Psalm Study: Psalm 82

Dear Reader,

It’s time for another Psalm study! For an introduction to what we are doing, why and how, see this post (I highly recommend you read the introduction if you are new to this).

Background Information

Psalm 82 is a tough one, not so much in its language as its content. My goal for today is, as usual, to look at the structure and other formal elements of the Psalm. While this may help us to understand how to take it, I by no means have all the answers on this one.

Before we jump in this time, I think we need a little background information on gods in ancient Canaan.  Though Israel’s neighbors had no problem with there being multiple gods, the general idea was that each nation had its own national god that watched out for it. A battle between nations was a contest between their gods. If your god is bigger and badder, you will win. If you lose, it is because your god was not strong enough. Those other nations would have had no problem with the idea that YHWH was the god of Israel. What they wouldn’t have understood is that He is the only God.

The Semitic word for god is being played with in this Psalm. Among Israel’s Canaanite neighbors, the basic word for god is el. As a proper noun — El— it is also the name of the father of the gods [1]. The plural form of el is elohim [2]. In the Hebrew Bible elohim can refer to the Israelite God in which case it is translated as the singular “God” (big “G”) and takes a singular verb [3]. God can also be called  El though this designation is often combined with other words as in El Shaddai, usually translated God Almighty.  Another name for God which appears in this Psalm is Elyon which is translated Most High. Clear as mud?

Now that we have that under our belts, get out your colored pencils and let’s start with the translation (as always, this is my translation; line numbers are for discussion purposes and are not verse numbers). As you read through the Psalm, look for parallelism to show you which lines go together and also for repeated words.

Translation of Psalm 82

A Psalm, of Asaph

  1. Elohim takes his stand in the congregation of El;
  2. In the midst of elohim he will judge.
  3. How long will you judge evilly
  4. And the face of the wicked will you uphold?  Selah.
  5. Judge [pl] the poor and the orphan;
  6. [For] the needy and oppressed do justice.
  7. Deliver the poor and downtrodden;
  8. From the hand of the wicked save.
  9. They do not know and they do not understand;
  10. In darkness they walk around;
  11. They teeter — all the foundations of the earth.
  12. But as for me– I said, “Elohim you are
  13. And sons of Elyon, all of you.”
  14. Therefore like man you will die
  15. And like one of the princes you will fall.
  16. Arise [s], Elohim, judge the earth
  17. For you will take possession of all nations.

A couple of notes on the translation:

  • Partly because of the ambiguities of English and also because of the different uses of elohim, it is worth noting which are singular versus plural verbs. The only singular forms occur in lines 1 and 2 and then in lines 16 and 17. All other verbs are plural.
  • Line 4 ends with the Hebrew word selah. We have no idea what this means. Some think it was a musical direction.
  • In line 14, the word for man is adam, calling to mind the first chapters of Genesis.

Analysis

So what did you notice? It is fairly easy to see which lines go together in this Psalm. They arrange nicely in parallel pairs — except for lines 9, 10, and 11 which form a triad. These lines correspond to verse 5 in the biblical text. It feels long and awkward in the Hebrew as well. If you have done any Psalm study before, little bells should be going off in the back of your head at this point. We have a section that breaks the pattern established by the rest of the Psalm and it occurs about in the middle of the Psalm. This seems signficant. But let’s lay it aside for a moment and come back to it.

Did you notice any repeated words of ideas? The big one of course is the word for God/gods, elohim. The word judge also occurs 4 times and justice once. Wicked occurs twice and evil once. The word poor occurs twice but there are a lot of synonyms here — orphan, needy, downtrodden, oppressed. It’s a little more subtle but there are also lots of words that deal with one’s physical position: stand (line 1), uphold (line 4), walk around (line 10), teeter (line 11), fall (line15), arise (line 16).

Let’s talk for a minute about setting. What is happening in this scene? Who is present and what are they doing? In line 1 we find out that this is the congregation of El. El, you will remember, is the head of the pantheon, the father of the gods. This is a formal assembly of the gods for the purpose of judgment. The one with a case to bring, Elohim (big “G” God), stands in the midst to accuse. This is a courtroom scene. The charge is that the gods who are supposed to do justice for the poor among men have not done so. They have perverted justice. Lines 1 and 2 set the scene. Lines 3 through 8 delineate the charges. Lines 12 through 15 pronounce the sentence: though the accused have been elohim, they will now fall and die like adam. Lines 16 and 17 are also part of the sentence; the portion that these elohim had will be taken from them and given to the one true God. Remember that the Canaanite view was that each nation had its own god. This Psalm explains the Israelite view: The gods of the nations have been dispossessed and Elohim inherits what was theirs. He reigns over all nations.

There are still a couple of big, lingering questions here, one of which I will answer and one which I can’t. The first is: How do lines 9 through 11 fit in? We observed earlier that the triad here breaks the parallelistic pattern of the Psalm. There is also a grammatical break. Lines 1 and 2 set the scene and lines 16 and 17 provide a kind of final judgment. In between God (big “G”) talks, referring to Himself in the first person and the gods (little “g”) in the second person. But in the midst of this we get lines 9 through 11, again breaking a pattern. The question then is who is talking in these three lines? I am not sure there are right answers that we can know here, but I will tell you what I think. God has accused and the judgment is about to be pronounced. In between these two actions, the audience reacts to what they have heard. They see that what the Prosecuter has said is true. They observe that the accused are ignorant and stumble around blindly. In fact, they are so incompetent that the earth which they are supposed as gods to uphold is teetering on its foundations. The audience in these lines confirms what the Prosecuter has said and so we are ready for the judgment in the lines that follow. Who is the audience? It could be Creation or it could be mankind. The text doesn’t make it clear.

The Elephant in the Room

Psalm 82 tells us a story of a council of gods, gods who seem to have had real power to judge humanity and to uphold the earth. They have failed and are thus demoted so that the one true God now reigns over all. We are happy with the ending but what are we to make of the story? That’s the question I can’t answer. Biblically we can’t say there was ever a council of equal gods among whom YHWH has just one. The talk of falling perhaps puts us in mind of Satan and his angels falling from heaven, and some connect the gods of the nations with demons, but it would be odd to say they die as men.  There are hints of a connection, but it does not seem complete or consistent. Or, alternatively, perhaps none of this literally happened. Perhaps it is a way of speaking, of explaining to oneself or to one’s Canaanite neighbors why their gods are irrelevant. What do you think?

Nebby

[1] Baal is the most active, warrior god, but it is El that presides over the others.

[2] –im is the masucline plural ending in Hebrew as in seraphim and cherubim.

[3] God’s proper name, the covenant name He reveals to Moses is Y-H-W-H which is sometimes rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah, but that’s another story.

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