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July 11, 2010
Psalm 82

Psalm 82 might appear a strange psalm to many. It is not so much a prayer to God or a psalm in which God’s praise is clearly sung. It is more a description of a ‘glimpse’ into the heavenly sphere where we see Israel’s God sitting in council with the gods of the other nations, judging them for their unjust actions and partiality toward the ‘wicked’.

The scene described clearly draws on myth and imagery from the ancient world around Israel. We might assume that Israel’s allegiance to its God, Yahweh, meant that Israelites did not accept the existence of other gods. This is clearly the case late in Israel’s religious history but it is not true for most of its existence, especially that part before people from Jerusalem were taken into exile in Babylon in 587BCE. There are several texts within the Old Testament from that earlier period which suggest that rather than being ‘monotheistic’ (i.e. believing in the existence of only one god), Israel was ‘monolatrous’ (i.e. worshipping only one god, while yet allowing the possible or assumed existence of other gods). See, for example, Deut 32:7-9; Ps 96:1-5; and Micah 4:3 among other texts. What is described in Psalm 82 is quite typical of descriptions of the ‘divine council’ found in the literature of other ancient Near Eastern religions. What does seem different, however, is the declaration that the gods in the council will die like mortals (v. 7a). In the ancient Near East, the gods might fight and squabble mong themselves but they remain immortal. In the occasional story of a god ‘dying’ it is usually to stress the god’s later return in connection with some agricultural cycle. It might be that this psalm comes from a period when the transition to monotheism in Israel was happening.

In Psalm 82, the gods, in their rule on earth, have shown partiality to the wicked and not given justice to the lowly (vv. 2-3). Corruption in heaven leads to injustice on earth (v. 5c), so now God’s just judgment in heaven becomes the foundation of a call for his judgment on the nations of earth (v. 8). It is not the cycles of nature that relate to this death but the lack of justice, another responsibility of the gods. The preacher might well reflect on the implications of this scene and God’s statement to the other gods in it. Justice is presumed to have its basis in heaven and heavenly decrees. Justice has its source in the divine word. Our human acts of justice are to be sourced in that same arena. Injustice is not worthy of the word of God. It is a ‘human’ trait – ‘of this world’ to use Paul’s terms – and not of the Kingdom of God. To act justly, in work or family or society, at a personal level or a communal one, is to be about the work of God.

The divine response in Psalm 82 highlights another issue. This is seen when Psalm 82 is read following the sequence of Psalms 79-81. The sequence leads in Psalms 79-80 from lament, where others have destroyed God’s temple, Jerusalem and his people, through to divine pronouncement in Psalm 81. There the psalmist hears an unknown voice responding to a call for help. The voice is soon revealed to be God’s (Ps 81:6-16). This divine response is complicated by the people’s continued rebellion. While God has fed them with tears (Ps 80:5) God’s desire has been to fill their mouth with ‘the finest of the wheat’ and ‘honey from the rock’ (Ps 81:10, 16). Yet they have not listened to God and there is a ‘strange god among’ Israel in Ps. 81:9. Such a god is stripped of divine status by the God who reigns over all in Psalm 82. All that is promised the people is possible because of God’s sovereignty in the divine council, in the heavenly realms. All that has gone before, including the destruction of the temple itself (Psalms 74, 79), will be overcome in this cycle of lament and hope. Justice, that divine work, will prevail.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verses 3-4 of the psalm could be used as a response in the prayers of the people, particularly if the prayers focus on the weak and needy.

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."
Old Testament reading: Amos 7:7-9

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