Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm is a vision of judgement. It sets forth, in a highly poetical and imaginative form, the responsibility of earthly judges to the Supreme Judge, Whose representatives they are, and from Whom they derive their authority. The dramatic form, the representation of God as the Judge, and the introduction of God Himself as the speaker, are characteristics common to several of the Asaphic Psalms. See Psalms 50, 75, 81.
God takes His stand as Judge in a solemn assembly: His delegates appear before His tribunal (Psalm 82:1).
Sternly He upbraids them for their injustice and partiality, and bids them remember what the duties of their office are (Psalm 82:2-4).
But they are incapable of reformation, and the foundations of society are being shaken by their misconduct. Though they bear the lofty title of gods, they shall share the common fate of men (Psalm 82:5-7).
The Psalmist concludes with a prayer that God will Himself assume the government of the world (Psalm 82:8).
In Psalms 50 the nation of Israel is assembled for judgement: here the authorities of the nation who have abused their trust are put upon their trial. The evil complained of has been common in Oriental countries in all ages, and ancient Israel was no exception. Exhortations to maintain the purity of justice are common in the Law: complaints of its maladministration are frequent in the Prophets. One passage in particular—Isaiah 3:13 ff.—presents a close parallel. “Jehovah standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the peoples. Jehovah will enter into judgement with the elders of His people, and the princes thereof: for ye—ye have devoured the vineyard: the spoil of the afflicted is in your houses: what mean ye that ye crush my people, and grind the face of the afflicted? saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts.”
The authorities of the nation are called gods (Psalm 82:1; Psalm 82:6) as being the representatives of God, sons of the Most High (Psalm 82:6) as exercising a power delegated by the supreme Ruler of the world. The judgement which they give is God’s (Deuteronomy 1:17). Even if it be held that Elôhîm should be rendered God rather than the judges in Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9; Exodus 22:28; 1 Samuel 2:25, it is clear that the administration of justice at the sanctuary by those who were regarded as the representatives of God is meant in these passages, and the direct application of the title Elôhîm to judges in the Psalm is fully intelligible. This interpretation is the oldest, for it is not only given by the Targum, but was that generally current in our Lord’s time, as is clear from His use of the passage in John 10:34 ff., and it is the simplest and most natural. Two other explanations however require notice.
(i) Some commentators think that the Psalm refers to foreign rulers, by whom the nation of Israel was being oppressed. The prayer of Psalm 82:8, it is said, proves that the reference cannot be merely to the injustice of Israelite judges, for God is entreated to arise and judge the world. But the judgement of Israel is often regarded as part of a universal judgement. See Psalm 7:6 ff.: and particularly the passage of Isaiah already referred to, where Jehovah is standing up to judge the peoples; when He summons the elders and princes of Israel to account for oppressing their poor countrymen. The language of Psalm 82:2-4 tallies exactly with the language used elsewhere of the oppression of poor and defenceless Israelites by the rich and powerful: there is not the slightest hint that the terms ‘poor’ and ‘afflicted’ are transferred to Israel as a nation. And lastly, though heathen princes claimed divine titles (Ezekiel 28:2; Ezekiel 28:6; Isaiah 14:14) it is improbable that the Psalmist would acknowledge their right to them as he does.
(ii) Others think that by Elôhîm angels are meant, and hold that the Psalm refers generally to God’s judgement upon unjust judges in heaven and earth; or more particularly to the judgement of the patron-angels of the nations. This view, proposed by Bleek, is adopted by Cheyne, who says, “The charge brought against these patron-angels of the nations (see Daniel 10, 12) is that they have (in the persons of their human subordinates) permitted such gross violence and injustice, that the moral bases of the earth are shaken.” If this view is to be adopted, it is certainly the case that “no Psalm makes a stronger demand than this on the historic imagination of the interpreter.” But (1) as has already been remarked in the note on Psalm 58:1 with reference to a similar interpretation of that Psalm, there is nothing in the context to justify the importation of an idea which belongs to the later development of Jewish theology. (2) The idea that angels can be punished with death is startling, and foreign to the O.T. view of angelic nature. (3) There is not the slightest hint that Psalm 82:2-4 refer to anything but the oppression of men by men. The language, as has been pointed out above, closely resembles that of the Law and the Prophets, and there is no reason for taking it in a non-natural sense.
There is nothing in the Psalm to fix its date. The evils complained of were constantly recurring, especially of course when the central government was weak.
This Psalm is the Psalm for the third day of the week in the ancient Jewish liturgy. See Introd. p. xxvii.
A Psalm of Asaph. God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.1. A vision of God as the Judge of judges.
God] Originally no doubt Jehovah, for which the Elohistic editor has substituted Elôhîm. standeth] Or, taketh his stand: solemnly takes His place as president. Cp. Isaiah 3:13 a; Amos 7:7; Amos 9:1.
in the congregation of the mighty] I.e., as P.B.V., of princes. But we must rather render, in the assembly of God (El), i.e., not the congregation of Israel, though this is called the congregation of Jehovah (Numbers 27:17; cp. Psalm 74:2), but an assembly summoned and presided over by God in His capacity of Almighty Ruler.
he judgeth &c.] In the midst of gods (Elôhîm) will he judge. According to the view adopted above, the judges and authorities of Israel are meant by gods. It might indeed be supposed that the poet intended to represent God as holding His court surrounded by angels, like an earthly king in the midst of his courtiers (cp. 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:2); and so probably the Syriac translator understood the verse: “God standeth in the assembly of the angels, and in the midst of the angels will He judge.” But Elôhîm can hardly have a different meaning from that which it has in Psalm 82:6, where it clearly refers to the judges who are put on their trial; and the address in Psalm 82:2 would be unintelligible if the persons addressed had not already been mentioned.
How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.2. accept the persons] Or, as R.V., respect the persons, shewing partiality to the rich and powerful. Strict impartiality in the administration of justice is frequently enjoined in the Law. Favouring the poor is condemned as well as favouring the rich. See Exodus 23:2-3; Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Leviticus 19:35; Deuteronomy 1:17; Deuteronomy 16:18 ff.: cp. Proverbs 18:5; Proverbs 24:23. The music strikes up to emphasise the question, and as it were give time for an answer. But the judges have no defence, and God proceeds to remind them of their duty.
2–4. God speaks, arraigning the judges for injustice and partiality, and bidding them perform their duties faithfully.
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.3. Judge the weak and fatherless:
Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.4. Rescue the weak and needy:
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
Cp. Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 10:1-2. Human authorities are God’s representatives to see that the weak and friendless have justice done them. See Exodus 22:22 ff.; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalm 10:14; Psalm 10:18; Malachi 3:5 : and comp. the portrait of the ideal ruler in Psalm 72:12 ff.; Isaiah 11:3-4.
They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.5. God is still the speaker; but instead of addressing the culprits, He describes their incorrigible blindness and obstinacy, before He pronounces sentence on them. They have no knowledge, neither will they get understanding, though these are the needful qualifications for a judge (1 Kings 3:9 ff.): they walk on to and fro in darkness, complacently self-satisfied with their ignorance and moral darkness: and consequently all the foundations of the earth are shaken, the principles upon which the moral order of the world is based are imperilled. Cp. Psalm 11:3, Psalm 75:3, for the metaphor; and generally, Proverbs 2:10-15.
5–7. The character of these judges described and their sentence pronounced.
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.6. I said, Te are gods,
And all of you sons of the Most High (R.V.).
I is emphatic. It is by God’s appointment that they have been invested with divine authority to execute judgement in His name. Cp. the language used of the king, Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:27.
To the words of this verse our Lord appealed (John 10:34 ff.), when the Jews accused Him of blasphemy because He claimed to be one with God. In virtue of their call to a sacred office as representatives of God the judges of old time were called gods and sons of the Most High, and this in spite of their unworthiness. Was it then blasphemy, He asked, for one who had received a special consecration and commission as God’s representative, one whose life and work bore witness to that consecration, to call Himself the Son of God?
On the surface this may seem to be a verbal argument such as the Jews themselves would have used; but the real significance of the quotation lies deeper. The fact that it was possible for men so to represent God as to be called gods or divine was a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. “There lay already in the Law the germ of the truth which Christ announced, the union of God and man.” Bp Westcott.
But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.7. But] R.V., Nevertheless. Though they bear this high title, it will not exempt them from punishment. They shall die like common men, and fall like any other princes whose ruin is recorded in history (Hosea 7:7). Or is there an allusion to the princes mentioned in Psalm 83:9 ff.?
Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.8. The Psalmist has watched the trial and condemnation of Israel’s judges; and the sight stirs him to appeal to God Himself to assume the office of Judge not only for Israel but for all the world. If Israel’s judges have failed so lamentably in their duty towards their own countrymen, how can Israel rule the world, though all the nations have been promised to its kings for their inheritance (Psalm 2:8)? Nay, God Himself—Thou is emphatic—must take possession of all the nations as their Sovereign and their Judge.