God’s Judgment over the Gods (82:1)
1 God (Elohim) is portrayed here as ready to judge. He “presides” (niṣṣāb; cf. Isa 3:13; Am 7:7; 9:1) as the Great Judge. God assembles the “gods” together for judgment in “the assembly of El” (MT; NIV, “the great assembly”). The assembly of El is a borrowed phrase from Canaanite mythology, according to which El, the chief of the pantheon, assembled the gods in a divine council (see Dahood, 2:269).
For Israel there is no other God than Yahweh. He embodies within himself all the epithets and powers attributed to pagan deities. The God of Israel holds a mock trial so as to impress his people that he alone is God. Zimmerli, 155, has expressed the superiority of Israel’s God well in these words: “Whenever a hymn speaks of those other divine powers, whose existence is by no means denied on theoretical grounds, it can only be with reference to the One who will call their actions to judgment (Ps. 82), or in the spirit of superiority that mocks their impotence (Pss. 115:4–8; 135:15–18).”
1 Verse 1 serves as an orientation, or an opening for the scene. It transfers the reader to a space rarely seen by humans. The assembly of El is often referred to as the divine council. This would be a familiar mythological theme in the ancient near East. ʾĒl is a known name for the king god of the Canaanite pantheon, and his myths predate the exodus. The God of the Israelites, the Lord, subsumed this title as an epithet, so that El becomes synonymous with YHWH. The function of El was to serve as the creator, parent, king and the head of the council of the gods.10 God arises and judges the gods as a function of the king of the divine council.
82:1 / In the opening verse a liturgist or prophetic voice provides the congregation with the psalm’s visionary setting in God’s heavenly royal council chambers. Here, we enter a world very foreign to us.
God’s Position (82:1)
82:1. The congregation in which God takes his stand (i.e., to execute judgment, as God’s “standing” is elsewhere intended; cf. Is 3:13) was the congregation (i.e., people) of Israel, to whom this same expression “congregation (of the Lord)” is elsewhere applied (cf. Nm 27:17; Jos 22:16–17). So too the rulers (Hb. elohim, lit., “gods”) in the midst of whom He judges were the leaders of Israel to whom the ministry of teaching, modeling, and enforcing God’s Word was entrusted, such as the judges and priests in the OT and the scribes and Pharisees in the NT. The gods (v. 6a) here were the same contextually as those Jesus cited (cf. Jn 10:34). He further defined “gods” as those “to whom the word of God came” (Jn 10:35; see comments there). Both on the lips of Jesus and here, the word referred to men such as Moses (designated elohim in Ex 4:16), the judges who assisted him (designated elohim in Ex 21:6; 22:7–8, 27), and the subsequent judges and leaders of Israel (cf. Jdg 5:8; Ps 138:1). In all these instances where the epithet “gods” (elohim) is applied to men, it should be understood in the sense of “proxies or representatives of God.” The point of this verse is thus to underscore God’s preeminent position as the final Judge who will pass judgment on all other judges.
1. “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty.” He is the overlooker, who, from his own point of view, sees all that is done by the great ones of the earth. When they sit in state he stands over them, ready to deal with them if they pervert judgment. Judges shall be judged, and to justices justice shall be meted out. Our village squires and country magistrates would do well to remember this. Some of them had need go to school to Asaph till they have mastered this Psalm. Their harsh decisions and strange judgments are made in the presence of him who will surely visit them for every unseemly act, for he has no respect unto the person of any, and is the champion of the poor and needy. A higher authority will criticise the decision of petty sessions, and even the judgments of our most impartial judges will be revised by cthe High Court of heaven. “He judgeth among the gods.” They are gods to other men, but he is God to them. He lends them his name, and this is their authority for acting as judges, but they must take care that they do not misuse the power entrusted to them, for the Judge of judges is in session among them. Our puisne judges are but puny judges, and their brethren who administer common law will one day be tried by the common law. This great truth is, upon the whole, well regarded among us in these times, but it was not so in the earlier days of English history, when Jeffries, and such as he, were an insult to the name of justice. Oriential judges, even now, are frequently, if not generally, amenable to bribes, and in past ages it was very hard to find a ruler who had any notion of justice apart from his own arbitrary will. Such plain teaching as this Psalm contains was needful indeed, and he was a bold, good man who, in such uncourtly phrases, delivered his own soul.
1 The court in session. Presides is translated ‘takes his place’ in an identical context in Isaiah 3:13. The Great Judge himself enters to give judgment among the ‘gods’—but who are ‘the gods’?
82:1 The court is called to order. The Judge has taken His place at the bench. It is God Himself. He has called a special session of the divine council in order to reprove the rulers and judges of the earth. They are called gods because they are representatives of God, ordained by Him as His servants in order to maintain an ordered society. Actually, of course, they are only men like ourselves. But because of their position, they are the anointed of the Lord. Even if they do not know God personally, yet they are God’s agents officially and therefore dignified here with the name of gods. The basic meaning of the name is mighty ones.
82:1 His own congregation. The scene opens with God having called the world leaders together. midst of the rulers. The best interpretation is that these are human leaders, such as judges, kings, legislators, and presidents (cf. Ex 22:8, 9, 28; Jdg 5:8, 9). God the Great Judge, presides over these lesser judges.
82:1 in the divine council; in the midst of the gods. Many would take these terms in vv. 1 and 6 as describing the assembly of angelic beings who surround God’s throne as a divine court (cf. 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:6; 2:1). This finds support in the way that the title “sons of the Most High” matches the label “sons of God” in Job; cf. also the “heavenly beings” (or “gods”) in Ps. 8:5 (see note there). On the other hand, these “gods” are said to “judge” among men (82:2–4) and to die like men (v. 7); God is to judge the earth and to inherit the nations (where mankind lives, v. 8). This makes it better to see these as human rulers, who hold their authority as representatives of the true God (and therefore deserve respect; cf. 58:1; Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). Of course this does not require ultimate loyalty that overrides faithfulness to God, or that silences testimony about God’s justice, as this very psalm makes clear. Jesus seems to have read the psalm in this way, since in John 10:34–35 he cites Ps. 82:6, describing the “gods” as those to whom the word of God came, which means they were human. See also note on v. 6.
82:1 stands The Hebrew word used here, nitsav, is a singular verbal form, which means that its subject, which is elohim in Hebrew—and could be translated as “God” or “gods”—should be translated in the singular as “God.” The imagery that extends from this verb is one of presiding, since the setting is a formal council meeting.
the divine assembly A descriptive phrase used of the heavenly host. Like other ancient Near Eastern cultures, the psalmist conceived of God as directing the affairs of the unseen world through an administration of divine beings. The members of the heavenly host are often referred to as a “council” or “assembly” (see 1 Kgs 22:19–23).
in the midst of the gods The Hebrew preposition used here, qerev, requires the Hebrew word elohim to be translated as a plural here—as “gods.” The gods in the verse are the council members, the heavenly host (see Psa 82:6). A council of divine beings is also mentioned in 89:5–7, where they are depicted as in heaven or the skies.
82:1 The reference to “gods” (˒elohim, Heb.) is best understood here and in v. 6 as an allusion to the corrupt and unjust judges of Israel (cf. 45:6; also Ex. 21:6; 22:8, 9). Human rulers who administer justice are looked upon in Scripture as being divinely appointed and responsible before God (cf. Deut. 1:17; Rom. 13:1–7).
82:1 The phrase God stands indicates sentencing or judgment in progress (74:22; 94:2; Is 3:13; 33:10) since judges normally sat (Ex 18:14; Jdg 4:5; Is 28:6). The divine assembly has its equivalents in Ugaritic, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian mythology, where it refers to “lesser gods” in a pantheon. In the OT, the designation either refers to heavenly servant beings (103:19) or judges and governors appointed by God as political leaders (Ex 21:6; 22:8; 2Ch 19:5–6). The Scriptures place God in the presence of a divine council consisting of good and evil spirits (1Kg 22:19–22), sometimes designated as “sons of God” (Jb 1:6–12). The emphasis on judgment (vv. 1–3, 8) reinforces the failure of God’s servants.
1. God sitteth in the assembly of God. It is unquestionably a very unbecoming thing for those whom God has been pleased to invest with the government of mankind for the common good, not to acknowledge the end for which they have been exalted above others, nor yet by whose blessing they have been placed in so elevated a station; but instead of doing this, contemning every principle of equity, to rule just as their own unbridled passions dictate. So infatuated are they by their own splendour and magnificence, as to imagine that the whole world was made only for them. Besides, they think that it would derogate from their elevated rank were they to be governed by moderate counsels; and although their own folly is more than enough to urge them on in their reckless career, they, notwithstanding, seek for flatterers to soothe and applaud them in their vices. To correct this arrogance, the psalm opens by asserting, that although men occupy thrones and judgment-seats, God nevertheless continues to hold the office of supreme ruler. God has made even a heathen and licentious poet bear testimony to this truth in the following lines:—
“Regum timendorum in proprios greges,
Reges in ipsos imperium est Jovis,
Clari giganteo triumpho,
Cuncta supercilio moventis.”
Horatii, Carm. Liber iii. Ode i.
“Kings rule their subject flocks; great Jove
O’er kings themselves his reign extends,
Who hurl’d the rebel giants from above;
At whose majestic nod all nature bends.”
That the potentates of this world may not arrogate to themselves more than belongs to them, the prophet here erects a throne for God, from which he judges them all, and represses their pride; a thing which is highly necessary. They may, indeed, admit that they owe their elevation to royal power to the favour of God, and they may worship him by outward ceremonies, but their greatness so infatuates them that they are chargeable with expelling and casting him to a distance from their assembly, by their vain imaginations; for they cannot bear to be subject to reason and laws. Thus the design of the prophet was to deride the madness by which the princes of this world are bewitched, in leaving God no place in their assembly. The more effectually to overthrow this irrational self-confidence with which they are intoxicated, civil order is termed the assembly of God; for although the divine glory shines forth in every part of the world, yet when lawful government flourishes among men, it is reflected therefrom with pre-eminent lustre. I indeed grant that it is quite common for the Hebrews to adorn with the title of God whatever is rare and excellent. But here it would appear, from the scope of the passage, that this name of the Divine Being is applied to those who occupy the exalted station of princes, in which there is afforded a peculiar manifestation of the majesty of God; even as Solomon, in Prov. 2:17, calls marriage “the covenant of God,” from the peculiar sanctity by which that relation is distinguished.
In the second clause of the verse, it is not material whether we read, He will judge in the midst of the gods, or, He will judge the gods in the midst. The first construction, however, is the most easy and natural, That however much the rulers of the world may exalt themselves, they cannot in the least impair the authority of God, by divesting him of his sovereignty over them and of the government of all things, which he will ever retain as his inalienable prerogative. But here, as also a little after, the name gods is to be understood of judges, on whom God has impressed special marks of his glory. To apply it to angels is a fancy too strained to admit of serious consideration.
Ver. 1.—God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; or, “in the congregation of God”—“the Divine assembly” (see Job 1:6; 2:1; Isa. 6:1, 2, etc.). El, in the singular, can scarcely mean the “mighty ones of earth.” He judgeth among the gods. He “holds a court of judgment in heaven, surrounded by the Divine ministers, who will execute his behests” (Canon Cook).
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