Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Psalm 82 Commentary
What are we to make of Psalm 82? Who are the “gods” that get referred to multiple times? If you as an orthodox believer are convinced there really are no other gods beyond the God and Father of Jesus Christ, then these references to other gods may be a bit unsettling. But as I read and then re-read this psalm, it occurred to me that there may be a way of interpreting this that not only accords more with our modern sensibilities but that may reflect the original intent of this poem even in its own day.
Could it be that the psalmist had his tongue embedded firmly in cheek when he referred to “gods”? Might he have been thinking of people on this earth who fancy themselves as de facto gods? It certainly looks like the psalm is directed at rulers of nations who have an opportunity to—and a responsibility to—administer their realms with justice and with equity for all. Maybe this is even directed at rulers of Israel who, all too often in Israel’s history, failed to uphold God’s holy laws and his blueprint for how life was to go in Israel among God’s chosen people.
After all, there is no missing in places like Leviticus and Deuteronomy a consistent focus on what we sometimes refer to collectively as “the anawim.” This is that class of people who were vulnerable in the ancient world and it usually consisted of that well-known triplet of the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Women without the protection of a husband in a patriarchal society, children without the protection of any parent whatsoever, immigrants and strangers from other countries who could so easily fall between the societal cracks: God again and again urges Israel to pay special attention to these people. They required extra, special care.
One thinks of the quintessential, triply doomed biblical figure of Ruth. She was a widow, a de facto orphan, and a non-Israelite alien from Moab. The deck was stacked against Ruth and so when she opted to return to Bethlehem with her bereft mother-in-law Naomi—herself now a vulnerable widow—the prospects for Ruth were bleak. The odds of her being raped were far greater than her being protected or led to a fine new husband one day. Her chances of starving to death were far greater than having someone take pity on her and provide her with loads of grain. Only because the man Boaz actually kept God’s law making special provision for widows, orphans, and aliens did Ruth not only survive but thrive and even find herself in the family line that would one day lead to no less than the Messiah. (If ever you needed an example of how great things can come when someone actually follows God’s decrees, Ruth is it!)
Sadly, Boaz was the exception and not the rule in Israel, including when it came to the behavior of some kings and many other leaders in the religious hierarchy. These are the people who perhaps fancied themselves to be “gods” in their own right. They had power. They had money. When they said “Jump!” people dutifully responded “How high?” And so as with most anyone who concludes he is all-but divine, these people also concluded they could make up the rules as they went along. Hewing to God’s dusty old laws from Leviticus did not apply to these gods. Indeed, the charm of fancying yourself to be a god is precisely that you decide you are the one in the position to make up the laws of the land. And nine times out of ten the laws such gods make up tended to benefit those same gods. (This is also the charm of idolatry in any form: in history very few people have ever invented a god who then went on to make life harder for the person inventing the deity. No, no: false gods tend to be pretty easy to serve, they tend to bless what the idolater is already doing. False gods shop were you shop, live where you live, vote the way you vote and so on. False gods never trouble the waters in one’s life.)
So the psalmist of Psalm 82 sees these would-be “gods” roaming the earth and throwing their weight around and making up highly convenient laws for themselves and calls on them to stop. Raise your sights higher. Get put back into your proper place. Lift up your eyes to the true God of the cosmos, to Yahweh himself, and then do what he says, starting with how the anawim get treated in any nation and most certainly within Israel itself.
But before the poet finishes his diatribe against these would-be gods, he also issues a dire warning: you can fancy yourself to be a god all you want but at the end of the day, you will die. You will discover that the one rule you cannot change or override is the one that says mortals perish. And then you find yourself falling into the hands of the true God of all things and those who refused to serve that God in this life—especially on account of deeming themselves to be divine—may discover that what comes next is not very pleasant. As C.S. Lewis once suggested, those who in this life refused ever to pray the line “Your will be done,” may find a God who says “Very well, then: YOUR will be done. You wanted nothing to do with me in life and so I can arrange it so you will have nothing to do with me after death, either.”
This may not be a cheery message and so when we preach on it, it would be well to emphasize that the true God we serve is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is grace available with this God, there is mercy abundant. There is a reason why you should want to serve this God and not fancy yourself a god in your own right: because the true God really is powerful to save. This God wants to save you, has made a road to salvation possible by grace alone. Abandoning yourself to this God is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is profoundly good. It gives life.
In his pitch perfect, best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe adroitly encapsulated and captured the spirit of the 1980s and particularly of the upwardly mobile “yuppies” who cashed in on that decade’s atmosphere of greed and acquisition. Stock market speculation, stock futures, junk bonds: it was all there for the taking.
Wolfe depicted these corporate and stock market titans as inhabiting a world of deeply beveled oak paneled board rooms, mahogany tables, leather sofas, gilded everything—it all screamed “Money!” And as they sat around in these wealth-soaked environments Wolfe noted that they considered themselves to be no less than “Masters of the Universe.” Or perhaps as the poet of Psalm 82 would put it: they strutted around as though they were themselves no less than gods!
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