Theme: Judges Called to Account
From this week’s lessons we learn that government is given by God for the good of its people, and those who rule are responsible to act justly.
Scripture: Psalm 82:1-8
On one occasion Jesus’ enemies came to him with a trick question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not” (Matt. 22:17)? They thought that if he said it was right to pay taxes, they could discredit him in the eyes of those who hated Rome and for whom taxes were a much-resented burden. On the other hand, if he said that the Jews should resist Rome by refusing to pay their taxes, then they could denounce him to the Roman authorities as an insurrectionist who was trying to overthrow Caesar.
Jesus asked for a coin. When they produced it, he asked whose portrait was on it, probably holding it out so they could see it.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said.
Then, probably turning the coin over so they could see the portrait of the Roman god or goddess that would have been on the reverse side, he added, “and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
The first part of Jesus’ answer reinforced Caesar’s authority, even in such an unpopular matter as taxes. His second part drew limits since, although the state has a God-given and therefore legitimate authority, the authority of God is greater. Jesus’ words were a reminder that those who exercise authority are responsible to God for what they do.
This is the precise situation we are dealing with in Psalm 82, for it is a psalm in which the earthly judges of Israel are being called to account by God. The opening verse says, “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods…”
But there is a problem we have to deal with before we can go further, and it is the meaning of “gods” in this verse and verse 6 (“I said, ‘You are “gods”: you are all sons of the Most High’”). There are two possibilities:1
1. Human judges, particularly the judges of Israel. The oldest and, in fact, almost universal view among the older commentators is that “gods” refers to human judges, particularly the judges of Israel.2 To call a human judge a “god” may seem strange to us, even when we know that the word for “gods” is the broad term elohim. But it does not seem to have been strange for ancient Israel. For example, in Exodus 21:6, as part of the Jews’ civil law, the people were told that if a man who had been a slave for six years and was to be set free in the seventh year should nevertheless have come to love his master and want to remain with him, he was to be brought to the elohim, who should pierce his ear as a sign that he had chosen to be a servant for life. The New International Version (and some others) rightly translates this verse: “then his master must take him before the judges.” The same usage occurs several more times in Exodus 22.3
The best argument for this view is the way Jesus referred to this psalm in John 10:34-36. The leaders had accused him of blasphemy because he habitually called himself “God’s Son.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? [This is where he referred to Psalm 82.] If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
Some have accused Jesus of trying to escape on a technicality regarding the use of words, but he was not doing this. He did not soft peddle his unique relationship to God, for his reply asserted that the Father had set him apart as his very own and sent him into the world. What he was doing was replying to their specific accusation, which was his use of the phrase “Son of God” for himself, and his point was that God had used even stronger language than this of human judges in the Old Testament. Jesus’ reply shows that he regarded Psalm 82 as being about Israel’s civil rulers.
His reply does something else that is also important, however. It gives one reason why the judges of Israel could be called “gods.” It is because “the word of God came” to them. That is, they were God’s spokesmen. When they acted justly and rendered just judgment it was as if God himself had acted, by acting through them. J. J. Stewart Perowne adds, “They were sons of the Highest, called by his name, bearing his image, exercising his authority, charged to execute his will, and they ought to have been in their measure his living representatives.”4 They did not do this, of course, which is what the remainder of the psalm is about.
1There are variants of these two possibilities, however. Some extend “human judges” to include those of the Gentile nations, largely because of verse 8, which speaks of God judging the entire earth, while others extend “principalities and powers” to include Gentile gods or goddesses, or angels.
2H. C. Leupold is strong on this position (see Exposition of the Psalms [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969], pp. 592-594), but so are J. J. Stewart Perowne (Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989], Vol. 2, pp. 101-104) and Alexander Maclaren (The Psalms, Vol. 2 [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893], pp. 426-428).
3In verses 8, 9 and 28. In the case of verse 28, the New International Version reads, “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” The footnote to the verse indicates that the first half of the sentence may be parallel to the second half and might therefore be translated, “Do not revile the judges.”
4J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 2, p. 102.
How does the passage cited in Matthew limit the authority of earthly rulers?
Name one possibility for the meaning of “gods” in Psalm 82.
How did Jesus use this psalm in John 10:34-36?
Reflection: Are you in a position of authority over someone else? Do you always remember you are responsible to God for your actions toward that person?
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