Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm represents the conviction which was so profoundly fixed in the Hebrew mind, that Justice is the fundamental virtue of society, and that its corruption implies total disorganisation and ruin. The mode in which this conviction is presented is also distinctively Hebrew. We have here once more a vision of judgment. But it is not the whole nation of the Jews, or the nations of the world generally, that are here arraigned before the Divine tribunal; nor are there introduced any of those elements of grandeur and awe which generally accompany a theophany. God is not here driving across the heavens on His storm - chariot, and calling on the mountains to bear evidence of earth’s sin. But with a calm dignity, which is by contrast the more striking, the Divine arbiter comes to take His place as presiding Judge among the magistrates themselves, and depose them. In a few incisive words He pronounces them indifferent to justice, neglectful of their duties, venal, and unscrupulous, and warns them of the ruin they are bringing on society, and of their own certain downfall, however secure and inviolable their position appears.
Then the poet himself, with a wider sweep of view, that takes in not only the administrators of law, but the political situation of his nation, makes appeal to the “judge of all the earth,” who in the conviction of Israel must do right.
The date of such a poem, if it could be recovered, would crown its interest; but it is in vain to discuss the conjectures, which range from the Davidic to the Macedonian age. The histories do not reveal anything in the early monarchy to indicate such abuses in the judicature as the psalm describes. The poetical form is irregular.
Title.—See title, Psalms 1.
A Psalm of Asaph. God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.(1) Standeth.—In the Hebrew a participle, with an official ring about it. (See Isaiah 3:13.) It is used to designate departmental officers (1Kings 4:5; 1Kings 4:7; 1Kings 4:27; 1Kings 9:23. Comp. 1Samuel 22:9; Ruth 2:5-6). Thus the psalm opens with the solemn statement that God had taken His official place as president of the bench of judges.
Congregation of the mighty.—Rather, assembly of God, or divine assembly; elsewhere, “the congregation of Jehovah” (Numbers 27:17; Numbers 31:16; Joshua 22:16-18), i.e., “Israel in its religious character.”
He judgeth among the gods—i.e., He is among the judges as presiding judge. For “gods,” applied to men delegated with office from God, see Exodus 21:6, and, possibly, Exodus 22:8-9. (See also Note, Psalm 8:5, and comp. Exodus 4:16; Exodus 7:1.) The custom of designating God’s vicegerents by the Divine name was a very natural one. The whole point of Psalm 82:6 lies in the double meaning the word can bear. (See Note.)
How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.(2-4) These verses contain the rebuke addressed by the supreme judge to those abusing the judicial office and function.
(2) How long?—What a terrible severity in this Divine Quousque tandem!
Grow angry with your patience; this their care,
And must be yours, that guilty men escape not;
As crimes do grow, justice should rouse itself.”
Judge unjustly.—Literally, judge iniquity. For the opposite expression see Psalm 58:1. Leviticus 19:15, which lays down the great principle of strictly fair and unbribable justice is evidently in the poet’s mind, as is shown by the use of the next clause.
Accept the persons.—Literally, lift up the faces. An expression arising from the Eastern custom of prostration before a king or judge. The accepted suitor is commanded to “lift up his face,” i.e., to arise. (Comp. Proverbs 18:5, and Jehoshaphat’s address to the judges, 2Chronicles 19:7.) This fine sense of the majesty of incorruptible justice attended Israel throughout its history. (See Ecclesiasticus 7:6.)
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.(3) Poor.—Rather, miserable. (See Psalm 41:1.) This verse recalls the solemn curse in Deuteronomy 27:19.
Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.(4) The poor and needy.—Better, The miserable (as in Psalm 82:8) and poor, a different word from “needy” in Psalm 82:3.
They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.(5) Here we imagine a pause, that interval between warning and judgment which is God’s pity and man’s opportunity; but the expostulation falls dead without a response. The men are infatuated by their position and blinded by their pride, and the poet, the spectator of this drama of judgment, makes this common reflection. The perversion of judgment strikes him, as it could not fail to do, as an indication of total anarchy and a dissolution of society, a convulsion like an earthquake.
They know not.—Comp. Psalm 58:4, “They have no knowledge;” there, too, of judges corrupted by the moral blindness which, as in the case of Lord Bacon, sometimes so strangely darkens those in whom intellectual light is most keen.
They walk on in darkness—Or, better, They let themselves walk in darkness; the conjugation implying that inclination or will, and not circumstance, brings this dullness to the dictates of justice and right.
All the foundations . . .—The very existence of society is threatened when the source of justice is corrupt.
“Back flow the sacred rivers to their source,
And right and all things veer around their course;
Crafty are men in council, and no more
God-plighted faith abides as once of yore.”
EUR. Med., 409.
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.(6) I have said.—Again the Divine voice breaks the silence with an emphatic I. “From me comes your office and your honoured title, gods; now from me hear your doom. Princes though ye be, ye will die as other men: yea, altogether will ye princes perish.” (For the rendering “altogether,” literally, like one man, see Ezra 2:64; Ezra 3:9, &c.)
It is interesting to notice that Psalm 82:1; Psalm 82:6 were quoted by Constantine at the opening of the council of Nicæa, to remind the bishops that their high office should raise them above jealousy and party feeling. (For the interest gained by the passage from our Lord’s use of it to rebut the charge of blasphemy brought against Him by the scribes, see Note, New Testament Commentary, John 10:34.)
Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.(8) Arise.—The psalm would have been incomplete had not the poet here resumed in his own person, with an appeal to the Supreme Judge to carry His decrees into effect against the oppressors of Israel. Here, at least, if not all through it, the affliction of the community, and the perversion of justice by foreign rulers, are the motives of the song. It is as if, despairing of the amendment of the corrupt magistrates, the poet, pleading for Israel, takes his case out of their hands, as Cranmer in the play takes his case out of the hands of the council, and entrusts it to the Great Judge of the world, to whom, as a special inheritance, Israel belonged, but who was also to show His claim to the submission and obedience of all nations.