Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 14, 2016
Psalm 82 Commentary
Psalm 82 is a most unusual Psalm for at least two reasons. First, it is not a Psalm of praise or thanksgiving or penitence or confession or lament or imprecation or coronation. Unlike most Psalms, it is not addressed to God in any of those ways, except in the very last verse. Rather, it is God speaking to us. It is a Psalm of Judgment proclaimed by God against those who are guilty of social injustice.
It begins with a vision of God standing in the “great assembly,” the great hall of justice in heaven, the supreme Supreme Court. He is presiding over a gathering of judges. This is not a business-as-usual meeting. God has gathered these judges to “give judgment” against them. The judges are about to be judged by the Judge of all.
Who are these judges? This is the second reason this Psalm is so unusual. The judges to be judged are “the gods.” The Hebrew word there is elohim, the same word translated “God” in the opening words of Psalm 82, that is, the One bringing judgment. So, what on earth can that mean? Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the gods are treated as empty nothings. They don’t exist, except in the minds of their creators and in the visual representations of them in idols. But here “the gods” are charged with unjust judgment, as though they actually exist, but have done a poor job of the work God has given them to do.
Understandably, there is a rich and vast literature on this knotty question. Some argue that the Psalmist has simply adopted the standard world view of the ancient Middle East, in which there is a pantheon of gods governing the affairs of humanity and nature. Often they fight or mate or conspire, but sometimes they meet in a heavenly divine assembly which is presided over by the head/father God, like Zeus or Jupiter.
All of Israel’s neighbors held to such a view of reality. Here the Psalmist adapts that worldview in order to make a huge point; namely, that the God of Israel is greater than the supposed gods of the nations. So Psalm 82 is a bit like a modern day preacher using a contemporary myth, some fictitious but widely known story to make a larger Gospel point in a sermon. This understanding of Psalm 82 makes a good deal of sense. I’ll say more about it later.
Others think that the Psalmist is talking about the human rulers of the surrounding nations, who often viewed themselves as representatives of the gods, if not actually divine themselves. Still others believe that the Psalmist is addressing the rulers and judges of Israel itself, who were given the power to judge by God himself. So they functioned as “gods” when they sat on their thrones in the court. And still others think that this Psalm is directed at all Israel, because every Israelite was commanded by God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Lending credibility to that last interpretation is the way Jesus used Psalm 82:6 in an exchange with the Jews in John 10:34-36. They were about to stone him for claiming that he and the Father are one. Jesus stopped them in their tracks by quoting Psalm 82. “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came… what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?” From Jesus’ own mouth, we have proof that even mere mortals have been called “gods” by the true God. Who are these mortals? Those “to whom the word of God came,” which could mean either specially appointed rulers and judges or ordinary Israelites to whom the word of God came on Sinai.
Given the words of Jesus, I’ll choose the latter two interpretations of “the gods,” though I’ll say something about the first interpretation later. In Psalm 82 God hauls his people into court. Indeed, what follows verse 1 reads exactly like a court proceeding. He brings specific charges against them, finds them guilty of crimes so serious that they have destabilized the entire earth, and sentences them to not only removal from office but also execution.
In verses 2-4 God addresses the accused. His opening words sound like a lament often heard on the lips of Israel. “How long…” God sounds desperately sad, impatiently angry about the sins of his people. What was their crime? They were unjust judges, in two ways. First, they didn’t punish the criminals. That is often how we think of corrupt judges. They are soft on crime. They let criminals off with a slap on the wrist. They aren’t strong on “law and order.” And that was true for these unjust judges. “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.”
But God reserves most of his condemnation for the second way these judges did not do their jobs. They did not defend the victims, which was the first order duty of kings and judges in the ancient Middle East, and in Israel. (Cf. Psalm 72, Prov. 31:8,9, Isa. 11:4, Jer. 23:3, 16, et al) God is not talking about the victims of theft or rape or slander or even murder here. He is talking about those who are simply weak and fatherless, poor and oppressed, in a word, those who are needy.
This is a word we desperately need to hear today. There are fierce political debates in our society these days about the needy. We argue about how people get needy, why they stay needy, how to most effectively help the needy, what role the government ought to play in helping the needy, etc. All of those are very important questions. But we must never forget that God holds his people responsible to treat the needy not only with mercy, but also with justice. And as Psalm 82 says, justice has to do with “maintaining the rights of the poor and oppressed.” There are rights at stake here. God commands his people not only to feed the hungry, but also to defend their cause, to address their needs in the courts of justice. God calls for social justice.
Psalm 82 shows us that social justice is not a liberal cause, as some conservatives claim. It is God’s cause—not God’s only cause, to the exclusion of, say, evangelism. But social justice is part of his great work of restoring the world to its original Shalom. Conservatives and liberals might have different approaches to helping the needy of the earth, one relying more on individual initiative, the other on governmental intervention. But both right and left must defend the cause of the weak and maintain the rights of the poor. Or else!
Or else what? Or else God will haul us into his divine court and judge us, because this is serious business. God shows how serious it is in verse 5, where he says that injustice in this matter has earthshaking consequences. Now, it is difficult to say for sure who “they” are in verse 5. Is it the weak and the poor who walk about in darkness, understanding nothing? Maybe, but that doesn’t fit the overall message of the Psalm, which is condemnation of unjust judges. Thus, although “they” might be “the wicked” from verse 4, it is most likely those in Israel who do not exercise their God-given duty of doing justice for the poor and needy.
When those appointed to do justice show that they don’t understand moral issues and don’t know God’s standards, when they walk in moral darkness, the whole world order crumbles. When those in charge of justice don’t do justice, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” “Injustice is a cosmic sin with ramifications both in heaven and on earth.” (Brent Strawn) This is an empirically verifiable observation. Think of the number of times the world has been shaken when the weak and the needy finally rose up in desperate rebellion because those in charge of justice did not administer it fairly and mercifully. The result was never Shalom, but a shaking earth.
That’s why God is so harsh in his sentence upon these “gods” who judged unjustly. God placed them in charge, giving them his own name and authority (verse 6). But they will all lose not only their positions of authority, but also their lives. “But you will die like mere men (adam in Hebrew); you will fall like every other ruler.” What a warning to God’s appointed judges! What a warning to us who are called “sons (and daughters) of the Most High!”
And what a devastating verdict on the “gods!” Let’s return to the first interpretation of “the gods” mentioned above. If the Psalmist adopts the prevailing world view of the ancient Middle East which believes that the affairs of humans and the course of nature are deeply affected by the pantheon of the gods, then Psalm 82 pronounces a terrible judgment on that whole system of belief. Even if we assume that the gods really exist (contrary to everything else the Bible says), Psalm 82 says that they are subservient to the God of Israel. And even if we assume that they have power over humans, power to judge them, Psalm 82 says that they failed in their exercise of that power. They are unjust judges and God has tried, convicted, and condemned them to death. In other words, Psalm 82 announces the death of the gods.
What an unusual way of proclaiming the sovereignty of God. Rather than denying the existence of other gods, Psalm boldly claims that the true God has exercised his sovereignty over them by judging, condemning, and executing them. The kings/gods are dead! Long live the King/God of Israel.
This is an important message for our polytheistic, multicultural world. James Luther Mays puts it this way. “As long as nations and peoples do not see the reign of God as the reality that determines their way and destiny, there will be gods who play that role. Faith must always see the Lord standing in the midst of the gods of the nations and know that to say ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is to pray for the death of the gods.”
That is precisely what we pray in the last words of Psalm 82. Having seen a vision of the end of injustice and those who perpetrate it, the Psalmist turns to God with a single powerful petition. “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” God is perfectly entitled and able to do that, “for all the nations are your inheritance (or domain).” The earth is such a chaotic mass of injustice that it will take God to straighten it out. The Psalm participates in the “already but not yet” dynamic of the New Testament Gospel of the Kingdom. God already reigns in justice, but the earth is not yet completely just because those charged with administering justice are unjust.
In the end, this Psalm points ahead to the Day when the Judge will come to earth from heaven. He did that once in the Incarnation of the Son of God. And he will complete his work when he comes again to “judge the living and the dead.” When he came the first time, he announced the purpose of his coming in the words of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
We can spiritualize those words; they surely refer to more than physical salvation. But they don’t mean anything less than that either. We know that because of Jesus words in Matthew 25:31-46. When the Son comes the second time, he will judge all people on the basis of what they did for the poor and needy. No, we are not saved by our commitment to and performance of social justice. We are saved by our commitment to the Savior who will come again to judge the living and dead. But he commands that we show our love for him by loving the least, the last, and the lost. As Jesus’ brother James put it, “Religion that our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
At the beginning of this piece, I said that this is an unusual Psalm in two ways. Now we can add two more ways. In a post-modern world filled with multiple gods, each one as good as the others, Psalm 82 fiercely declares an anti-polytheistic message. And to a church that is often ambivalent about social justice, Psalm 82 issues a strong pro-social justice warning to judges who do not defend the cause of the weak and maintain the rights of the poor. There is only one God and that God demands that everyone not only prays, “Thy Kingdom come,” but also works for the justice and peace of that kingdom on earth. Or else!
To help people picture the vision presented in Psalm 82, you might project on your screen a picture of the United Nations in full session. Now imagine God sitting in the midst calling the nations to account. Or picture God arguing his case not only before the Supreme Court, but also against the Supreme Court. Or, closer to home, picture your denomination’s annual meeting where the whole church is gathered (at least representatively), and Jesus walks into the midst and demands an accounting of our performance on social justice matters.
One example of what happens when the rights of the poor and needy are not defended by those in authority is the Russian Revolution. When the people rose up against their oppressors, the result was not the hoped for “workers’ paradise,” but a hellacious shaking of the social order. That’s what happens when “the gods” don’t do their work justly—a godless revolution ruins a whole society and jeopardizes the world.
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