Commentary on Psalm 82:1-8
The Shaking of the Foundations
The Working Preacher may decide to preach on the Gospel text for today, following along with a series of sermons on Luke. The text from Hebrews is also inviting, with its picture of the “great cloud of witnesses” in the stands, surrounding us who are still running the races in the arena. I suggest, however, that the scene of cosmic judgment in Psalm 82 along with the portrayal of the prophetic word as “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” in Jeremiah 23 can provide invigorating, even jarring reminders of the God of the Bible and of the power of prophetic preaching. These texts may even enliven our own preaching — in what can be the doldrums of the month of August.
The Council of the Gods
This psalm picks up on a theme that has been highly discussed in Old Testament scholarship of our time, that of the “council of the gods.” The notion of such a “divine council” where the gods of the nations meet is known from ancient Near Eastern texts outside the Bible. These texts have then shed light on variations of the “divine council” theme in the Bible itself.
1 Kings 22:19-28 provides a good example, where Micaiah has a vision of the LORD presiding over the council; in the biblical version, however, the others present in the divine council are not “gods” but “spirits.” Isaiah’s call and vision provide another example. The prophet saw the LORD, sitting on a throne, surrounded by heavenly beings surrounding and waiting on God (Isaiah 6:2). This was a scene from another world! Strange winged creatures (though not so strange to a world that has seen Avatar!) were singing “holy, holy, holy,” the place was filled with smoke, and the foundations of the mighty temple were shaking; one thinks of watching some of our 21st century earthquakes on television! In the midst of all this smoke and singing and shaking comes a voice crying out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the young man Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me!” For a further description of what is going on in the divine council, see also Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-6.
The Prophet as Messenger from the Divine Council
The notion of the divine council lies behind the Jeremiah text for the day. The country is plagued with phony prophets who represent the false God, Baal (23:13), and who are adulterers and liars (23:14). These “prosperity preachers” have no word of God’s judgment but only a groundless gospel that says “It shall be well with you” (23:16-17). Jeremiah says that these false prophets have not listened in on the deliberations of the divine council (23:18, 22). They have not been sent by the Lord and bring no authentic word from God (23:21). Therefore the Lord is against them (23:30-40) and will in fact poison them (23:15). From these criticisms of the false prophets we can construct a picture of the true prophet: that prophet has listened in on the council of God, that prophet has been sent by God and as his “Thus says the Lord” indicates (23:15), is a true messenger from the true God.
And now we get a hint of what Jeremiah’s preaching was like. The message was not his own, but it came from the Lord, as the “says the Lord” indicates (23:23, 24, 28). And what of this God? This is not the god of the deists, sitting high in the heavens, removed from the struggles and pains of people on earth. God is high in the heavens, but also fills every mountain and valley of the earth (23:24). This God sends messengers from his divine council to his people of this planet. The word they bring is not a smiley, smarmy, soothing word, but rather a word that is like fire (see Jeremiah 20:9) and like a jackhammer, shaking and breaking up old pieces of concrete to make room for the new (23:29).
The Shaking of the Foundations
Now to the scene portrayed in the psalm. The imagery has a great deal of commonality with pictures of a “council of the gods” found in the religions of Israel’s neighbors. We are to imagine a heavenly trial going on. The Judge is our God, the true God, who has a judgment against the gods of all the other nations. The Judge says that these gods are phonies and are therefore all sentenced to death: “You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (7). Such a cosmic judging is so frightening and terrifying that the very foundations of the earth shift and shake (5).
Just what have the gods done that was wrong? It is not so much what they have done as what they have not done. Now the scene shifts from the vastness of space to the small villages. Here live the poor, the weak, the orphans and widows. The gods of these nations should have seen to it that these powerless were protected. But they have failed in their role. Therefore, the earth quakes, the foundations shake, and these “gods” will die!
When Foundations Shake
The scene in the psalm is not a pretty one, with widows and orphans, poor and powerless, persons who are suffering. The prophets brought messages from God’s “divine council” calling for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5). When the “lowly, and the destitute…the weak and the needy” are neglected and oppressed, then the fundamental structures of human existence are threatened.
Jesus spoke about the eternal consequences of neglecting those who are hungry and hurting (Matthew 25:31-46). James went so far as to define true religion in terms of treatment of the orphan, widow and poor (James 1:26-2:26). The scope of Psalm 82 is exceptionally wide. But the old hymn reminds us that there is wideness in God’s mercy, too. (I like the melody in the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal best!)