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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 82

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


This, too, is a “Psalm of Asaph.” See Introduction to Psalms 73:0. There is nothing, however, in its contents to determine the time or the occasion of its being composed, although there is no difficulty in ascertaining the design for which it was written, or the use to be made of it. It is intended to state the duties and the responsibilites of magistrates or civil rulers. Though the language is such as was adapted especially to the Hebrew magistracy, and to the duties of magistrates as specified in the Jewish law, yet the principles are such as should guide magistrates at all times and in all countries; and the truths suggested are such as are eminently worthy the attention of all who are entrusted with authority.

The psalm was evidently composed at a time when there was much that was unjust and oppressive in the administration of justice; when the magistrates were corrupt; when they could be bribed; when they were forgetful of their obligation to defend the poor and the fatherless - the afflicted and the needy; when manifest consequences of the evil administration of justice prevailed in the land, and “all the foundations of the earth” seemed to be “out of course;” and when those in power were haughty and arrogant, as if they were not people, and were not to die. DeWette supposes that the psalm was composed in the time of the Babylonian exile, and had reference to the conduct of the oppressive rulers in that land; but it is not necessary to suppose this. There were doubtless many occasions in the history of the Hebrew people when all that is here said of the conduct of their rulers and judges was applicable to them. Compare Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 1:23, Isaiah 1:26.

The contents of the psalm are as follows:

I. A reference to God as the Supreme Ruler; the Ruler of those that rule; the God to whom all magistrates, however exalted in rank, are responsible, Psalms 82:1.

II. A reference to the character of the magistrates at the time when the psalm was written, as those who judged unjustly; who were partial in the administration of justice; and who favored people of rank and position, Psalms 82:2.

III. A statement of the duties of magistrates, in reference particularly to the poor, the fatherless, the needy, and the afflicted, Psalms 82:3-4.

IV. A further statement in regard to the character of the magistrates at the time when the psalm was written, particularly as ignorant, and as walking in darkness, Psalms 82:5.

V. A solemn appeal to them as mortal people - as subject to death like others - though they had a rank which entitled them to the appellation of “gods,” and were the representatives of the Most High on earth, Psalms 82:6-7.

VI. A call on God to arise and to execute judgment in the earth, for he was the Supreme Ruler, and the nations, with all their interests, pertained to him, Psalms 82:8.

Verse 1

God standeth in the congregation of the mighty - In the assembly of the rulers and judges; among those of most exalted rank and station. He is there to observe them; to give them law; to direct their decisions; to judge them. He is supreme over them; and he holds them responsible to himself The word rendered congregation is that which is commonly applied to the assembly of the people of Israel, considered as an organized body, or as a body politic. It here, however, refers to magistrates considered as a body or class of people; as those who have assemblages or meetings, with special reference to their duties as magistrates. The word rendered “mighty” - אל 'Êl - is in the singular number, and is one of the names which are given to God; hence, the literal rendering is, “God standeth in the assembly of God.” The Septuagint renders it, In the synagogue of the gods. So also the Latin Vulgate. The reference, however, is undoubtedly to magistrates, and the idea is, that they were to be regarded as representatives of God; as acting in his name; and as those, therefore, to whom, in a subordinate sense, the name gods might be given. Compare Psalms 82:6. In Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9, Exodus 22:28, also, the same word in the plural is applied to magistrates, and is properly translated judges in our common version. Compare the notes at John 10:34-35. The idea is, that they were the representatives of the divine sovereignty in the administration of justice. Compare Romans 13:1-2, Romans 13:6. They were, in a sense, gods to other people; but they were not to forget that God stood among them as their God; that if they were exalted to a high rank in respect to their fellowmen, they were, nevertheless, subject to One to whom the name of God belonged in the highest sense.

He judgeth among the gods - As they to whom the name gods is thus given as the representatives of the divine sovereignty judged among people, so God would judge among them. If they were, in some sense (in consequence of their representing the divine majesty, and deriving their power and appointment from God), independent of people, they were in no sense independent of God himself.

Verse 2

How long will ye judge unjustly - literally, Judge evil. This is designed, evidently, to denote the prevailing character of the magistrates at the time when the psalm was written. Unhappily such occasions occur very often in the course of human affairs.

And accept the persons of the wicked? - literally, Lift up, or bear, the faces of the wicked. The meaning is, that they showed favor or partiality to wicked people; they did not decide cases according to truth, but were influenced by a regard for particular persons on account of their rank, their position, their wealth, or their relation to themselves. This is a common phrase in the Scriptures to denote favoritism or partiality. Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; 1 Peter 1:17; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17.

Verse 3

Defend the poor and fatherless - literally, judge; that is, Pronounce just judgment; see that right is done to them. This is required everywhere in the Scriptures. The meaning is not that judgment is to be pronounced in their favor because they are poor, or because they are orphans, for this would be to do what they had just been charged with as in itself wrong, accepting of persons; that is, showing favor on account of condition or rank, rather than on account of a just claim. The idea is, that the poor and the fatherless, having no natural protectors, were likely to be wronged or oppressed; that they had none to defend their claims; and that magistrates, therefore, as if they were their natural protectors, should see that their rights were maintained. See the notes at Isaiah 1:17.

Do justice to the afflicted and needy - See that justice is done them; that they are not wronged by persons of wealth, of power, and of rank. Such care does religion take of those who have no natural guardians. The poor and the needy - the widow and the fatherless - owe to the religion of the Bible a debt which no language can express.

Verse 4

Deliver the poor and needy - That is, Deliver them from the power and the arts of those who would oppress and wrong them. This would not be showing them partiality; it would be simply doing them justice.

Rid them out of the hand of the wicked - Deliver, or Rescue them from their hands; that is, from their attempts to oppress and wrong them.

Verse 5

They know not, neither will they understand - This is designed still further to characterize the magistrates at the time referred to in the psalm. They not merely judged unjustly, and were not merely partial in the administration of justice Psalms 82:2, but they did not desire to understand their duty, and the true principles on which justice should be administered. They were at no pains to inform themselves, either in regard to those principles, or in regard to the facts in particular cases. All just judgment must be based

(a) on a true knowledge of what the law is, or what is right; and

(b) on a knowledge of the facts in a particular case. Where there is no such knowledge, of course there must be a mal-administration of justice.

One of the first requisites, therefore, in a magistrate is, that he shall have a proper knowledge of the law; his duty is to ascertain the exact facts in each individual case that comes before him, and then impartially to apply the law to that case.

They walk on in darkness - In ignorance of the law and of the facts in the case.

All the foundations of the earth - See Psalms 11:3, note; Psalms 75:3, note. All settled principles; all the things on which the welfare of society rests; all on which the prosperity of the world depends. The manner in which justice is administered is as if the very foundations of the earth should be disturbed, and the world should move without order.

Are out of course - Margin, as in Hebrew, moved. That is, they are moved from their proper place; the earth no longer rests firmly and safely on its foundation. This language is taken from the idea so often occurring in the Scriptures, and in the language of people generally, that the earth rests on solid foundations - as a building does. The idea is derived from the stability and fixedness of the earth, and from the fact that when a building is fixed and stable we infer that it has a solid foundation. The thought here is, that a proper administration of justice is essential to the stability and prosperity of a state - as essential as a solid foundation is to the stability of the edifice which is reared on it. The effect of a real-administration of justice in any community may be well compared with what the result would be if the foundations of the earth should be removed, or if the laws which now keep it in its place should cease to operate.

Verse 6

I have said, Ye are gods - See the notes at Psalms 82:1. I have given you this title; I have conferred on you an appellation which indicates a greater nearness to God than any other which is bestowed on men - an appellation which implies that you are God’s representatives on earth, and that your decision is, in an important sense, to be regarded as his.

And all of you are children of the Most High - Sons of God. That is, You occupy a rank which makes it proper that you should be regarded as his sons.

Verse 7

But ye shall die like men - You are mortal, like other people. This fact you have forgotten. You have been lifted up with pride, as if you were in fact more exalted than other people; as if you were not subject to the law which consigns all people to the grave. An ancient monarch directed his servant to address him each morning in this language: “Remember, sire, that thou art mortal.” No more salutary truth can be impressed on the minds of the rich and the great than that they are, in this respect, like other people - like the poorest, the meanest of the race: that they will die under similar forms of disease; that they will experience the same pain; that all which is fearful in death will be their portion as well as that of the most obscure; and that in the grave, with whatever pomp and splendor they descend to it, or however magnificent the monument which may be reared over the spot where they lie, there will be the same offensive and repulsive process of decay which occurs in the most humble grave in the country churchyard. Why, then - oh, why - should man be proud?

And fall like one of the princes - And die as one of the princes. The idea in the word fall may be, perhaps, that they would die by the hand of violence - or be cut down, as princes often are, e. g. in battle. The use of the word princes here denotes that they would die as other persons of exalted rank do; that is, that they were mortal as all people, high and low, are - as common people are, and as princes are. Though they had names - אל 'Êl, and אלהים 'Elohiym - that suggested the idea of divinity, yet such appellations did not make any real change in their condition as people, and as subject to the ordinary laws under which people live. Whatever name they bore. it did not afford any security against death.

Verse 8

Arise, O God, judge the earth - That is, Since there is such a failure in the administration of justice by those to whom it pertains, and who are appointed to do it in thy stead, do thou, O God, come forth thyself, and see that justice is executed among people. Do thou take the matter into thine own hands, and see that impartial justice is done everywhere among people. It pertains to thee as the great Proprietor of the earth to exercise justice; and we have nowhere else to look when men fail to do their duty.

For thou shalt inherit all nations - Or rather, All nations belong to thee as thine inheritance; that is, as thine own. The word “inherit” is used here, as it often is, merely to denote possession or proprietorship, without reference to the question how the possession is obtained. The word strictly refers to what has been received from parents, or what people are heirs to; and, in this sense, it is commonly applied to the land of Palestine, either as what was derived by the Jewish people from their ancestors the patriarchs, or as what they had received from God as a Father. Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:38; Deuteronomy 12:10. It is here used simply in the sense of possessing it. That is, the whole earth belonged to God, and the administration of its affairs pertained to him. As those had failed who had been appointed under him to the office of judges - as they had not been faithful to their trust - as no confidence could be reposed in them, - the psalmist calls upon God to interfere, either by appointing other magistrates; or by leading those who were in office to just views of their duty; or by his own direct judgments, punishing the wicked, and rewarding the righteous, by the interpositions of his providence. We may hence learn

(1) That there are times on earth when wickedness is so prevalent, and when there is such a want of faithfulness in civil rulers, that we have no other resource but to call upon God to interpose.

(2) That it is right to call upon Him to see that justice should be done in the earth even in the punishment of the guilty, since all the interests of society depend on the proper administration of justice.

(3) For the same reason it is right to pray that God would judge the world, and that justice may be done on the human race.

It is desirable and proper that justice should be done; hence, there is no malignity in desiring that there may be a universal judgment, and that the affairs of the universe should be placed on an equal and righteous foundation. It is possible that there may be a just and holy joy at the idea that justice is done, and that God shows himself the friend of truth, of order, and of law. Compare Psalms 58:10, note; Revelation 19:1-3, notes.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 82". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/psalms-82.html. 1870.
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