Two different explanations have been given of the general bearing and intention of this psalm—one, recently advocated by Professor Cheyne, that it is a denunciation of the angels whom God has put in charge of the earth (see Daniel 10:13-21; Daniel 12:1), on account of the violence and injustice which they have connived at and permitted; the other, that it is a denunciation of the human judges in Israel, who are corrupt and oppressors of the people. The objection to the former view is, first, that the angels are nowhere else taxed with wrong doing, or with anything worse than folly (Job 15:15); and, secondly, that it is inconceivable that God should entrust the government of the world to such imperfect and peccant beings Moreover, that God should threaten his angels with death (Psalms 82:7) is contrary to the whole tone and spirit of the rest of Scripture. The other interpretation is, therefore, to be preferred. God, standing amid the angelic host in heaven, denounces the unjust judges who are bearing sway over his people on earth. The writer of the psalm may well be the Asaph of David's time. It consists of an exordium (Psalms 82:1); a body, composed of denunciation and threats (Psalms 82:2-7); and a conclusion, calling on God to take immediate action (Psalms 82:8).
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; or, "in the congregation of God"—"the Divine assembly" (see Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah 6:2, etc.). El, in the singular, can scarcely mean the "mighty ones of earth." He judgeth among the gods. He "holds a court of judgment in heaven, surrounded by the Divine ministers, who will execute his behests" (Canon Cook).
How long will ye judge unjustly? "The cry of the impatient Jehovah" (Cheyne); comp. Exodus 10:3; Exodus 16:28; Numbers 14:11, Numbers 14:27. And accept the persons of the wicked? Accepting men's persons is favouring them unduly on account of their position or outward circumstances. It was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic Law (see Deuteronomy 1:17; Deuteronomy 16:19; Le Deuteronomy 19:15).
Defend the poor and fatherless; literally, judge them. "Do not deny them justice; do not refuse to hear their cause" (comp. Isaiah 1:23; Jeremiah 5:28). Do justice to the afflicted and needy. After consenting to hear their cause, be sure thou doest them justice. These commands are covert reproaches.
Deliver the poor and needy. The poor were terribly oppressed, and needed "deliverance" (see Job 29:12; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 58:6; Micah 3:2, Micah 3:3). Rid them out of the hand of the wicked; or, rescue them.
They know not, neither will they understand. Scarcely "an aside from the indignant judge," as Professor Cheyne suggests, much less a remark interpolated by the poet (Ewald, Hitzig). Rather a complaint of human perversity, addressed by Jehovah to the angelic host who are present (Psalms 82:1). It is not an accidental and excusable ignorance, but a wilful and guilty one that is spoken of. They walk on in darkness. Loving darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19), they walked in the way of darkness (Proverbs 2:13). All the foundations of the earth are out of course; rather, are shaken. The fundamental bases on which the life of man upon the earth rests, the very principles of morality, are shaken, and totter to their fail, when those whose place it is to administer justice pervert it and deal out injustice instead.
I have said, Ye are gods; i.e. "in my Law I have called you gods"—I have given you this lofty name (see Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8, Exodus 22:9), since ye judge on my behalf, "as my representatives" (Deuteronomy 1:17; 2 Chronicles 19:6; Romans 13:1, Romans 13:2). And all of you are children of the Most High. Not therefore "gods" in the strictest sense, but possessing a derived, and so a qualified, divinity.
But ye shall die like men. The name of "gods," even the fact of your being representatives of God, shall not save you from condign punishment. Ye shall be punished with death, as other wicked men are punished (Psalms 73:18). And fall like one of the princes; i.e. come to an untimely end, as so many "princes" have done (see Joshua 12:9-24; 1:7; 3:21; 7:25; 8:21, etc.).
Arise, O God, judge the earth. The words of God (Psalms 82:2-7) being ended, the psalmist calls upon him to proceed at once to judgment; but he does not limit the judgment to Israel's unjust judges. God is asked to "arise" and "judge the earth," i.e. the whole world (comp. Psalms 7:7, Psalms 7:8; Psalms 56:7; Psalms 59:5). For thou shalt inherit; or, "for thou dost inherit." "God is the King of all the earth" (Psalms 47:2), not of Israel only. All nations—the whole world—must be regarded as his possession or "inheritance."
A view of human life from above.
"God standeth," etc. Earthly greatness, and God's supreme rule of rulers and judgment of judges, are the theme of this sublime, brief psalm. The psalmist takes his stand on the watchtower of inspired prophecy; and gives, as the Bible is wont, a view of human life from above, as seen, not in the light of man's judgment, but God's (1 Samuel 2:8; Luke 1:52).
I. THE OFFICE AND DIGNITY OF RULERS. In the administration of justice, and claim to obedience—enforced, in the last resort, by death penalty—they are God's representatives; therefore here called "gods." The state, in its care of the lives, property, duty, and welfare of its citizens, is a kind of earthly providence, entrusted by God himself with this authority (Romans 13:1-4). Here is no reference or limitation to any special form of government, monarchical or republican, aristocratic or democratic. The right of man to rule over his fellow men, in whatever particular form of government, like the right of parents to the obedience and reverence of their children, can come only from God. Armies can compel submission. Popular will can create offices, and choose men to fill them. But men could never create authority. It belongs to God. In this doctrine of Scripture (and also of common sense) there is no shadow of support for the slavish and monstrous doctrine of "the Divine right of kings," with which the pulpits of England once resounded; or to the claim that hereditary government is more Divine and sacred than elective. What is "ordained of God" is the maintenance of law and justice, for the welfare of the people and punishment of wrong doers, by lawfully constituted public authority.
II. GOD'S SUPREME RULE AND RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT OF EARTHLY RULERS.
1. See the special sins and failures with which the judges or princes el Israel are charged; and the national disorder and danger thence arising (Psalms 82:2-5). Merciful pity for the poor, the oppressed, those bereaved of their natural protectors, is a strong characteristic of Bible morality and religion (James 1:27; James 2:13). Justice is to be enforced for the sake of mercy. We may say that Divine justice is part of Divine mercy; "for God is love."
2. Those high in rank and office are reminded that not only their authority, but their life, is held from God; at his pleasure every moment (Psalms 82:7). The death of great men is among the special means by which God's providence contests earthly affairs. The master hand grows cold, and all the threads of policy it wove snap; the reins it held drop (Psalms 146:3, Psalms 146:4). Therefore the only consolation to the devout patriot, politician, or lover of men is in turning from the injustice, the instability, the errors of human governments to the kingdom of Christ. The prayer of Psalms 82:8 is equivalent to our daily prayer, "Thy kingdom come!" Death, which is the ruin of all other sovereignties, was the foundation of Christ's. What seemed its sudden blood red sunset was indeed its ruddy dawn (Hebrews 2:9).
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
Corruptio optimi pessima est.
We have here a vivid picture of the corruption of men, supposed to be, and who should have been, the best in Israel. It refers to the judges, and tells them how judges are judged (Acts 23:3). And it may be applied to all misuse of power or abuse of trust, where, when, or howsoever any may be guilty thereof. This short psalm tells much concerning—
I. THE DIVINE ESTIMATE OF NATIONS SUCH AS ISRAEL. They are "the congregation of God." This is the true rendering (cf. Numbers 27:17; Numbers 31:16; Joshua 22:16, Joshua 22:17). Israel is no mere fortuitous concourse of individuals, but a chosen people, a congregation of God. They belong to him, are cared for by him; God dwells in, their midst, takes his place—"standeth"—among them. Such nations are really theocracies, no matter what form of earthly government may exist. This name for nations, "the congregation of God," likely, if recognized, to be of salutary power. To the nation itself it will give self-respect, and tend to righteousness. To its governors, a sense of responsibility, and a holy fear lest they abuse their high office.
II. THE DIVINE METHOD OF RULE. By means of vicegerents, who should derive their authority from God, and who should embody in themselves the majesty of law, and in whom men would look to find the most perfect earthly pattern of Divine attributes of truth, and justice, and mercy, and impartiality. The name "gods" is therefore applied to the judges (see also Psalms 82:6, and Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8, Exodus 22:28; Exodus 4:16; Perowne). And men are ever on the look out for such; and that form of government is best by which such men are most surely placed in power, and men of an opposite character most surely excluded. And to better ensure such rulership is the intent of the reminder that God himself will judge the judge. Nevertheless, we are shown next—
III. MAN'S FRUSTRATION OF GOD'S PURPOSE. (Psalms 82:2.) This has been a crying evil, not in Israel alone, but wherever God has been unknown or forgotten. The proper duty of the judge is declared in Psalms 82:3, Psalms 82:4; but this they have been tar enough from remembering or practising.
IV. THE CAUSES OF SUCH WRONG.
1. Moral blindness. "They know not."
2. They care not to acquaint themselves with the Law of God. What little they do know they understand not, and they harden themselves in their sin by their "walking in darkness," their habitual practice of evil. There are ever the downward steps in wrong. Then we are shown—
V. THE TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR SIN.
1. To society generally. "All the foundations of the earth are out of course." That is, there is a general breakup of all civil order; anarchy and confusion inevitably ensue. It does not need the Bible to show how exceedingly bitter and evil a thing sin is. The facts of history and the observation of God's providence make that clear enough.
2. To the wrong doers themselves. They had been greatly exalted; they had been regarded, in virtue of their sacred office, as "gods," as "sons of the Most High;" but by their abuse of their trust they should be hurled down as other evil men, and fall low like as they bad seen so many evil princes fall And this not in the natural course of events, but as the result of the awful judgment of God.
CONCLUSION. From all the injustices of earth we may turn to God (Psalms 82:7), and appeal to his judgment. For—blessed be his Name!—we are the inheritance, the real possession, not of ungodly men, but of God. Our true Judge is the true "Son of the Most High" (John 10:34-38).—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The Judge of the judges.
"He judgeth among the gods"—elohim, a term sometimes used for those high in office (see Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8, Exodus 22:28). Called gods as being God's representatives. The psalm may be illustrated by the address of Jehoshaphat to the judges, given in 2 Chronicles 19:6, 2 Chronicles 19:7. Our Lord gives the reason for princes or judges being called "gods," in John 10:34, John 10:35, the "Word of the Lord" came to them, and gave them authority to speak and act in his name. Judges must feel that God is with them in their judgments, and they dishonour him when they give unjust or partial judgments. This may be illustrated from the custom of opening our assize courts. The idea is that the queen actually herself judges all causes, and proclamation is made in her name. She acts through delegates, but the people are to understand that, if not in person, yet in reality, she is judging them. Judges who act unworthily dishonour her. As "magistracy" was the most important work of Eastern kings, the term "judge" was used, in a general way, for all positions of public honour, authority, and responsibility. So we may take the term "judges" as suggesting all kinds of official positions in which we may stand; all places in which we are put to rule or influence others; and then we may see the claim God makes to stand in relation to them all. He is the "Judge of all judges."
I. GOD ACTS THROUGH THE JUDGES. That truth takes two forms, a lower and a higher. In the lower form, all judges, all officials, all teachers, are the Lord's delegates; standing for him, speaking and doing in his name, expressing to men his will This may be illustrated in Moses, Joshua, the so called judges, the kings, and from one point of view, the prophets. But, in the higher form, God is conceived as being actually in the judge, and what he says and does can but convey to men God's will concerning them. So our Lord said, the Father spoke by him. The true ruler and teacher reaches this higher view. And the authority of the teacher is properly recognized only when he is felt to be the voice of God.
II. GOD EXPECTS JUDGES TO BE OPEN TO HIM. So that he may work unhindered in them. The openness is indicated in the mastery of all self-pleasing, and the full willingness to be the Divine channel. All officers in Christ's Church, great and small, need to watch themselves, lest they close up their powers, so that God cannot work through them.
III. GOD TAKES STRICT ACCOUNT OF HIS JUDGES. Specially of this, whether they gave to men his message; and whether they gave it to men just as he would have it given.—R.T.
Accepting the person.
Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 19:7), in addressing the Judges, reminds them that "with the Lord our God is no respect of persons, nor taking of gifts" (see also 2 Samuel 14:14; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6). This Hebrew term, "accepting the person," or "accepting the face," is the equivalent of our term, "show partiality to." The figure is taken from the Eastern custom of prostration before a king or judge. The accepted suitor is commanded to "lift up his face," that is, to rise up. The extent to which the bribery of judges is carried on in the East may be illustrated by the following passage, referring to Egypt, by Mr. Lane. "The rank of a plaintiff or defendant, or a bribe from either, often influences the decision of the judge. In general the naib (deputy of the judge), and mooftee take bribes; and the cadi (chief judge) receives from his naib. On some occasions, particularly in long litigations, bribes are given by each party, and the decision is awarded in favour of him who pays highest. This frequently happens in difficult lawsuits; and even in cases respecting which the law is perfectly clear, strict justice is not always administered, bribes and false testimony being employed by one of the parties. The shocking extent to which bribery and suborning false witnesses are carried on in Moslem courts of law, and in the tribunal of the cadi at Cairo, can scarcely be credited." The psalmist pronounces the magistrates of his day to be indifferent to justice, neglectful of their duties, venal and unscrupulous, and he warns them of the ruin they are bringing on society. St. James reminds us that this "undue partiality," this "accepting the person," this showing preference for the rich, is not confined to judges. It may be observed even in the relations of the Christian Church (see James 2:1-4).
I. THERE IS NO "ACCEPTING THE PERSON" WITH GOD. This is distinctly declared by St. Peter (1 Peter 1:17). "If ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work." Certain settings of the Christian truth, those known as Calvinistic, which put in prominence the Divine election, have been used or misused to encourage an idea of" favouritism" in God. It is always better to regard the Divine election as simply the all-wise selection of the most fitting person for the work which has to be done. It is only a subtle form of self-conceit which makes us imagine ourselves the special favourites of Heaven. "God accepteth no man's person." "The Judge of all the earth does right."
II. THERE SHOULD BE NO "ACCEPTING THE PERSON" WITH MEN. This, however, must apply to official relations and duties, not to personal feelings and preferences. It is the fruitful source of evils in the family, business, society, and the Church. The least loved and the most unlovely folk in the world are the family pets, the society pets.—R.T.
The claims of the poor.
This verse suggests four classes. The "poor" are those who have little or no money. The "fatherless" are those who have no defenders and friends. The "afflicted" are those who have to bear actual suffering. And the "needy" are those who have reasonable wants which they cannot satisfy. And in these senses we have the poor always with us; and whensoever we will we may do them good. The immediate application of the passage is to persons in authority who may defend the poor against private injustice or neglect. "They are to cause the benefit of the administration of justice to tend to the advantage of the defenceless, of the destitute, of the helpless, upon whom the Lawgiver of Israel especially keeps his eye." Moses solemnly cursed the man that" perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow" (Deuteronomy 27:19). Matthew Henry has the following striking sentences: "It is bad to rob any man, but most absurd to rob the poor, whom we should relieve; to squeeze those with our power whom we should water with our bounty; to oppress the afflicted, and so add affliction to them; to give judgment against them, and so to patronize those who do rob them, which is as bad as if we robbed them ourselves. Rich men will not suffer themselves to be wronged; poor men cannot help themselves, and, therefore, we ought to be the more careful not to wrong them." What, then, do the poor in every age reasonably claim from every one who has means, or occupies a position of authority or influence? Put under three terms.
I. THE. POOR CLAIM JUSTICE. That which is their unquestionable right, in every case, and under every circumstance. Not merely a right judicial decision in every disputable question. Not merely fair treatment, if coming under any accusation. But social justice—a right share of all citizen privilege, and a righteous reward for all their labour.]t is not justice to take any sort of advantage of a man because he is poor. In these days the poor are learning to make their demand for justice, as between man and man, heard and heeded.
II. THE POOR CLAIM CONSIDERATION. If anybody is to have an advantage, let it be the poor folk. In every age there has been the tendency of the well to do to claim for themselves all the consideration. The Christian spirit steadily resists this tendency; and the social movements of modern times may well be toned by the Christian spirit.
III. THE POOR CLAIM HELP. This brings in the practical side of their claims, and reminds of their actual sufferings and disabilities. See what help is required by the four classes mentioned above.—R.T.
The national peril in the mal-administration of justice.
This subject is illustrated by the rebellion of Absalom. That rebellion would not have been possible if the confidence of the people had not been lost by David's neglect of the judgment seat. Absalom gained favour by craftily saying, "Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice!" (2 Samuel 15:4). Those who search into the causes of great national revolutions find they have always to take account of the influence on the people of unfaithfulness in the judges, and lost public confidence that the right can be obtained. This is true of Western nations, but it is more true of Eastern nations, who know of justice as the decision of an official, rather than as the execution of a recognized and written law. Solomon gained public confidence by a wise and quick-witted judgment. He in part lost public confidence by high-handed dealing with the people's complaints. The prophets, in their complaints of the special evils of their times, give prominence to the injustice of the judges, and their neglect of the causes of the poor. Still no crimes are supposed to undermine more swiftly the public confidence, and produce more social mischief, than those committed by mercenary judges, who give decisions in view of their own interests, rather than on the basis of what is just and right.
1. Men look for a standard of righteousness higher than they can reach themselves. They are taught to look for that standard in the impartial public judges and magistrates. If they find themselves disappointed in them, they readily get the feeling that there is no standard right, and then they lose the check upon their own wilful, self-pleasing doings. Public justice is found to be the necessary foundation and buttress of public morality.
2. National life loses its inspiring example when the king, the magistrate, and the official are found to do unjust things. Nations, as well as individuals, must make their ideals, and realize them, or think they realize them, in some individuals. Kings ought to be to their people realized ideals, and so living examples. And in the more limited spheres, so should the judges be. A man easily goes to ruin when he finds his realized ideal fail him. And so does a nation. There seems to be no right when there is no public right; no right in its high places. Nations are rightly severe on all judges who dishonour the seat of judgment.—R.T.
Our changing estimates of men.
"I have said, Ye are gods … but ye shall die like men." Life, in its progression, involves a process of "disillusioning." The youth builds "castles in the air," "castles in Spain;" but advancing life deals with them as the growing sunshine deals with morning mists. We begin life with admiring and trusting everybody; it is well for us if advancing life does not find us standing beside the psalmist, and saying, "All men are liars." David thought Ahithophel was a fast and faithful friend. He changed his ideas of him when he learned that "Ahithophei was among the conspirators with Absalom." No more bitter experience do men ever pass through than that of finding those they thought faithful "fail from among the children of men." Here the difficulty is the changed estimate we are sometimes compelled to make of our public men. The psalm concerns those in authority and office. The psalmist is distressed because he cannot think of them as he once thought, and as he would like to think; they had altogether fallen from the position in which he had placed them.
I. WHAT MEN OUGHT TO BE. There is a true and proper sense in which every man is an official. Every man has some one dependent on him, and every man can exert an influence, and be an influence, on some one. This may be put in another way—Every man is somebedy's ideal. In the text the judges are thought to be what they ought to be—uncorrupt, simple, sincere; agents that convey the pure word and will of God to men. And this is what every one of us who has influence on a fellow man should be. Those dependent on us should have good ground for making us their ideals. Using the word in its Old Testament sense, men should look on us, and in their admiration, say, "Ye are gods." We ought to be such in integrity, simplicity, and nobility, as to make their saying so reasonable.
II. WHAT MEN PROVE TO BE. Our ideas of them generally prove illusions, but there is no reason why they should not change for better ideas. They need not change for the worse. But life proves a heavy strain for all men. Some are sanctified through it, but some are deteriorated. The text contemplates those who prove unfaithful, untrustworthy, and even come under the judgments of God, for special sins, as Adam did. Impress that the ideal Christ never yet disappointed any man. There has never been reason for changing our estimate of him.—R.T.
God's inheritance in all nations.
Bishop Perowne translates this, "For thou hast all the nations for thine inheritance." Bishop Wordsworth says, "All nations are thine inheritance. Thou gavest a special inheritance to Israel; but all lands are thy Canaan, and all will be judged by thee." The term "inheritance" is used in a somewhat unusual way, and what we regard as its precise meaning is not to be pressed. The idea in the mind of the psalmist was that God is the rightful Sovereign of the whole earth, and therefore he may be asked personally to correct the evils of his representatives. An "inheritance" is here viewed as something which comes to a man, and is absolutely his, over which he has entire control. Israel was God's inheritance because entirely in his control. But those called gods, judges, princes, had nothing that was theirs in any such sense. But every land and every people is, in this way, God's inheritance. And when the subordinate servants fail anywhere, appeal can be made to the absolute Ruler and Judge. Aglen puts the point of the verse in this way: "It is as if, despairing of the amending of the corrupt magistrates, the poet, pleading for Israel, takes his case out of their hands, as Cranmer in the play takes his case out of the hands of the council, and entrusts it to the great Judge of the world, to whom, as a special inheritance, Israel belonged, but who was also to show his claim to the submission and obedience of all nations." The point to work out is this—when we are troubled by thoughts of the injustice and untrustworthiness of men in whom we ought to be able to confide, we may find consolation in large comprehensive views of the supremacy of God—our God—over all the earth. In this way we get helpful impressions of—
I. GOD'S EXPERIENCE. These failures that surprise and alarm us are no surprise to the God of the whole earth. He has had to deal with such things and such people over and over again. He knows how to deal with such cases.
II. GOD'S INTERVENTION. When we see God as having all nations for his inheritance, we realize that he must, through long ages, and he must still, be constantly engaged in righting things; holily interfering with wilful men, putting confused things straight. Then we are reassured. He can put right what perplexes us.—R.T.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
A solemn rebuke
addressed to those who, pledged by their office to uphold the Law, had trampled upon it for their own selfish ends.
I. GOD'S RELATION TO RULERS. (Psalms 82:1.)
1. He has appointed them to a Divine work. They are to represent the justice and righteousness of God.
2. He holds them responsible for their manner of doing it. Judges them.
II. THE RIGHT USE AND THE ABUSE OF RESPONSIBLE POWER. (Verses 2-4.)
1. The right use of power. To give justice and redemption to the poor and defenceless. To defend the helpless and the oppressed.
2. The abuse of power. "To accept the persons of the wicked" is to favour their cause on account of their position or station.
III. THE CORRUPTION OF RULERS DEMORALIZES SOCIETY. (Verse 5.) "The foundations of the earth are out of course."
1. The example of men high in station is more influential than that of others.
2. Law unjustly administered demoralizes and degrades a people.—S.