This psalm has a great deal in common with the prophets, in that it pronounces judgment on those appointed by God to positions of power, who have “shown partiality to the wicked” (v. 2) and have failed to “defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless” (v. 3).
The psalm pronounces a severe judgment: Even though God created these beings as “gods” and “sons of the Most High,” (v. 6), they will “die like men, and fall like one of the rulers” (v. 7).
Who are these “gods” and “sons of the Most High”?
- The traditional view is that they were the judges, men (and one woman, Deborah) appointed by God to lead Israel after the time of Moses and Joshua and prior to the advent of Israelite kings (see the book of Judges). Judges were appointed to administer justice, without favoring rich or poor and without succumbing to self-interest. Verses 2-4 sound as if they are intended for such judges.
But this traditional view is out of favor with most contemporary scholars, because of verse 1b (“He judges among the gods”) and verse 6-7 where God tells them that they are “gods” and “sons of the Most High,” but “shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.”
While judges were occasionally referred to as elohim (Exodus 21:6; 22:8), they were never exempt from human death.
- Another view is that these were spiritual beings, such as angels––appointed by God with responsibility for oversight of human life.
This fits better with their being called “gods” and “sons of the Most High”––and also helps us to make sense of the fact that they “shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.” The scholars I read on this passage favored this understanding.
- Another view––based loosely on Deuteronomy 32:8––is that other nations were appointed patron angels who went awry. I would explain that view more clearly, but have been unable to understand it––and doubt its validity.
So I believe that these “gods” and “sons of the Most High” are most likely spiritual beings (as in 2 above)––but admit that it could instead be Israelite judges.
The overriding message of this psalm is that God condemns those in power who “judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked” (v. 2)––and who fail to help the weak, the poor, and the fatherless (v. 3).
That principal would apply equally to spiritual beings and Israelite judges. It would also apply to governmental officials today––and military officers––and corporate CEOs––and judges––and bishops––and even to ordinary citizens who exercise some sort of power over vulnerable people.
A Psalm by Asaph.
Asaph, the son of Berechiah, was a Levite musician, appointed (along with Heman and Jeduthun) by David to preside “over the service of song in the house of Yahweh” (1 Chronicles 6:31, 39).
David also appointed Asaph as chief over a group of Levites “to minister before the ark of Yahweh, and to celebrate and to thank and praise Yahweh, the God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4-6). Asaph’s sons became important temple musicians (1 Chronicles 25:1).
The superscriptions of Psalms 50 and 73-83 identify Asaph as the author.
PSALM 82:1-2. GOD JUDGES THE JUDGES
1 God presides in the great assembly.
He judges among the gods.
2 “How long will you judge unjustly,
and show partiality to the wicked?”
“God (Hebrew: elohim) presides in the great assembly. (Heb. ‘el ‘edah)
He judges (Hebrew: sapat) among the gods” (Hebrew: ‘elohim) (v. 1).
These are the words of the psalmist.
By far the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which means “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)––but ‘elohim is the next most common. ‘El means god (note the small g), and can be used for any god. ‘Elohim is plural, so it can apply to any gods.
However, when used to refer to Yahweh, as at the beginning of this verse, the usage is called “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all that constitutes deity is summed in Yahweh.
The phrase ‘el ‘edah (great assembly) might better be translated divine assembly, because ‘el means god. This lends credence to the view that the beings Yahweh brings to this assembly are spiritual rather than human (see view 2 in the Introduction above).
The word sapat (judges) means judge or govern. We will see this word again in the next verse.
The final use of ‘elohim in this verse (“He judges the ‘elohim) clearly means spiritual powers or gods (small g). Yahweh (the one true God) has brought together spiritual forces from throughout the creation to hold these spiritual powers accountable.
“How long will you judge (Hebrew: sapat) unjustly,
and show partiality to the wicked?” (v. 2).
These are Yahweh’s words. He has come to judge (sapat) the gods (v. 1) because they have judged (sapat) unjustly by showing partiality to the wicked. The judges are being judged.
A judge would typically show partiality to gain something in return. We don’t know what a wicked person would have to offer a corrupt spiritual being, but we do know that demonic beings exist.
The question, “How long” suggests that the unjust judging has been going on for some time––with no end in sight. Yahweh intends to bring it to an end.
The word selah is used 71 times in the book of Psalms and three times in Habakkuk.
Selah seems to be some sort of musical notation, perhaps signaling a pause or a change of volume or intensity.
PSALM 82:3-5. HELP THOSE WHO ARE VULNERABLE
3 “Defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.
Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and needy.
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”
5 They don’t know, neither do they understand.
They walk back and forth in darkness.
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
“Defend (Hebrew: sapat) the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.
Maintain the rights (Hebrew: sadaq) of the poor and oppressed” (v. 3).
Verses 3-5 offer instruction from the judge (Yahweh) to those being judged. Yahweh tells them to defend those too weak to defend themselves––to maintain their rights––and to rescue and deliver them from the wicked
Here we see the sapat word again, which is usually translated judge or govern––but in this translation is defend. It would better be translated “Provide justice to the weak.”
Note the wordplay between sapat (defend or provide justice) and sadaq (maintain the rights). The psalmist is a poet, and this is an example of his artistry.
“Rescue (Hebrew: palat) the weak and needy.
Deliver (Hebrew: nasal) them out of the hand of the wicked” (v. 4).
The Hebrew word palat (rescue) means to rescue or to deliver.
The Hebrew word nasal (deliver) means to deliver.
Hebrew poetry often expresses the same thought in somewhat different words within a verse, as it does here.
Rescue (palat) and deliver (nasal) are the strongest verbs in this series (defend, maintain, rescue, deliver). To rescue/deliver someone requires going on the offensive––devising a plan––assessing the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses––attacking––freeing the person who has been bound––and escaping before the enemy has time to recover.
The Israelites are well acquainted with these words––rescue and deliver. Yahweh delivered them from Egypt and a host of other oppressors. Yahweh provided the model, and expects these spiritual beings to follow it.
The interesting thing here is that verses 6-7 make it sound as if the fate of these spiritual beings has already been decided––is cast in stone. However, verses 3-4 give marching orders, implying that, if the spiritual beings comply, they will save themselves from the judgment already pronounced.
This should be instructive to us. Over and over again we hear that “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5, 15; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Like the father of the prodigal son, the Lord watches for a sign of repentance so he might forgive us and invite us to the feast (Luke 15:11-32).
“They don’t know, neither do they understand.
They walk back and forth in darkness.
All the foundations of the earth are shaken” (v. 5).
Yahweh moves from telling these spiritual judges what to do (v. 3-4) to helping them to understand why this is needed (v. 5). The people whom they are judging or governing don’t understand. They live in darkness. The foundations of their world has been shaken.
I almost hear Yahweh saying, “Come on, guys. Don’t you have at least an ounce of compassion––a shred of decency? Get with the program!”
PSALM 82:6-7. YOU GODS SHALL DIE LIKE MEN
6 I said, “You are gods,
all of you are sons of the Most High.
7 Nevertheless you shall die like men,
and fall like one of the rulers.”
“I said, ‘You are gods, (Hebrew: ‘elohim)
all of you are sons of the Most High.
Nevertheless you shall die like men,
and fall like one of the rulers'” (vv. 6-7).
Now Yahweh pronounces judgment on these spiritual judges. He reminds them that he created them as ‘elohim (gods)––”sons of the Most High.” They had so much potential, but it has been wasted.
The judgment is that, although Yahweh created them as gods, they “shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.” Having been created immortal, they have become mortal.
But we must keep in mind Yahweh’s charge of verses 3-5––a charge to act justly, to take care of the vulnerable people in their charge––to exercise compassion. Presumably, if they do that, the terrible judgment of verse 7 will be reversed.
PSALM 82:8. ARISE, GOD, AND JUDGE
8 Arise, God, judge the earth,
for you inherit all of the nations.
“Arise, God, judge the earth,
for you inherit all of the nations” (v. 8).
This verse and verse 1 are the words of the psalmist. Having heard Yahweh speak, the psalmist is encouraged––and encourages Yahweh to stand firm in what he has just said––for everything, all the nations, belong to Yahweh.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2019, Richard Niell Donovan