Who Wrote the Book of Psalms?

The book of Psalms is a source of wisdom and inspiration for many. One of the most read and reread books of the Bible, its hymns, biblical poetry, and prayers reveal to us the character of God and help give shape to our own prayers. Psalms invites us to lift up our hearts—in joy and in lament—to our Creator and connects us to the ongoing relationship between God and God's people.

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Here we explore the question of who wrote Psalms. We’ll consider both the traditional understandings of the book’s authorship and modern scholarly perspectives. We invite you to reflect on the origins of the book of Psalms along with us that we might gain an even greater appreciation for the wisdom it contains.

Overview

Before discussing various perspectives surrounding who precisely authored the book of Psalms, let us first offer a brief overview of this Old Testament wisdom book. At its core, the book of Psalms consists of creative poems and prayers intended to glorify and praise God. Exploring the highs and lows of a life of faith, the Psalms guide us in what it means to live a full life. To learn more about the book of Psalms, take a look at our article, “What Is The Book of Psalms About?”

Types of Psalms

According to scholar Hermann Gunkel, all psalms can be divided into five types (these categories are different from the five books into which Psalms is divided).

  • Hymns: psalms praising God’s work through creation and time
  • Communal Laments: psalms lifting up the griefs and sorrows of the nation or community following a disaster
  • Individual Laments: by far the most common type of psalm, expressing sorrow in the wake of a tragedy
  • Individual Psalms of Thanksgiving: prayers of praise and gratitude following deliverance or blessing from God
  • Royal Psalms: psalms centered around events of a king--coronation, marriage, battle, etc.

These “type” designations are not hard and fast rules; rather, they are intended to help readers to think about and engage the entire Psalter as a whole.

Authorship

Bearing in mind this general overview of the book, we return to the question of authorship. To speak of an author of the book of Psalms is inaccurate; Psalms is a collection of poetry and songs written by multiple authors over a vast period of time. Who precisely these authors were is an issue of some discussion.

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Traditional Attribution

There are a few traditional answers to the question of who wrote Psalms. Many people assume that King David wrote all the psalms. Jewish tradition identifies ten authors in addition to King David: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah. Individual psalms are attributed to each of these figures, identifying them as a “psalm of David” or “psalm of Asaph”. There are also other psalms that Ethan the Ezrahite and Solomon wrote according to tradition. Finally there are the so-called orphan psalms attributed to no one in particular.

While there is little debate that Psalms was authored by multiple writers, King David is still frequently viewed as the book’s primary author. About half of the psalter is attributed to him in the psalm titles and there are references elsewhere in scripture calling King David "the sweet singer (or psalmist) of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).

Modern Perspectives

However, modern Biblical scholars are far less sure of the accuracy of these traditional views of authorship. Many scholars argue that attribution does not necessarily mean authorship. Just because a psalm is listed as a “psalm of David”, that does not automatically mean David wrote them. They may have been written for the King, or commissioned by him. Being the namesake of a specific text does not automatically make one it’s creator. Consider, for example, the King James Bible. This version of the Bible was neither written nor translated by King James himself. The king merely commissioned it. Likewise it is possible that not all of the attributed psalms were written by the person they are attributed to.

In truth, the collections of pieces included in the book of Psalms were written over an extremely long period of time, and revision and compilation took even longer. Its is absolutely possible that David composed at least some of the psalms included in this book of the Bible. But we are not able to say with certainty which particular psalms David—or Asaph or Moses—wrote.

Approaching Authorship Differently

In light of all this, perhaps is it is more helpful to approach the question of authorship differently. As explored in our consideration of authorship as it pertains to the book of Proverbs (see “Who Wrote Proverbs?”), rather than asking who wrote the songs and poems included in Psalms, we should instead ask why they wrote them. 

The reason that people want to know who wrote a specific text is to gain a better understanding of the intention and context in which the text was written. While we can not say for certain who the individual authors were, we can explore the ways in which the psalms were studied and incorporated into religious life. In fact, it is here that scholarship like Gunkel’s is especially relevant. By categorizing the various psalms by their intent or style, we gain insight into the ways in which these psalms function in the faith life of both an individual and a community. Running the gambit from private devotion to public worship, there is a psalm for each circumstance in our walks with God.

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History and Application

To that end, the book of Psalms has a long history of use in worship services. From being read in synagogues and Temple worship during Jewish festivals and holidays, to their liturgical use in Christian circles, the psalms frequently give structure to our praise and prayers. Often in modern worship services, the psalms are used as a "call to worship" at the start of the service, setting the tone for all that is to follow and welcoming participants to praise God. And just as the psalms would have originally involved playing music, the words and prayers found in this book have served as the foundation and inspiration for much of the worship music sung today.

Final Thoughts

When we feel unsure of what or how to pray, the words of the psalmists can serve as a starting point, structuring our thoughts and connecting us to the legacy God’s relationship with humanity. After all this time, the wisdom Psalms presents us with continues to encourage us to give thanks for the blessings we have received.

To read Psalms and the rest of the Bible’s wisdom literature, take a look at the  Wisdom Collection from Alabaster.