Judges Judged (Psalm 82:1–8)

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President al-Bashir of Sudan was recently in South Africa for the annual meeting of the African Union. He has been implicated for genocide in that part of our continent. A warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Bashir came to South Africa with our government’s full awareness of the matter. After the meeting, he boarded his plane and left Waterkloof Air Base. He arrived in Khartoum, making a mockery of justice—not only international justice, but particularly of justice in South Africa.

Without getting into all the politics of the matter (diplomatic immunity for AU participants while in SA; the legitimacy of the ICC; Bashir’s previous jet setting around the continent with impunity; etc.) the matter of injustice looms loud and clear.

We learned with horror recently of nine people murdered while attending a Bible study at a local church in the United States. President Obama lamented and denounced this senseless killing. Rightly so. But this was coming from a man who has done everything in his power to protect the “right” of a mother to kill her unborn child. Where is the justice?

Back home, where is the daily justice in our country? On almost any day of the week week you can read of someone being sentenced for murder or rape, and most of those sentences are hugely short of true biblical justice.

Daily, we read of corruption in our society, and, of course, government officials are not immune to this moral blot on our nation. And what of our unjust tax system? To all of these things, we can rightly ask the question, where is the justice?

But, as Christians, hopefully we are doing more than simply complaining. Rather we should be doing at least three things. First, we should be praying about this. We should be asking God to bring justice to bear on our land and in our world. Second, we should be doing justly ourselves. Third, along with the above, we should be anticipating the justice that one day King Jesus will bring to earth. These words are appropriate: “Our Lord’s prayer (“your kingdom come”) is most appropriate whenever we experience injustice. Calvin comments, ‘It is therefore our bounden duty to beseech him to restore to order what is embroiled in confusion.’”1

A proper understanding of Psalm 82 should help us with all three of these.

The Setting

The setting of this psalm is a courtroom. God is on the bench and earthly judges, appointed by Him, are in the dock. God is taking His appointed rulers to court; particularly the leaders (rulers/judges) of His people, Israel. “God has the authority to call ‘the gods’ (v. 1) of the nations to account.”2

Was this a particular occasion or a continuous scene envisioned by the writer? Probably the latter. Kidner concludes, “As to the occasion, this is ‘continuous assessment,’ dramatized as a single scene in court.”3 In other words this is the record of an ongoing evaluation by the King of kings.

The judges are accused of unfaithfulness, of dereliction of duty. They are threatened with judgement for their miscarriage of justice.

Of course, when you examine Israel’s history, this scene could have happened in numerous eras. The point, however, is that God appoints rulers, who are accountable to Him. Further, though human rulers will fail us, there is coming a day when God will right all wrongs.

The psalm can be divided into four broad sections.

God’s Arraignment

The psalm begins by picturing God’s arraignment. Court is in session. Let’s take our seat in the gallery, listen and learn.

God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods. 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.

(Psalm 82:1–4)

God Assembles

The psalm opens with God gathering “the congregation of the mighty.” The word “mighty” refers to the “gods” mentioned later in the verse. Who are these “gods,” just where is this assembly, and exactly why are they assembled?

The word translated “gods” is elohim in the Hebrew. The word can refer to deity, as in the true God, but it can also refer to other “deities,” as in false gods, idols.

Some believe that this assembly is a poetic picture of Yahweh condemning the mythological gods of the Canaanites. The idea is that our God is condemning the injustice that occurs when a culture embraces false gods. Though no doubt that such a corrupt culture does, in fact, arise from such false worship; nevertheless, for several reasons, it seems that this is not the point being made here. There is a better explanation, and one that was particularly fitting for the nation of Israel.

The word Elohim, and thus “gods,” must here refer to the judges or rulers of Israel. There is precedent for this. The point being made is that those who are appointed by God to rule are exercising the role of God as ruler. For example, note the following:

1 Chronicles 29:23—Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him.

Exodus 22:28—You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.

Deuteronomy 1:17—You shall not show partiality in judgement; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man’s presence, for the judgement is God’s.

Exodus 21:6—Then his master shall bring him to the judges [elohim]. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

Exodus 22:8–9—If the thief is not found, then the master of the house shall be brought to the judges [elohim] to see whether he has put his hand into his neighbour’s goods. For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which another claims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges [elohim]; and whomever the judges [elohim] condemn shall pay double to his neighbour.

2 Chronicles 19:6–7—[Jehoshaphat] said to the judges, “Take heed to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgement. Now therefore, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care and do it, for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, no partiality, nor taking of bribes.”

We can conclude that the picture is of God judging His appointed judges. God is judging the “gods” who, though they have an exalted position (as God’s representatives), are nevertheless but mere men (v. 7).

This highlights the fundamentally important principle that all authorities are appointed by God and are accountable to God. They have “a power delegated by the supreme Ruler of the world.”4

In addition to the texts cited above, also note Daniel 4:25, 34 and Romans 13:1–7.

By implication, this has much to say both to those leading (they are accountable to God) as well as to those who are being led (they are accountable to God and to God’s rulers). This psalm emphases the former. Kidner aptly summarises, “With its bold, dramatic form this judgment scene brings some clarity to a confused human situation. It takes us in a few words behind and beyond our present wrongs, to portray God’s unbounded jurisdiction, His delegation of power, His diagnosis of our condition and His drastic intentions.”5

God’s Assessment

Next, we are reminded that “God is the guardian of justice, He watches over the administration of it.”6 “He judges among the gods,” says the psalmist.

If rulers and leaders (including not only government officials but also husbands, parents, pastors, etc.) lived coram deo (before the face of God), then justice would “run down like water” and righteousness would flow “like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Alas, it is not so.

God does assess everyone whom He appoints to lead others. Though rulers may not pay God any regard as they enact their policies, render their verdicts and accept their bribes, nevertheless God is very aware. He watches those who are His appointed ministers. God assesses whether His rulers obey His rules.

What a change this would bring in the lives of those who are given the responsibility to rule. As David wrote long ago, “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me: ‘He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God’” (2 Samuel 23:3).

God Accuses

The indictment is made, God’s “gods” are grievous: “How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?” The rulers are guilty of injustice, and most likely they are guilty of greed, for they are accused of showing “partiality to the wicked.” Apparently, this has been going on for a long time (“how long”).

Though, no doubt, the immediate concern is with reference to political and juridical leadership, nevertheless each of us who is in a position of leadership needs to take a “selah” right here. We need to pause and ponder how we are “ruling” over others. Are we behaving justly? Partially? Greedily? Faithfully before God and men? Parents, are you showing partiality? Are you fair in the way that you deal with your children? Husbands, are you harsh and unreasonable toward your wife? Do you lay unbiblical demands of submission upon her? Elders, are you available to your congregation? Do you show partiality? Do you lay unbiblical expectations upon the sheep? Are you biblical in the judgements you exercise?

God’s Assignment

In vv. 3–4, God issues an assignment to His “gods”: “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.”

Here, we have a record of what God had assigned His judges to do, and obviously their guilt (v. 2) was in connection with failing here. Evidently, they did the opposite of these instructions. This was not the first time that they had heard these words, and it wouldn’t be the last.

This is a good place to pause to consider what God expects of human government. If government functioned in a biblical manner, think of the blessings we would experience!

In short, we can say that the biblical responsibility of human government is the safety and security of its citizens. I do not mean this only militarily, but in a number of ways.

Boice writes, “The duties of the civil rulers are twofold: (1) to establish, promote, and maintain justice and (2) to defend citizens from aggression, both from within and from without, from enemies.” He then adds that “these judges had done neither. They had failed on both counts.”7

More succinctly, “The four imperatives—‘defend [lit. ‘judge’] … maintain the rights … Rescue … deliver’—summarize what God expects.”8

There is much that we could lament about our own government’s failure with reference to their God-given assignment. Both apartheid and post-apartheid governments failed and are failing to be just towards the poor, and particularly to the fatherless. South Africa has absurd laws hindering adoptions of orphans, and surely God is not pleased. There is an inept criminal justice system, which results in further affliction to the already afflicted. Many government officials seem to be riding the gravy train on the backs of the poor.

But consider the corporate and business community as well. In many instances, we see absurd executive salaries, while the average worker is paid peanuts. But before we become too critical of the big corporates, what about us? Do we pay a just wage to those in our employ?

God’s Answer

God reaches a conclusion in v. 5: “They do not know, nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are unstable.”

This case will not be decided by a jury of peers, but rather by the Judge whose righteous judgements are peerless. The Judge has considered the evidence, and now He proclaims His verdict respecting the condition of the rulers. And it is neither pretty nor hopeful. As Leupold comments, “The Lord observes that His rebukes are going unheeded. The public rebuke of the unjust judges in the assembly of God leaves them untouched.”9

The conclusion is that the judges, the rulers, those appointed by God to lead His people, are ignorant and inept, and the result is the ongoing implosion of society.

Ignorance

Yahweh concludes that the “gods” simply “do not know, nor do they understand” how to rule effectively. They just don’t get it. It is ignorance born of rebellion. Solomon observed the corruption that pervades a morally ignorant government when he wrote, “If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). The assumption becomes, “That’s just the way it is.”

The people they are leading are almost ready to pull their hair out (and, perhaps, that of their leaders!) because of the inanity of leadership decisions. The ignorance is obvious to all who have eyes to see. They do not see the obvious illogical conclusions and policies they make. And so the injustice continues.

We see this all around us today. As one example, consider how ardently abortion on demand is protected by law in many countries, and yet those same countries have stringent foetal homicide laws. It makes no sense, but the leaders are blind to the contradiction.

Ineptness

The incompetence of the “gods” is highlighted next: “They walk about in darkness.” They are the blind leading the blind, and both are falling into the ditch of a lack of progress.

Here, one might think of things like inflation, which is the result of governments not dealing properly with financial problems but instead just printing more money. It’s an inept way of dealing with deep financial concerns, and it ultimately just produces further pressure for a country’s citizens.

Failed policing produces much the same. Legislation is passed but not enforced and evildoers simply persist in their wickedness, with negative consequences for the population at large.

Instability

The point is that ignorance and ineptness yield great instability: “All the foundations of the earth are unstable.” The net effect is that the foundations of the nation are so shaken that a societal and ethical collapse is imminent. “The principles upon which the moral order of the world is based are imperilled.”10

Familial, economic, educational, judicial and political implosion is around the corner. After all, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). I’m glad you asked: In a moment, I will show you!

This is precisely where we are today, not only in South Africa, but in most of the world. It would be good for us to get over the greener grass syndrome. Erma Bombeck was right: The grass is always greener over the septic tank!

We can learn a couple of valuable lesson from our current situation.

First, in spite of the failure of our leaders, they are still God’s appointed leaders and we must show respect to their position. Be very careful—very careful—how you speak about them. Name-calling will land you before the same Judge to whom they are accountable.

Second, guard your heart when it comes to criticising the decisions of our leaders. Be honest: Is there any racism in it? It is all too easy for white South Africans to criticise a predominantly black government out of racist motives.

Third, let us be persuaded that there is only one way to produce a wise, efficient, effective and stable society: by the application of God’s law. The current confusion that so many Christians have about the validity of God’s law for governments is frustratingly inexcusable. Yes I know that government cannot save you.11 I don’t expect it to. But what I cannot understand is why Christians think that a government will do a better job of leading by their own social contract rather than by the Sovereign’s commands? We need clear and confident thinking here. Christians really do have the answers!

God’s Anger

In the third major division of the psalm, we see God’s anger clearly portrayed: “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’” (vv. 6–7). God is angry with the wicked every day. And I think that He is especially angry with wicked leaders. We see some of this here in these two verses.

One of the major reasons why I believe the word “gods” (vv. 1, 6) refers to human rulers is because Jesus quotes v.6 in John 10:34–35 and there makes it clear that “gods” refers to a certain group of people. His point was that if God referred to some people as “gods,” then why should they be surprised that the prophesied Messiah—the God-Man—would call Himself the Son of God? As Westcott helpfully notes, “The fact that it was possible for men to so represent God as to be called gods or divine was a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. There lay already in the Law the germ of truth which Christ announced, the union of God and man.”10

The point the writer makes here is not that these judges were anything but mere men; rather, having been given such an honourable position to be a representative of God, their fall will therefore be hard—very hard. As Boice soberly puts it, “In spite of the fact that these wicked men have considered themselves to be virtually invincible because of their high office, they will die just like anybody else. They will fall just like any other ruler.”13 And Luther noted, “God himself … will judge, punish, and correct them; and if they do not obey, they will not escape.”13

Those who do not rule men in the fear of God will go down hard by the hand of God. Like the devil, they will experience a great condemnation as they fall far and very hard. This may happen in their lifetime, and it may not. But certainly it will occur at the final judgement.

God’s Assurance

C. S. Lewis observed long ago that “the Psalms … are full of the longing for judgement, and regard the announcement that ‘judgement’ is coming as good news.”15 So this one. It concludes with an appeal for God’s judgement: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for You shall inherit all nations” (v. 8). We find in this appeal an anticipation of His just rule to one day be executed and effected; not only in Israel but among all of the nations.

This, of course, is our only hope, yet it is an assured ultimate hope as well. The day is coming when justice will flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. One day, Jesus will return and set all wrongs to the right. Boice asks, “Is this a prayer for God’s intervention in history in what we call the Last Judgment, when he will pour out his wrath upon all evildoers?” He answers, “Probably. But it is also a prayer that justice might be done by God through his people.”16

We need to consider that we who have been vindicated by the Judge can, should and must exercise His justice now. The gospel changes people and it can change peoples.

As noted above, Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6, not to mystify the Pharisees, but rather to make the point that He is the Messiah. But consider that, by doing so, He was making the claim that He is the ultimate ruler, the ultimate judge. He is the ultimate leader, for He is not a “god” but rather the God!

With Jesus Christ as our ruler, judge and leader, we will always receive fairness and justice. So, imagine a culture where His lordship and leadership is joyfully embraced. The result will be a culture of biblical prosperity. But this need not be a mere pipe dream. No, as disciples are made and as nations are discipled, we can expect God to stand in the congregation of the mighty with words of commendation rather than with a verdict of condemnation.

There is hope, in other words, because of the gospel. So let’s spread this message, let’s live out the implications of this message and, motivated by this message, let us pray for the justice of Jesus.

Show 16 footnotes

  1. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:536.
  2. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:534.
  3. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:298.
  4. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 495.
  5. Kidner, Psalms, 2:296.
  6. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 595.
  7. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:676.
  8. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:534.
  9. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 595.
  10. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 497.
  11. John F. MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000).
  12. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 497.
  13. Boice, Psalms, 2:676.
  14. Boice, Psalms, 2:676.
  15. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co, 1961), 16.
  16. Boice, Psalms, 2:679.