DID YOU EVER try to track the stories of King David with the songs he supposedly wrote in Psalms?
It’s a pain in the neck.
Francie Foster asks the Bible question of the week, and gets a free book for her trouble:
I’m in a small group that is currently studying David. The author of the study frequently has readers turning from 1 and 2 Samuel to Psalm to piece together David’s circumstances and his heart poured out in prayer and song. I was wondering why the Psalms are not recorded chronologically. Is there purpose to the way they have been placed in scripture?
I think I know what Francie is talking about.
Take Bathsheba, for example.
She was married to Uriah, a soldier in one of David’s elite units. While the soldier was away at war, the king made love to the soldier’s wife.
He got her pregnant.
To cover up his fling-a-ding-ding, he ordered his general to send Uriah on a suicide mission:
“Station Uriah on the front lines where the battle is fiercest. Then pull back so that he will be killed.” (2 Samuel 11:15)
David married the grieving and pregnant widow, which must have made him look like a guy who gave a hoot.
The baby died. (Bathsheba later gave birth to Solomon, the prince who would inherit his father’s throne.)
A prophet named Nathan soon called David on the sin. Nathan pretty much called him a murdering horny toad:
“You murdered Uriah the Hittite by having the Ammonites kill him, so you could take his wife.” (2 Samuel 12:9)
David was sorry. About a lot of stuff. Probably sorry about:
- Getting caught
- Getting Bathsheba pregnant
- Ordering Uriah to his death
- Witnessing the death of his newborn son
- Hurting his family
- Disappointing God
Some students of the Bible who want to get inside David’s head during this time of his life often turn to Psalm 51. In my study Bible, that’s about 300 pages after the story in 2 Samuel.
In most Bible translations, before the first verse there is a short note that reads something like this:
“A Psalm of David, regarding the time Nathan the prophet came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
What follows are song lyrics that read like a beautiful prayer of confession.
“Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love…. Wash me clean from my guilt…. And I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again.” (Psalm 51:1-8)
Wanted: professional organizer
Here’s the question. What the heck is that Psalm doing so far away from David’s story?
And another thing, if the ancients who organized the Bible felt they needed to keep David’s prayer in the book of Psalms, why couldn’t they at least put the Psalms in chronological order?
I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.
I wasn’t there to interview any of those people. And nobody who was there at the time left any notes about why they did what they did – at least none that have been discovered.
Here’s what I do know. I see no indication in Psalm 51 that David wrote that song or that the song is about him.
See if you can find any mention of his name. Or any fact related to his story.
And what about verse 4? “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned.”
Does that sound like it fits David’s story?
That’s the kind of line I would have pitched in a prayer if I had done something like calling God a do-nothing horse’s posterior. But that’s not the kind of line I would have used after playing doctor with another man’s wife and then playing undertaker with her husband.
The note at the top of the song was not written at the same time the song was written; scholars agree on that. Someone later read that song and apparently felt it beautifully expressed the remorse David must have felt after he got caught. So they added their note to the song, a bit like a footnote or a comment in the margin of a study Bible.
In the Hebrew language there’s a phrase that’s usually translated to say the psalm is “of David.” That phrase is incredibly vague, in any language. It can mean just about anything: David wrote it, someone wrote it and dedicated it to him, someone wrote it for David to hear, or someone wrote it about David.
David certainly wrote songs (see his funeral song for Saul and Jonathan: “How the mighty have fallen,” 2 Samuel 1:19-27). Scholars say they simply can’t be sure he wrote this particular song – Psalm 51.
Why is Psalms not in chronological order?
Psalms is a Jewish hymnbook, for heaven’s sake. Poems set to music. How is anyone supposed to put poems in chronological order? And why the dickens should they?
Instead, many of the songs are clustered by topics.
Songs for the road, for example. Jews headed into Jerusalem on a pilgrimage could pass their time along the way by singing one of 15 “Songs of Ascent” in chapters 120-134. Jews called them songs of “ascent” because anyone going to Jerusalem had to climb hills to get there.
There’s good news for people wanting to match stories from Jewish history with Psalms that seem at least somewhat related to the story – with emotional attachment if nothing else. They can go to the internet and search for Bible study resources that try to link the two.
I think most scholars would want you to keep in mind that those connections are just educated guesses.
Still, Jewish poets who wrote the Psalms can certainly give us a sense of what may have been going on inside the heads and hearts of sinners and saints in Bible times…and today.