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And Justice for All: The Theological Thrust of Psalm 82

Psalm 82 cropped

I’ve been asked to preach Psalm 82 in a couple weeks. I was a bit wary at first. The text is rife with scholarly controversy and I was uncertain that I had the time to disentangle the text’s mysteries. Then, a tad embarrassed by my own cowardice, I took a look under the hood and changed my mind.

The controversies, I discovered, while neither fictitious nor easily answered, are little more than red herrings to the theological reader. The primary thrust of the poetic sermon doesn’t change much with where one lands on the controversies, regardless of how deeply these might affect other aspects of the author’s thinking about the divine realm.

The controversy assaults the reader in the opening clauses.

אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל

God stands in the Assembly of El (God)

בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט

In the midst of elohim (“gods”) he judges.

Everything else after this tends to get tangled up in the reader’s puzzlement over the meaning of “the assembly of El” and his or her attempts to identity of these “gods”.

The word elohim is often misunderstood by western readers because we tend to invest it with our sense of the English term god/God.[1] In truth, however, the term elohim refers to any number of entities who are regarded as supra-human, or, according to some, even special human… i.e. rulers or judges.

This appears to be the sense to the word in Exodus 22:7‑9:

“If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him, and it is stolen… If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges (i.e. elohim), to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property.  “For every breach of trust… both parties shall come before the judges (elohim); he whom the judges (elohim) condemn shall pay double to his neighbor.”

Though a good portion of the discussion concerns identifying who these elohim are, the theology of the Psalm is not dependent on figuring that out with precision. YHWH who judges the elohim is being called upon by the psalmist to uphold justice by punishing those who threaten the very fabric of human society by using positions of power to sustain the wicked rather than to defend the helpless. The primary context of the psalm is government, court and legal justice… which requires, according to known Israelite systems, stable, known, basic and evenly enforced laws. For Israelite rules of court see Exodus 23:1-9.

“How long?” in Psalm 82:2 is the cry of men, not YHWH and is used here to launch the poet’s desperate appeal to these elohim to turn back from using their power to defend the cause of the wicked. “How long will you judge unjustly, And show partiality to the wicked?[Selah].

As one writer put it, “The primary obligation of power is justice,” so the poet turns next in Psalm 82:3-4 to school these elohim on the proper course of their careers. “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” As Exodus 23:3 & 6 clearly announce, the issue is not status (help the poor not the rich) but truth (be neither for nor against the poor man).

In verse 5 the psalmist reveals an important aspect of his worldview; the entire world order teeters delicately on the precipice of chaos, the fabric of society is endangered every minute by the corruption lurking in the human soul, ready to swallow up the world when those with the power and authority to check it fail in their duties, when those in power become a seemingly unrestrainable fount of said chaos through wickedness.  “They do not know,” he intones, “nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.”

Their judgement is sure, says the poet in verses 6 & 7, for though he once thought these corrupt powers elohim, that special class of being, they will surely perish as men. Indeed, he calls upon YHWH, standing in judgement amid the Assembly of El, holding court amid the elohim to arise and judge the earth, which is His possession. Everyone will give an account in the end before his or her creator, and there will be no excuses in that day.

So, Psalm 82 is a poetic sermon about justice in a world lost in chaos. That preaches solid every day in every place that more than one person gathers.

There are, however, two remaining problems that confront me as I consider preaching this in an American context… to solve each I need to “adjust for inflation.”

Problem one involves incurable human dissatisfaction.

If I were prone to abuse proverbs, I might describe it in terms of Ecclesiastes 1:8. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” I don’t abuse proverbs if I can help it, however, so never mind that.

Let me simply note that in high school I was in awe of our school’s VW-Bug-sized computer, but, today, find myself frustrated over how slow my smartphone is even though it is several times more powerful, useful and fast than that old computer lab workhorse. You can never have enough health, enough life, enough safety, or enough money to satisfy human desire. Your air and water can never be too clean nor your life too long or too perfect to thwart human fault finding.

So, when we preach a passage like this, we are called upon to apply the prophetic frustration that the author has with his society, whose level of justice rose no higher than your average tribal clan community in the back water of the middle east today, to our western society that has achieved levels of justice that same prophet could hardly imagine, that would make the poet weep for joy at the very prospect. Yet our hearts rage just the same… you can never have enough justice so long as one crime gets committed and even one criminal goes undiscovered.

Here’s the good news… well, good news for the preacher trying to preach Psalm 82… not so much good news for our lot in life—The same dark hearts that pumped blood through their veins runs in our own. Human evil will never be vanquished ‘til eternity comes. We are never more than one generation from total chaos and every child is born a barbarian in need of enculturation.

Problem two involves the fact that we as a society, have, since the 1960s, undergone a radical shift in our worldview that is causing a crisis of definitional proportions for foundational society terms like “justice.” A concept of justice has gripped the imaginations of many that threatens to unseat the very essence of historically and biblically defined justice.

Let’s step back a bit and consider this struggle.

Something is definitely wrong with the world, but exactly what you think that “something” is speaks volumes about your worldview. Worldview is the story our hearts tell us about the reality in which we live. What you deem to be just action is measured by your worldview convictions about this problem and the cause-effect realities that both led to it and follow from it.

If one believes that the problems with the world are external to man, pressing in on us from cultures, institutions, systems, governments and laws, he or she will always seek to identify these and remedy them. They envision ultimate solutions and a freely adaptable human nature that can function in perfect harmony if only the right external pressure is applied, if only those stubbornly clinging to old patterns are eradicated from the equation.

Since, according to this heart-narrative, mankind is innately good and only circumstances warp us into ugly shapes, then all solutions are to be found in discovering the external causes and changing them. This solution seeking and all the power to implement it needs to be turned over to the elite among us who are so much smarter than everyone else that only their vision for a brave new world can be trusted. In this worldview, poverty, bigotry and racism causes crime… not the other way around. Criminals are, thus, made by society and should not be held responsible for their actions… the grand WE are to blame and need to take it on the chin. The gender roles that have plagued humanity for our entire known history are the result of patriarchal attitudes and systems NOT natural gender inclination. Every statistical disparity is proof of deep seeded institutional bigotry and racism. Here it is not wealth that needs explaining, but poverty; they don’t ask what leads to prosperity but what drags humans down into destitution. Commerce then, which allows some to become rich but leaves others struggling for survival is innately broken, a zero-sum game in which one person gains and another loses everything… unless our elite heroes come to their rescue by interfering in the game, handicapping some and artificially propping others up.

Now, the chaos of our world is, according to a biblical worldview, not a failure to get our systems, institutions, cultures or laws right, but is, rather, a failure to get our hearts right. Our failed systems, institutions, cultures and laws are nothing more than a collective reflection of our hearts. This chaos is the force of ruin that threatens the societies of the world with dangers cosmic, foreign, and domestic.

The never ending struggle for order is waged through Sacred text and Ritual worship, Law and Wisdom, War and Covenant all overseen by governing authorities who are accountable to the cosmic creative force behind the material world for their maintenance of divine order. The order that this chaos erodes is found in YHWH who made the world and whose revealed character, will & purpose provide the measure of all things. In Israel, YHWH’s MA’AT[2]

(The Egyptian term for the “truth” that holds the fabric of the world together… a system of natural rewards and punishments that pulses through reality and cannot be thwarted in the end)

…is the pursuit of every sage, the subject matter of every priest’s ritual, the plumb line for every ruler’s code of justice. YHWH is both creator and judge of all, so we here on earth are called to likewise judge the wicked and work to establish YHWH’s order on earth.

In this reflection, all just law springs from the seed of human law planted in human society in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” From here sprouts the truest expression of justice; every human being of any race, class, gender, or age has by dint of being an image bearer of the creator basic natural rights that must be vigorously defended, and can only be invalidated in kind by displaying through action a disregard for the natural rights of others.

The struggle for justice, so important in Psalm 82, must therefore be disentangled from the uses to which competing worldviews have given to the term justice. Here, justice has morphed into social justice, class justice, economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, yes, even generational justice. The change is not slight; the concept of justice is eroded and not enhanced by the modifications because, in them, we turn away from process (which can be controlled) and focus on results (which have too many variables to control).

We have shifted radically away from a biblical worldview in which equality is based on humanity as image bearers of God, which led, however imperfectly it has been practiced among us, to that grand, world-altering declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We have exchanged it for a vision of justice in which the powers that be have abandoned their job as referees who apply the rules of the game equally without prejudice, in order to make themselves ad hoc game manipulators who randomly apply ever shifting rules as they see fit moment to moment in order to “level the playing field” and make the game come out as they please.

To these, the very existence of unequal results is deemed sufficient cause to toy with the “unfair” system, promising equal outcomes regardless of starting point, knowledge, gifting, labor, inclination, initiative, skill, or desire. The situation has become so bad that equality of result regardless of input has become the new morality of our age.

Here the very existence of income gap is an accusation against a system. It is better for many that everyone wallow in destitution than that some (other than the elite decision makers, of course) outdistance others, even if doing so makes everyone’s lot a little better.

Gender disparity of any kind is villainy, as is the very notion of gender or gender related expectations. Nature is an enemy to be conquered, so, biological processes that are unique to genders (like pregnancy) need to be utterly subjugated to the will of those rendered unequal by them.

We have fallen so low as to have equality activists coming out and saying things like, “The stable nuclear family is the greatest source of inequity in our world and must, therefore, be dismantled.” Some groups have come out and asked parents to stop reading to their children, because doing so gives them an unfair advantage over the many children in our society whose parents don’t.”

We have exchange equality of process, equality before the law, for an empty promise of equality of production that cannot be achieved and destroys all human incentive toward good in the process.

We have exchanged even-handed, known rules for heavy-handed and whimsical overlords.

We have transitioned away from being a nation of laws rooted in a biblical worldview to being a nation of men without regard for natural rights who do as they please with us, tinkering endlessly in order to achieve their desired effects. They play favorites in order to secure power, and promise goods and service rights to those who support them. Being liked, celebrated, accepted, and served are NOT natural rights, but as promises in the hands of corrupt leaders, they are powerful manipulative tools, alluring enticements to slavery. We’ve sold our national soul to get them.

While we scream “Justice!!!” we march steadily into the very sewer decried by the Psalm 82 prophet… leaders without understanding, who walk about in darkness, and threaten the very foundations of our world.

And don’t so many of our leaders who claim to want good produce evil because they walk in darkness, because they lack understanding?

We enact programs supposed to help the poor that end up trapping the poor in hopeless life paradigms. We pass laws to equalize the circumstances for minorities and exacerbate the social and cultural patterns that keep them from advancing as so many other minority communities have over the centuries in our history. We misjudge the causes of crime, gender pay disparity, and racial tensions and so our every “solution” goes awry and worsens the situation for everyone. We reach out a helping hand and end up becoming enablers of self-destructive lifestyles, sparing the hapless victims of our good intentions from the very pains that just might bring about a real change. Our national blindness has reached a fevered pitch, and, all over our land, those who are confused and those who know alike cry out to heaven and cry out to our leaders, “How long?!!!”

And what shall we do when our own hearts see and cry out, “How long?!!!” What shall we do when we, like our psalmist, find that our leaders of whom we thought better, have forsaken truth and justice and corrupted themselves to gain wealth and power? What should we do when doubts arise (as they always should) about our own sense of justice and rightness in the world?

Shall we cry out to God to bring judgement? Yes!

We need to seek wisdom from the Lord who promises to give it, so that we can judge justice and goodness aright.

We need to pray for our leaders whether we voted for them or not, that God would enlighten them, that God would convict them, that God would remove them when incalcitrant.

Those who say that Christians should stay out of politics and focus only on the Kingdom of God have both ignored those vast portions of Scripture that call upon the righteous to be salt and light in society, to work for true justice in the world and they have relegated all rule and authority to those whose hearts are farthest from God and most dedicated to working out the designs of their unregenerate hearts.

We must get involved, therefore, promoting justice and pursuing charity, but we must make sure that in our desire to do good, that we pursue processes that result in good and not merely those that make us feel good about ourselves. The disparity between what feels good and is intended as good and what actually does good is the peril of those whose worldview has been compromised by a constant diet of media rooted in an unbiblical worldview. We need, like the wisdom writers of old, to track the real world consequences of our actions and not merely assume that meaning well and feeling good about our actions will result in good for others.

To reflect YHWH’s character, will and purpose in the world is our greatest path to doing good. So we must seek to know God. We must seek him in our spirits through prayer and worship, but we must also seek to understand Him in the Scriptures, which He has inspired for our benefit. We must humble ourselves before the Word and strive with all our heart, soul, mind and strength to meet God there.

So I leave you with the words of Micah 6:8  “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

[1] Read my article, “Why the Word “God” Makes Me Uncomfortable.”

[2] I opt for this term because it sums up the concept of divine order so perfectly.

One thought on “And Justice for All: The Theological Thrust of Psalm 82

  1. Sam says:

    This is deep Scriptural teaching, with a call to action. The best kind of interpretation.

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