Psalm 82 is one of my favourite psalms. It is short, sweet, theologically irregular, but very much to the narrative-historical point, at least as I understand things. Oddly, it is quoted only once in the New Testament, but it encapsulates what would be a key New Testament affirmation—that the God of Israel would sooner or later seize control of the nations from the pagan gods. It also pops up to similar effect in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so we’ll have a look at that passage too.
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!
The Psalm depicts a judgment of the gods. God (ʾĕlōhîm) has taken his seat in the divine council and accuses the assembled gods (ʾĕlōhîm) of malpractice: they have judged falsely, they have shown favouritism to the wicked when they should have defended the rights of the vulnerable and downtrodden.
These are the gods of the nations, and as members of the divine council they are “sons of the Most High” (cf. Ps. 89:6-7). We get this from Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
The idea is also found in Psalm 89:6-7: “Who among the [sons of God] is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?” (modified ESV). It is probably this understanding of the “godhead”, rather than some sort of proto-trinitarianism, that accounts for the “Let us make man in our image…” of Genesis 1:26.
Because the gods have governed unjustly, however, they will die like mortal men, like any prince they will fall. Eventually, the only true and righteous God will tear down the structures of pagan belief. The gods will vanish in a puff of disbelief.
The Psalm concludes with the confident appeal: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!”. The point is clear: the God of Israel is God of the whole earth, but the hope of the Psalmist is that he will one day take possession of the nations which currently worship a bunch of corrupt and incompetent deities. One day the God of Israel will be explicitly confessed as Lord by the idolatrous nations which have oppressed his people (cf. Is. 45:22-23).
Psalm 82 at Qumran
The Qumran sectarians regarded themselves as the ”inheritance of Melchizedek” (11Q13 2:4-5). A new Melchizedek would restore them in the last days, proclaiming the jubilee, and thereby “releasing th[em from the debt of a]ll their sins” (2:5-6; the square brackets indicate damage to the Hebrew text); and on the Day of Atonement he would atone for them. This is the time decreed for “the year of Melchiz[edek]’s favour” and ‘for a kingdom of judgment, just as it is written concerning him (ʿalay) in the Songs of David, “A godlike being (ʾĕlōhîm) has taken his place in the coun[cil of God;] in the midst of the divine beings (ʾĕlōhîm) he holds judgment”’ (2:9–10).
In this translation it sounds as though Melchizedek is directly identified (“it is written concerning him…”) with “God” (ʾĕlōhîm) who stands in the divine council. Some scholars have suggested, therefore, that the passage has important christological implications, particularly given the association of Jesus with Melchizedek in the New Testament.
The writer, however, is primarily concerned about the time when “Belial and the spirits predestined to him” will be judged. Belial is the Satan figure behind Roman opposition to Israel. It seems to me likely, therefore, that we should translate the prepositional phrase ʿalay as “concerning it” (referring to “the time decreed”, which is also masculine) rather than “concerning him” in verse 10. So: concerning this time it has been written that God will stand in the divine council and judge Belial and his hordes. But he will do so by the agency of this human Melchizedek figure, who will lead the sectarians in the final battle against Rome.
The end of a world
Perhaps the clearest expression of this broad conviction in the New Testament is given to Paul by Luke at the climax of his Areopagus speech:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (oikoumenē) in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)
Like the Qumran community Paul believed that the God of Israel would soon—or soonish—judge the nations, and the spiritual forces behind them, through the agency of a man whom he had appointed.
For the sectarians this man was the priest-king Melchizedek, who would lead the Sons of Light in battle against Rome, backed up by angelic armies.
For Paul the coming judgment of Greek-Roman civilisation had already been secured through the suffering of the man Jesus, but the judgment itself—the historical putting right—still lay ahead. So he quotes Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12). At the parousia Jesus would come in glory to defeat his enemies, to vindicate his servants, to be acclaimed by the peoples of the Greek-Roman, and to establish his own rule over the nations to the glory of the God of Israel (eg., Phil. 2:11; 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 14-17; 2 Thess. 1:9-10; 2:8; cf. Rev. 11:15-18).
Gods and the Son of God
Sadly, Psalm 82 does not feature in this apocalyptic narrative of judgment and kingdom. We find reference to it only in John 10, where it serves a different purpose. Jesus claims to be one with the Father, the Jews threaten to stone him, he asks them why, they say it is because he makes himself God, so he answers 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 consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34–36)
A popular understanding of this peculiar statement runs something like this: the phrase “gods, sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82 is a reference not to divine beings but to the people of Israel, to whom the Word of God came at Sinai; but if scripture calls the Jews “gods”, why are they so offended if he claims to be the Son of God? As it is, he is simply doing the works of the Father.
This is very unsatisfactory, not least because it seems to mean that Jesus has either misunderstood or taken liberties with the Psalm. For orthodoxy it raises the further problem that it sets Jesus’ “divinity” more or less on the same level the Jews’ divinity.
Better, therefore, to suppose that Jesus indeed had in mind the divine council. The Psalm records the “word of God” which came to the assembled “gods” of the council. In the Psalm this was a “word” of judgment: they had failed miserably, therefore they would be destroyed. The Jesus of John’s Gospel may only have meant, more generally, that in the divine council the word or command or instruction of God came to the gods.
The immediate controversy with the Jews has to do with whether Jesus was speaking and acting with the authority of the Father. Some thought that he was demon-possessed or insane, others thought it unlikely that a demon would open the eyes of the blind (Jn. 10:20-21). Some heard his voice and followed, others did not (10:25-27).
So if he claims to be the Son of God, he means that he has been “consecrated and sent into the world” (10:36) by God (or, if we prefer a somewhat higher christology here, from the divine council) with the same sort of authority and mandate that the “gods” received. The difference is that whereas the “gods” were corrupt, Jesus was one with the Father and fulfilled the Father’s will.