Psalm 82 │Divine Council ? │Who Are the Elohim?
“I Said, ‘You Are gods’“
Expository Bible Studies
In Psalm 82, Asaph wrote that God takes His stand in His own congregation, confronts the “elohim” and demands justice from the “elohim.” Who are those elohim? Are they Gods (like Yahweh)? Are they gods (like angels)? Are they humans, serving God as judges on earth? As we look briefly through the Psalm, we will see the flow of the passage and gain insight into the elohim of Psalm 82. Please keep in mind that I believe the Bible when it says the very words of the original autographs were breathed out by God, and so the very words matter (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Jeremiah 26:2; John 14:26; Galatians 3:15-16). Psalm 82 │ Divine Council? │ Who Are the Elohim?
2. God Stands and Judges.
2.1 Takes His Stand. In Psalm 82:1, God takes His stand in His congregation. This term “takes His stand” may mean to stand up, or to stand against. In Numbers 22:31-34, the angel of the LORD stood with sword drawn against Balaam the prophet for his evil behavior. Therefore, we see that the term “take his stand (or to reflect the niphal participle–“taking his stand”–in the masculine singular) in His own congregation may mean God stands as an adversary. So, the question becomes, God opposes whom here? Before we answer that question from the text, we may benefit from a review of the phrase “His own congregation.”
2.2 His Own Congregation. The phrase “his own congregation” literally means “in the congregation of el.” This exact phrase only occurs in Psalm 82. The feminine noun “congregation” stands in relationship with the masculine noun absolute “el.” So, “elohim” (God) takes His stand in the congregation of el. “Elohim” has a plural ending, and “el” appears singular. From the first verse of Genesis, the term “elohim” can be translated as “God,” as God created the heavens and the earth. Although the word “elohim” has a plural ending, it is translated in Psalm 82:1 (New American Standard Bible) as a singular “God” and then, later in the same verse, “elohim” is translated as “rulers.” How can we distinguish the different meanings of the same term in the same verse? We can start by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
2.3 Elohim. In other parts of the Old Testament, the term “elohim” may refer to beings other than God Himself. Likewise, the term “el” may refer to beings other than God Himself. In any case, in Daniel 11:36, we learn that God is the God (“El”) of gods (“elohim”). Furthermore, in Jeremiah 23:18, 22, Jeremiah wrote that God does have a council (“sod”), but a different Hebrew word appears there. Likewise, the term “council” (“sod”) is used in Psalm 89:7 referring to a council of “holy ones,” but the next verse references the Lord of Hosts. The host there likely included non-humans. Therefore, Psalm 89:7 is not exactly parallel in the use of Hebrew terms. Even so, based upon those verses, God certainly had a place where He spoke and announced His words to His people, apparently in front of many beings. The Scripture contains numerous passages indicating that God has many beings around His throne in heaven.
2.4 Divine Beings? The question here turns upon who are the beings of “His own congregation” in Psalm 82:1? Please do not misunderstand. I am not a Hebrew scholar and so I must rely upon others for my basic understandings of Hebrew syntax, grammar and morphology. Therefore, based upon the use of the term “congregation” elsewhere in the Old Testament, we would expect the phrase “His own congregation” to refer to the general meaning of the term “congregation” in the Old Testament.
2.5 Congregation. Regarding “His own congregation,” the people of Israel are frequently called the congregation of the sons of Israel. The term “congregation” has a very interesting meaning in Numbers 27:17. There, Moses asked the God of the spirits of all flesh to appoint a man over the congregation to go out and come in before them, so that the “congregation of the Lord (“Yahweh”)” will not be like sheep which have no shepherd. Notice the phrase “congregation of the Lord” still refers to the congregation of human Israel, and, in that context, emphasized the close connection of the congregation to Yahweh. They were the sheep of Yahweh and deserved a man with the Spirit of God within him to lead the sheep of Yahweh.
2.6 Congregation of Yahweh. In Joshua 22:16, we read about “the congregation of the LORD.” This phrase “the congregation of the LORD” refers to the people of Israel alive on earth and obviously humans. Therefore, we see the predominate usage of the term “congregation” generally refers to the congregation of the people of Israel. Likewise, the term “the congregation of the LORD” also refers to the people of Israel. Based upon my review (remember that I am no Hebrew scholar and I may have missed something there), I did not see any use of the Hebrew term for “congregation” to refer to any humans except the humans of Israel; it does have other uses for non-humans.
2.7 Host of Heaven. Terms other than “congregation” may refer to non-human beings in the Old Testament. For example, the term “host of heaven” certainly refers to a group of beings standing before the throne of Yahweh, and that group includes various spirits which are not human, but may enter humans and influence or control them (1 Kings 22:19-23). Furthermore, Exodus 15:11 demonstrates that among the gods, no one is like Yahweh. So, I am not dismissing the clear teaching of Scripture that heaven has many beings.
2.8 Humans. The “congregation,” however, at issue in Psalm 82:1, based upon the Old Testament usage of the Hebrew word used there for “congregation,” does not appear to be composed of anything other than humans. Therefore, when God takes His stand in His own congregation, He appears to be standing in the midst of the people of Israel. Moreover, He judges in the midst of the “elohim.” Now we know that when God judges in the midst of the “elohim,” those “elohim” were part of His congregation, and that only humans composed His congregation, and more precisely that congregation consisted of the people of Israel. Therefore, because only humans compose the entire congregation, we know that the “elohim” must be a subset of His congregation which refers to the people of Israel. So, God judges in the midst of humans (“elohim”). Therefore, a good translation of “elohim” at the end of Psalm 82:1 would be some form of humans. We would have to look at the entire context of Psalm 82 to narrow down the translation. The “elohim” of Psalm 82:1 are the same beings at issue in Psalm 82:2-8. The rest of the Psalm deals with the failure of judges exercising jurisdiction upon the earth. As a subset of the human congregation, the judges (“elohim”) appear to be humans also (see also Exodus 22:8, where human judges are called “elohim.”) Therefore, any notion of a divine council composed of non-humans seems misplaced in Psalm 82. Now we can trace through God’s message to those judges.
2.9 The Chiastic Structure Argument. Some people argue that Psalm 82:1 contains a chiasm that forces the interpretation that the “elohim” cannot be humans. This argument only works if you assume the conclusion before you examine the chiasm. Let me explain. Some people find an “abba” structure in Psalm 82:1 as follows:
a God takes His Stand
b in the congregation of El
b in the midst of the elohim
a He judges.
Judging from that chiastic analysis, the “a” phrases both describe the activity of God, and the “b” phrases describe the judges. Nothing about that chiasm demands either a human or non-human interpretation of the “b” phrases. The “b” phrases simply relate “the congregation of El” to the “elohim.” The “b” phrases could refer to humans or non-humans, but either would fit the structure. So, if you claim the chiasm definitively settles the issue of humans or non-human judges, then you have begged the question. All the chiasm requires is that both parts of the “b” phrases refer to the same entities: judges are part of the congregation of el and are elohim, but they could be humans or non-humans. The structure does nothing to settle the issue nor compels the interpretation that the second “elohim” be humans or non-humans. Chiastic structural analysis only requires that the “congregation of El” relates to the “elohim.” Even that relationship is not well defined in the “b” phrases, just as the “a” phrases emphasize related, but not identical, activity of God (unless you equate “taking His stand” to be identical with “judges,” which does not capture the differences between the two related activities of God). The identity of the “elohim” remains at issue, even after chiastic analysis. The “congregation of El” certainly included the “elohim,” but having proved that point, it does not resolve the issue of the identity of “the congregation of El” or the “elohim” at issue.
2.10 Human Judges. In Deuteronomy 16:18-20, Yahweh outlined to Moses the procedure for establishing judges and officers in the towns which the LORD your God is giving to the people of Israel. Yahweh directed that the people of Israel (humans) appoint for themselves both judges and officers in their own towns, according to their tribes. They must judge with righteous judgment. The text emphasized that humans would appoint humans to judge them. The judges and officers came from the human tribes of Israel. Furthermore, Yahweh ordered them to avoid distorting justice, showing partiality, and taking bribes. God noted that a “bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.” If someone wants to argue that Psalm 82:2-3 exclude human judges in favor of non-human judges, then they must explain why Deuteronomy 16:19 does not apply in Psalm 82. The burden of proof rests upon proponents of the non-human view. The elohim of Psalm 82 render judgments with partiality to the wicked. The evil judges oppress the weak and fatherless.
2.10.1 Problem One: Human Judges. Deuteronomy 16:18-20 presents several problems for anyone seeing non-human judges in Psalm 82. First, the first judges of Israel in the promised land were all humans, appointed by humans and charged by God to judge righteously. Therefore, we know that humans appointed human judges for each tribe, as God commanded. So, if people want to argue that non-human judges are at issue in Psalm 82, they would have to overcome the presumption that human judges are at issue, based upon Deuteronomy 16:18-20.
2.10.2 Problem Two: Bribes. Second, human judges could be bribed by humans, but how would humans bribe-non human judges? At times, the people promoting a view of non-humans ruling Israel appear to overlook some of the Bible passages at odds with their views of Psalm 82. The judges of Psalm 82 appear to be taken to account for the precise deeds of Deuteronomy 16:19. The judges of Psalm 82 judge unrighteously in the ways that fit with Deuteronomy 18:19.
3. The Charge: Judges Judging Unjustly.
The problem at issue in Psalm 82 concerns the acts of the judges. They are judging the people of Israel unjustly and deserve to be taken to account. Among their wicked errors, they show partiality and fail to vindicate the weak and fatherless and do justice to the afflicted and destitute. They must rescue the weak and needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They do not know nor do they understand. They walk about in darkness and all the foundations of the earth are shaken. These judges act wickedly, forsaking their commission from God to render judgments from Him and for His name. Therefore, we see that Psalm 82 focused upon the failures of judges to obey the code of judicial ethics established by God. God will certainly pronounce an appropriate judgment upon them.
4. The Verdict and the Death Penalty.
4.1 Sons of the Most High. In Psalm 82:6, the perspective changes and God speaks (through Asaph) in the first Person: “I said, ‘You are gods.'” This phrase may well be a reference to the time of their investiture as judges, where God appointed humans to serve as judges. As we have seen, in Psalm 82:1, above, the term “gods” (“elohim”) apparently refers to human judges. Now God calls those “elohim” sons of the Most High. While the terms “sons of God” always, or virtually always, refers to angels or non-humans in the Old Testament, God called the “elohim” sons of the Most High. Some would argue based upon the Hebrew usage of the phrase “sons of God” that God must be referring to non-human beings in Psalm 82:6.
4.1.1 Luke 6:35. In Luke 6:35, however, we read that humans following the commands of Christ will be sons of the Most High. So, because of the unity of Scriptures with one God writing the entire Bible, humans can be included in the class of sons of the Most High. I understand that some people might want to argue dispensational, hermeneutical, or economic reasons for distinguishing Luke 6:35, but I believe it clearly opens the door to Psalm 82:6 referring to humans. Any argument about “sons of God” must account for both: (1) the difference between “sons of God” and the “sons of the Most High” and (2) the use of the term “sons of the Most High” in Luke 6:35 referring to humans.
4.1.2 Psalm 82:6. In Psalm 82:6, the term “Sons of the Most High” seems significant because God never applied the terms “sons of the Most High” to any non-humans, unless it is only in Psalm 82:6. In some other contexts, the “Most High” stands as the Redeemer of Israel (Psalm 78:35). I also find it interesting that Asaph described the “Most High” as the LORD over all the earth (Psalm 83:18). In Psalm 83, Asaph ascribed to the “Most High” absolute sovereignty over the human nations, human princes and human nobles who oppose God. Therefore, Asaph clearly used the same term “Most High” to emphasize God’s power and sovereignty over high-ranking humans in Psalm 83. So, any argument that the phrase “sons of the Most High” cannot refer to humans must deal with Luke 6:35.
4.2 Psalm 83. Some people argue that the phrase “sons of the Most High” refers to non-human “elohim.” They argue that Psalm 82:7 serves as a strong adversative because the non-human “elohim” die. Normally, non-humans like angels and demons do not appear to undergo physical death, because they are by nature non-corporeal beings. So, if God imposes death upon members of the “divine council” composed of non-humans, that would be a very great judgment. That argument runs counter to the Most High acting against humans who die a physical death in Psalm 83. Asaph used the term “Most High” to refer to God standing over the highest humans. Asaph in Psalm 83 does not use the term “Most High” to refer to God as the highest among non-humans or a council of non-humans. Therefore, the term “Most High” cannot be limited in meaning to the superlative rank of God above other elohim in Psalm 82:6. Asaph dispelled such a notion in his use of the same term “Most High” in Psalm 83 to refer to God’s sovereignty over humans. Now we can turn to a more detailed discussion of the relationship of Psalm 82:7 to Psalm 82:6 and the rest of the Psalm.
4.3 Strong Adversative. Some people argue that Psalm 82:7 presents a strong adversative to the “I said” statement of Psalm 82:6. They argue further that the “elohim” of Psalm 82 must be non-humans, because they will be condemned to death like men. They “presuppose” the immortality of the “elohim,” but they “presuppose” from silence in the text. Some try to explain how non-humans (“elohim”) die in Psalm 82:7 by describing a spiritual death. So, the argument goes that (1) because men cannot be like men, (2) the verse only makes sense if non-humans (“elohim”) die like humans. One class of beings must be opposed to a different class of beings for the comparative to make sense. In other words, men cannot die like men, because that would be a meaningless adverse comparison.
4.3.1 Circular Reasoning. Some people also argue that based upon the “presupposed” immortality of the “elohim,” God imposes “mortality” upon the “immortal elohim” for their failures as judges. This argument rests upon presupposing the truth, which amounts to circular arguments, and not exegesis. While the “elohim” are indeed “sons of the Most High,” the contrast involves the differences between God and the “elohim.” The identify of the “elohim” would not necessarily affect that contrast, because the “elohim” are not God. On a different level, the contrast also involves exalted “elohim” falling to their death, just like Adam. Therefore, they can be contrasted in multiple ways. If one argues that the immortal become mortal, and that is the contrast, then they would have to prove the “immortality” of the “elohim” at issue, and not merely presuppose it. God condemns many people to death for their actions, even exalted judges of His congregation.
4.3.2 The “Shining Ones” Problem. In passing, some people embracing the divine council view translate the last phrase as of Psalm 82:7 as die like one of the “Shining Ones.” Some people cite Daniel 10: 13-21 to prove their point. Some people link the “Shining One” with Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12-15. Taking all those claims at face value, the contrast would be that just as satan sinned and died, so also the elohim sinned and died. Yet, Jesus explicitly taught that the angels cannot die in the sense of humans dying a physical death (Luke 20:36). So, any claim of “elohim” passing from “immortality” to “mortality” cannot involve any kind of physical death if the “elohim” of Psalm 82 are included by Jesus in Luke 20:36. In the divine council view, if the “elohim” of Psalm 82 cannot physically die, like humans die physically, then spiritual death must be in view. But more telling, if physical death like Adam is in view, then following that view the contrast is between non-human “elohim” dying physically (hard to imagine for non-corporeal beings) from sin just as Adam died from sin and you are back to Hosea 6, dealing with humans dying for their sins.
4.3.3 The Internal Inconsistency Problem. Finally, the internal inconsistency of the divine council view of the adversative qualities of Psalm 82:6 and Psalm 82:7 becomes most apparent in their view of the identity of the princes or “Shining Ones” of Psalm 82:7. Some people first argue that the contrast must be between non-humans and humans. This explanation, however, crumbles with their explanation of “Shining Ones” being non-humans. If the “Shining Ones” of Psalm 82:7 are non-humans, then they see a contrast between non-humans in Psalm 82:6 (they claim the “elohim” are non-humans) and the “Shining Ones” of Psalm 82:7 who are also non-humans. They first rejected a contrast between humans and humans as no contrast at all, but then accepted a contrast between non-humans and non-humans. The internal inconsistency of their position seems apparent. They appear to overlook the fact that Psalm 82:7 describes both “men” and “Shining Ones,” and, according to the divine council view, they are not the same, but contrast with each other. If they contrast with each other in Psalm 82:7, how do they together contrast with the “elohim” of Psalm 82:6? No such internal inconsistency exists if the “elohim” and the “men” and the “princes” are all humans. Internal inconsistencies rupture the logic of any position and must be resolved one way or another. Before we accept any argument about one or more contrasts in Psalm 82:6 and Psalm 82:7, the Hebrew term translated “like men” bears further investigation.
4.4 Hosea 6:6-11. In Hosea 6:6-11, God speaks of His judgment going forth like light upon Ephraim and Judah. In that passage, Hosea used the same Hebrew term which Asaph used in Psalm 82:7. The New American Standard Bible translated that same Hebrew term in those passages differently. In Hosea 6:6, we see another “I” statement followed by the same Hebrew term “like man,” but the term is translated in New American Standard and English Standard Version as “like Adam.” In fact, the only other place where the exact same Hebrew term “like man” is used is in Job 31:33, and it also appears in translation there as “like Adam.” Similarities abound between Hosea 6 and Psalm 82. In Hosea 6, God spoke of coming judgment upon the evil workers of Gilead, Israel and Judah. God promised those evil humans that they will die like Adam (the same “contrast” of men dying like men). Therefore, in Psalm 82:6, we could well translate the verse “Nevertheless you will die like Adam and fall like any one of the princes.” Such a translation perfectly fits the context and would be consistent with the same usage in Hosea 6. So, the objection that the contrast of men with men resolves because the adversative is between the exalted status of the judges, called “elohim” and “sons of the Most High,” but even with that exalted position and high titles, they sinned and nevertheless suffer the same judgment of death God imposed upon Adam.
4.4.1 God Rules the Nations. Some people find support in Psalm 82:8 for a “divine council” ruling over the world. According to some “divine council” interpretations of Psalm 82, the human judges of Israel were never appointed over all the “nations” and so the “elohim” at issue in Psalm 82 could not be the human judges of Israel.
18.104.22.168 Eschatological Theme. Some people argue that non-humans rule the nations, and so the elohim cannot be humans, because the human rulers of Israel never rule the nations. Before anyone accepts that argument, please notice that the appeal in Psalm 82:8 is for God (“Elohim”) to judge, not a “divine council” to judge, and not even human judges to judge. In Psalm 82:8, Asaph reiterates a very common eschatological theme in the Old Testament: Messiah will come and bring judgment upon the world when He comes (Isaiah 2:4; 3:13; 16:5; Ezekiel 7:3, 8; Joel 3:12; Micah 3:10-12, 4:3; ). Even before the coming of Messiah, God will bring judgment upon His people (including the judges) for their wicked deeds and scatter them among the nations (Deuteronomy 30:1; Jeremiah 25:12; Daniel 9:1-6; Habakkuk 1:1-13). If the people of Israel called on God to bring justice to the oppressed of their country, would they be prohibited from calling upon God to judge the entire world, as He has promised when Jesus returns to earth to reign (Zechariah 14:1-21; Acts 17:35; Matthew 25:31-46)? The call for God to judge the world picks up a familiar eschatological theme of God’s future judgment of all the earth (e.g., Amos 9:9). Therefore, any claim that the judges of Israel do not judge the “nations” overlooks the theme of God judging the entire earth, beginning with Israel. Likewise, David called upon YAHWEH to arise and rage against his adversaries, for YAHWEH has appointed judgment (Psalm 7:6; see also other Psalmists making a similar appeal for YAHWEH to arise and take action, including judgment (Psalm 9:20; 10:12; Psalm 44:6). Therefore, nothing in Psalm 82:8 requires the interpretation that the “elohim” (human “rulers”) at issue in Psalm 82:1 judge the nations. Instead, God judges the earth and possesses all the nations. The verse itself presents an appeal for God to take such action, and follows the form and substance of other such appeals in the Old Testament. Nothing in Psalm 82 would require human judges to judge the nations; in fact, the plain words of the Psalm present Asaph’s appeal for God to judge the nations. Straw men never make good fuel for a lasting fire.
22.214.171.124 Eschatology and Sin. In Psalm 82, the sin of the judges controls the passage. Asaph called upon God to intervene and judge the nations, because the “elohim,” the very “sons of the Most High,” with their exalted position, have sinned like Adam, and so God will judge them as He judged Adam. Nothing in Psalm 82 indicates the “elohim” ruled the nations, but rather Asaph followed the eschatological theme that God will return, judge the entire world ( not just Israel) and establish His rule over all the earth. Hosea used the same phrase “like Adam” in the context of judgment by God to show how Adam died because Adam violated the covenant with God. One could argue that Adam was immortal and then died because of sin and, they claim, Paul made just that argument in Romans 5. Psalm 82 involves the contrast between “God” and the “elohim,” righteous activity and sinful activity, and exalted judges dying like Adam because of their sin. The heights from which the sinners fell provides a stunning contrast to their final demise.
4.4.2 God and Man. The judges in Psalm 82 did not pass from immortality to mortality, as claimed by the divine council view, but the “elohim” certainly received a death sentence. The greater contrast involves the revelation that God called some humans “elohim.” Because they were representatives of God, doing the will of God and applying the law of God, they were exalted members of the congregation of El. Yet, they sinned like Adam and their exalted position did not nothing to stop God from imposing the death penalty upon them for their sin, just like Adam. Because of their sin, they suffered the same judgment God imposed upon Adam, death, as Hosea 6 makes plain. Hosea 6 and the Old Testament provide a far more reliable guide to understanding Psalm 82 than the ancient pagans’ views of their demons. Therefore, the translation of Psalm 82:6 offered above (“die like Adam”) solves any issue related the adversative qualities of Psalm 82:6 and Psalm 82:7. Furthermore, the reference back to Adam fits well with the death of the first man because Adam disobeyed the commands of God and died, just as the human judges of Psalm 82 disobeyed the commands of God regarding judging His congregation and so the human judges died.
5. The Call for God To Judge the Earth
Psalm 82 ends with a call for God to judge the earth! God possesses all the nations, and so He must act as Judge. In 2 Chronicles 19:6, God commanded the judges to consider that they do not judge for men, but for the LORD who is with them when they render judgment.
Therefore, we know that God appointed human judges, but they must always be aware that they render their judgment for God, and that He must be with them when they judge. In Psalm 82, the judges have departed from justice, embraced wickedness, and left the weak and needy lacking the full protection of law the judges must provide to them. Yet, Asaph prayed that God Himself would arise and take all judicial matters into His own hands, because the Most High possesses all the nations. We can rejoice in knowing that God cares about justice for the weakest and most oppressed.
Psalm 82 │ Divine Council? │ Who Are the Elohim?
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Psalm 82 │ Divine Council? │ Who Are the Elohim?