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The author of Psalm 82 was Asaph, a man who also wrote Psalm 50 and Psalms 73-83.
Asaph was a Kohathite Levite who King David appointed to direct choral music in Yahweh’s House. In David’s day, the tent Tabernacle was still in use—the Temple wouldn’t be constructed until after David’s death. Asaph served under both David and David’s son King Solomon. David wanted Yahweh to have plenty of worship music, so the job of Asaph and his relatives was to compose original music and maintain a choir that would sing the songs that they wrote.
It’s important to note that all of the Psalms were written by men. Even when Yahweh is being quoted, the Psalms should not be viewed as prophetic messages from God. This is men putting words in God’s mouth, not God speaking through men, and there’s a vast difference between these two concepts. In the Psalms we find God being quoted as saying things that He simply wouldn’t say because the psalm writers get a bit too caught up in wishful thinking.
There is a wide range of emotions expressed in Psalms, with individual songs often swinging from one extreme to another. In Psalm 82, we find Asaph expressing his personal frustration with the lack of righteousness around him. While David was one of Israel’s best kings, Solomon was a real lemon, and his people grew to hate his tyranny.
It’s a common pattern for the Jewish psalmists to describe Yahweh as siding with them. Asaph begins Psalm 82 by describing a scene in Heaven in which Yahweh is voicing Asaph’s personal frustrations with human corruption.
God has taken His place in the Divine assembly; He judges among the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” Selah (Ps. 82:1-2)
The mysterious term selah shows up frequently in Psalms and its purpose is unknown. It could be an indication for some kind of pause, or it could be a statement of emphasis. Either way, here Asaph is describing Yahweh as judging “among the gods.” Who are these gods? Jesus helps us out here, for He is quoting Psalm 82 when He says:
“It is written in your law that God said, ‘I said, you are gods.’ [Ps. 82:6] This Scripture called those people gods who received God’s message, and Scripture is always true.” (Jn. 10:34-35)
Jesus’ statement reveals that the Jews interpreted Asaph to be referring to regular humans who knew about Yahweh. So here in Psalm 82, Asaph is frustrated with corrupt human leaders in Israel. The Jews had a very lofty opinion of themselves, considering themselves to be Yahweh’s favorites and superior to other ethnicities. But still, isn’t it a bit much to call humans gods? Well, it depends on how you define a god.
The Gods are uncreated, non-humans who have all kinds of limitless powers. We use a capital G to denote when we are talking about the Gods. But once we take that capital G away, we can use the term god to refer to merely a being who will live forever—as humans will—or perhaps to a being who is considered glorious. You could also use the term to refer to humans who are wielding great power over others.
In Asaph’s time, Jewish monarchs were given absolute power—they didn’t have to run their decisions past a senate or some other ruling body. Any lesser ruler who the king backed up could get away with all kinds of shenanigans, thus causing such men to be greatly respected and feared by the common people. In this psalm, Asaph is specifically referring to corrupt human leaders as gods, so he is likely using the term to refer to their great power over others. He could also be using the term rather sarcastically to capture the vast ego of these abusive rulers, and we find support for this idea by noting how he later mocks their god status. But now let’s continue with Yahweh’s angry criticism of these corrupt leaders.
“Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and needy; save them from the power of the wicked.” (Ps. 82:3-4)
This is a picture of the great power these rulers in Jewish society had. Asaph sees these men as having the power to greatly suppress injustice, poverty, and crime, yet instead they are delighting in all of these things. Thanks to the corruption of these powerful figures, many of the common people are really suffering, and Asaph is disgusted. Such abuse of the weak and vulnerable is certainly not something Yahweh approves of, so here he describes Yahweh as harshly condemning these evil rulers for their wicked actions which show no regard for laws of the Torah.
They do not know or understand; they wander in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are shaken. (Ps. 82:5)
This exaggeratory image of the entire planet being shaken by the great evil of these men reflects how intense Asaph’s personal feelings are. He is extremely upset that such wicked leaders are getting away with their shenanigans. He wants Yahweh to do something.
Asaph now personally mocks these arrogant rulers by reminding them of their mortality. They might view themselves as gods, but they are only men, and one day they will die like all human rulers do.
I said, “Though you are gods and sons of the Most High, you will die like men and fall like any other ruler.” (Ps. 82:6-7)
The fact that Asaph refers to these men as “sons of the Most High” indicates he is thinking only of the rulers of his own nation. It was only Jews who referred to themselves as sons of Yahweh—followers of other gods would not use such language.
Now we can long for justice and speak hatefully towards our evil leaders all day long, but in the end God is the only One who has the power to check evil that has run amuck. Asaph knows this, so he ends his venting session with a plea for Yahweh to hurry up and give these rulers what is coming to them.
Rise up, God, judge the earth, for all the nations belong to You. (Ps. 82:8)
When we’re focused on the flaws in others, we quickly become blind to our own sins, thus it’s easy for us to want God to hurry up and judge. We humans are famous for asking God to whip out harsh judgments on a day when we think we’re brimming with righteousness, then we delight in the idea of our enemies being caught off guard. Yet is such an attitude really pleasing to God? After all, none of us were born knowing the truth. God graciously held off on condemning us until we had the time to come to Him, and many of us took our sweet time in doing that. Given that we have all been saved by grace, what grounds do we have to try and reduce how much grace our enemies receive? Maybe God gave you a thousand chances to come to Him, and you turned Him down the first 999 times. Now you want God to kill off your enemy after he’s had only 600 times to come—is this a right attitude on your part? No, it’s not.
It’s not our place to try and control how much mercy God shows to others. No one deserves forgiveness and fresh starts, yet God gives us all these things many times over in life. Rather than longing to see our enemies get chopped down by God, we should be hoping that they finally wise up and submit to their Maker. God says that He desires all souls to be saved. We need to desire that as well until God indicates someone is out of chances by removing them from this earth. Once someone dies, judgment has been passed, and it is totally inappropriate for us to tell God to change His judgment (see The Enemies of God). But we shouldn’t be trying to rush the day of judgment for other souls, because our motivations for doing so are very displeasing to God. The attitude of “Now that I’m saved, I’m fine with everyone else burning in Hell,” is quite selfish and miserly. Instead of trying to prod God along in His judgment of others, we should be focused on our own walks. Rather than try to withhold grace from others, we should be humbly thanking God for the grace which we have personally received and wanting to honor Him in how we use it.