Sunday, August 18, 2019
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (82:1). What about this verse catches your attention? Discussing it this week with a Christian I trust, one potential issue became apparent to me. How much do we really know about the unseen, the spiritual realm that exists all around us but outside our three dimensional universe and outside our powers of observation and measurement?
“In the midst of the gods [lower case ‘g’], God [capital ‘G’] holds judgment.” The Christian with whom I spoke, someone I trust, said, “Whatever that verse means, it cannot mean there are other gods. There is only one God.” His worldview demands a fierce commitment to monotheism. There is only one God. I agree.
So what do we do with Psalm 82:1 and other passages that indicate an entire governing system of supernatural beings that exist outside our ability to see? One scholar I read writes that the Psalmist in Psalm 82 “conjures a mythic heavenly court.”[i] Calling this writing mythology, the scholar indicates it is poetic way of discussing the problem of evil. How can evil exist when God is all powerful and all good? Psalm 82 doesn’t refer to a literal heavenly council because, as my Christian friend said, there’s no such thing. But is my friend and is this scholar correct? The book of Job, chapter 1 & 2, refer to a divine council. So does 1 Kings 22. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 32, Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 23, and Daniel chapters 7-12 are just a few of the numerous Old Testament passages that indicate an entire unseen world of activity. Creatures whether we call them angels, demons, gods with a lower ‘g’, or by some other title interact with God and each other. What happens in that realm directly affects us.
Such a statement runs against the grain of our conventional thinking at three levels. First, in our world of airplanes, space travel, and the internet, we have trouble taking seriously talk of an unseen spiritual realm. But, the very Bible we claim is an ultimate authority for truth, ethics, and morality in our lives was written in a time that knew nothing of the World Wide Web or telescopes or rocket ships. So there’s the distance of history; thousands of years of history.
The second tension is one of worldview. The ancients had no trouble talking about demons and gods and spiritual beings. It wasn’t belief. That supernatural world was assumed by all ancient peoples. With each scientific discovery over the past two millennia, belief in the spiritual is pushed further and further into the realm of superstition. How do we, with a scientific worldview, take seriously scriptures written by people with a pre-modern worldview?
Assuming by faith we resolve the first two tensions, the third one rears its head. The writers of Psalm 82 and the entire Old Testament and the entire New Testament were ancient Jews. They held ancient assumptions. Even when they held tightly to theiir monotheistic faith – belief in 1 God – they existed in a world that assumed multiple gods and they were a product of that world. We are Christians in the 21st century. We are products of our world. Like my friend, we are tempted to say, ‘no, there’s no divine council; just one God.’ We might not know why this is so important to believe, but we know it is, so we are committed to this position.
How do we resolve the tensions of history, of worldview, and of our own religious assumptions? How do we get past the tension so we can do a deep dive into the Bible passage? How do we get to the point that we can, as followers of Jesus, open Psalm 82 and hear God speak into our lives as we read it?
We need to name the tension and understand it. The ancient writers have different assumptions than we modern readers. There’s no reason to shy away from this tension. Identify it and accept.
Then, we find handholds. What are the core issues that ancient writers and modern readers can both relate to? In the case of Psalm 82, the handhold is in verse 2-4. This is the common ground.
In these verses, God is angry with the gods for failing to give justice to the weak and the orphaned. Whether the term “gods” actually refers to earthly princes, kings, and rulers, or to demonic spirits that malevolently influence earthly tyrants, the result is the same. God is furious when people who have power in society do nothing to help people who are powerless. Remember, middle class Americans are rich compared with 90% of the people around the world. When the rich exploit the poor in order to hoard privilege, God judges the rich.
So the connection point with the Psalm in our day and time is the way we who have privilege either walk alongside the poor, the refugee, the minority, and help them; or, we use our power and privilege to keep ourselves well-fed and to keep the poor down. As Jesus shows in Matthew 25, how we relate to the most vulnerable people in society is tied to how God relates to us.
In Psalm 82, the narrator is the speaker in verse 1, announcing God as God holds court in the heavenly council. In verses 2-4, God speaks to those He has entrusted to inforce justice, but who have failed to do so. In verse 5, the narrator speaks of the ignorance of those God has judged. Verses 6-7 give us God’s verdict. “You shall die.” Whatever is meant by calling these at the council ‘gods,’ they are completely subservient to the God of Abraham, the God we see in the New Testament. That God, the only one truly called Almighty, has the power to obliterate these other beings.
Psalm 82:8, the final verse, changes perspective. In this verse the narrator again speaks, this time in prayer to God. “Rise up, O God. Judge the earth.” Thus we see the tension resolved as we connect to God where God has expressed the highest value: justice for the poor and for the disadvantaged. God expected his divine council to administer justice. God expects us to work for justice and advocate for the poor.
Knowing that, we can read Psalm 82 as a word from God for us and we can live a word-informed faith. We do this as Christians. Even though the Psalms come from the people of Israel, the promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So our starting point is to give our lives to Jesus.
On this point, know what is being said and what is not being said. This is not a call to church membership. Of course we want people to join the church. But being aware of the unseen spiritual world and navigating that reality as God-worshippers is not dependent upon church membership.
Neither is it a matter of becoming a Christian. Yes, we must confess our sins and receive forgiveness and receive Jesus as our Savior. That is necessary and everyone who does not turn to Christ is cut off from God in sin. But becoming a Christian is just a partial step.
We go all the way into the word-informed faith when we give our lives completely to Jesus. He is master of our lives, every relationship we are in, every bit of our time, and everywhere we go. We fully surrender our wills to his.
Once we have given our lives to Jesus, we then align ourselves with God. We value what God values. In the case of Psalm 82 that would be justice for the poor. If we were reading 1 Corinthians 13, we’d commit to self-giving love. If we were in the Sermon on the Mount, we’d explore what it means to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We scour the scriptures to see how God administers the world and to see God’s desire for how human life is to be lived. And then, that’s how we live.
Having given our lives to Jesus and having aligned our lives with God’s values, in order to live a word-informed faith, we then commit to two spiritual disciplines. We commit to prayer without ceasing. In all the places of our lives, we pray. Of course, this doesn’t mean stopping the company board meeting to hold a prayer service. That would get your fired. However, it does mean as you go through that board meeting, in your mind, you’re reaching to God. Ask God to help you do your work with excellence. Ask God to help you show His love to your coworkers. Ask God to help you maintain your integrity as you work. This spirit of prayer is constant and it colors who we are in all the places of life.
The other spiritual discipline is worship. Be committed to weekly worship with the church, either here or in another church. We sing, we pray, we turn our eyes toward heaven, and our hearts toward God. We believe the Holy Spirit is here helping us worship and receiving the worship we offer. This belief is the start of our acknowledgement that God is beyond our understanding. But God is also present, loving us and acting for our good.
We know there is more here than meets the eye, and because we are children of God in Christ, that is a good thing.
If you have never given your life to Christ, you can. Today, turn to Him for new life. If you are terrified by the thought of demons or evil spirits, you can receive assurance from God right now. And if you long to see the poor lifted up, be encouraged. What matters to you matters to God.