Psalm 82 brings us into a courtroom. We get to witness a trial. The judge is none other than God himself. Something about a courtroom drama resonates with us on a deep level; it’s why so many movies and television shows are made about it. It’s deeply meaningful to us to see justice fought for and enacted. We want to see the innocent vindicated and the guilty appropriately punished. Psalm 82 knows this about us. So it begins, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (Psalm 82:1) We, church, are not on trial here; we are eager spectators. It is the “gods” who are on trial. Yes, we know there is only one true God. “An idol is nothing at all.” (1 Corinthians 8:4) But the ancient Israelites lived in a world saturated in polytheism, paganism and idol worship. Monotheism only dawned on the Israelites slowly. So Psalm 82 envisions the gods of pagan nations coming before the God of Israel, and indeed of the whole world, as defendants to be judged.
And the judgment isn’t pretty. The prosecution asks, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and to the orphan!” To be worthy of god status is to place oneself on the side of the weak, the oppressed, the cripplingly disadvantaged. And yet these “gods,” these spiritual forces at work in the world always seem to find themselves on the side of ones like Pharaoh, Herod, and the like.
Now a verdict is declared: These gods “have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” (82:5) Thus they are not worthy of god status after all. They have failed to be what they are meant to be. Instead of creating justice, they create its opposite. They have failed to the extent that the earth itself is shaken, unsteady with overflowing injustice and violence and poverty.
And so a sentence is handed down. “I say, ‘you are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.'” (82:6-7) Their negligence and love of chaos and injustice will result in their judgment and downfall. They will experience death just like anyone else, and we’re not sad to see them go.
While “gods” may not be our usual way of perceiving spiritual reality, we do affirm that there are spiritual forces at work in the world that do great harm. The Gospel of Mark calls them “unclean spirits.” Paul often calls them “rulers and authorities” or “powers and principalities.” And what good news that these spiritual forces meet exactly the fate that Psalm 82 hands down to them. When Jesus meets an unclean spirit, he casts it out. And Paul proclaims that Jesus, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)
The gods have been judged, disarmed, and overthrown. Amen. So Psalm 82 closes by giving us a prayer to reflect just how eager we are to be in the courtroom and see his righteous judgment. “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth, for all the nations belong to you!”