: To this number belong Psalms 14; Psalms 69; Psalms 103; Psalms 122, and other “Psalms of Degrees,” with 139 and others. These palpable misapplications of David’s name are, as already urged, calculated to shake our confidence in the correctness even of those appropriations to which the like objections from the contents of the Psalms cannot be produced. Yet, doubtless, the great bulk of the Psalms referred to David, and probably not a few of those not ascribed to him, or assigned to others, are his composition. Indeed, very many of them can with certainty be detected as his, by the style in which they are written, by the spirit which they breathe, or by the circumstances to which they refer. We hold it quite possible for one who has thoroughly studied the character, history, and mind of “the man after God’s own heart,” to fix with very little hesitation—we had almost said with unerring certainty, upon the Psalms which really belong to David. They are distinguished by their sweetness, elegance, and grace; by their depth of feeling, and tenderness of spirit. Sublimity has by some Biblical critics been denied to him; but if such Psalms as 18; 19; 60; 65 be not sublime, where is sublimity to be found?

Twelve of the Psalms are ascribed to Asaph. Note: Psalms 50; Psalms 73-83. This Asaph is doubtless the same who appears in history as David’s master of sacred song, and as a poet, with the honorable title of seer. Note: 1Ch_6:39; 1Ch_15:17; 1Ch_16:5. 2Ch_29:30. Of these Psalms, however, it does not seem as if more than two (the fiftieth, and perhaps the seventy-third) are rightly given to him, as all but these bear marks of a later time. Judging from these two, Asaph excelled in didactic poetry, and the style and sentiments are equally admirable. If it were needful to contend for the authority of the titles, it might be urged, that the other Psalms that bear Asaph’s name are not necessarily indicated as being by the man so called, but that they were composed in later days by the musical choir formed by his descendants, by whom it was considered a sufficient distinction to set their ancestor’s name, as a family mark, to them.

But with respect to those Psalms which bear the name of Asaph, but obviously belong to a later age, as well as to those which, in the same case, exhibit the name of David, we must not conceal from the reader that all difficulty has by some been met by the allegation, that these Psalms were written in the spirit of prophecy. Undoubtedly these and the other psalmists were endowed with the prophetic spirit; and if we conceived ourselves bound by the authority of the titles, this would be a very reasonable and proper solution of the difficulty: but since we are not so bound, and cannot depend upon the authority of the titles, we cannot safely neglect the marks of time which the Psalms themselves afford.

The Psalter contains no Psalms more beautiful than the ten ascribed to the sons of Korah Note: Psalms 42; Psalms 44-49; Psalms 84; Psalms 85; Psalms 87; Psalms 88.—a Levitical family set apart for the choral services of the temple. Their Psalms are distinguished for animated feeling, rapidity of movement, and loftiness of conception. Some, however, deny their claim to the authorship of those Psalms, and contend that they were only committed to them for the purpose of being set to music. But we have already expressed the grounds of our conviction, that these inscriptions are intended to denote authorship. That most of these Psalms belong to the period of the exile and restoration, is no argument against the claims of the Korahites, as the Levitical claims established by David were maintained even to the time of the second temple.

It appears from 1Ch_6:33; 1Ch_6:44, that among the Levitical singers of the time of David were two men named Heman and Ethan—and these are, doubtless, the same persons to whom the authorship of Psalms 88, 89 are ascribed. They are, perhaps, also the same persons who are in another place Note: 1Ki_4:31. celebrated for their wisdom. It is thought, however, that both these Psalms, or at least the eighty-ninth, belong to a much later age, and could not have been written by contemporaries of David.

The great name of Solomon appears at the head of two Psalms; Note: Psalms 72, 127. but he can hardly have been the author of either of them; of the first he may have been the subject, but not the author—and the title may be considered so to indicate him.

These are all the authors of the Psalms named in the titles. The old Greek translation, the Septuagint, has more; and the attention it receives in such matters is owing to the probability, that the particulars which it preserves were found in the old Hebrew copies which it used; but this would merely go to give them the more authority on the other titles, instead of being the later conjectures of the translators. The names of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah, are those that thus occur.

Attempts have been made to determine, chiefly from internal evidence, the authorship of the Psalms that bear no name; but the result of such endeavors must always remain uncertain. In this way, Psalms 45 has, for example, been assigned to Mordecai, and Psalms 46 to Hezekiah—the first of these appropriations, which would make the contents of the Psalm refer to the Persian king and to Esther, may, in a rapid glance over the Psalm, bear an aspect of probability; but on a closer view, expressions appear which could not be applicable to either of these personages, and it is, besides, but little likely that a rigid Jew like Mordecai would use the terms employed in this Psalm with regard to any heathen king, and such a king as Ahasuerus.

After all, it is well to remember that “it is of less consequence to determine precisely by whom the Holy Spirit delivered these oracles, since we have indubitable evidence of the sacred character of the whole book; for it is collectively cited in Scripture (generally by the name of David), and is prophetical in almost every part; and several of the persons who are supposed to have contributed to the composition of the book, are expressly represented as prophets in Scripture.” Note: Gray’s Key to the Old Testament.