The Psalms are full of calls for social justice and cries against the behavior of the wicked, particularly those who seek to use power and authority and wealth to take advantage or abuse others. It is remarkable that such material fills the Psalms, that the Psalms are enduringly popular, and yet that so few people seem to have remarked on the social implications of the biblical message. It would appear that among politically inclined Christians there are two tendencies that would make the Psalms, like Psalm 82, which we will discuss today, rather ignored for their moral content. There are on the one side people who seek biblical justification to oppress others who will find no friendly commentary in Psalms and will be tempted to dismiss its relevance as inconvenient, or will think of it merely as speaking about oppressive governments rather than oppressive people in general who abuse their wealth and power. On the other side are people who would wish to speak up for the oppressed but who do so on behalf of ungodly humanistic causes (like socialism) rather than on behalf of a genuine biblical legal and social order. Coming as I do from neither of those camps, I seek to present the biblical message as it is.
Let us therefore, with that framework in mind, seek what wisdom we can gain from the short but powerful Psalm 82, one of Asaph’s masterpieces. This psalm packs a lot of punch into eight verses, and manages to be quoted powerfully (and ironically) in by Gospels by Jesus Christ to defend Himself from accusations of blasphemy. Therefore, recognizing the importance of this psalm to Christianity as well as with regards to social justice, let us examine this psalm which speaks particularly eloquently to current conditions.
How Long Will You Judge Unjustly?
Psalm 82 reads as follows: “God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the mighty ones. How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked. They do not know, nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are unstable. I said, “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” Arise, O God, judge the earth; for You shall inherit all nations.”
This short psalm pulls no punches about its meaning and relevance. Only eight verses long, it could give a sermon to the corrupt leadership that exists all over our world in the present age. Let us briefly examine four different elements of this psalm to examine why it is such an important one for us as Christians in showing the biblical ethic of leadership, and the obligations that fall upon any leader of any institution who would consider themselves to be a servant of God.
First, let us examine verse one, which states that God stands in the congregation of the mighty and judges among the mighty ones (elohim, also translated as gods). Let us note that corrupt leaders in general consider themselves, whether formally or not, to be divine, above human accountability, or rulers by divine right, not subject to the censure or judgments of others. Corrupt leaders refuse to consider themselves subject to judgments by fiery prophets without credentials or political authority, whether they are leaders of nations, businesses, churches, congregations, families, or any other institution. But God is the ruler of the whole universe and all stand before Him to face His judgment, and God is not happy. He asks the corrupt powerful human beings who consider themselves to be gods how long they will judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked rather than to the righteous. There is not a good answer to that question except to say “no longer” and to begin to judge according to God’s righteous standard.
Psalm 82 then gives two verses that make it unmistakably clear what the responsibility of leaders and authorities of human institutions is: to defend the poor and fatherless, to do justice to the afflicted and needy (who have no power or wealth to bribe their way into a corrupt leader’s good graces, as do the wicked), to deliver the poor and needy from oppression, and to free all of thee exploited and rather powerless people from the hand of the wicked. All too often human institutions are too interested in currying favor with the wealthy and powerful, excusing their sins because of superficial piety, while giving them a divine cloak for their wicked exploitation of others. This blasphemous behavior discredits God and religion in the eyes of those who suffer not only from oppression but from the lie that God has ordained this wicked state of affairs as part of His own divine order. Such corrupt judges invite their own condemnation.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Asaph then talks about the fact that corrupt judges who claim to be gods dwell in darkness as a result of their evil and do not understand or follow God’s ways of light and truth. As a result of the leadership of mankind being corrupt (ultimately led and inspired by the father of rebellion and tyranny, Satan the devil), the foundations of the world are unstable, making the lives of ordinary people dangerous as corrupt leaders invite divine judgment on nations and institutions. Those godly people compelled to speak out, like Asaph, also put themselves in mortal danger by opposing the wicked in high places.
However, in a comforting closing (comforting to God’s servants, if not to wicked authorities), Asaph states that though the wicked in high places are “gods” as authorities, and are children of the Most High (being created in the imagine and likeness of God like all men, women, and children), but will die like men and fall like one of the princes (presumably like Satan and his henchmen who fell when they attempted to overthrow God’s rule), for God will judge the earth and Jesus Christ Himself will judge all nations as the Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords, before whom all the world will either bow the knee of worship or before whom all will tremble as rebels awaiting the execution of divine punishment. The choice for wicked authorities who oppress the righteous all over the world is either to repent or to face destruction at the hand of an angry God whose patience is wearing thin at the wickedness of mankind.
You Are Gods
Ironically enough, Jesus Christ gave the Jewish leadership a lesson from Psalm 82 that probably had multiple levels in seeking to deliver himself from charges of blasphemy in calling himself God. We find this moment in John 10:31-36, which occurred while Jesus was keeping the Hanukkah festival in the temple in Jerusalem: “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, You are gods’? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
Why indeed? Is it not our destiny to become the children of God? If so, then why do we so easily like to claim that we are gods in the sense of being above accountability and answering for our words and actions and so rarely seek to exhibit the character of God, our Father, in whose image and likeness we were created? In one sense, the Jewish leadership, which was corrupt and exploitative, was itself subject to the warning of Psalm 82, that God would come to judge them and put them to death, as happened to the whole corrupt temple establishment and a great many of its priests in 70AD.
So, let us reflect that the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time, who were so incensed about Jesus’ claim to divinity, were themselves making an implicit claim to divinity by considering themselves above accountability to God’s law for their own wicked deeds and corruption. If a leader of any nation or institution considers themselves above the accountability to God’s standard, whether it is delivered by a fierce and serious young person, by a little child, a peer or subordinate in leadership, or anyone else, they are making a claim to being a ‘god’ and not a man, and therefore are making a blasphemous claim to be beyond accountability to God’s law, a claim which God Himself will judge harshly. Nonetheless, the Bible, both in Psalm 82 and in Jesus’ use of it, ironically states that they are gods, in the sense of being children of God made in His image and likeness (like the rest of humanity) but that they will die like men because of their corruption and wickedness. Unless they repent, they will not enter the kingdom of life. That is true whether we are talking about corrupt political or religious leaders in the time of Jesus, or in our time, or in any era of human history–the divine standard is the same wherever and whenever we look. Let us therefore repent while there is time, for we may yet be able to escape condemnation unless we harden our hearts as in the day of the rebellion.