Although the biblical Psalms are a product of the old covenant, for centuries the Christian Church has sought and found Jesus Christ in its historic song book. A number of Psalms have been designated messianic in character, including Psalms 2, 22, 30, 69, 72, 110 and 118. This is due either to their explicit reference to the LORD’s Anointed (Messiah) or to their anticipation of an event related to Jesus’ life, suffering or death.
Psalm 82 is not always placed in this category, although it does anticipate God’s judgement over the nations of earth in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Revised Standard Version, the Psalm begins, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible tells the reader: “Making use of a conception, common to the ancient Near East, that the world is ruled by a council of gods, the poet (presumably a priest or temple prophet) sees, in a vision, the God of Israel standing up in the midst of the council and pronouncing judgment upon all other members.”
Such an interpretation owes much to an evolutionary worldview which treats religion as merely an artifact subject, like all other products of human culture, to growth and development. Within this worldview, the ancient Israelites’ primitive polytheism developed under various influences into henotheism (in which YHWH is chief among the gods) and finally into monotheism (no God but YHWH) around the time of the Babylonian exile. By contrast, the biblical narrative itself portrays the Israelites repeatedly abandoning fidelity to the one true God and worshipping false gods for which they were punished throughout their history.
There is another interpretation of Psalm 82 less beholden to this evolutionary worldview. The translators of the New International Version place “gods” in inverted commas, as if to indicate the improper assumption of divine status by these beings. But who are these beings? I believe a good case can be made for their identity as earthly rulers who have come to esteem themselves as gods.
The key to this can be found in verses 2-4: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” All of these imperatives are ordinary tasks undertaken in the course of political rule. The setting is not a mythological council of gods, but the one true God calling those to whom he has given political authority to do justice as they discharge the weighty responsibilities of office.
A decade and a half ago, I set Psalm 82 to verse to be sung to the proper Genevan melody. My own versification draws on the interpretation set forth above:
Judging among divine pretenders,
in council God his verdict renders:
“How long,” says he, “shall wickedness
be favoured over righteousness?
Give justice to the poor and needy,
rescue the helpless from the greedy.
Treat widows as is right and fair,
defend all orphans in your care.
“Blindly you grope about and stumble,
while earth's foundations start to crumble.
Gods you may think yourselves to be,
yet you shall taste mortality.
Like earthly kings whose days are numbered,
death's claim on you will not be cumbered.”
Rise up, O God, and judge the earth,
to you the nations owe their birth.
During Advent and Christmas we do well to pray Psalm 82 acknowledging that its ultimate fulfilment is in the person of Jesus Christ, who, in the words of Isaiah 9:7, will sit upon the throne of David and establish his kingdom of righteousness and justice for ever.
David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College. His next book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office and the Image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications.