If you have been following my posts at all this past year or so, you will know I believe there is a flow and structure to the book of Psalms connecting each psalm to the surrounding context. The book of Psalms is not a random collection but a purposefully constructed book, which I think is often misunderstood. While I don’t write about the larger structure every week, Psalm 82 is a psalm where the recognition of the surrounding structure helps us understand the meaning of the psalm itself.
Psalm 82, and Book III, is best understood by seeing that Book II, a book filled with the psalmist’s cry to God for help and mercy, ends with Psalm 72’s hopeful prayer that God would bless the earth through the kingdom of Solomon, David’s son. But as Book III opens in Psalm 73 we find that wicked men rule the day, and ostensibly, the earth. It is important to note that the author of Psalm 73, and the first eleven psalms of Book III, is Asaph, a musician in the highest courts of the temple. In his psalms, he describes the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people, which should historically place the Asaphic psalms after the end of the line of Israel’s and Judah’s kings. As such, these psalms should be read in the light of a people who had turned their back on God for many years.
We saw that Psalm 81, the topic of my writing last week, was an appeal to Israel that they learn to praise God for who he is and what he has done. In other words, Psalm 81 was Asaph’s reminder to them to have no other gods before God (see the first commandment in Deut 5:7 and the great Shema in Deut 6:4). Or, to put it in the words of Jesus, they must learn to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:34-38). But as we know, Jesus did not end his comments there and neither did Asaph, as we will see in Psalm 82.
Psalm 82 begins with a description of a day when God has called the gods into his chamber and then pronounces judgment upon them. This is, I realize, a strange picture because if you are like me you know that there is no other God or gods in the universe than our God, and so you are left to wonder what this could possibly mean. Not surprisingly, I believe the answer to this cryptic image can be found in the words of Jesus.
Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34-35 and then indicates who these “gods” were when he said, “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came…” As we know, it is the Israelites who received the word of God, thus meaning the Israelites are most likely the “gods” spoken of in Psalm 82 meaning that the council in God’s chamber is a picture of God telling the Israelites of their failure to provide justice to the weak and fatherless. Or, to use Jesus’ words, they failed to keep the second commandment by not “loving their neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39)
But there is more to this controversial interpretation. Psalm 82:8, has often been interpreted as our cry to God for him to arise and judge the earth, for it reads as follows: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations.” But, take note that the Hebrew word used for “God” is the word elohim, which is also the word used in Psalm 82:1 & 6 where the psalmist speaks of the Israelites as “gods.” Thus, it seems possible that Psalm 82:8 could be read as a command from God to the Israelites, and by extension to us, that we arise and judge the earth. Could it be that God wants us to do what the Israelites increasingly failed to do throughout the history of their kingdom: love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (Psalm 81), and love our neighbor as ourselves (Psalm 82). Does God want us to enact justice in the world in which we live?
This message was told to the Israelites in Isaiah 1:12-17 and Isaiah 58:1-7 as well where God showed how serious he was about his followers taking care of the less fortunate ones living in the world today. In fact, he seemed to connect how well his followers took care of others with how well they loved him. After Asaph’s cries about the failed kingdom of Israel (Psalm 73-80), he calls the Israelites to return to loving God (Psalm 81) and loving others (Psalm 82).
But what does this say to we who live in the 21st century? Well, I think it should be obvious. While we may live thousands of years after the events of the Old and New Testaments, God is still interested in the same thing:
You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart and
with all your soul and
with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment.
And the second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.