< August 18, 2019 >

Commentary on Psalm 82

 

Clint McCann has said that Psalm 82 is “the single most important text” in the entire Bible.1

While this assertion may seem strange, as McCann acknowledges, he nevertheless has a very good reason for defending this theological claim: Justice. Because Psalm 82 asserts that justice is constitutive of divinity—God cannot be God, divinity cannot be divinity, without the characteristic of justice.

I will return to McCann later. But first, a look at the psalm.

Psalm 82: A mythic, poetic drama

Psalm 82 is a mythic drama, in which the sovereign God “takes his place in the divine council” of other eternal beings—called “gods” in this text, but we might call them “spirits”—and “holds judgment” (verse 1). This mythic, dramatic, and poetic nature of this psalm might trouble some people.

An aside about the suitability of preaching on a mythic drama: My doctor father Patrick Miller told me that early in his ministry he preached on this psalm. After he finished, he noted the shocked look on many people’s faces—God takes his place among other gods? Miller decided that Psalm 82 might not have been the best choice of texts for that setting. But in other setting, Psalm 82 might be perfect. My friend Andrea White preached on this text a few years ago. She reported that the psalm was received very well in her setting. So there you go. Back to the psalm.

Having taken the judgment seat in the midst of the gods, God calls out the leaders of the spiritual realm for injustice:

“How long will you judge unjustly
   and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:2-4).

The speech is both accusation and admonition. Notice the verbs in the admonition: “give justice,” “maintain the right” (better translated as “do righteously by” or “establish righteousness for”), “rescue,” and “deliver.” And notice the direct objects: “the weak,” “the orphan,” “the lowly” (better: “the poor”), “the needy.” The Old Testament—in the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms—consistently expresses God’s passionate concern for this constellation of vulnerable people: the widow, the orphan, the family-less person (resident alien), the poor, the weak, the needy, the sick, the elderly, and the dispossessed.

The message could not be more clear: Those with power—including those with power in the spiritual realm—must use their power to help, save, and deliver the powerless.

And the gods—the spirits—were not doing so: “How long will you judge unjustly?”

The drama continues as God utters—in an apparent aside; a divine, galactic stage whisper that all can hear:

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
   they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken (Psalm 82:5).

That is, the gods themselves have “neither knowledge nor understanding.” The prophet Hosea uses similar language when he condemns the human spiritual leaders of Israel: “there is no knowledge of God in the land” and “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:1, 6). And again, “because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest for me” (Hosea 4:6).

The point wasn’t that the priests and prophets failed a confirmation quiz—as if they couldn’t recite the Ten Commandments and the Great Shema. The point was that they were not attending to the core work of the faith. As Hosea said, “I desire steadfast love not sacrifice! The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings!” (Hosea 6:6).

The punishment in Hosea for the human spiritual leaders—priests and prophets—who rejected divine knowledge? Dismissal. And death in the coming exile.

The punishments in Psalm 82 for the divine spiritual leaders—the gods, the spirits—who rejected divine knowledge and understanding? Dismissal. And death by removing from them the cloak of immortality.

I say, “You are gods,
   children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
   and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:6-7).

The gods, because they did not judge justly and protect the most vulnerable were made mortal. The gods, because they did not live up to the very standard, the true characteristic of divinity—justice—were to die.

The psalm then ends with a plea—an admonition?—to God to show up:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
   for all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82:8)

The final plea is echoed by the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” I will paraphrase: “God, since you’ve shown your power in heaven by judging the unjust spiritual leaders and casting them down, how about doing the same on earth? Since 'all the nations belong to you,' how about you show up and judge the earth as you have the heaven?”

Justice on earth as it is in heaven

So back to Clint McCann. McCann writes that

according to Psalm 82, what it means to be God—what characterizes divinity—is to protect and provide for the lives of the most vulnerable, not be offering charitable handouts but rather by what Hossfeld and Zenger call “comprehensive alteration in social and political conditions”—in a word, justice, understood systematically as transformative opposition to “the hand” or “the power” of oppressors, named here by the repeated term “the wicked” (verses 2, 4).2

There it is. The single most important text in the Christian Bible.

But one word of warning: Please do not assume that your pre-existing ideological commitments about justice are identical with those of Psalm 82 or the rest of the Bible. Too many interpreters of the Bible assume that the biblical admonitions for “justice” (quotations marks are necessary here) automatically line up with their personal views on contemporary justice. And please note that many of the mechanisms for establishing justice that have been tried over the centuries have in fact led to great injustice. It’s an easy word to say—justice. But it’s a hard concept to understand and an even hard reality to achieve. So the prayer remains:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
   for all the nations belong to you!


Notes:

  1. J. Clinton McCann, “The Single Most Important Text in the Entire Bible: Toward a Theology of the Psalms,” in Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Fortress, 2011), 63. McCann here is agreeing—in an ironic yet sincere way—with New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, who first made the assertion in The Birth of Christianity: Discovering what Happened in the Years after the Execution of Jesus (Harper, 1998), 575.

  2. McCann, 66.