Thursday, July 12, 2012

Psalm 82: You are gods!

Due to time limitations, I will not have time to go into great detail on a difficult textual issue that arises in Psalm 82. But before we can understand the purpose of Psalm 82 we have to deal with a perplexing issue that comes up in v. 1, 5, and 6. The perplexing issue is in regards to the identity of “the gods.” 

NIV  Psalm 82:1 God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the "gods."
NIV  Psalm 82:5 "The 'gods' know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
NIV  Psalm 82:6 "I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.'

Who are the “gods” that the Psalmist has God address? The difficulty in making a decision is that the term "gods" comes from the Hebrew word elohim. The word elohim is almost always put in a plural form (the -im indicates a plural ending like the common addition of an "s" in English). But the term elohim can also refer to the singular God of the Old Testament. So you can have elohim gods or the elohim God. And yet there are a few different times in Scripture when elohim doesn't necessarily refer to pagan gods or the one true God at all. I think that is the situation we have here in Psalm 82. Let me explain.

There are 4 possibilities for the meaning of the gods. I’ll share these interpretations in the order from what I believe to be least likely to most likely:
1)      The first is that the “gods” are God’s angels. Psalm 8:5 says that humans were created just a bit below “the gods” (elohoim). Later Psalm 8:5 is quoted in Hebrews 2. Interestingly, the inspired New Testament author translates the Hebrew term “gods” into the Greek language with the term angels. Thus, it appears that the gods (elohim) of Psalm 8 were actually angels, and therefore, humans were created just a bit lower than the angelic host in some aspect of glory. With this interpretation for Psalm 82, however, you would have to think the Psalmist of chapter 82 believes the angelic beings were failing in their responsibilities as God’s servants and were soon to be judged. There is no place in Scripture to suggest God’s angels have ever failed.
2)      The second meaning suggested by some scholars is that “gods” could be the children of Israel. Verse 6 says that these gods are sons of the Most High and in Exodus 4:22 and a few other places in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as God’s son. If you take this interpretation, the point is that Israel (God’s Son) is going to be held to account for how they govern and rule as God’s representative people. The problem is that v. 1 says that God is presiding in the great assembly. The great assembly is God’s gathered and worshipping community. It seems unlikely that the same assembly to receive God’s praise will at the same time receive his judgment.
3)      A third interpretation down the years is to see the term “gods” as referring to the heathen gods of the ancient near east. These gods (like Baal or Ashtoreth or Chemosh and later Zeus, Saturn, etc.) were impostor gods, leading people away from the true God. These gods (though demonically created) really were man-made statues, without knowledge or understanding. The main strength of this interpretation is that gods means gods and on several occasions in the Old Testament God (elohim) speaks to the supposed “gods” (elohim) of the nations. The weakness of the interpretation is understanding why gods that don’t really exist will ever face judgment. The OT spends a great deal of time speaking of the vanity of worshipping false gods, because they don’t really exist.
4)      The final interpretation is that the term “gods” refers to earthly rulers put in a place of high position and authority. The book of Exodus refers to its human judges as “gods” (Ex. 21:6; 22:8, 9, 28). These people are supposed to represent the true God in their words and actions. At a very real level, they hold the power of God on earth. This is why they will be held to severe judgment. To be put in a high place of privilege and power demands stricter expectations of impartiality and justice. The weakness of this interpretation is that humans are rarely equated with God in the Bible. The major strength of this interpretation is that it makes the most sense of an incident in the life of Jesus when he mentioned Psalm 82. Read John 10 below:

 NIV  John 10:31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?" 33 "We are not stoning you for any good work," they replied, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God." 34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are "gods"'? 35 If he called them 'gods,' to whom the word of God came--and Scripture cannot be set aside-- 36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'? 37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." 

Notice in verse 34, Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6. Then he says, if humans (earthly judges and mighty rulers expected to govern according to God's Word) can be called gods because of their eminent position, so too can the Son of God. In fact, if those who exercise justice and perform great works can be called gods, how much more so can God’s Son be deserving of the title. Jesus is the true judge who judges rightly. Jesus is the true leader who acts without partiality. The reason is not that he’s like these “earthly gods” who hold a high earthly title, but He is God Himself. Clearly, Jesus thinks Ps. 82 was about human leaders, and that is why I will use that interpretation in my sermon on Psalm 82.

Additional note:
            There are a few cultic religious groups who have used the expression “you are gods” to justify belief in the idea that humans are or will one day be gods (this is the functional belief of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. Mormons). This is the danger of reading the Bible too literally. We must interpret the Bible with the whole of Scripture. God says time and time again that He alone is the Divine God. No one else can share His glory. Holding to any erroneous idea that we are or will ever be divinity is to grossly misunderstand the creature/Creator distinction.
            In the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Adam and Eve to take the fruit to be like God. Any religion that offers a similar temptation should be seen as demonic. There is One God and there is not and will never be any other.

1 comment:

Matt Wolf said...

I think you summarized the options pretty well. I tend to agree with that line of thought, but am espacially thankful you added the note about false teaching at the end. It seems that so many take this obscure reference in Ps 82 and John, and combine it with "participate in the divine nature" of 2 Pt 1:4 with disastrous effects. For though we are given the authority of Jesus as Chrisitans we will never be gods in the ontological sense.