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? (Selah)
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!
(Psalm 82 ESV)
Psalm 82 is one of twelve psalms that were written by a man who was probably music director of the Temple during the reigns of King David and his son Solomon (roughly 1010-930 BC). Those of you who play the drums will be pleased to note that he was a cymbalist.
It is strange how roles change. It seems that in David’s day, the guy who played the cymbals was in charge of the orchestra. These days he’s in the back row, usually eating a sandwich while he waits for something big to happen. Unlike our modern churches, under Asaph’s direction, the Temple had cymbals all the time! Asaph’s position, then, was one of some importance, and he is mentioned in Chronicles as having been a prophet as well.
The first line of the Psalm is hard for our 21st Century ears to catch. At the time Asaph wrote God was not yet always referred to as YHWH (usually written in our modern texts “Lord”). Asaph refers to God as “elohim,” a plural form. Remember that at the time Asaph wrote his psalms Israel was just emerging as a kingdom, and all of the peoples they had displaced in Canaan had multiple gods of various kinds. The idea of one God as supreme above all the others in the 10th Century BC was somewhat novel.
Another word that doesn’t make it into the translation is the Hebrew word “ehdah,” which the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates as “synagogue.” I bring that up because that is best translated as “congregation.”
To put the whole thing together in a personal paraphrase, “The Supreme God of the Universe has taken his place as head of the council of gods.” Wow, is that hard for people steeped in monotheism to listen to! But let’s understand what this means. It doesn’t mean that there actually are other, lesser gods. It simply means that this was as much revelation about God as Asaph really had at his command in 970 BC.
And what this psalm highlights about elohim’s character is this: The god who will become known as so perfect that even to utter his name would be above humankind; the god who will become known as YHWH, the Supreme Judge of the Universe, has as his primary concern what happens to the weak, the fatherless, the afflicted, the destitute. and the needy. Name me one other “regional god” who orders his world like that. No wonder Asaph calls this “earth shaking” stuff! And that is why Asaph is so sure that this god will end up ruling the whole World.
About 1000 years later, when a man named James wrote the earliest piece of what we now call the “New” Testament he said just about the same thing: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
Our “gods” today are all worried about 401k accounts, global economies, and the geo-political situation. And they’re all going to die like men. They will all fall, like any other prince. Where are the great rulers of the 20th Century today? Where are Churchill and Stalin and Roosevelt? For that matter, where are Reagan and Nixon?
The real problem with being an orchestral conductor is how out of touch you are with the little triangle player in the back row. Jesus once asked a lawyer (Luke 10:25ff), “And who is my neighbor?” A conductor doesn’t know the answer to that question. But a cymbalist does. He’s the guy who quietly shares his sandwich with the triangle player and the people in the trombone section while they wait for something big to happen.