Thursday, August 26, 2021

Psalm 82

Psalm 82: Rescue the Weak and Needy

This post was written in the middle of blogging my way through the Gospel of John. Jesus referred to this Psalm in John 10:22–42, so I figured I should go deep on it. It was written long before I started the book of Psalms as a whole1, so this post might not be consistent with how I blogged about other Psalms. For example, I included verse numbers, which may or may not have ended up consistent with other posts about Psalms, but it made it easier to refer to bits and pieces of the text later.

This is an interesting Psalm, in which God addresses “the divine council” of “the gods,” which I think (and see in some commentaries) is metaphorical language for human judges—though the comparison to the various “gods” of the earth is also instructive (in both directions). But I’ll get to that.

Here’s the Psalm:

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
   in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
   and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
   maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
   they walk about in darkness;
   all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 I said, “You are gods,
   sons of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, like men you shall die,
   and fall like any prince.”

8 Arise, O God, judge the earth;
   for you shall inherit all the nations!

(Psalm 82, “Selahs” removed)

I actually see two meanings in this Psalm (and I’m sure smarter people would find more). There’s a surface meaning where the Psalmist addresses the sinful judges of the land, but it’s also interesting to look at the Psalm as if God were actually addressing other “gods.”

The Surface Meaning

Step-by-step through the song:

  • Verses 1–4 include an address from God to “the gods” (Israel’s judges): why are they not administering true, God-honouring justice? Why are they showing partiality to the wicked, and working against the weak and the fatherless? They should be rescuing the weak and the needy, and delivering them from the wicked, not to the wicked!
  • Verse 5 kind of addresses why that is: the judges have no understanding, and are walking around in darkness.
  • Verses 6–7 indicates that their power comes from being sons of the Most High (i.e. God), which should put them in their place (i.e. under God), and also reminds them that they’re still human: they’re still going to die.
  • Verse 8 calls upon God Himself to come and judge the earth, especially in light of the fact that He’s going to inherit all of “the nations” anyway!
    • There’s obviously a sense in which all of the nations are already God’s, but there’s also a sense in which the other nations have their own gods, and don’t belong to the true God, and so one day God shall inherit the other nations.

The “Addressed to Gods” Meaning

As mentioned, although I don’t think this is the primary meaning of the song, it’s also interesting to read it as if God really were addressing other “gods,” instead of just Israel’s judges.

Verse Addressed to Human Judges Addressed to Gods
1–4 You have a job to do, and you’re not doing it. If you’re really “gods,” why do you not help your people? Why are only the wicked benefitted, and not the weak and the needy?
5 They are supposed to be wise, but they are ignorant and in the dark. They call themselves “gods,” but they don’t know anything. Only God is wise.
6–7 You have temporary power, but you will die like everyone else. Even princes die, why wouldn’t you? You call yourselves “gods” but whatever nation invented you, and is currently worshipping you, will fall away, and when they fall away so will you.
8 We can look forward to a day when God judges rightly, as opposed to sinful and fallible human judges. Whatever power the “gods” have, it is God Himself will will one day rule over all the earth, casting other “gods” aside.

One might ask, of course, what the point is of addressing a song to “gods” when those “gods” don’t even exist. If they don’t exist they can’t hear the Psalm! But the Israelites who heard/sang this song would hear it, and be reminded that other “gods” aren’t real, only God is. I find that a lot of the times when God or the Scriptures are addressed to “gods” the point is to show how silly it is to worship any “god” other than the true God.

The Israelites hearing/singing this Psalm would be left to wonder: “why should I go after other ‘gods’ when they can’t even protect the weak?” Because most Israelites would find themselves in that exact category: the vast majority of people who sang this song throughout the history if Judah/Israel were not kings, or judges, or even priests, they were normal, working-class Israelite people. God’s Law was supposed to provide for them—sometimes it didn’t, when it was administered poorly by human judges, which is the point of this Psalm in the first place—but it was intended to be fair to everyone. But the “gods” of the other nations? They couldn’t even claim that!

  1. At the time I wrote this I assumed I would get into Psalms eventually, but I hadn’t yet started. There may very well have been a period of years in which this post was up but there were no other posts about Psalms—or maybe this blog never got as far as the book of Psalms before I was called to Heaven (or stopped blogging for some other reason). ↩︎

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