“You are gods”

A dear friend of mine suggested that I might be interested in the Biblical exegesis of Mike Heiser (of whom I had never heard), so I looked up some of his works available on Amazon.  Amazon allows one to peruse the initial chapters of the books they offer for sale, so I was able to look at the first chapters of Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.  There I learned that “a watershed moment” in his life came when a friend challenged him to read Psalm 82.  He did and it sent his mind “reeling”, with the eventual result that he wrote The Unseen Realm as part of his entirely new understanding of the over-arching Scriptural narrative.  This naturally sent me back to read Psalm 82 for myself to see what all the fuss was about.  It was, naturally, a wonderful psalm, and is chanted in our Holy Saturday Liturgy.  But I had no watershed moment as did Mr. Heiser.  I suppose my mind does not reel all that easily.

The psalm does, admittedly, provoke some mild exegetical controversy.  For those unfamiliar with it, the psalm reads as follows.

God [Hebrew Elohim] takes His stand in the assembly of God [Hebrew El];
He judges in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim]:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Vindicate the weak and fatherless;
do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them out of the hand of the wicked!”
They do not know nor do they understand;
they walk about in darkness;
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods [Hebrew elohim],
and all of you are sons of the Most High [Hebrew bene elyon].
Nevertheless you will die like men [Hebrew adam]
and fall like one of the princes.”
Arise, O God [Hebrew elohim], judge the earth!
For it is You who possess all the nations!”

The psalm cannot be understood apart from some knowledge of the thought world of the ancient Near East.  In that world a deity was considered as part of a heavenly pantheon, and the god (or goddess) functioned as part of that pantheon.  In monotheistic Israel, of course, Yahweh was the only God, and so there could be no question of Him functioning as part of a pantheon of other gods.  But He still functioned as part of a heavenly council.  The council, of course, consisted of angels, termed “sons of God” (Hebrew bene Elohim) in Job 1:6 and 38:7, and He often conferred with them.  We see this council in the background in Genesis 1:26 and Isaiah 6:8, and more clearly still in the foreground in 1 Kings 22.  For the Hebrews, it was inconceivable that a king would be without a court, and that Yahweh would be without His council. This is the background to Psalm 82:  the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, arises in His heavenly council and addressing the angelic sons of God, the bene Elohim.

The poetry of the psalm and its genius consist of transposing this heavenly setting to earth, so that Elohim does not stand to rebuke the angelic members of His heavenly council, but the very human members ruling Israel.  God addresses the earthly rulers and powers in the land as if they were gods, elohim, angelic sons of the Most High.  The address is full of irony:  it is as if God says, “You exercise such power on earth it is as if you are gods yourselves!  You imagine that you are above the common judgment of man, and are members of My heavenly council!”

For it is clear that those addressed by God in this psalm are not members of His heavenly council, but earthly rulers in Israel.  And this for several reasons.

First of all, angels in heaven were not the ones responsible for taking care of the weak and fatherless in Israel on earth—the rulers in Israel were.  These rulers are often denounced in the psalms for their injustice (e.g. Psalm 10:18) and were sometimes called “gods” [Hebrew elim; Psalm 58:10].  It makes no sense for God to denounce the angels in heaven for the faults of earthly rulers.  It was not the job of the angels to vindicate the fatherless and the oppressed in Israel, but the job of the Israelite judges.

Psalm 82 is clearly denouncing Israelite injustice, and it is this denunciation of earthly injustice that gives the psalm any relevance for those reading it.  Psalm 82 is like other psalms which insist upon social justice in the land—the denunciation of oppression by the godless rulers so that they could repent was its entire point.

Secondly, the psalm assures these exalted rulers that for all their uncommon pretensions to invincible power, they will still like the common death of men (v. 7).  Angels do not die, and they certainly do not die like men.  Therefore the objects of the denunciation were men, not angels.

Thirdly, the Lord Himself when quoting this psalm in John 10:34 said that the words, “You are gods” referred to those “to whom the Word of God came”—i.e. to men.  This in itself should settle the question about whether God was addressing angels or men in this psalm.

We note that in the past other exegetes came to this same conclusion.  The translators of the King James Version rendered the first verse of this Psalm “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty”, which argues that they understood a human setting for psalm.  (Indeed, the word El can also be used not to mean “God”, but also as a simple superlative.  Thus the RSV renders “the cedars of El” in Psalm 80:10 as “mighty cedars”.)  Also the Jewish targum (or paraphrase from Hebrew into Aramaic) says that God stands “in the assembly of the faithful”, and the Jewish Greek Aquila version says that God stands “in the assembly of the powerful”.  These all argue for an earthly setting for the denunciation, and for human judges.

Finally, we note that this seems to be the understanding of those who chose this psalm for use in the Holy Saturday Liturgy.  In this service, after the Epistle is read, immediately prior to the reading of the Gospel, Psalm 82 is chanted with the repeated refrain, Arise, O God, judge the earth!  Obviously this refrain refers to Christ arising from the dead to judge the earth as the Lord of all.  But the entire psalm fits this narrative context, not just this one verse.  The psalm denounces the rulers of Israel for their injustice, and threatens them with wrath for their crimes.  If the one arising is Christ, then the ones being denounced were the Israelite judges who sentenced Him to an unjust death.  These had “neither knowledge nor understanding; they walked about in darkness”—which is exactly how the Lord described those who did not believe in Him (see John 8:12, 12:35).

This psalm therefore does not simply denounce the earthly rulers in Israel who refused to vindicate the weak and the fatherless or give justice to the needy and destitute in the days of Asaph, the author of the psalm.  It denounces all who in every age arrogate to themselves divine authority without divine compassion and justice.  And it looked forward to the coming of true justice for the oppressed, for it looked forward to the resurrection of Christ, when He arose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come again to judge the earth.  Maybe this psalm should cause the mind to reel after all.