Psalm 82 – Of Gods or Human Kings?

This is not an exegetical commentary on Psalm 82, but rather the purpose of this article is to advocate for a different perspective regarding the identity of the ‘gods’ who are mentioned in v. 1 and addressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82. My premise is that these ‘gods’ are actually the kings of the earth, and I will show why I believe this to be a more satisfying view than the view that the ‘gods’ = literal divine beings or the ‘gods’ = some other human figures, such as Israelite judges or all Israelites. This is a modification of my previous view found in this article: An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept. There, I limited my understanding of ‘gods’ to the kings of Israel only, but now I see these ‘gods’ as all the kings of the earth, including the Israelite kings.

For many centuries it was virtually unanimous among biblical expositors that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 was a reference to the human judges of Israel. This was also a well known Jewish interpretation found in the Midrash on Psalms and Targum Jonathan. Another rabbinic interpretation sees ‘gods’ as referring to the nation of Israel at Sinai. There they received the Torah and became obedient to it thus making them immortal i.e. ‘gods’. But having later become disobedient, God declared that they would “die like Adam.” While the first of these views has some validity, the second one is rather nonsensical. Then there is, of course, the view popularized by Dr. Michael Heiser, that the ‘gods’ are literal divine beings, members of a supposed council of gods over which Yahweh stands as the Supreme God. In this article I will also engage with Heiser’s views concerning this psalm as found in this 2010 paper: http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/ETS2010Psalm82.pdf

Overview

My general take on this psalm is that the inspired psalmist is portraying God’s relationship to the kings of the earth by analogy to the divine council of the pagan religions, i.e. Yahweh is the Supreme God who stands in the council of the lesser gods (the kings of the earth) who are set in place to administer his righteousness and justice in the earth. The psalm depicts God calling these ‘gods’ to account for their failure to maintain the proper order in human societies {vv.1-2}. The psalmist lays out their divine commission which they have failed to carry out {vv. 3-4}. These kings, a.k.a. gods, are depicted as having no knowledge or understanding, probably of Yahweh and his righteousness and the fact that he has set them in power to rule on his behalf. Therefore the foundations of human society, righteousness and justice, are overthrown {v. 5}. Though Yahweh has given them a divine status {v. 6}, yet they will die just like men and like the lesser rulers who rule under them {v. 7}. The psalmist then calls upon God to rule the earth himself.

Kings As Gods

It is no secret that in the ancient Near East kings were regarded as divine figures. This was not necessarily because they were considered as actual gods, i.e. by nature, but because they were viewed as chosen by and ruling on behalf of an actual god. In this respect they were designated as ‘son’ of the god on who’s behalf they ruled. It was a matter of divine status not of divine ontology. In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible we read:

A parent-child relationship between the gods and the king was common imagery in the ancient world. Such imagery supported the authority of the king and portrayed his role as mediator between the divine realm and the world in which he was to maintain order . . . In Egypt and for a few kings in early Mesopotamia, this relationship was portrayed in terms of a semi-divine king. The Egyptian king manifested divinity in his human form in the embodiment of a deified office . . . (For) the king in Mesopotamia . . . the metaphor of relationship was understood in terms of election and decree to kingship . . . But Assyrian kings were never described with divine titles or worshipped as in Egypt. Kings in David’s genealogical line also held their kingship by divine adoption . . . The adoption metaphor in Israel . . . used terminology similar to that found in other ancient Near East treaties . . . The great king was designated as “father” and the vassal king was his “son.” In this way of thinking, the Davidic king was the “son” of the great King, Yahweh, who was the “father.”

Comment on Psalm 2:6 by John Walton

The fact that kings were regarded as ‘sons’ of the gods on whose behalf they ruled, is what gave them their divine status. We see this concept expressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82: “I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ “ Therefore, in this passage ‘gods’ = ‘sons of God’. If this is true then the converse is also true i.e. ‘sons of God’ = ‘gods’, but again, as a matter of status not nature.

Seeing then that kings were generally understood to hold a divine status, and that the Davidic king was at least once addressed by the title elohim {see Ps. 45:6}, it may be that other references to ‘gods’ in the psalms are actually references to earthly kings rather than to the deities of the nations. An example may be Ps. 58:1-2:

“Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods? Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? No, in heart you work unrighteousness; on earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.” NASV

Verse 1 of this passage is obscure because the word here translated ‘gods’ is translated in other versions as ‘silence’ (ASV, ISR, ISV, ERV) or ‘silent ones’ (NKJV, YLT, WEB). This is because there are two words in the Hebrew which have the same consonants but different vowel pointings in the Masoretic text- elem and elim. Elem is an masculine adjective which acts as a noun and comes from the verb alam meaning to be mute, hence ‘silent one’. Elim is the plural form of el which is translated as God or god. The idea of ‘silent ones’ or ‘silence’ does not seem to fit the context of the verse, for then you would have ‘silent ones’ speaking or speaking ‘in silence’, which makes little sense. There have been various attempts to explain the verse from this perspective but they always seem strained. Another problem with elem is that it is a masculine singular construct, whereas the verbs for speaking and judging are plural. Also if the plural ‘sons of men’ is meant to parallel the singular elem, then again we have a problem. Therefore, it seems best to repoint the vowels differently than the Masoretic text, and in fact many scholars favor doing so, and read elim instead of elem. This gives us a plural noun agreeing with the plural verbs and the plural parallel ‘sons of men’. This change of the vowel points is reflected in the following versions: AMP, CEB, EHV, ESV, ESVUK, NASB, NASB1995, NRSV, OJB, RSV.

Other versions accept the reading elim over elem but translate it as ‘mighty ones’ or ‘rulers’, because el is sometimes used of great rulers in the Hebrew Bible {see Ezek. 31:11 where it refers to Nebuchanezzar}. El appears in plural construct in Ezek. 32:21, where the context reveals that it refers to kings and princes of the nations. As noted above, this application of the title el to these rulers is probably in reference to their divine status.

Now Heiser might object that if elim is the correct reading then the passage may refer to the members of the divine council, which in his understanding are actual ontologically divine beings. But this seems ruled out by the parallelism in Ps. 58:1 between these elim and the ‘sons of men’. Now some versions translate the passage as if the ‘sons of men’ are the recipients of the judging of the elim rather than as a parallel designation of the elim:

  • CSB – “Do you judge people fairly?”
  • CEB – “do you really judge humans fairly?”
  • ERV – “You are not judging people fairly.”
  • ESV – “Do you judge the children of man uprightly?”
  • ISV – “How can you judge people fairly?”
  • NIV – “Do you judge people with equity?”

These translations leave open the possibility that the elim are heavenly beings rather than earthly kings. But if the two clauses of verse 1 are meant to be parallel, and I think this is the case, then ‘sons of men’ should be taken as vocative just as elim is in all of the above versions. Hence, the NASV, quoted earlier, would give the best rendering of the verse, making the elim equivalent to the ‘sons of men’, thus ruling out elim as a reference to heavenly beings. Furthermore, if the ‘sons of men’ were the recipients of the judging or the sphere in which the elim judged, we would expect a preposition such as be or le to be prefixed to the word ‘sons’ such as at Num. 8:17 and Ps. 12:8. Thus, Ps. 58:1-2 is good evidence of earthly kings being referred to as ‘gods’.

Another possible reference to earthly kings as ‘gods’ is Ps. 89:27, where speaking of David and his descendants after him who attain to the throne, God says:

“I will appoint him my firstborn, the most high of the kings of the earth.”

Here the Davidic king is regarded as Yahweh’s firstborn son. But this implies other sons besides the Davidic king i.e. the kings of the earth. The kings of the earth are also designated, then, as ‘sons of God’, though the Davidic king holds the highest rank among them, and as we saw earlier sons of God = gods i.e. divine status.

Still yet another possible instance of earthly kings being called ‘gods’ is Ex. 15:11:

“Who among the gods (elim) is like you O Yahweh? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”

Why should we take this as a reference to earthly kings rather than of the deities of the nations? The context of the passage is a song of praise which Moses and the Israelites sang to God after the Egyptian army was destroyed. The song depicts Yahweh as a great warrior king who has just defeated his enemies in battle. While this could be taken in the sense that Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt, it was in fact Pharaoh and his army which Yahweh defeated. This defeat is described in great poetic strains and the focus is always on Pharaoh and his army and never on the gods of Egypt {see vv. 1-12}. In vv. 14-15 the song speaks of the nations of Canaan hearing of this great defeat of the mighty Egypt and trembling in fear. Verse 15 specifically speaks of the kings of the Canaanite nations fearing their own demise at the hand of the great warrior king Yahweh, and uses parallel terms to do so. The first term is alluwph which is translated as chief; the second is el which, as we’ve already seen means god; and the third is yashab, a participle meaning the inhabiting ones, but in this case probably means the sitting ones i.e. the ones sitting on the throne {for this use see Is. 10:13; Amos 1:5; Ps. 2:4; 9:7; 22:4; 29:10; 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps. 99:1}. Once again, no mention is made of the deities of the Canaanite nations only of their earthly rulers. For these reasons the ‘gods’ of v. 11 should be taken as human rulers, in the sense that Yahweh, the king of Israel, is greater than the kings of all the nations and none among them can compare with him.

Other passages show how, often, kings took their divine status beyond what was proper and, becoming puffed up, began to regard themselves as being more than simply a representative of their god. Two passages which vividly depict this with mocking tones is Ezek. 28:1-19 and Is. 14:12-15. In these passages God taunts the proud and arrogant kings and tells of their demise {Ezek. 28:19 and Is. 14:9-11}. This is very reminiscent of Ps. 82: 6-7.

Kings Are Responsible To God

In Scripture the kings of the earth are depicted as being set in place by God and ruling on behalf of God. The clearest statement of this is in the NT:

Everyone must submit to the supreme authorities, for there is no authority except under God. Those which exist are under God, having been established . . . For he (i.e. the one in authority) is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do evil be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, the one carrying out justice unto punishment to the one doing evil.

Romans 13:1-4

That this refers to kings in particular can be seen by the fact that 1 Peter 2:13 used the same word Paul used, huperecho, translated in the quote above as ‘supreme’, and applies it specifically to kings. Paul believed kings were set in place by God and were therefore under God i.e. responsible to him for how they carried out their office. There can be no doubt that Paul derived this view from the Hebrew scriptures. Some passages which come to mind are:

  • Dan. 2:20-21“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever . . . he deposes kings and raises up kings . . .”
  • Dan. 2:37-38“You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory. In your hand he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live he has made you ruler over them all . . .”
  • Dan. 4:17“. . . the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to whoever he pleases and sets over them the lowliest of men.”
  • Jer. 27:5-7 “With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and it’s people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar . . . all nations will serve him . . .”

Here is another pertinent passage which deserves some attention:

The nobles of the nations have gathered together the people of the God of Abraham, for the shields (i.e. kings) of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.

Psalm 47:9

The term ‘shields’ is a metaphor for kings. This can be seen in the synonymous parallelism of Ps. 89:18, where the Davidic king is viewed as belonging to Yahweh. Whether Psalm 47 depicts some period of time in the past or envisions a future time, it portrays the kings of the earth as also belonging to God. In the Hebrew text the lamed is prefixed to elohim (God) signifying to or for God, thereby denoting that the kings of the earth render service to or on behalf of God as vassals kings. This is confirmed by v. 2 which speaks of Yahweh as the “Most High, the great king over all the earth,” and by v. 8, which declares, “God reigns over the nations.” This need not imply that the kings of the earth know or acknowledge that they serve at the behest of God, but only that from God’s perspective they rule at his pleasure.

Now let’s see what the main duties of a king was from God’s perspective:

  • 2 Chron. 9:8“Praise be to Yahweh your God who . . . placed you on his throne as king to rule for Yahweh your God . . . he has made you king . . .to maintain justice and righteousness.”
  • Psalm 72:2-4, 12-14He (the king) will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice . . . he will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor . . . For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence . . .”
  • Jer. 21:11 – “Moreover, say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of Yahweh; O house of David, this is what Yahweh says, “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.”
  • Jer. 22:1-3“This is what Yahweh says, ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: “Hear the word of Yahweh, O king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne . . . Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
  • Prov. 31:4-9“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, not for kings to drink wine . . . lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights . . . Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge righteously; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

I think it is safe to say that God established kingship in the ancient world as a means of bringing some level of order and peace to human societies. Without such a form of centralized rule societies in the ancient world would have quickly collapsed into anarchy and chaos. In order to accomplish this it was indispensable for kings to maintain justice and equity toward all the people under their rule. Although the passages above were primarily written with regard to the Davidic king, I believe we would be justified in extrapolating that God required of all kings the same concern for maintaining justice and equity on the throne.

This leads us to the charge made against the ‘gods’ of Psalm 82. In v. 2 we read:

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.

Ps. 82:2

And then comes the call for them to fulfill their divine duty in accordance with God’s purpose in establishing kingship:

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain justice for the afflicted and needy. Rescue the weak and oppressed; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Ps. 82:3-4

The question must be asked – if the ‘gods’ of v. 1 are ontologically divine beings ruling over earthly kingdoms from a heavenly sphere, in what way did they “defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” It must be stated categorically that the duties enjoined in vv. 3-4 are the duties of earthly kings not of heavenly beings. There is no passage in scripture that I am aware of that makes the justice and protection of the weak and afflicted envisioned in this passage, the commission of heavenly beings. Yet, we are explicitly told that these are the duties of human kings.

The ‘gods’ are further rebuked in v. 5:

They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Ps. 82:5

Once again, does this fit better with members of a heavenly divine council or with earthly kings who are ignorant of the true God and the fact that they rule at his pleasure and are therefore responsible to him. Could it really be said of the ontologically divine members of Yahweh’s council, who would know Yahweh personally and would know their responsibility before him, that they know and understand nothing?

Answering Heiser’s Objections

In his 2010 paper Heiser makes the claim that arguing that these [gods] are human beings is inescapably incoherent. In the paper he claims that he has demonstrated that there is no coherent argument in favor of the human identification. But Heiser has failed to do this because he simply argues against only one particular version of the human identification view, i.e. that of the human judges of Israel. My view actually eliminates immediately one of Heiser’s objections to the judges of Israel view. On page 8 of the paper Heiser says:

First, it is worth noting that these judges (of Ex. 22:7-9). . . are rendering decisions for the nation of Israel – not the nations of the world as is the case in Psalm 82 . . .

Heiser’s 2010 paper p. 8

You can see that my view that the ‘gods’ are metaphorical of the kings of the earth removes this objection completely. I agree with Heiser that v. 8 of Ps. 82 requires a focus on the nations and not just Israel. This is partially why I revised my former view which saw the ‘gods’ as only the kings of Judah and Israel.

Another objection of Heiser’s is found in v. 7 where it is said of the gods, “you will die like men.” He thinks this rules out that the ‘gods’ are men because why would men be told that they “will die like men?” He believes God is announcing his judgment against these corrupt members of the divine council, which judgment being that “they will lose their immortality.” But there are a couple of problems with this objection. First, it is a bit myopic and prosaic. Heiser reads the psalm as if it were literal prose instead of the highly poetic work that it clearly is. A better way to understand the verse is that they “will die like men” is said in contrast to Yahweh’s designation of them as ‘gods’; though they hold a divine status they will die like the men they are. Second, what exactly would it mean for pure spirit beings to die. In Heiser’s world when men die they only die physically, but their spirits live on in a disembodied state – this is what it means for men to die in Heiser’s view. Since he takes the passage literally then these spirit beings will “die like men.” Yet he seems to be saying that these beings will cease to exist i.e. being pure spirit beings who live forever, they will lose their immortality and so die. But how is this dying like men, who do not cease to exist when they die, from Heiser’s perspective. To die like men these divine beings would have to merely shed off some form in which they now exist to exist forever in some other form not suitable to their own domain. I would like to hear a clear explanation of the death of these divine beings by Heiser.

I will now address the six items that Heiser lists at the end of his paper which he thinks proves conclusively that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 cannot refer to humans. Please refer to the paper for each item as I will not repeat them here.

1.) This point hearkens back to pp.2-3 in the paper, where Heiser lists six figures in the Hebrew Bible who are called elohim – Yahweh, both the loyal and disloyal members of Yahweh’s divine council, the gods of the nations, demons, the disembodied human dead, and angels. First off, I’m confused, because he lists the members of the divine council and the gods of the nations as distinct things. But I thought that in his view the gods of the nations are the disloyal members of the council. Anyway, He then says that what all these have in common is that “they are by nature not part of the world of humankind.” Heiser gives the impression that the term elohim is never applicable to humans, but this is false. I have heard Heiser himself acknowledge that Ps. 45:6 refers to the Davidic king by the term elohim, but he fails to mention this in this paper. Also in Exodus 7:1 Yahweh says to Moses, “I have appointed you elohim to Pharaoh.” Of course, both of these instances reflect a representational application of the term i.e. it is a matter of status and function, not of nature. Heiser never seems to address this use of elohim for humans though I can’t imagine he is unaware of this concept. So we see that the term elohim can be applied to humans in a certain sense.
2.) This point I do not believe Heiser has proved conclusively despite his confident assertions. All he has proven is that the language of Deut. 32 and Ps. 82 could accommodate the idea of a divine council, and from this he extrapolates that the language requires such an interpretation. But these passages can easily be interpreted within a biblical framework without recourse to the concept of a divine council of gods ruling over the nations. Heiser simply wants the scripture to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. He states that “no text in the Old Testament assigns to human Israelite judges [authority over the disinherited nations].” Well I agree, but there are plenty of texts that state emphatically that God has given authority over the disinherited nations to human beings, namely kings: 1 Kings 4:21; Ps. 115:16; 148:11; Is. 14:9; Ezek. 31:11; Dan. 2:36-38; 4:17; 5:19.
3.) I am not sure what Heiser thinks ‘demons’ are, though I think in his book titled Demons (which I have not read) he equates them with the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim. But Deut. 32:17, which he quotes on p. 6 of the paper, seems to equate demons with the gods worshiped by the nations, which Heiser believes are members of the council. This seems to be an inconsistency in his position (perhaps his book clears it up). Nevertheless, this point is totally irrelevant to whether the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are human or divine. His point seems to be that if demons = the gods worshiped by the nations, then these gods have to be actual beings and not just imaginary gods. But this is not a necessary conclusion. If demons are actual spirit entities which crave and thrive on the worship people give to false gods in the form of idols, this would not necessarily mean that the demons are literally gods, but just impersonators of gods. This seems to be confirmed by 1 Tim 4:1 which equates demons with deceitful spirits. The adjective deceitful (Gr. planos) denotes misleading, deceiving, and when used substantively it denotes an imposter or deceiver.
4.) This point is really the whole crux of the matter for Heiser. Everything must be made to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. This is what drives much of Heiser’s exegesis. But what if these texts were inspired by those very same deceiving spirits mentioned above, in an attempt to confuse the truth of God with the errors of the pagan nations? Wouldn’t Heiser be playing right into their hands?
5.) Here, once again, Heiser’s exegesis lacks nuance and so falls flat. In the paper, he looks at the passages where elohim is typically thought to be referring to judges – Ex. 22:7-9 and 21:2-6. In both of these passages individuals are required to come before or be brought before God (i.e. elohim) and this has been taken to refer to the judges. Now I agree with Heiser that elohim in these verses does not refer specifically to the judges themselves. But Heiser fails to recognize the role of the judges in these situations. When someone was to come before God where would they go? Or when someone was to be brought before God, to where would they actually bring them? The answer is to the judges, who were acting as representatives of the people before God {see Deut. 19:16-18}. This is similar to when an individual Israelite would bring an offering to Yahweh he would literally bring it to the priest. The priest was not Yahweh but represented the person before Yahweh. In the same way, to follow the instructions given in these two passages one was probably required to go to the judges in order to bring their case before God.
6.) This point is only relevant if one thinks Jesus is deity and that he quoted Ps. 82:6 in order to prove his deity, both of which I deny. The passage in John 10 makes perfectly good sense if one does not think a.) that Jesus is deity b.) that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are actual gods c.) that Jesus is trying to prove his deity by quoting Ps. 82 in John 10. Or said another way, it makes good sense if one sees a.) Jesus as the chosen son of David destined to take the throne b.) the gods of Ps. 82 as kings and c.) Jesus’ point in John 10 is that, based on a.) he had a right to the title ‘son of God’.

Final Thoughts

So why does this even matter? So what if the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are real gods or just a metaphor for human kings? Well, in the larger scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter much for many. But I do see a lot of confusion about this passage and about Jesus’ use of the psalm in his conflict with the Jews in John 10. Heiser’s take on John 10 borders on ridiculous and is a prime example of eisegesis, i.e. reading one’s presuppositions into the text. He thinks the only way to adequately understand John 10 is through the paradigm of the divine council. He thinks that John is presenting Jesus’ deity in 10:22-42. He thinks that Jesus quotes Ps.82:6 in order to “establish his claim to be God.” None of these ideas are explicit in the text; Heiser is simply reading the text in accordance with his theological predilections. I will not take the time here to refute his claims on John 10, as I have done so in the article linked at the beginning of this one, and also in this article. So it matters because, when a certain misinterpretation of Ps. 82 is then used to support a certain misinterpretation of Jesus in the gospels, it becomes necessary to address the errors that led to that misinterpretation.



Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

3 thoughts on “Psalm 82 – Of Gods or Human Kings?”

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