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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 82

Psalms 82

God appears in the midst of his church for judgment upon the gods of the earth, the judges who bear his image, Psalms 82:1, punishes them on account of their violation of justice, and exhorts them to a better conduct, Psalms 82:2-4. Still they persevere in their want of understanding, in their walk in darkness, and everything is in confusion, Psalms 82:5. The definite sentence is therefore passed upon them, intimation of their destruction is made to them, Psalms 82:6-7. In conclusion, the Psalmist expresses in Psalms 82:8 his desire for the appearance of the Lord to judgment.

The formal arrangement is very simple. The main division is complete in seven, which is again divided into a four and a three, the preceding judgment, and the final decision. To the main division, which is throughout of a prophetical character, there is appended a lyrical conclusion, in which the Psalmist expresses his wish for that which he had already announced as just impending.

The question arises, whether the wicked rulers against whom the Psalm is directed are internal or external. The last view is the one generally entertained. The Psalm is considered as directed “against the potentates of Asia about the time of the captivity;” “the miserable, the poor,” &c. are viewed as the Israelites. But the only argument in favour of this view depends upon a false interpretation of Psalms 82:5 and Psalms 82:8; and there are numerous and decisive reasons in favour of the reference to internal relations. Just at the very beginning God appears for judgment in the “congregation of God,” and there calls to account the wicked judges who must therefore belong to it. The name Elohim and sons of God which is given to them, is never used in the Old Testament of heathen magistrates. It presupposes the kingdom of God. When there is no king there can be no vice king. Besides, in Psalms 82:6, in reference to this title of honour, allusion is made to expressions in the Pentateuch which are applied exclusively to Israelitish rulers. In reference to heathen rulers, it is matter of great difficulty that those in the Psalms are accused of nothing else than faulty administration of justice, partiality in favour of the wicked, the denial of the rights of the poor, and so on. The sins of the heathen judges lay entirely in another direction. And on the other hand, these very charges are brought forward in many passages against the Israelitish rulers, for example, Isaiah 3:13-15, a passage nearly related to our Psalm, and which may serve as a commentary to it: “the Lord standeth up to plead, and the Lord standeth to judge the people: the Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people and the princes thereof; for ye have eaten up the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses,” ch. Isaiah 1:17-24, Micah 3:1-4, Jeremiah 22:1, &c. If we compare carefully these passages and likewise the passages in the Pentateuch in which the Israelitish rulers are told their duties, such as Deuteronomy 1:17, and also the address of Jehoshaphat to the rulers sent forth by him, it will not be possible with a good conscience to adopt the hypothesis of heathen rulers.

These passages, and also the fundamental passages of the Pentateuch, are decisive against those who would refer the Psalm exclusively, or only especially, to kings. It has to do with the judges of the people, and with kings, if at all, only in so far as they are judges. If the Psalm was composed in the time of David, in favour of which supposition may be pleaded the prophetic tone peculiar to the Asaph of that period, and against which no tenable ground can be advanced (even Hitzig must allow that there is no allusion of any kind, no late form or connecting particle, no term which could be pronounced as being decidedly of later origin to betray an author belonging to a later age), the Psalmist could not, in the first instance, assuredly have referred to the king,—a view which is confirmed by the express mention of “the princes,” in Psalms 82:7, as compared with “the ancients of his people and the princes thereof,” in Isaiah 3. Still though the Psalm was in the first instance called forth by existing relations, yet being destined for all ages, it undoubtedly admits of being applied to kings in the discharge of their duty as judges, in so far as they are guilty of that perversion of right here imputed to them: comp. Jeremiah 22:1, ss.

The following remarks are designed to lead to a deeper insight into the meaning of the Psalm. Nothing can be more ungrounded than the assertion which in modern times has been repeatedly made, that the God of the Old Testament is a being altogether strange to the finite subject. The Old Testament opposes this view at its very opening, with its doctrine of the creation of man after the image of God. With this doctrine in its commencement, it cannot possibly teach in any other part that there is an absolute opposition between God and man. Besides, in the Law of Moses, all those whose office it is to command, to judge; and to arbitrate, all those to whom in any respect reverence and regard is due, are set apart as the representatives of God on earth. The foundation of this is found in the commandment, “honour thy father and mother,” in the Decalogue. It was shown in the Beitr. P. iii. p. 605, that this commandment belongs to the first table—thou shalt fear and honour God, first in himself, second in those who represent him on earth,—and farther, that the parents are named in it only in an individualising manner, as representatives of all who are possessed of worth, and are worthy of esteem. The direction in Leviticus 19:32, rises on the foundation of this commandment, where respect for the aged appears as the immediate consequence of respect for God, whose eternity was designed to be revered and honoured under the emblem of their old age; also Exodus 22:27, according to which we are taught to recognise in governors a reflection of the majesty of God: “thou shalt not revile God, nor curse the ruler of thy people,” i.e., thou shalt not curse thy ruler (or in any one way dishonour him), for he bears the image of God, and every insult offered to such a representative of God in his kingdom is an insult against God, in him God himself is honoured and revered: comp. 1 Chronicles 29:23, “and Solomon sat upon the throne of Jehovah.” But it was in connection with the office of judge that the stamp of divinity was most conspicuous, inasmuch as that office led the people under the foreground of an humble earthly tribunal to contemplate the background, of a lofty divine judgment; “the judgment is God’s,” Deuteronomy 1:17, whoever comes before it, comes before God, Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:7-8.

The position assigned to the office of judge must, when properly considered, have exerted a practical influence of a twofold character. It must have filled those who were brought before its tribunal with a sacred reverence for an authority which maintained its right upon earth in the name of God. And on the part of the judges themselves it must have led them to take a lofty view of their calling, it must have called forth earnest efforts to practise the virtues of him whose place they occupied, him “who does not favour princes, and makes no distinction between rich and poor, for they are the work of his hands,” Job 34:19, and it must have awakened a holy fear of becoming liable to his judgment. For there could be no doubt that as they judged in God’s stead, the heavenly Judge would not suffer them to go unpunished should they misuse their office, but would in that case come forth from his place and utter his thundering cry, “How long!” This last idea is expressly brought forward in the law. In Deuteronomy 1:17, solemn admonitions are addressed to judges, grounded on the lofty position assigned to their office. Comp. 2 Chronicles 19:6-7, where Jehoshaphat, with still greater copiousness of detail, addresses the following admonitions to the judges, whom he commissioned:—“Take heed what ye do, for ye judge not for man but for God, who is with you in the judgment: wherefore now let the fear of the Lord be upon you, take heed and do it, for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.”

The Psalm has no reference to the depth of human sinfulness except in so far as the judges lost sight of the above view, set before their minds rather the rights than the duties of their exalted station, and abused for the gratification of their pride what should have produced in them fear and trembling. The name Elohim, which should have continually reminded them of their heavenly Judge, served them as a shield for their own unrighteousness. They held it up in the face of all complaints and objections. Every man who did not go in with their unrighteousness, they branded as a rebel against God. The Psalmist raises his protest against this melancholy perversity. He shows the wicked judges what it was that they really had to do with the title Elohim. Asaph the seer lets them see, what the eye flesh did not see, God, God among the gods, and brings him out to their dismay from his place of concealment.

There is a deviation so far from the language of the law of Moses, that there the name Elohim is applied only in general to the bench of judges as representing God, and here in the expression, “in the midst of the gods he judges,” it is applied to individual judges. This difference, however, which has frequently been misused in favour of completely untenable expositions, is so far from being of any importance, that even in the Pentateuch an individual person, although not a judge, if representing God, is dignified with the name Elohim. Moses, in Exodus 4:16, as the representative of God for Aaron, is called his god; and in like manner a god to Pharaoh, ch. Exodus 7:1: comp. Baumgarten on the passages.

Luther, after giving a picture of the wickedness and profligacy of the great men of his time, remarks: “There existed also among the Jewish people youths of this character, who kept, continually in their mouths the saying of Moses in Exodus 22:9. They employed this saying as a cloak and shield for their wickedness, against the preachers and the prophets; and gave themselves great airs while they said: wilt thou punish us and instruct us? Dost thou not know that Moses calls us gods? Thou art a rebel, thou speakest against the ordinance of God, thou preachest to the detriment of our honour. Now the prophet acknowledges and does not deny that they are gods, he will not be rebellious, or weaken their honour or authority, like the disobedient and rebellious people, or like the mad saints who make heretics and enthusiasts, but he draws a proper distinction between their power and the power of God. He allows that they are gods over men, but not over God himself. It is as if he said: It is true you are gods over us all, but not over him who is the God of us all. From this we see in what a high and glorious position God intends to maintain the office of the magistracy. For who will set himself against those on whom God bestows his own name? Whoever despises them, despises at the same time the true Magistrate, God, who speaks and judges in them and through them, and calls their judgment his judgment. The Apostle Paul, Romans 13:2, points out the consequences of this; and experience amply confirms his statement. But again; just as on the one hand he restrains the discontent of the populace, and brings them on account of it under the sword and under law, so does he on the other hand restrain the magistracy, that it shall not abuse such majesty and power for wickedness, but employ it in the promotion and maintenance of peace. But yet only so far, that he will not permit the people to lift up their arm against it, or to seize the sword for the purpose of punishing and judging it. No, that they shall not do; God has not commanded it. He himself, God; will punish wicked magistrates, he will be judge and master over them, he will get at them, better than any one else could, as he has done from the beginning of the world.”

Verses 1-4

Ver. 1. A Psalm of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of God, in the midst of the gods he judges. Ver. 2. “How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Ver. 3. Judge the poor and the fatherless, give their rights to the poor and needy. Ver. 4. Deliver the poor and the needy, rid them out of the hand of the wicked.

The fiftieth Psalm, which was also composed, by Asaph, begins, like the one now before us, with an appearance of God for judgment. The name Elohim, not Jehovah, designedly occurs in the first clause of Psalms 82:1, because the judges also had been designated by this name: God judges the gods. The נצב is, “he is placed,” he comes forward,” as in Isaiah 3:13. The sphere of the judging is described in general terms in the first clause, and is more particularly defined in the second. The general description refers to the ground of this special judging act on the part of God because Israel is his people, among whom he can suffer no unrighteousness, no abuse of an office which bears his name, he must judge his degenerate office-bearers. [Note: Luther: He stands in his congregation, for the congregation is his own. This is a terrible word of threatening against these wicked gods or magistrates. For they must here understand that they are not placed over stocks and stones, nor over swine and dogs, but over the congregation of God: they must therefore be afraid of acting against God himself when they act unjustly.] עדת יהוה , the congregation, of Jehovah, in עדת ישראל , the congregation of Israel (for example Psalms 74:2), העדה , the congregation, are standing expressions for the people of God. The Psalmist places אל instead of the Jehovah of the first expression, for the sake of the allusion to the second, and also because אל is more allied to אלהים . Several deny the reference to Israel, and translate either: in the assembly of God, the assembly which God appoints, or that over which he presides, or: in the divine college of judges. But עדה never signifies an assembly or a college, but always a community, a congregation. By Elohim several would understand the sons of God, the angels: God holds a judgment (upon the judges) in the midst of his heavenly court. But in this way the fundamental thought of the Psalm which seems placed at its head in marked antithetic expressions, God judges the gods, is destroyed; Elohim is never used for angels, (comp. at Psalms 8:5, Gesen. on the word), and there is no reason why it should be so used here, the same appellation applied to God and to the angels manifestly leading to confusion; it is impossible to tell in this case who is judged, or to whom the address in Psalms 82:4-6 is directed; and finally, Psalms 82:6, where the judges are called gods, cannot possibly be separated from the, words “in the midst of the gods.” The judging refers, in the first instance, to the sharp accusation of Psalms 82:2-4. Still in these cases where this is not attended to, [Note: Mich.: Such is the great benignity and patience of the Supreme Judge, that before pronouncing sentence he addresses to the criminals before his bar a serious admonition, with a view of bringing them, if possible, to a sound state of mind.] it is completed in the definite sentence of death contained in Psalms 82:6-7.

Psalms 82:2 depends on Leviticus 19:15: Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty, but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour: comp. Deuteronomy 1:17: Ye shall not respect persons in judgment. The עול stands here in some measure as an adverb, exactly as מישרים in Psalms 58:1: comp. at the passage. Gesenius in his Thesaurus has proved, in a thorough discussion which in fact exhausts the subject, that the phrase נשא פנים signifies, not “ to lift up the face of any one,” “to make him lift it up,” but “to regard the face of any one,” “to respect his person,” “to be inclined towards him,” “to favour him.” The Selah standing here, as in Psalms 4:4, between the prohibition and the command, leaves time to lay the first to heart.

The judging in Psalms 82:3 denotes the opposite of not taking up their case, of sending them away unheard: comp. Isaiah 1:17: judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. The poor,—comp. Exodus 23:3. The fatherless,—comp. Exodus 22:21. Luther “Every prince should, get these three verses, yea the whole Psalm, painted upon the walls of his room, upon his bed, over his table, and even upon his clothes. For here they will find what high, princely, noble virtue their situation demands; so that assuredly worldly supremacy, next to the office of the ministry, is the highest service of God, and the most profitable duty upon earth.”

Verses 5-7

Ver. 5. They know not and understand not, in darkness they walk on, all the foundations of the earth are shaken. Ver. 6. I have said: Ye are gods and sons of the Most High all of you. Ver. 7. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

At Psalms 82:5 we must supply: “as they have hitherto done; the divine reprehension and punishment have produced no good effects.” As God continues to speak in Psalms 82:6-7, we must conceive of this complaint in regard to the inefficacy of what he had hitherto announced, as proceeding from him. At “they know not and understand not,” we are to supply the object from the context, as in all similar cases (comp. at Psalms 14:3), viz., the sacred duties of their office, which had been inculcated upon them in Psalms 82:2-4. Comp. Micah 3:1. “is it for you to know judgment?” The darkness indicates moral bewilderment, comp. Proverbs 2:13: “They forsake the ways of uprightness, and walk in the ways of darkness.” At the last clause we are by no means to supply therefore: the clause stands in the same relation as the other clauses to the criminality of the judges: everything is ruined by them,—they ruin everything. There is an implied comparison: everything in the land is tossed upside down as in an earthquake. It is only in the comparison, and not in the reality, that the reference to the earth lies.

In the final judgment pronounced by God, Psalms 82:6-7, the elevated station of judges is first acknowledged, on which they grounded their assertion that they were invested with absolute power, Psalms 82:4, and then it is affirmed that this station by no means frees them from responsibility, or affords them any protection against that merited punishment which was just about immediately to befall them. The but in Psalms 82:7 supposes an indeed understood in Psalms 82:6. [Note: Calvin: A concession in which the prophet shows the wicked judges, that they will derive no protection from that sacred character with which God has invested them. I acknowledge that you are God, &c.] I have said refers to certain generally well-known expressions in which the magistracy, and in particular the judicial office, is designated by the name Elohim,—the passages already quoted of the Mosaic law. The Elohim might here in itself be taken in the singular: ye are God, bearers of his image, as Gousset and others expound. But Psalms 82:1 renders it necessary to translate: ye are gods. Our Saviour interprets the passage in this way in John 10:35. Along with the fundamental passages to which it refers, and on which it certainly forms an advance, in so far as the name Elohim is applied to individuals, the passage before us is strikingly adapted to give a blow to that rigid dualism of God and man, in which the Pharasaic opposition to the God-man is rooted: The second appellation, “Sons of the Highest,” indicates the intimate character of the relation in which earthly judges stand to the Judge in heaven. It was shown at Psalms 2:7, that it is in this sense that the sonship of God is spoken of every where throughout the Old Testament. Luther: “It may well make one wonder that he calls such wicked individuals as those whom he here rebukes so sharply, by the name of sons of God or sons of the Highest, since children of God is an appellation which in Scripture is applied to holy believers. Answer: it is just as great a wonder that he should bestow upon such wicked people his own name; yea, it is rather a greater wonder that he should call them gods. But it all lies in the word: I have said. For we have often remarked that the word of God sanctifies and deifies all things to which it is applied. Wherefore we may call such situations as have had impressed upon them the word of God, in every respect holy divine conditions, although the persons are not holy. Just as father, mother, preacher, minister, &c., are in every respect holy divine situations, although the persons who are in them may be knaves and rogues. Thus inasmuch as God stamps the office of magistry with his word, magistrates are correctly called gods, and the children of God, on account of their divine condition, and the word of God, although they are really vile knaves, as he complains that they are.”

The ( Psalms 82:7) 7th verse does not at all refer in general to mortality and death—a reference which acquired proper force and significance only in New Testament times, when “and after that the judgment,” was brought clearly out as standing in immediate connection. The idea meant to be conveyed is, in accordance with the Old Testament practice throughout, and especially that of the Psalms in similar cases, a threatening of violent death, of a cutting off in the midst of the days: comp. the heathen saying: ad generum Cereris sine caede et sanguine paucidescendant reges et sicca morte tyranni. This is evident from “ye shall fall” of the second clause (נפל is always used of a violent death, Psalms 91:7; Exodus 19:21; Jeremiah 8:12, and in the full form, “to fall by the sword,” in Jeremiah 39:18, and in other passages), by which the general expression of the first clause, “ye shall die,” which is accompanied only by the words “like men,” is rendered definite. The expression, “like men,” “after the manner of men” (comp. at Psalms 17), intimates to the gods of the earth, who fancied themselves to be above all other men, that as far as death is concerned, they are subject to the general lot of humanity. The expression, “as one of the princes” (comp. 1 Kings 22:13; 1 Kings 19:2. Obad. Obadiah 1:11), reminds them of the numerous examples in early times of similar dignitaries who were removed by the judgment of God. The connection shows that it is fallen princes that are meant. Any further reference (several expositors suppose that heathen princes are meant, who are not even once particularly alluded to, others warriors,—not to speak of still more arbitrary ideas) is altogether unknown to the context, is in no respect called for, and indeed is of no use whatever.

The prophetic denunciation of the judgment of God is followed, in Psalms 82:8, by an expression of earnest desire for its accomplishment.

Lift up thyself, O God, judge the earth, for thou art Lord over all the nations.

The wish of the Psalmist, or of the church, in whose name he speaks, refers, in the first instance, to Israel; yet, as the special exercise of judgment on the part of God is only an instance of what is general, the Psalmist calls upon him to appear to judge the world: comp. at Psalms 7:7-8; Psalms 56:7; Psalms 59:5. The Lord appears also, in the parallel passage, Isaiah 3:13, to judge the nations. The call made upon God to judge the earth is based upon the fact, that all its nations are subject to him, and responsible to him, no less than Israel, the peculiar נחלה of the Lord, and, therefore, the immediate object of his judgment. נחל , with the accusative is, “to possess,” and with ב “to have a possession:” comp. Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 19:14; Numbers 34:29. (Böttcher is wrong, Proben. p. 184.)

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 82". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-82.html.