It has recently been said to me that the Hebrew phrase for "A Psalm to David", which appears at the beginning of many Psalms, should actually be translated "A Psalm to David".

The Hebrew text for "A Psalm of David" is, לְדָוִד מִזְמֹור. The person said that the lamed (לְ) in front of David's name (דָוִד) indicates that the phrase means "To David", and not "Of David"; in other words, the phrase is not indicating that the Psalm was written by David (though whether or not it actually was written by David is irrelevant to the discussion; I believe that the relevant Psalms were, and I believe that that person believes so as well), but are speaking to David.

In other words, if לְדָוִד מִזְמֹור means "To David, a Psalm", then one could say that, although David was the author, he was not the speaker, but was writing to himself from the perspective of someone else. If לְדָוִד מִזְמֹור means "Of David, a Psalm", then there is no good reason to deny that David himself is the one speaking. Consider the importance of this when interpreting Psalm 110, for example.

Is there any good reason to say that the lamed in front of the Hebrew for David does not mean "to", but rather "of", or that it indicates possession? I myself can say that certain of those passages which begin with לְדָוִד מִזְמֹור don't seem to address David at all, but instead seem to be written from his perspective.

Thank you.

  • One psalm that we can say with confidence that David was its author is psalm 18 which is almost identical to 2 Samuel 22. The Hebrew (in Samuel) is archaic, the context of the psalm characterize a David-like warrior and suits well such a person, and given the fact that it is the only psalm that was recorded in the book of Samuel (possibly the oldest book of the bible) we can say with reasonable confidence that it is a composition of David which was also known as a Hebrew poet at the time. – Bach Nov 8 at 14:59
  • "Only a fondness for doubt can lead any one to doubt the Davidic origin of this Psalm, attested as it is in two works, which are independent of one another. The twofold testimony of tradition is supported by the fact that the Psalm contains nothing that militates against David being the author." (Commentary of K&D, introduction to Psalm 18) – Bach Nov 8 at 15:03
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    @Bach Thank you for this information, but I was not doubting Davidic authorship, but instead was asking about who the Psalms were directed to. – CMK Nov 8 at 15:23
  • @Bach Alright. Thanks for the information. – CMK Nov 9 at 0:46

In Hebrew, ל as a prefix can mean "to" in the sense of "I am walking to the park." But it can also be used to make a noun the indirect object (i.e. beneficiary) of a sentence, in the sense of "I gave the cookie to David" or "I opened the door for David."

By attaching ל to a noun, we can make it the indirect object of a sentence. (If we want to do this in Latin or Greek, we would instead inflect the noun into its dative case.) So, if we wanted to say "God gave the bread to David," we would write נתן אלהים את הלחם לדוד. Natan (gave) is the verb, Elohim (God) is the subject, ha-lechem (the bread) is the direct object, and David is the indirect object. Note that word order isn't so important in Hebrew, so we could write לדוד נתן אלהים את הלחם and it would mean the exact same thing.

Unlike English, however, Latin and Greek and Hebrew often use the indirect object to show possession. In layman's terms, we write "The house is to Peter" (Domus est Petro/ בית לפטרוס) when we really mean "The house belongs to Peter."

So, to answer the question, the text is ambiguous as the grammar doesn't specify whether לדוד means "to/for David" or "belongs to David."

Thus, if the translator chooses to write "a psalm of David" the translator is injecting his own (possibly true, possibly false) interpretation into the text. No translation is perfect. If I was forced to translate the text into English, however, I would translate לְדָוִד מִזְמֹור as "a psalm to David," so that a reader who knows some basic Hebrew or Latin or Greek will be able to recognize that David is the indirect object in the original text, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not it really means "belongs to David."

  • Ya gotta love prepositions! +1 – Ruminator Nov 8 at 17:13
  • According to the source that you provided, which I did in fact reference previously, לְ can mean "of", indicating possession, in certain cases. After looking at every Psalm which begins with "A Psalm of (or to) David", I came to the conclusion that "A Psalm of David" is more likely what the text is saying, because the vast majority of Psalms seem to be written from the perspective of King David, and are clearly addressing God, and sometimes are addressing someone who could not possibly be David himself. – CMK Nov 8 at 19:19
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    @CMK Thanks for your feedback! I totally agree that ל can mean "of," used in the possessive sense. בית לפטרוס can be translated as "The house belongs to Peter" or "The house is of Peter" or "The house is Peter's." It's just like the dative of possession in Latin. – Pascal's Wager Nov 8 at 23:42
  • @Pascal'sWager Thanks. A dative of possession sounds interesting. – CMK Nov 9 at 0:45
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    @user21676 Good point! Even if it is a dative of possession (which I argue might be the case), possession doesn't automatically imply authorship. The house might belong to Peter, but that doesn't mean he built his own house. – Pascal's Wager Nov 9 at 14:34

It is true that the "le" as a prefix to David's name on many Psalms does not either prove his authorship as this prefix could mean, "belonging to", or "by", or "for". However, since ancient times these have been attributed to David, at least in the sense that they were part of a collection belonging to David.

However, most of those that bear this superscription certainly appear to have been authored by David because:

  • David was a poet and musician and well known as such (1 Sam 16:15-23, 2 Sam 23:1, Amos 6:5)
  • David was a very sensitive man of great faith and deep feeling (2 Sam 1:19-27, 3:33, 34, etc)
  • A number of the Psalms reflect directly the experiences of David such as Ps 3 (flight from Absalom), Ps 51 (repentance after Bathsheba incident), Ps 23 (shepherd's experience), Ps 18 (escape from Saul), Ps 34 (experience with Abimelech), etc.
  • Many of "David's Psalms" are sent to the director of Music of David's orchestra and choir which he established in preparation for the temple.
  • The NT (Jesus and others) directly attribute the authorship of some psalms to David (Matt 22:45-45), Mark 12:36, 37, Luke 20:42-44, Acts 2:25, 4:25, Rom 4:6-8, 11:9, 10, Heb 4:7, etc.
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    None of the points you mention support the idea that "most of those that bear this superscript ion certainly appear to have been authored by David". (1) There were more poets besides David (similarly you could say Tolkien authored Harry Potter because he is a great writer); (2) idem; (3) this ignores that most written texts are not autobiographical; (4) there is no historical support for this claim; (5) the NT postdates most of the psalms by over 500 years, they based themselves on the transmitted text as well, so this says nothing more than we can say ourselves by looking at the text. – Keelan Nov 8 at 10:33
  • OK Keelan - are you suggesting that these (or some of them) are false attributions? And that the NT writers were either mistaken, misinformed and uninspired? – Dr Peter McGowan Nov 8 at 10:57
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    No, I'm suggesting the argumentation is invalid. – Keelan Nov 8 at 10:58
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    This post gives five reasons for that alleged credibility. I have given five reasons why those reasons are invalid. Could you reply to those, content-wise? – Keelan Nov 8 at 11:02
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    There is no direct evidence of the authorship of any Psalms and most of the OT documents. The above rather circumstantial and indirect evidence is all we have but it is far from certain as stated above. All we can say for certain is that David could well have written the documents and most are consistent with his authorship but we cannot eliminate other possibilities. – Dr Peter McGowan Nov 8 at 21:57

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