In the days of Jesus’ earthly life the Messianic expectation was at its highest pitch. Christ’s public ministry was surrounded by controversy as He claimed to be Messiah Himself. In His debate with the Jewish religious leaders, Christ quoted from Psalm 82 to prove His Messianic credentials. His citation of Psalm 82:6 must be explored within the larger context of John’s Gospel.
Recall, in John 9, that our Lord had just healed a man who had been blind since birth, thereby demonstrating that He was the “light of the world” (John 9:5). While the blind man came to faith, the Jewish religious leaders willfully closed their eyes to the identity of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus claimed to be the “Good Shepherd,” the door through whom everyone must enter in order to be saved. As the Good Shepherd He promised to lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). This statement caused a division among the Jews (10:19). Some insisted that He had a demon and ought to be ignored, while others found it difficult to believe that a demon-possessed man could give sight to a man born blind (10:20-21).
The Jews gathered about our Lord, urging Him to speak forthrightly. Was He the Messiah or not (10:24)? His answer was clear enough for those who believed. He had previously revealed His identity but the majority did not believe. They did not believe because they were not His sheep. Those who were His sheep heard His voice, but the rest did not. Those whom God gave the Son believed and no one could snatch them from the Father’s hand. Climactically, Jesus boldly announced, “I and the Father are one” (10:30).
This seemingly heretical acclamation enraged our Lord’s enemies. They took up stones to put Him to death. This statement was blasphemy in their view. To this charge our Lord responded by quoting from Psalm 82:6: “‘I said, you are gods’” (John 10:34). If God could call those “gods” to whom the word of God had come, why was it wrong for Jesus to claim to be God? Our Lord’s defense did not convince most of His opponents. They attempted to put Him to death, but He eluded their grasp (10:39).
We can hardly be surprised that any argument would fail to convince those so opposed to our Lord. Let me ask you though, my friend, how convincing do you find our Lord’s defense? I must admit that I have always been inclined to think of the Lord’s use of Psalm 82 as more clever than convincing. Wasn’t Jesus just embarrassing His enemies by the use of an ingenious debating technique? At best, wouldn’t our Lord’s argument have proven Him to be a “god” only in the same sense that all men are “gods”? Isn’t this an argument which the cults could use to prove that men can be “gods” in the same way Christ claimed to be? Doesn’t our Lord’s use of Psalm 82 create more problems than it solves?
It was only when a puzzled Christian asked me what our Lord meant in John 10 that I turned to Psalm 82 to try to understand its message. As I have come to a better understanding of Psalm 82 I have also been able to appreciate how well the text our Lord quoted justified His claim to be God. Psalm 82 not only showed that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, it also had a very pointed message to those who had rejected Him and were attempting to put Him to death. Furthermore, I have come to see that Psalm 82 has a very awesome word to those of us who live in the 20th century. Let us look then to Psalm 82 for a word from God which should challenge our lives as much as it did those who lived so many years ago.
1 A Psalm of Asaph. God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers. (NASB)
This psalm begins on a very solemn note. Asaph, the author of this psalm, describes God as a judge who is convening His court in order to pronounce charges. God is said to “take His stand in His own congregation” (v. 1, NASB). The expression “to take a stand” is indicative of the serious nature of the indictment which God is about to make.127 God has taken His stand for the purpose of pronouncing judgment, which the second line of verse 1 indicates, “He judges in the midst of the rulers” (v. 2, NASB). God has taken His stand “in His own congregation” (v. 1, NASB). Literally this expression would be rendered, “in the congregation of God” (cf. marginal note, NASB). I agree with others128 that this phrase is best understood in terms of the congregation of Israel. God has taken His stand in the assembly or congregation of His people, Israel, to pronounce judgment upon them.
The second line of verse 1 identifies those whom God has determined to judge. God judges in the midst of the “gods” (v. 1, margin, NASB). The Hebrew word elohim, is rendered “rulers” in the NASB. Elohim is a common designation for God in the Old Testament. Its precise meaning here has been the subject of considerable discussion. It is not only crucial to a proper interpretation of this psalm, it is also essential for an understanding of our Lord’s use of Psalm 82:6 (where the word elohim once again occurs) in the tenth chapter of John.
There are several explanations of who the “gods” are in verses 1 and 6. The first is the view which understands the “gods” to be the mythical gods of the surrounding nations.129 Another is that the “gods” are the human rulers of the nations which are oppressing Israel.130 Yet another explanation is that the elohim are angels, a view surprisingly held by Kidner.131
The most reasonable explanation is the view most widely held over the centuries.132 The “gods” referred to in Psalm 82:1 and 6 are the rulers of Israel, who have failed to carry out their responsibilities as God’s representatives in the ruling of the nation. Several lines of evidence support this interpretation:
(1) The way elohim is used elsewhere in the Old Testament. The term elohim almost always refers to the one and only God, the God of Israel (Deut. 4:35,39). It sometimes refers to the so-called “gods” of the heathen (e.g. Judg. 11:24; 1 Kings 18:24). The term also occasionally identifies “… rulers, judges, either as divine representatives at sacred places or as reflecting divine majesty and power …”133 Several passages may use elohim in this sense:
“Moreover, he [Aaron] shall speak for you [Moses] to the people; and it shall come about that he shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be as God [elohim] to him” (Exod. 4:16).
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I make you as God [elohim] to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet” (Exod. 7:1).
“Then his master shall bring him to God [elohim, or, the judges who acted in God’s name, margin, NASB], then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently” (Exod. 21:6).
“If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges [elohim], to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges [elohim]; he whom the judges [elohim] condemn shall pay double to his neighbor” (Exod. 22:8,9).
The teaching of the Bible is that man was created in God’s image to reign and to rule as a vice regent over the earth (Gen. 1:26,28; cf. also Ps. 8:6; Rom. 8:17-21; 2 Tim. 2:12). Rulers are appointed by God to carry out His purposes of restraining evil and rewarding those who do what is good (cf. Rom. 13:1-4). In this sense rulers not only act for God; they, in a sense, act as God (as “gods”):
And he said to the judges, “Consider what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the Lord who is with you when you render judgment. Now then let the fear of the Lord be upon you; be very careful what you do, for the Lord our God will have no part in unrighteousness, or partiality, or the taking of a bribe” (2 Chron. 19:6-7).
(2) The Scriptures teach that men are responsible for the actions commanded in verses 3-4 and those condemned in verse 2. The Old Testament Law commanded the Israelites to care for the needy, the helpless, and the oppressed:
“You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut. 24:17-19; cf. also Exod. 23:2-3, 6-9; Lev. 19:15, 33-34; Deut. 1:17).
This passage suggests that all of the injustices and sufferings of Israel while in Egyptian bondage were intended to make God’s people sensitive to the plight of the weak and the oppressed.
What the Law commanded, Proverbs and the prophets reiterated:
“Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9).
‘Thus says the Lord, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place”’ (Jer. 22:3).
(3) The condemnation found in Psalm 82 is elsewhere clearly directed against Israel and particularly its leaders, both in the Old and New Testaments:
Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods?134 Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? No, in heart you work unrighteousness; on earth you weigh out the violence of your hands (Ps. 58:1-2).
The Lord arises to contend, and stands135 to judge the people. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing My people, and grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts (Isa. 3:13-15, cf. also Ezek. 34:1-6).
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47).
(4) Finally the use of the word shaphat in the Old Testament indicates that elohim refers to Israelite rulers. I am convinced that a key to the interpretation of this psalm is a proper understanding of the Hebrew word shaphat, which occurs four times (NASB: “judges,” v. 1; “judge,” v. 2; “vindicate,” v. 3; “judge,” v. 8). Unfortunately the English translation “judge” most often falls short of the much broader nuance of the Hebrew term. In the United States, our government has three branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. At least in theory these three branches are separated to guard against dictatorial rule by a minority. An American thus thinks of “judging” merely as passing judgment in legal disputes, but to the Hebrew mind shaphat would encompass all three functions of governing.136
The verb, “judge,” in the Old Testament has a variety of meanings: (1) To act as a ruler, whether as a congregation (Num. 18:22-28), as an individual judge (Deut. 1:16; Judg. 16:31; 1 Sam. 7:16), or as a king (1 Sam. 8:5-6; 2 Chron. 1:10-11, “rule” NASB). Messiah will rule the earth (Ps. 72:12-15; 96:13; Isa. 11:1-5) in the future. (2) To judge in cases of controversy or litigation (Exod. 18:16). (3) To punish (Ezek. 7:3,8; 16:38; 23:24). (4) To defend the rights of men, especially the helpless and the afflicted (“deliver,” 1 Sam. 24:15, NASB; “vindicate,” Ps. 10:18, NASB; “freed,” 2 Sam. 18:19, NASB).
Perhaps the breadth of the meaning of the term shaphat is best illustrated in Psalm 72, a song of Solomon which characterizes the reign of a righteous king. (In verse 4 shaphat occurs and is rendered “vindicate.”) The righteous king rules in righteousness (v. 2). He cares for the afflicted (vv. 2,4,12-14). Under him the righteous prosper (vv. 7,16), while the wicked are crushed (v. 4). To judge righteously is to rule as the righteous king described by Solomon in Psalm 72.
God has convened His court in the midst of the congregation of Israel. In particular, His grievance is with the leaders of the nation Israel. The specifics of the indictment are outlined in verse 2.
2 How long will you judge unjustly, And show partiality to the wicked? Selah. (NASB)
Those being rebuked in Psalm 82 are, first and foremost, Israel’s rulers, who were responsible to promote justice, to punish evildoers, and to defend the weak and the oppressed. Verse 2 indicates that Israel’s leaders had failed in their responsibilities. Injustice was promoted and the wicked were honored and treated with partiality (literally, their face was lifted, almost in the sense that a benediction was pronounced on them). The expression “how long” implies unjust judgment and partiality had been long standing. Unrighteous leadership was not the exception; it was the norm.
The mood of the Psalm suggests that God’s patience with the corrupt leadership was exhausted. Verses 2-4 contain the response of the Supreme Judge of the universe, the Righteous Ruler of the earth. Partiality and unjust judgment must come to an end. More than this, righteous rule must be restored. Verses 3 and 4 state positively what those who stand in God’s place as rulers must do.
3 Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked. (NASB)
The weak, fatherless and afflicted must be cared for and protected from wicked men since their vulnerability made them easy prey. Evil rulers not only fail to reward those who do good, and to punish the wicked, they actually prey upon the weak and the defenseless. Through Ezekiel God condemned Israel’s leaders, her shepherds, for failing to care for the flock and also for devouring it:
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them”’” (Ezek. 34:1-4).
Likewise, the Lord sternly condemned the scribes for “devouring widow’s houses” (Luke 20:46-47).
The test of a godly leader is what he does on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. Anyone will gladly come to the aid of one who has power and prestige, who is able to return the favor. Our Lord teaches that we are tested in terms of what we do for the “least of our brethren”:
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matt. 25:40).
God has a particular concern for those who are powerless, poor, and without adequate human protection. Any ruler who is to reflect God in His administration must have the same concern for the oppressed and the afflicted.
5 They do not know nor do they understand; They walk about in darkness; All the foundations of the earth are shaken. 6 I said, “You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High. 7 Nevertheless you will die like men, And fall like any one of the princes.” (NASB)
It is difficult to dogmatically determine the antecedent of the pronoun “they” in verse 5. Are “they” the wicked previously spoken of in verses 2-4, or are “they” the weak and the needy who are oppressed by the wicked? Perhaps both are in view, since those who lead often infect others with their own ailments. The sins of the fathers are visited on the sons (Exod. 20:5). In the New Testament Jesus called the wicked religious leaders “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14), who fell into the pit, along with their followers. Thus both ungodly leaders and those who follow them lack understanding, so that they grope about as in the darkness. A similar condition is described by Hosea:
So you will stumble by day, and the prophet also will stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children (Hos. 4:5-6).
The lack of knowledge and understanding referred to in Psalm 82:5 is explained in the Book of Jeremiah:
“For My people are foolish, they know Me not; they are stupid children, and they have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know” (Jer. 4:22).
“Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord. “But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:15b-17).
Israel’s leaders, who are brought to the judgment bar of God in Psalm 82, do not know God. Their ignorance and lack of knowledge is evidenced by their injustice and oppression of the afflicted and needy.
Since the nations were to be established on righteousness and justice (Prov. 16:12; 24:3; 25:5; 29:14), when the wicked rule the foundations are shaken (Ps. 82:5). When the Lord reigns the world is firmly settled:
The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty; The Lord has clothed and girded Himself with strength; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved (Ps. 93:1).
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity (Ps. 96:10).
Verse 6 is crucial, both to this psalm and to the argument which our Lord bases upon its citation in John 10. “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.’” Earthly rulers must be reminded of the fact that they are to act in God’s place. They are to exercise power in His name. They are also to act in accord with His character and His commands. As the apostle Paul put it, an earthly ruler is “… a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). If we do what is good we will “… have praise from the same” (Rom. 13:3). Earthly rulers are only “god-like” when they rule as God would rule.
Verse 6 also serves to remind human magistrates that they are in a position of authority because God appointed them (cf. Rom. 13:1). Often, when human rulers obtain power and prestige, they forget the source of their authority. Thus Nebuchadnezzar had to be humbled by living as a beast:
“King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:31b-32).
It is possible that the second line of verse 6 is the kind of (synonymous) poetic parallelism which merely restates the thought of the first in different words. I am inclined to think that the second line builds upon the first. While the first line addresses only the rulers, the second broadens the scope of God’s warning to include the entire community of Israel (“all of you”). Now, of course, this may mean “all of you rulers.” I am inclined to think that the condemnation of the earlier verses is being broadened to include all of the people of Israel. After all, how can men be leaders unless there be followers? Many passages place responsibility for just rulers and just rule on all of Israel, not just on its leadership.
“You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice” (Exod. 23:1-2).
“You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the word of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:18-20).
These passages teach that the responsibility for godly leadership rests upon the community. The people as a whole have an obligation to make sure that godly leaders are appointed. They must resist peer pressure and stand alone, if necessary, in upholding righteousness.
I believe that while God appoints certain men to lead, He expects all of His people to be leaders when it comes to doing what is right. God created man to rule over His creation (Gen. 1:26, 28). Even after the fall of man and the flood, man was still commanded to rule, since he remained a creation in God’s image (Gen. 9:1-7). If Israel would but obey, God promised to make His people a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). While this did not happen in Israel’s day, it is a promise partially fulfilled in the church (1 Pet. 2:5) and will be completely fulfilled in the Kingdom which is to come (cf. Rev. 1:6; 20:6). Not only did Israel as a nation have its rulers, Israel was to rule as a nation, seeking to practice and to promote God’s righteousness on the earth. In Hosea 4:6, Israel, as a nation, is rejected by God as His priest among the nations (cf. Exod. 19:6).
The expression “sons of the Most High” is, I believe, virtually equivalent to “son of God”. This phrase, while it applies specifically to Messiah, also refers to those who rule. God established a special relationship with David when He appointed him as king of Israel. The relationship between God and David was one of a father and a son:
“I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you” (2 Sam. 7:14-15).
Clearly, the father-son relationship here is between God and David and his sons (all of whom, except Christ, will sin). Sonship, ultimately, is conferred upon the Messiah, who will rule over the earth in righteousness:
I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Thy possession’ (Ps. 2:7-8).
Ultimately God will reign in the person of His Son, the Messiah. For now, He reigns through His “sons,” the “gods” who are appointed to reign in His stead. It must also be said, God is to reign in and through His people collectively. We who belong to Him are all His sons, destined to reign with Him in the future (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6), but also to actively promote righteousness now.
The kings of ancient days were frequently worshipped as “gods” (cf. Acts 12:22-23). Perhaps they viewed themselves as “gods,” too, but in a sense different from that conveyed in verse 6. Let such “heady” rulers remember they are only men and they will die like mere mortals.
Interestingly, the word “men” in verse 7 is adam in the Hebrew. He was created in the image of God and destined to rule over God’s creation. Had Adam obeyed God and carried out his calling, he would have lived forever. Due to his disobedience he failed to enjoy the high calling that was his. Let the rulers appointed by God learn from this. In spite of the dignity and power bestowed on them, they will be judged like men (and like Adam). They are, after all, mere men. In their pride this can easily be forgotten, just as we see in the case of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:28-37) and Herod (Acts 12:18-23). Like the princes before them who failed to remember their responsibility before God, the ungodly rulers of this Psalm will fall. The word “fall” in the second line of verse 7 may, as A. R. Fausset suggests, signify “God’s judgment by a violent death.”137 Such warning should serve to humble those who rule arrogantly. A high calling does not necessarily result in a glorious conclusion. Let those who have such a calling carry out their task with humility and diligence.
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is Thou who dost possess all the nations. (NASB)
Despite all the warnings of the first seven verses, the psalmist realizes that righteous rule will only prevail on the earth when God Himself reigns in the person of His Son, Messiah. Verse 8 concludes this psalm with a petition that the God who possesses the earth might establish righteousness fully and finally: “Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is Thou who dost possess all the nations.” This is the equivalent of what we read in the New Testament: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 7:10; cf. 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20).
The psalmist turns from the general subject of righteous rule to the specific solution: the Righteous Ruler. Only when He comes will there be a rule that is truly righteous. Here is the messianic hope of the Old Testament saint. Even the great kings like David and Solomon fell short of God’s ideal. Messiah Himself must come before the ideal government will become a reality.
Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? (John 10:34).
John’s purpose in writing his gospel is explicitly stated to be that of convincing his readers of the deity of Christ (20:30-31). In order to do this John recorded a series of signs (cf. 20:30) which led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus was not only God, but also Israel’s Messiah. As the evidence mounts in this gospel, so does the opposition. While the disciples soon began to believe in Jesus (cf. 1:49; 2:11), the scribes and Pharisees quickly rejected Him, especially after the cleansing of the temple (2:14-22). Early on, the Jewish rulers sought to put Jesus to death, and each new confrontation with Him only added to their determination (5:18).
With this growing opposition there was an accompanying polarization among the people. The division became wider and wider: “The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’” (6:52) As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him any more (6:66).
And there was much grumbling among the multitudes concerning Him; some were saying, “He is a good man”; others were saying, “No, on the contrary, He leads the multitude astray.” Yet no one was speaking openly of Him for fear of the Jews (7:12-13).
Therefore some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is this not the man whom they are seeking to kill? And look, He is speaking publicly, and they are saying nothing to Him. The rulers do not really know that this is the Christ, do they? (7:25-26).
They were seeking therefore to seize Him; and no man laid his hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come. But many of the multitude believed in Him; and they were saying, “When the Christ shall come, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” (7:30-31).
Some of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.” Others were saying, “This is the Christ.” Still others were saying, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?” … So there arose a division in the multitude because of Him (7:40-41, 43).
There arose a division again among the Jews because of these words. And many of them were saying, “He has a demon, and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?” Others were saying, “These are not the sayings of one demon-possessed. A demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?” (10:19-21).
While some had come to believe Jesus was the promised Messiah, many had chosen to follow their leaders in rejecting Him. The feeding of the five thousand and giving sight to the man born blind failed to convince the critics of our Lord. While they attributed His miracles to demonic powers (8:48; 10:20), His teaching they considered outright blasphemy. In John 8:58 Jesus claimed to be the “I AM” of the Old Testament, and therefore the Jews attempted to stone Him (8:59). Jesus’ claims continued. In chapter nine He taught that He was the “light of the world” (v. 5). In chapter ten He said, “I and the Father are one” (v. 30).
One of the central issues involved in the conflict between our Lord and the religious leadership of the nation was who had the authority to lead. They quickly noted that Jesus was gathering disciples and baptizing them, even more than John the Baptist (John 4:1-2). Jesus claimed His authority to judge came from the Father (5:22,27,30). Jesus accused his opponents of judging “according to appearance” rather than “with righteous judgment” (7:24). The scribes and Pharisees sought to condemn the woman caught in adultery (8:4-5), but Jesus refused to condemn her (8:10-11). He then accused the Jewish leaders of judging “according to the flesh” (8:15), while He judged according to truth (8:16,26). When the blind man was given sight, the judgment controversy again surfaced:
And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind.” Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things, and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” (9:39-40).
In John 10 our Lord boldly spoke forth, identifying Himself as the Messiah and the Good Shepherd. He also made it clear that the religious leaders who had rejected Him were the evil shepherds, like those depicted centuries earlier by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 34). God promised to come and to judge between the sheep, and to set up one shepherd over His flock:
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another. Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:20-23).
When our Lord announced that He was the Shepherd, the good One, He identified Himself as the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.138 He also identified His opponents, the religious leaders of the nation Israel, as the shepherds who dominated and abused the flock, rather than caring for the weak and the sickly (Ezek. 34:1-4). No wonder they reacted to Jesus’ teaching so violently and wanted to stone Him (John 10:31,39).
When accused of blasphemy, Jesus based His defense on the statement quoted from Psalm 82:6: “I said, you are gods.” This was no time for clever tricks or weak arguments. When Jesus referred to this psalm, He did so, I believe, because no passage argued His case more forcefully. It is not just that one verse, but the argument of the entire psalm upon which Jesus rested His defense. Psalm 82 warned the unrighteous judges (leaders) of Israel of God’s impending judgment upon them. When Jesus appealed to this psalm He not only identified Himself as the fulfillment of verse 8, He also identified them as the fulfillment of verses 1-7. The warning of the psalm was being fulfilled in their midst. God had finally come to judge the “gods.” How much better the name God suited Jesus than the title “gods” suited the scribes and the Pharisees.
To have understood the message of Psalm 82 and our Lord’s application of it would have been to bow the knee to Him as the Son of God, the promised Messiah. To reject this message was to reject the Messiah, which, in fact, many did. No one better interpreted or applied Psalm 82 than our Lord. No one better fulfilled it than He.
The relevance of Psalm 82 to the people of our Lord’s day is now obvious. The people must ascertain the person and character of the Righteous Judge. Either the religious leaders were correct (and Jesus must be put to death) or Jesus is God’s Righteous Ruler (and the Jewish leaders must be rejected). Even today, men must make the same decision. Either we bow the knee now to the Lord Jesus as our Savior, or we will bow the knee to Him as our Judge (Phil. 2:9-11). Let us do so now, so that we will not stand before Him condemned.
There are other applications for us as well. Let me suggest three areas to which Psalm 82 speaks. First, this psalm should serve as a somber warning to all who lead, regardless of the level of leadership. I fear that many seek leadership positions for the power and the prestige they seem to offer. There is, Psalm 82 informs us, power and authority invested in leaders. That is part of the reason why the word elohim is employed in the psalm. However, the authority and power of leadership is not ours; it is God’s. To fail to exercise our God-given power consistent with God’s character and commands is to fall under His judgment. Let those of us who lead do so with “fear and trembling”. Also, let us remember that power has been given, not so much for our benefit, as for the protection of those who are weak and oppressed. The measure of any leader’s effectiveness is his protection and care for the weak. In short, leaders are called of God to serve others, not to be served, even as our Lord came to serve at the sacrifice of His life (Mark 10:45).
Second, there is a lesson here for those who are under authority. I have personally gained a new appreciation for the dignity of the office God has given leaders. In Ephesians Paul exhorts wives to submit to their own husbands as “to the Lord” (5:22), and slaves to submit to their masters as “to Christ” (6:5). Peter, in urging wives to submit to their husbands, refers to Sarah, who expressed her submission to Abraham by calling him “lord” (1 Pet. 3:6). All of this causes me to think that submission to God-given authorities involves a deeper reverence or respect than I have been inclined to suppose in the past. We are not to respect or reverence earthly authorities as God, but given the teaching of the Bible we do need to see them in the light of their God-given position and power. For me, this requires more respect than I have heretofore given.
Furthermore, Psalm 82 also warns me about following the right leaders. While God holds leaders accountable for their administration, He also holds me accountable for following them, in particular, when they are wrong and I know it. I understand Jesus to be warning His listeners about following their leaders when He cited Psalm 82:6. The nation Israel had a choice to make. Would they follow their leaders in rejecting Christ and putting Him to death, or would they follow the Good Shepherd? The pattern of the Scriptures, as I understand them, is that we ought not attempt the overthrow of a corrupt government, but that we must refuse to obey it when its commands are contrary to the revealed word of God (cf. Dan. 3:13-18; 6:10; Acts 5:29).
Strange as it may seem, Psalm 82 has something to say to us about church discipline. The church members are “gods” in the same way that Israel’s leaders were, because we are assigned the responsibility of acting in God’s behalf when church members willfully disregard God’s word and the warning of fellow saints. With this is mind, look once more at our Lord’s words to His church:
“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:15-20).
Are we not taught that we are to act for God in this matter of correction and that God is intimately involved with the decisions of the church in the discipline of willful members of His body, the church? I believe that this is what Paul practiced in 1 Corinthians 5:5-6 when he turned a sinful member over to Satan in “the name of our Lord Jesus.” Church discipline is essential because God has instructed us to act in His behalf when fellow Christians fail to heed God’s word. To fail to obey God in this unpleasant task is to misrepresent the character of God and to disobey His command to us to reflect His holiness by dealing with sin in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:6-8).
Finally, I see a very clear command that we, as Christians (and thus, sons of God), must be concerned about social justice. James puts it this way: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
While Christians have often been at the forefront of the cause of the poor and the oppressed throughout history, it is amazing to me that many Christians today are apathetic about social justice. The reasons are various. Some shy away from it because the “liberals” are taking up the banner of social justice. Others seem to be passive because they view the time immediately preceding Christ’s return as days of apostasy and social decadence (Paul believed this too, cf. 2 Tim. 3:1-13, and so do I). They therefore seem to stand idly by, as mere spectators, often delighted by what they see, for they feel it must mean that our Lord’s return is near.
Let me remind you that the psalmist also believed in the coming of Christ. This was something for which he prayed (v. 8). Nevertheless, this did not deter him from warning unrighteous rulers, nor did he hold back from exhorting leaders to look out for the needs of the weak and the oppressed (vv. 3-4). Indeed, even in the darkest hours of man’s history, before the return of our Lord, it is the treatment of the oppressed which serves as the standard for spirituality (Matt. 25:31-46).
I sometimes hear my Christian brothers and sisters bemoaning the fact that our country allows refugees to settle here, away from the ravages of war and political persecution. I do not mean to say that there are no good reasons for excluding some from coming to our country. What I am asking you to seriously consider is whether your reasons for opposing them are biblical, in the light of our study.
My political convictions, quite honestly, are somewhat to the right in the spectrum. I am not opposed to “Reaganomics” as many are. Yet, I want to suggest that some who cite conservative politics as their defense for cutting “social justice” matters out of the budget may be doing so for reasons which Psalm 82 condemns.
I understand that these matters are both sensitive and a matter of deep conviction. I simply urge you, regardless of your political and economic point of view to evaluate your positions in the light of the command to care for the weak and the oppressed. This is what rulers of days gone by failed to do. This is why our Lord came the first time. This is why He will come again as the Righteous Ruler. Even so, come Lord Jesus.
127 “The word nitzabh denotes a deliberate and formal act, connected with a definite purpose. I Sam. 19:20.” J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, l972), II, p. 105.
128 “The word ‘edah is frequently applied to the congregation of Israel as such.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1969), p. 594. [Israel is called the ‘congregation of Jehovah’ in Num. 27:17; 31:16; Josh. 22:16-17.]
129 “In more recent years scholars have tended to identify the ‘elohim with the national gods of the various peoples of the world, who have been demoted to the position of Yahweh’s servants …” A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), II, p. 592.
Such “gods” however do not exist, nor are they responsible for administering justice on the earth. How can a non-existent god be summoned to judgment or be threatened with death? How then can our Lord possibly use this psalm, thus interpreted, to prove His deity?
131 “… these ‘gods’ are ‘principalities and powers’, ‘the world rulers of this present darkness’ (cf. Eph. 6:12). … On the whole this view seems truer than the former to the language of the psalm (e.g. verse 7) and to the occasional Old Testament use of the term ‘gods’ or ‘sons of God’ for angels (see on Ps. 8:5; cf. Jb. 1:6; 38:7).” Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), p. 297.
While Kidner’s argument is based upon a sound effort to define the term “gods” from usage elsewhere in the Old Testament, it hardly gives good sense to the psalm, and it seems inconsistent with the argument which our Lord develops from the psalm in John 10. Kirkpatrick’s rebuttal of the view held by Kidner is forceful: “The idea that angels can be punished with death is startling, and foreign to the O. T. view of angelic nature. … There is not the slightest hint that vv. 2-4 refer to anything but the oppression of men by men. The language, as has been pointed out above, closely resembles that of the Law and the Prophets, and there is no reason for taking it in a non-natural sense.” Kirkpatrick, p. 495.
132 Leupold says this psalm “… presents a judgment pronounced by the Lord on the judges or rulers of Israel. For in Israel the term judges had practically the same meaning as the term rulers, the Israelite usage being derived from the chief function of rulers. … Up to about seventy years ago there was a practical unanimity in the church as to the interpretation of this psalm, commentators being agreed that it treated the subject just as we have just indicated.” Leupold, p. 592.
134 The word here rendered “gods” is elim, not elohim. These two words are related, but not identical. Kirkpatrick remarks, “Elim, however is not so used elsewhere, and may simply mean ‘mighty ones.’” Kirkpatrick, p. 327.
135 “Stands” here is a translation of the Hebrew word, ‘omed, and is therefore not the same word as in Psalm 82:1. The force of the two is nearly the same, however, a fact which Perowne notes. Cf. Perowne, p. 105.
136 “Shaphat,” Robert D. Culver, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), II, p. 947. This is an excellent article (pp. 947-949), which I highly recommend for your reading.
138 Luke introduced our Lord as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord’” (Luke 4:17-19). Here, Jesus identified Himself as the Messiah, Israel’s ideal leader. The thrust of His ministry was to do the very things which the wicked rulers of Israel (as indicated in Psalm 82) had failed to do.