Write Songs Like David: 5 Ways To Compose Like The Psalmist

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Classic image of King David the Psalmist playing his harp1. Pour Your Heart And Guts Out

David’s song lyrics in the Book of Psalms display the full range of human emotion: lament and sorrow, triumph and joy and everything in between. David cried out to God “My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?” in songs like Psalm 4. He also offered heartbreaking confessions of sin to God, like Psalm 51, and he displayed his vulnerability in songs like Psalm 69:

You know my folly, O God;
my guilt is not hidden from you.

May those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me,
O Lord, the LORD Almighty; (Psalm 69:5-6, ESV)

Yet we hardly ever do this is in modern worship songs. Many contemporary western churches rely exclusively on happy, upbeat music and lyrics. David knew all about that and wrote many psalms of victory and praise, yet when he had sinned or when God seemed distant, he didn’t put on a happy-faced mask. The psalms are honest with God, and honest with us.

2. Develop Your Songwriting Technique

As we teach in our How To Write A Personal Psalm page, Hebrew poetry didn’t rhyme or constrict itself to the meters we find in English hymnody, but it included poetic and rhetorical techniques such as those that scholars have labeled synonymous (Psalm 3), antithetical (Psalm 17) and synthetic poetry (Psalm 139). David knew his stuff. He was a gifted writer who skillfully applied the literary and poetic devices of his day. After all, here was a man with such command of metaphor that he could come up with:

“Their throat is an open grave …” (Psalm 5)

“He who is pregnant with evil
and conceives trouble gives birth to
disillusionment” (Psalm 7)

3. Write Songs Distinctively, Uncompromisingly To The One True God

David wasn’t much for abstract worship songs. Like other psalmists, prophets and Bible characters such as Mary, David wrote about Jehovah’s concrete acts in history and his attributes, which were often at odds with the attributes of the false gods of surrounding tribes. He sang to (and about) the God of the covenant, just as we should sing to and about the God of the covenant today.

4. Mix It Up

Some psalms of David and the other psalmists are quite long, like a Charles Wesley hymn (see Psalm 18, or of course Psalm 139, although the writer of that one is unnamed). Others are the equivalent of a contemporary praise & worship chorus, like Psalm 117:

Praise the LORD, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD.

You don’t have to restrict yourself to any musical or lyrical style, genre or template, as long as people can sing it.

5. Look Back, Then Forward

Often today we write songs that don’t have a sense of history or future — they’re all about how we feel now. David wrote about the God who had created the world, who had set a people apart for himself, and who had delivered them from all their enemies. The past is ever present in psalms of David, such as in hisĀ six Creation Psalms (8, 19, 29, 65, 104, 139).

He also wrote about the future, and declared his faith that God would tear down the false kingdoms of this world and set up his never-ending kingdom of righteousness, through which all people on earth would be blessed (see Psalm 68). Of course David and the other psalmists often prophesied of the savior to come (Consider the “Messianic Psalms,” those quoted by New Testament writers in reference to Jesus: Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 23, 24, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 72, 89, 102, 110, 118).


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