Every language changes over time—in fact, in a remarkably short time. This lesson was brought home to me once when I was reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to one of my children. It starts off with Dorothy’s house being swept up by a cyclone and carried off to parts unknown. “What’s a cyclone?” my son asked, and I answered immediately, “a tornado.” That word he knew. The book had been written only seventy-five years earlier, but in that time the previously disdained “tornado” had come back to replace “cyclone” in normal American usage. Words also vary from place to place. Depending on where you were born in America, you refer to what I call “pancakes” as “griddle cakes,” “hotcakes,” “flapjacks,” or yet something else. Traveling around the country, I have noticed that local TV reporters in some regions refer to what New Englanders call an “accident” on Route 91 as a “crash.” Of course, both words exist for all speakers; it is just a matter of local preferences.
The same thing happened with biblical Hebrew—it varied from place to place and also changed over time. When scholars looked closely at the Psalter, they began to realize that its language was not all of one piece. Some psalms, like Psalm 1 or 119 or 145, used terms or expressions that were simply not found in the earlier parts of the Bible but that existed in abundance in its latest datable books. It seemed unlikely that David, even if he were a prophet, would have used a word that his own contemporaries had never heard of. Other words actually changed their meanings. To David, the word shalal meant “spoils of war, booty” (2 Sam. 3:22); this meaning persisted into later times, but then a new meaning developed, “wealth” or “treasure” (as in, for example, Prov. 31:11, “Her husband’s heart relies on her, and wealth will not be lacking [in the household]”). Why would David have used the word in the latter sense (“I rejoice in Your words as someone who has found great shalal,” Ps. 119:162) when his contemporaries would have misunderstood him to be comparing God’s words not to precious treasure but to plundered goods?
What’s more, David was a southerner, born and bred in Judah. But a number of psalms are written in a distinctly northern Hebrew—for example, they say mah to mean “don’t,” an altogether northern way of speaking (Song 5:8; 7:1; 8:4 [cf. 2:7]). When scholars find this mah, along with other northernisms and even evocations of northern geographic sites, clustered together in Psalm 42, it seems to them that the author of this psalm must have come not from Judah but some northern location. In short, the great chronological and geographical span indicated by the Psalms’ language ruled out a single author or even a single period: the Psalms were written in different places and over a long span of time.