Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 82

Psalm 82 is a peculiar little psalm. It begins with a somewhat shocking statement: “God has taken His place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods He holds judgment...” (verse 1). A divine council? God among gods? Huh? The Jews were definitely a monotheistic people. The Bible is filled with admonitions that there is only one God, and idol worship is strictly prohibited. So what could this verse possibly mean? A look into the Hebrew gives us a hint. The words translated here as “divine council” are from the Hebrew ‛êdâh (assembly, congregation, gathering, crowd, or even family) and 'êl (which can certainly mean “god” but also mighty one, powerful one, ruler, god-like man, or hero). The word for “gods” here is from the Hebrew ĕlôhı̂ym. This word is tricky because it is often used as a name for God Himself. But it does not have to be limited to such a use. It can refer to the pantheon of gods and goddesses or perhaps to angels. It can also indicate human rulers or judges, especially those who represent God. So what we have here, then, is God taking His place among the rulers of Israel, those powerful, strong judges who lead the people in God's Name, as His representatives. 

God is coming among these mighty ones for reason. He has a message for them, a judgment upon the judges. In verse 2, God asks them, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” He wants them to examine their consciences and see where they are failing. These mighty ones, His representatives, are producing evil judgments. They are showing favor to the wicked when they should be condemning them. 

God continues by telling His judges what they must do instead: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (verses 3-4). These are the people who really need help: the weak, the orphans, the lowly, the destitute, and the needy. God's judges must be careful to treat them with dignity and respect, to uphold their rights, to give them justice, to rescue them from their trials, and to take care of them when others try to exploit them. This is what God does; this is what His representatives must also do. 

Verse 5, however, emphasizes once again that these mighty ones do not do what God asks of them. They lack knowledge (Hebrew yâda‛ - also awareness, understanding, discernment), and they lack understanding (Hebrew bı̂yn – also perception, consideration, insight). They walk in darkness. Their minds are closed. They refuse to see and hear. But they have no excuse for such ignorance, for God has told them what He expects of them. He has made it very clear. They have made the choice not to listen, and because of that “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” Things are not what they should be according to God's plan for the world. Humans have used their free will to choose against God, and now the whole world is out of joint. 

God speaks again in verses 6-7, reminding His listeners of their lofty status but also warning them of their vulnerability: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” The Hebrew word for “gods” here is again ĕlôhı̂ym and is used to refer to human rulers or judges who are appointed by God as His representatives. God adds that these people are His children. They are His family. They hold a special place in His heart. This verse could certainly apply to all of us. As Christians, we have been baptized into God's family. We are His children. Created in His image and partaking in the gift of His saving grace, we share in God's divine life. We are called to be rulers over the earth and rulers over ourselves. We are called to judge right from wrong and act accordingly. We are called to give justice to the weak and to help those who are lowly and destitute and needy. We are called to fight wickedness. We have been designated as God's representatives on earth, ready and willing to bring His life and His justice to others. 

But we, like the original Israelite audience of this psalm, also receive God's warning. Humans are vulnerable. We fall. We die. Without God, we die a spiritual death that is more horrifying than physical death, for it separates us from Him for all eternity. This is the heart of God's warning. Unless we embrace our call as His children and representatives, unless we act on His orders and obey Him, we risk this spiritual death. 

The psalm ends with a prayer in verse 8: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to You!” The psalmist calls on God to rule over the whole earth (the Hebrew word for “judge,” shâphaṭ, can also mean govern). He recognizes that everything belongs to God, all the nations, all the people, Israelite and Gentile. God is the one Ruler over them all. He reigns over us; we need to submit our hearts, our minds, and our very selves to Him.

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