The Greatest Songwriter of All Time? Surely, King David

David's psalms have endured, appear in literature, and are known globally. Jesus sang them!

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Art & Music

My nominee for the greatest songwriter of all time is King David of Israel (c. 1000 B.C.). There are 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms. The psalms are songs; the title of the book refers to “instrumental music” or to the words accompanying music. Furthermore, there are inscriptions that give musical directions such as “choirmaster,” “stringed instruments,” or the proper occasion for using the song (“On the dedication of the temple”; “For the memorial offering”). At least 73 of the 150 are attributed to David. Outside the Book of Psalms, there is evidence that David was really “into music.” He danced (2 Sam. 6:14-16), played music, composed music, and sang: “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Sam. 16:23). And: “David spoke the words of this song to the Lord in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (2 Sam. 22:1; the verses of the song are 2 Sam. 22:2-51).

The Irish singer-songwriter Bono (of the band U2) wrote an introduction to a 1999 anthology of psalms. In it he reflects, “At age 12, I was a fan of David. He felt familiar, like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious, and he was a star — a dramatic character, because before David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating.” He describes David’s story of exile and feelings of abandonment by God. “This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm — a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me — the blues. Man shouting at God — ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?’” (on Psalm 22; “Bono on the Psalms,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, NPR, March 1, 2002).

Certain facts and criteria point to lauding David as greatest songwriter of all time for his psalms:

  • They are enduring: 3,000 years and counting
  • The number of “hits”: 150 (or at least 73)
  • Geographical dispersion: global
  • The Book of Psalms has been translated into numerous languages. The full Bible has been translated into over 700 languages; and the Book of Psalms has been translated even more widely. “Of all parts of the Bible, it was the Psalms that were most frequently translated into vernacular languages. This was probably because, as personal prayers which directly address God, they were easily adaptable to use in private devotional practice” (Annie Sutherland, Associate Professor in Old and Middle English, University of Oxford, “The Importance of Translation in the Diffusion of Christianity,” Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library, Sept. 23, 2019).
  • Covers: too numerous to count
  • The lyrics are memorable, appear in literature, and have entered our lexicon. One example is: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23).
  • The lyrics are not vulgar.
  • The topics and moods are diverse: laments, thanksgiving, praise, petitions. As Bono wrote, they include “blues.”
  • Melodies: Many composers have put the Psalms to music. Many of these are not in Gregorian chant. They include Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky, the 1971 musical Godspell by Stephen Schwartz (b. 1948) with the songs O Bless the Lord and On the Willows. In addition, we have information on how the psalms were originally sung. (See, for example, Charles David Isbell of LSU, “The Musical Notation in Psalms,” https://sites.google.com/site/articlesforassignedreading/home/musical-notations-in-psalms, and Emil G. Hirsch, “Psalms,” Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12409-psalms )
  • The frequency, or play time, of the psalms has been extensive. It is daily. Jews have sung and recited the Psalms for centuries: in morning services (Shacharit), on the Sabbath, the Psalms of the Day, and so on. After Jesus’ Ascension, the Psalms were interpreted to have always been about Him. Men seeking to become monks in the Middle Ages were required to memorize all 150 Psalms (in Latin). The Psalms are recited (or sung) in the Liturgy of the Hours (that is, around-the-clock prayers). In Catholic worship, the Psalms have been recited (or sung) in every daily Mass since the end of Vatican II. This is not to mention the use of the Psalms by Anglicans, the Orthodox, and more.
  • Lastly, Jesus Himself sang Psalms. The Gospels report that, after the Last Supper, “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). During Passover, Jews customarily sang the “Hallel Psalms,” that is, Psalms 113-118.

The Gospels report that Jesus quoted and alluded to various psalms. A compilation of instances where psalms are used in the New Testament, including Jesus’ quotes of them, is here: New Testament Quotations from the Psalms (jesuswalk.com) (Appendix in A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, The Cambridge Bible; Cambridge University Press, 1902). Four examples of Jesus’ quotes are:

For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39, quoting Psalm 118:26).

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:4, quoting Psalm 22:1).

“He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (John 13:18, quoting Psalm 41:9).

“They hated me without a cause” (John 15: 25, quoting Psalms 35:19 and 69:4).

So, that’s my case for declaring King David of Israel to be “the greatest songwriter of all time.”

 

[Web editor note: for the previous post on this topic, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/whos-the-greatest-songwriter-of-all-time/ ]

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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