Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"I Said You Are Gods": The Meaning of Psalm 82

Psalm 82 begins with God standing in the divine assembly (Ps 82:1). The posture of standing suggests that God is making a royal/legal pronouncement. The parallelism in v. 1 confirms this: God standing is linked with his function as a judge.

The divine assembly is called in v. 1 the assembly of the gods. In other ANE cultures, the divine assembly typically consisted of a plurality of gods. But the divine assembly in Ps 82 seems to be a little different. The three main exegetical options that have been mentioned in the scholarly literature explain these gods as being either human judges, the angels, or the people of Israel. The conceptual similarities between the language of Ps 82:2–4 and passages such as Deut 1:17; 24:17; Jer 22:15–16 suggests that the “gods” that are in view here are the judges/rulers of Israel. The idea seems to be that as the supreme god in the ANE pantheon was surrounded by his divine peers and counselors, in a similar way the God of Israel has his own “pantheon,” an assembly of VIPs, people who have been given the privilege of listening to his wise counsel and legal judgments, and who (supposedly on the basis of this) were to judge and rule God’s people. So Ps 82:2–4 seems to be saying that the rulers of Israel had become corrupt and had not exercised true justice in Israel. The result was a lack of understanding, and the presence of spiritual darkness in Israel (Ps 82:5).

In the light of vv. 1–5, the statement I said, “You are gods,” in v. 6 seems to be a divine acknowledgment of the important status of the rulers of Israel as members of the divine assembly. They occupied the position of the gods. But is Ps 82:6 simply talking about the rulers of Israel, or all of Israel as well? The addition of the word all in the second half of Ps 82:6—“and sons of the Most High, all of you”—seems to have been the exegetical justification for this verse being taken in some Jewish circles as applying to all Israel.

And there is some justification for this interpretation when we examine the concept of the sons of God in Scripture. The original sons of God, i.e., those who were members of the heavenly council from the beginning of the creation of the universe, are the angels (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). In Ps 89 the angels are described as being “the assembly of the holy ones” (Ps 89:5; see also Job 15:15), “the sons of God” (Ps 89:6).

But God’s plan is actually for human beings to be lifted up higher than the angels (Heb 1:4; 2:5–9). This means that the rulers of God’s people (see Exod 24:9–11), and indeed (in the end) all of God’s people, will take their place in the divine assembly (Heb 2:11–12). For this reason, Israel is also spoken of as being “the sons of God” (Ps 29:1). They are also described as holy ones or saints (Deut 33:2). The exodus redemption was an exaltation from the pit of slavery to the heights of heaven, a movement from slavery and death to life lived in the presence of God as members of the divine assembly.

It is interesting in this regard that Jesus viewed resurrection as being the means by which God’s people become the sons of God. He taught that by means of resurrection his people are made “equal to the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). Through resurrection the human race is lifted up to be equal to (in fact, higher than) the angels, occupying the position of the sons of God.

So it is possible to speak of Israel as being the sons of God, but in Ps 82 the rulers of Israel are the ones primarily in focus. Nevertheless, taking the broader approach, it is fair enough to say that Ps 82:7 has the death of Israel and her leaders in view. The people of Israel and her leaders had been saved by God to live as honored VIPs (i.e., “gods”) in his presence. But they rebelled. As a result, Israel would die “like Adam,” and fall like one of the [angel?] princes” (Ps 82:7). Through their covenant rebellion, Israel and her leaders forfeited the privilege of living in God’s presence as the sons of God.

We need to keep in mind the content of Ps 82 when seeking to explain Jesus’ words in John 10:34–36. See “‘I Said You Are Gods’: John 10:34–36 and the Divinity of Jesus” for a discussion on this point.


Joseph said...

Thanks so much! Looking forward to the next one!

John Davies said...

A great post, Steven. You mention Exod 24:9-11 which I agree fits the paradigm. In fact the 70 Israelite leaders mentioned there as being admitted to God's heavenly court correspond to the 70 deities of Ugaritic myth who constitute the divine council. Israel's God needs no other deities when he has constituted Israel as his "holy nation".

sujomo said...

Hi Steve,

Can I ask why Yahweh is sitting in 1 Kings 22:19 as this also appear to be a vision of God's heavenly council? In Isaiah 6:1 Yahweh is also sitting (cf Revelation 4:2) - any comments?

Also do you see any link between Acts 7:55,57 (the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God) and Psalm 82?

Would appreciate your thoughts.

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John. That’s a great parallel with the number 70. I find the concept of the exaltation of humanity a good one for understanding something of the bigger picture regarding God’s plan for the human race. That we, creatures so weak and made of dust, might be crowned with glory and honor in God’s awesome presence (Ps 8:3-5). And, of course, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is key to this. The idea is that those in Christ will be resurrected to ascend into the presence of God, to take their place in the divine assembly.

Thinking about God’s plan for the ascension of humanity in Christ, I have often wondered if a large part of the motivation for Satan’s rebellion lies in jealousy. Imagine being exalted, dwelling in the presence of God, witnessing God’s creative work when Planet Earth was formed, then suddenly realizing that you are not the image of God, that you are not the pinnacle of creation, and that God has plans for this lowly earthen image to one day be exalted even higher than the angels. Are Satan’s attempts to destroy the human race in part a vain attempt to thwart the ascension of the son of man? I find that an intriguing thought.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Sujomo, for your questions. I personally do not have any specific ANE evidence regarding the significance of the posture of a judge or king standing except from what we have in the Scriptures. Perhaps John Davies may be able to help us here.

But there is a fair bit of scriptural evidence that is relevant. So much so that I think I’ll do a separate post on it. I have the post ready to go, but I’ll publish it after the John 10:34 trilogy is complete.

Steven Coxhead said...

Here's the link to my first post on the idea of God sitting and standing: The Significance of the Divine Posture of Sitting and Standing in the Bible.