Psalm 82

June 10, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

In 1753 a series of lectures were given at Oxford on English Laws. The lectures were given by a man William Blackstone, and they were published as Commentaries on the Laws of England. The principles set forth in these lectures were echoed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. They were responsible for the spread of English common law throughout the American states. Lincoln knew them. And one of Louis L’Amour’s heroes, Benedict Shafter, reads them in the evenings during a cattle drive.

In section 1 of the book Blackstone writes, “All gentlemen... are... liable to be called upon to establish the rights, to estimate the injuries, to weigh the accusations, and sometimes to dispose of the lives of their fellow subjects, by serving upon juries.” So Blackstone involves all of us in this grand project of justice for all. And that is the theme of Psalm 82.

God calls the judges into his courtroom,
he puts all the judges in the dock.

"Enough! You've corrupted justice long enough,
you've let the wicked get away with murder.
You're here to defend the defenseless,
to make sure that underdogs get a fair break; Your job is to stand up for the powerless,
and prosecute all those who exploit them.”

Ignorant judges! Head-in-the-sand judges!
They haven't a clue to what’s going on.
And now everything's falling apart,
the world's coming unglued.

"I commissioned you judges, each one of you,
deputies of the High God,
But you've betrayed your commission
and now you're stripped of your rank, busted."

0 God, give them their just deserts!
You’ve got the whole world in your hands!

This is a Psalm in which we need to understand the image the writer has in mind in order to understand its point. The picture, according to verse 1, is of God the Father, presiding over a great assembly of what are called “gods.” Who are these “gods?” That’s the question. Are they judges or rulers or angels? Some believe that the scene is parallel to Job 1 where the heavenly court consists of angels. Others think that it is like Isaiah 3:13-15 where the image is of a judge.

My own sense is that it is judges whom the Psalmist calls “gods.” God the Father appointed these men judges. They were commissioned to the task. Now he is criticizing them because they are unfair in their judgments. The oldest interpretation of this Psalm is that the “gods” are judges. In verses 2-4 God comes right to the point in his evaluation: How long will you keep making unjust decisions? How long will you favor the wicked?” So something is wrong with these judges. They are making decisions that are not just. Judges in any society are appointed to uphold law and order. These particular judges were not doing that. In the ancient middle East, judging and ruling were closely connected for the king was also a judge and kings did not always judge fairly. There are times in Scripture when the judges are so drunk that they cannot reason, as Isaiah saw in Isaiah 28:7 where it is the priests who are spoken of; and in Zephaniah 3:3 the judges are described as evening wolves who leave nothing for the morning.

Psalm 82 says that God is presiding over an assembly that is going to judge corrupt judges. There is a parallel picture in Isaiah 3 where (verse13) “The Lord takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people. The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people?” Isaiah’s picture shows how God will judge Jerusalem and Judah when the Babylonians capture the city. The destruction of God’s city and God’s people is a direct consequence of the unfairness in their judging of Israel’s leaders. They were not just. The picture in Psalm 82 is the same picture.

In America we have, generally, fair courts and fair judges. But we have litigious people. If a judge in a lower court doesn’t judge a matter this person’s way, he, or his lawyers, appeal to a higher court. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe didn’t like the judgments of the supreme court justice, so he dismissed him. The issue in Psalm 82 is not that some people think the judges are unjust in their personal case, but that there is a pattern of injustice particularly against the poor and needy. And the plight of the poor and needy has come to God’s notice since God is particularly concerned for them. When I read about that concern of God in the Bible, I say, I need to have that same concern.

John Grisham has an interesting novel titled, The Street Lawyer. It begins with a street person walking into a conference room filled with high class lawyers of a big law firm in Washington, DC. What looks like dynamite is strapped to his waist. One of the young lawyers there is so overwhelmed by what happens that he leaves the firm. He gives up the opportunity to become a partner, leaves his big office and his plush furnishings and he comes to a ramshackled office in an area where it isn’t safe to park his BMW on the street; and he becomes a street lawyer to help poor people receive justice. You can see what Grisham has learned from years of being a Sunday School teacher.

In verses 3 and 4 we have God’s advice about how these judges ought judge. God is concerned about how they treat the poor and disadvantaged. It is not civilization that makes men more just. Civilization is a flimsy coat. Nor is America more just than other nations. We have supported more corrupt dictators in this century than any other nation, supported them because they claimed to be opposed to communism or drug dealers or whatever. It is not political power that makes men more just. What Anabaptists are for is the church. It is in the church where justice is taken seriously. And God’s advice about justice in this Psalm is, defend the cause of the weak and fatherless. I have been on the Advisory Council for Ron J. Sider’s Network 9:35 organization. We probably ought give to them, for they support the needy and the poor and have a vision for the combination of preaching the Gospel and helping those sick and in need of justice, just as Jesus envisioned in Matthew 9:35. That’s what we stand for as a church and it is what God is expecting of these judges.

Verse 5 reads like an aside. It reads like the newspaper reporters who are giving their editorial opinion of the judges. “They are stupid and understand nothing!”, the editorial says.

Then in verses 6 and 7 there is the trial. Here’s where Peterson’s paraphrase is consistent with the image of the passage. “I commissioned you judges... deputies of the High God.” It is because of that commissioning and because of their task that God is trying them. That is exactly why Jesus refers to verse 6 against his enemies in John 10. In the scene in Jerusalem that John 10 portrays, Jesus has said, “I and the Father are one.” And then as the Jews try to stone him, Jesus stops them and asks, “Why are you doing this?” And they reply, “because you who are a mere man claim to be God.” And then Jesus quotes Psalm 82, verse 6 and asks, “is it blasphemy to call oneself the Son of God when I have been consecrated and commissioned to be God’s representative, like those Old Testament judges were?” Jesus’ point is he has been commissioned by God the Father to do a certain task.

The problem with the judges in Psalm 82 was they were corrupt because they didn’t care for the poor and the oppressed. But those are exactly the people Jesus shows himself concerned about. On another occasion, in John 8:46, Jesus had asked the people, which of you can convict me of a sin? And they couldn’t. So Jesus does not have the problem these Old Testament judges had.

And what about you? How are you treating the poor and the needy? As Anabaptists part of our heritage is demonstrated in the kind of organizations we have created, groups like MCC (the Mennonite Central Committee), MDS (Mennonite Disaster Service) and 10,000 Villages which sees that farmers and craftsmen get fair wages. Those groups are all set up to help the poor and needy. Blackstone would like our commitment to the poor. So does God. When the powerless are cheated and abused the very structure of human existence is threatened, but so is the very core of the church.

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about separating what are called the sheep and the goats at the last judgment. The difference between the two is whether they helped people in need or not. And those who did not help are consigned to eternal punishment. We aren’t used to thinking that our small actions have eternal consequences, but the issue is justice, not power or the smallness of a task. That is, don’t think that person over there because he has the power to do something about the needs of people is more important than you are. You are just a common person, but you still have a responsibility to the poor. What counts is how you use your life. That’s what each one of us is responsible for.

Verse 7 pronounces an end to these bad judges, “you will die like mere men”; or, as Peterson puts it, “you’ve betrayed your commission”. Shakespeare sees this problem among kings and judges in Richard II where (in Act 3, scene 2, lines 160-165) the king says at one point,

for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the
antic sits, scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp....
Infusing him with self and vain conceit.

Well, what does God want? It is not as if these judges didn’t know. Verses 3 and 4 tell what God had expected of them. The prophet Micah says (in 6:8) “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” What God wants from his people, he made known to them, but they do not always do what they know God wants.

That is exactly the problem for these judges. They know what is right to do, but they have not done it. According to James (4:17) that is the basic definition of sin. And so these judges are sinning and God is calling them to account.

Psalm 82 ends like the book of Revelation does with its promise of something better coming. The Psalmist asks God: rise up and judge the earth. At least then the judgment will be fair. And people will know that the judgment is fair. I think that at the judgment we will see ourselves in a true light and we will know the wrong we have done. Some will know that the blood of Jesus covers those wrongs. Others will see that the very consistency of their wrongs. and how long they have gone on shows they did not really trust Jesus’ work after all.

And the book of Revelation ends with these words, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come because there is that deep yearning for a true justice. Don’t you love how God the Father is concerned for the poor and the oppressed? We need to be like him in that. In this Psalm we have a hymn in which God told people, care for the poor and the oppressed. And because the Psalms were sung, people would sing this.