< August 14, 2016 >

Commentary on Psalm 82

 

In Psalm 82, the poetic imagination of the Psalmist conjures a mythic heavenly court.

This court is different from typical pictures of the radical monotheism of Israel. The one true God is now surrounded by a Miltonian court of lesser deities who bear some responsibility for the wickedness and injustice that has covered the nation. The small "g" gods have favored the wicked and have ignored the cries of the needy and the poor. The gods have perverted ideas of justice and trampled on the weak. After some admonishment of the demi-divinities, God decides that these gods ought to meet the same fate as the humanity whom they have failed.

The theme of God’s ultimate power in the face of other deities is a consistent theme within the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist gives us a picture of a God with the necessary power to rule these lesser gods, but more than that, to terminate these gods. Still, we can reasonably infer that if God can end the existence of these deities, it is also God who made these deities and set them in positions of power. Here in this Psalm and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, the stumbling block of radical monotheism meets a formidable opponent in the problem of suffering.

Like the book of Job, the setting of a heavenly court filled with other B-league divinities provides a helpful literary device to discuss the central question of the Psalm: why do the unjust suffer and the wicked triumph? How, in the end, can we account for all of the injustice in the world? One answer is that the evil of the world is born of the heart and actions of humanity. This assumes that each evil act can be traced back to an actor, be they human or divine. Consequence is thus a linear phenomenon and every effect is due to its companion cause. And yet, a survey of our current world displays that consequence is not so easily traced. Michel Foucault famously writes, “People know what they do; frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what they do does.”

If we try to mete out justice according to our access to the bold line of consequence we are likely to “walk around in darkness.” When left to our own devices we consistently fail to trace consequence to its origin. Moreover, even if we could trace the consequence back to its origin, how do we monotheists escape the theological conclusion that everything begins (good and evil alike) with the one who began everything?

On the other hand, ancient Israel knows what we know, the evil of the world cannot be traced to a single malevolent actor. The injustice of the world does not operate linearly. Good intentions and malevolent effects complicate our moral calculus. Oppressive systems operate without a single origin or action. Consequence bends, doubles back, and fractures making it nearly impossible to fully trace responsibility. Our access to justice is further obstructed in proportion to the privilege we gain from unjust consequences. Rabbi Ibn Ezra connects this psalm to the admonition in Exodus 23:8, “No bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the sighted and perverts the words of the innocent.”1 Exodus 23 and Psalm 82 recognize that our ability to adjudicate justice is compromised by our proximity to power.

The powerful gods of the heavenly court might have been trying their very best to remember the poor and take seriously the need of the widow. Yet they fail because they cannot escape the ways in which power blinds them to the needs of the powerless. The powerful “fail to understand,” and “walk in darkness,” because they are more concerned about their place in the heavenly court than the needs of the people. The consequence of all this myopia is nothing less than apocalypse. The world’s very foundations shake (v. 5) and God threatens to descend from the heavenly court and, fresh off the judgment of the heavenly court, judge the world all at once. Perhaps the perversion of justice might finally stir God to bring about the apocalypse.

For those who live under the boot of the powerful and have no access to anything except more fear and more death, what is more beautiful than the apocalypse? For those in power who have the freedom to dream and the power to chart a course to meet that dream, what is more frightening than apocalypse? When life is an unbearable burden, the last hope left is destruction. The moderate and incremental will not do. The most tenacious vision in our imaginations, the one that cannot be stamped out by the force of the oppressor, is destruction. We might not be able to dream about the shape of a new world, but we sure as hell can dream about the absence of our current world. The oppressed are experts in apophasis -- living without will do that to you.

Given the psalmist’s longing for the apocalypse, the last line is a curious one. The call of the Psalmist for God to judge the earth swings the focus from God’s heavenly court to the nations of the earth. Verse eight can be seen as a call for God to extend the justice in the heavenly court back onto earth. Now that God has God’s own court in order, the judgment of the world can begin.

The final line of the psalmist could also be read as an indirect critique of the God who has taken a seat in the divine counsel, when really we need that God to “rise up” from the affairs of heaven and sow justice across an unjust world. The critique becomes more pointed when you realize that this God who imposed term limits on these small gods also left them to run the world without proper supervision. The last line, then takes on its own admonishing character, “O God above, come clean up the mess you have made.” Come remedy the effects of the powerful. Come take responsibility for the world and its ills. Come rescue the plan that you set in motion. Come and be judged so that you might judge. Come and prove yourself worthy to rule. The last line of the psalm is bold one. It is at once a plea and an order. The cries of our deepest distress are always flecked with indignation and hopeful longing.


Notes:

1 Noted in Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 292.