Was David a Prophet?

by Luke Wayne
12/2/2019

While David is not generally numbered among "the Prophets" in the narrow sense of those specific biblical authors who wrote that category of Old Testament books, David was filled with the Holy Spirit by whom he wrote the Psalms, many of which were prophetically foretelling the coming of the Messiah. As such, David can rightly be called a prophet, as he is in the New Testament.

The New Testament Testimony

David is explicitly called a prophet at least once in Scripture, during one of Peter's sermons in the book of Acts:

"Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay," (Acts 2:29-31).

Yet, even when they don't use the word, the New Testament believers clearly regarded David as a prophet. Earlier in Acts we also read:

"Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus," (Acts 1:16).

The language of the Holy Spirit foretelling by the mouth of David is an obvious reference to prophecy, even if the exact term is not used. Likewise, Jesus Himself said things like:

"'What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?' They said to Him, 'The son of David.' He said to them, 'Then how does David in the Spirit call Him "Lord," saying, "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, Until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet'?"'" (Matthew 22:42-44).

Again, David wrote "in the Spirit" and spoke of the Messiah who would come in the distant future. This is the language of prophecy. The author of Hebrews may also explicitly count David among the prophets when he writes:

"And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets," (Hebrews 11:32).

The author seems perhaps to list two distinct groups here. The first is a group of judges (Gideon, Barak, Sampson, and Jephthah). The second appears to be David, Samuel, and "the prophets." Samuel is obviously himself a prophet, so we could read this as naming Samuel and David both as prophets alongside those biblical writers traditionally known as "the prophets." This understanding of Hebrews is far from certain but, as we will see, it has at least some basis in Jewish tradition. At any rate, even if this is not what this particular verse means, the New Testament as a whole clearly regards David as a prophet and his canonical writings as prophetic.

Early Jewish Tradition

But was this perspective on David a novel invention of Jesus and His apostles, or did other Jews see David as a prophet as well? The fact is that, though David is not frequently called a prophet, we can see from a wide range of Jewish literature that the New Testament Christians were not alone in their assessment of David's prophetic role. The most straightforward example comes from the Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative tradition of Rabbinical Judaism. There we read:

"The Gemara poses a question: Who were the early prophets? Rav Huma says: This is referring to David, and Samuel, and Solomon."1

In a list reminiscent of what we read in Hebrews 11:32, David is placed alongside Samuel (and, in this case, Solomon as well). The Talmud explicitly calls these figures (including David) prophets. The traditions recorded in the Talmud, however, were not written down until several centuries after the New Testament era. When we look at sources from the first century, the exact word "prophet" is not used, but we find the same idea. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian from shortly after the time of Jesus, wrote concerning David that:

"...But the Divine Power departed from Saul, and removed to David, who upon this removal of the Divine Spirit to him, began to prophesy."2

After reporting David's whole life, Josephus goes on to say that God "had shown all things that were to come to pass" to David, and that "many of those things had already come to pass, and the rest would certainly come to pass hereafter."3 Even earlier, we find this perspective in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, the scroll 11QPsa (or 11Q5), after describing David's numerous Psalms, says:

"All these David spoke through (the spirit of) prophecy which had been given to him from before the Most High."4

Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls represent two very different strands of Jewish thought, yet both confirm that David was a prophet. Another much later document that is nevertheless worth noting is the highly interpretive Aramaic paraphrase of the Psalms known as the Targum of Psalms. The Targum not only understands a number of the Psalms to be messianic or otherwise prophetic but also repeatedly references David engaging in prophecy. For example, we read:

"David said through the spirit of prophecy, 'But God will redeem my soul from Gehenna, for he will teach me his law forever.' Concerning Korah and his company, he prophesied and said, 'do not fear, oh Moses, when Korah the man of strife becomes rich, when the glory of those in his house become great. For when he dies he will not take anything, and his glory will not go down after him," (The Targum of Psalm 45:16-18).

This passage claims both that David "prophesied" and that he spoke "through the spirit of prophecy." Likewise, the Targum of Psalm 103:1 opens "by David it was said in prophecy..." The Targum of Psalm 18:1 speaks of "David, who sang in prophecy before the Lord the words of this song..." and the Targum of Psalm 14:1 attributes the Psalm to "When the spirit of prophecy was upon David." All of this parallels perfectly the manner in which the New Testament describes David as a prophet. Thus, while Jesus and the New Testament writers reveal to us more plainly and clearly what the Psalms meant and how they have been fulfilled, the basic idea that David was a prophet and that the Psalms contain prophecy is not a New Testament creation. It was something many ancient Jews already understood.

 

 

 

 

  • 1. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48b
  • 2. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 6, Chapter 8, Section 2
  • 3. Ibid, Book 8, Chapter 4, Section 2
  • 4. Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Volume 2 (Brill and W. B Eerdmans, 2000) 1179