Psalm 82, though brief, has attracted much contemporary attention and functions as a kind of lynch pin for a larger narrative about the role of angels. We have looked at the psalm before, but the puzzles and complications of many interpretations justify a second look.
The psalm opens with an assertion: God [Hebrew Elohim] takes His stand in the assembly of God [Hebrew El]; He judges in the midst of the gods [elohim].” His stand consists of a rebuke to the 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.” At the end of God’s speech, He passes sentence on the elohim: “I said, ‘You are gods [Hebrew elohim] and all of your are sons of the Most High [Hebrew bene elyon]. Nevertheless, you will die like men [Hebrew adam] and fall like one of the princes.” At the end of the psalm the psalmist cries out, “Arise, O God [Hebrew Elohim], judge the earth! For it is You who possess all the nations!”
Some parts of the psalm are clear enough: the Hebrew Elohim in verses 1 and 8 (capitalized in the above citation) is one of the usual names for the Hebrew God (used for example in Genesis 1:1). The Hebrew El in verse 1 also means “God” and is (somewhat confusingly) the name for the Canaanite God “El”, the head of the pagan Canaanite pantheon. Most commentators say that the name El is here being subsumed by Yahweh/ Elohim, the true God. And the name elyon in verse 6 (rendered “Most High”) is also a name for the Hebrew God (thus in Psalm 91:1). The question is: what is meant by the Hebrew word elohim (here rendered without the capital ‘e’) in verses 1 and 6? The Hebrew word here means “gods”, but who are they?
Many modern commentators, keen (and perhaps overly keen) to place the psalms in an ancient Canaanite setting, affirm that these elohim are the gods of the pagan nations, and that the Hebrew God Elohim/ Elyon/ Yahweh is here showing His power by reaming out the pagan gods at one of their councils. In the ancient Near East, the pagan peoples indeed thought that the various gods met in council and that this pantheon would make joint decisions regarding what happened on earth (such as whether or not to send a famine, a pestilence, or a war). In this way of thinking, the Hebrew God was a part of this pantheon council of pagan gods, and used it as the setting to rebuke the gods for not administering justice to the oppressed and needy. He further showed His power by passing sentence on them, and dooming them to die like men. This psalm, it is said, was a poetic way of showing Yahweh Elohim’s power over the pagan gods.
We quote one commentator to illustrate this common modern approach. Beth Tanner, writing in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament on the psalms wrote: “Psalm 82 places the modern reader in a very unfamiliar world. Modern thinking holds to a monotheistic theology, meaning there is only one god and the gods of others simply do not exist. Ancient Israel did not have the same definition of monotheism. Indeed, for them not only did other gods exist, but those gods were active in the world. This psalm gives us a window on the assembly of the gods, a place where the gods are gathered to make decision about the world.”
She also draws out a moral for this at the end of her commentary: “The existence of the others gods in the psalm is puzzling to modern readers, but in our diverse world perhaps this psalm should give us pause and invite us to think of monotheism differently. Others are not necessarily delusional in their belief in their gods, but are simply people from different places with different cultures. Maybe the ancients knew more than we do.” In other words, all religions have a certain validity and pagan religions should not be denounced or rejected as idolatrous.
However, even apart from Ms. Tanner’s moral conclusion, there are problems with this approach.
Firstly, it is unlikely that the psalmist would endorse such a polytheistic view, acknowledging the gods of the nations as true “elohim”. In the words of commentator Derek Kidner, understanding this psalm as “a relic of polytheism” is problematic. He writes: “The Old Testament never wavers in its abhorrence of heathen gods. For Yahweh to authenticate their claim with the words, ‘I say, “You are gods”’ would be totally out of character.” The gods of the nations are elsewhere denounced by the psalmist as idols, phantoms, delusions, not acknowledged as true elohim at all.
Secondly, the demand of Yahweh Elohim that these elohim “vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute, rescue the weak and needy and deliver the out of the hand of the wicked” (verses 3-4) does not accord with the actual main functions of the pagan pantheon meeting in council. In their divine councils they mostly decided about things like sending floods, famines, pestilences, and wars. Their main job was not to “vindicate the weak and fatherless” in the judicial setting these words presuppose. Yahweh’s demands for justice are here made to human judges in human courts, as the judges decide for the many weak and fatherless and decide against their wicked oppressors. Such trivial human details were not usually the main concern of the pagan gods. They had bigger and more cosmic fish to fry.
Thirdly, the gods did not and could not “die like men”. For what would it mean for a god (like Baal or Moloch) to die like a man dies? To keel over and become a lifeless corpse? To rot after a few weeks? For that is what it means to “die like men”. In the pagan world which supposedly formed the setting for the psalm, the elohim/ gods could not die.
The modern polytheistic exegesis is not helped or rescued by the suggestion that these elohim were angels. In passages such as 1 Kings 22, we indeed see Yahweh presiding over a council of angels, but in passages like these Yahweh’s sovereignty remains serene, untroubled, and complete. It was inconceivable to the writer of 1 Kings that any of Yahweh’s angels in council would somehow rebel against Him or fail to do His will or that certain of His angels were being worshipped as pagan gods.
The consistent picture of His angels in the Old Testament is one of the angels being His obedient messengers who faithfully carry out God’s will: “Yahweh has established His throne in the heavens, and His kingdom rules over all. Bless Yahweh, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!” (Psalm 103:19-20). The notion of disobedient angels who were being worshipped as gods by pagans while still being part of His council is alien to the conviction that God’s messengers are always faithful and always obey the voice of His word. If, per impossible, any angel failed to obey Yahweh or accepted pagan worship, this messenger would cease to be a part of His council. Yahweh’s heavenly council is by definition obedient to His will.
The narrative which asserts that such angels in council functioned as rulers over the nations and then fell into disobedience and after their fall remained in charge of those nations becoming false gods is one which is read into the Old Testament texts, not one which is read out of it. The pagan gods of the nations are never regarded in the Old Testament as somehow part of Yahweh’s council or as His subordinates. Rather the gods of the nations are consistently regarded as enemies, phantoms, nothings. Yahweh wages war against them—see for example Exodus 12:12 which tells how Yahweh executed judgment on the gods of Egypt when He defeated the Egyptians with His plagues.
It seems clear that commentators asserting that the elohim of Psalm 82 are gods or angels are confusing metaphor with fact. In this psalm God is concerned to rebuke the earthly judges of Israel (not the judges of the nations) for their injustice and their oppressive rulings. He compares these earthly judges assembled in court to the divine council of angels in heaven, for those judges considered themselves as high and mighty and untouchable as the heavenly angels. God disabuses them of this delusion, and says that for all their present grandeur and power they will still die like men.
This is hardly the first time in the psalter that earthly rulers and unjust judges are prophetically rebuked; Psalm 94 exalts God as the true Judge, denouncing the wicked who slay the widow and the sojourner and murder the orphans by their unjust verdicts, enacting “mischief by decree”.
Psalm 58 also denounces these wicked men who are “estranged from the womb” and “speak lies from birth”—in fact it also refers to them ironically as “gods” (Hebrew elim). It is clear that Psalm 58 denounces wicked men, not gods or angels, for gods and angels do not experience birth from a womb (verse 3), nor do they have teeth in their mouth (verse 6), nor can they shed blood in which the righteous will wash their feet (verse 10). Psalm 58 calls such wicked men “gods”—just as does Psalm 82. These wicked men can die; gods and angels cannot.
This is all confirmed by Christ’s word in John 10:34-35, when He describes those gods as those “to whom the Word of God came”—i.e. the judges of Israel, for the Word of God came to God’s people, not to angels or to pagan gods.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the Church Fathers consistently followed their Lord in their understanding of this passage.
The anonymous writer known to history as “(Pseudo-) Dionysius” wrote about Psalm 82 as follows: “You will also notice how God’s Word gives the title of ‘gods’ not only to those heavenly beings who are our superiors, but also to those sacred people among us who are distinguished for their love of God” [a reference to Solomon in Psalm 45:6 LXX].
St. Gregory the Theologian writes about this psalm “After [this] He arises to judge the earth [a quote from Psalm 82:8] and to separate the saved from the lost. After that He is to stand as God in the midst of gods—that is, of the saved”.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem says the same to his newly-baptized catechumens: “Being but a wretched person, you are the recipient of a divine title…It was foreseeing that a divine title would come to be applied to human beings that the psalmist, speaking in the person of God, said, ‘I have said, you are gods, and all are children of the Most High.’”
These Fathers knew that in the Old Testament men were at times given the title “gods”, and they regarded passages like Psalm 82 as one of those times. The modern polytheistic view (such as held by Ms. Tanner) is not only opposed to such patristic exegesis. It also fails to explain why the psalmist would dignify the pagan idols with the title “gods”, why those gods are asked to give just rulings in a human court of law vindicating the weak and fatherless, and how those gods could die like men. This obstacle remains even if the “gods” are regarded as angels and not gods. For angels do not give rulings in court any more than gods do, and angels cannot die like men.
Psalm 82 remains as one the psalter’s most trenchant assaults upon the injustice found in human society. It need not be pressed into service for a narrative foreign to the thought of the Old Testament. Rather, it should be read and heeded on its own terms.