A Psalm Against David: Why David Didn’t Write Psalm 51

I’m scheduled to present a paper at the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR), a sort of evangelical version of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), at their annual meeting in Atlanta, on November 20, 2015. It happens just before the start of the SBL.

The paper is called “A Psalm against David? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 51 as a Critique of David’s Inadequate Repentance in 2 Samuel 12.

The paper is an attempt to read Psalm 51 carefully in light of the superscription, which links it to David’s confrontation by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 over his adultery with Bathsheba.

The trouble is that a close reading of the psalm just doesn’t fit with the narrative, at multiple levels. So, what is an evangelical, orthodox Christian to do with that?

Since psalms superscriptions are not original to the psalms, but inserted by later editors (I give evidence for this in the paper), I propose that we take the superscription to Psalm 51 as a (divinely inspired) lectionary suggestion for reading the psalm together with the 2 Samuel narrative.

The result of doing this, I argue, is that the psalm ends up being a critique of David’s superficial “repentance” in 2 Samuel 12. My paper, therefore, challenges the naive, idealistic reading of the figure of David often found in the evangelical church (but then anyone who reads 1-2 Samuel with their eyes open would be disabused of this ideal picture anyway).

The paper is, most fundamentally, my attempt to take the authority of Scripture seriously (regarding both Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 as divinely inspired), with eyes wide open to the complexity of this divinely inspired Scripture.

I tested out a short version of the paper at the recent meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association in Ottawa, and got good discussion there.

The research group of the IBR in which I’ll be presenting the paper (called Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and the Theological Disciplines) posted my draft of a longer, fuller version of the paper so that anyone can read it and send comments to me. I’ll then have a chance to revise the paper in light of the comments, and it will be re-posted in late October, prior to the conference.

The paper will be published (probably in 2017) in a volume of essays coming from the IBR research group, tentatively entitled Explorations in Interdisciplinary Reading: Theological, Exegetical, and Reception-Historical Perspectives, ed. Robbie Castleman, Darian Lockett, and Stephen Presley (Eugene, OR: Pickwick).

I invite you to post your comments or questions here.

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2 thoughts on “A Psalm Against David: Why David Didn’t Write Psalm 51

  1. Richard, wonderfully thought-provoking paper! Methinks the strongest component is at the end (p.15 onward)–moral reformation being the key to repentance, not simply confession and absolution. Powerful insights on the disciple-making process!

    And, of course, overall this paper is an interesting take on such a classic psalm–a take that is gaining traction with me after reading your arguments. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Derek. You’re right that that section on moral reformation is the key section of the paper; it was quite brief in my first draft, but is now greatly expanded (and could even be expanded some more).

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