Psalm 82 - God Judging the Gods
It is the temptation of all religious people to narrow down their view of God and to limit him to some small circle outside of which he is thought to have no interest. This is done sometimes through ignorance and infirmity, and sometimes through prejudice, which is more serious. 'The people of God are in every age a 'little flock', but they must never develop a little-flock mentality'. God has wider interests and concerns than our church, our denomination, or even all the presently existing churches in the world.
It was culpable of the prophet Jonah that he was angry with God at His concern for the people of Nineveh. It was culpable of the Jews of Christ's day that they had largely lost sight of the wider plan of God's grace one day to call to himself all nations. It was ignorance of God and ugly prejudice which animated the Jerusalem crowd, when they heard Paul speaking of his call to evangelise the Gentiles, to cry out, 'away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live' (Acts 22:22).
One benefit of knowing the Bible well is that it expands and broadens our view of God, of his plans, purposes and concerns. All unprejudiced reading of the Bible leads us to appreciate that God has an extraordinarily wide interest in all that touches on the wellbeing of men and nations. Narrow and bigoted forms of religion teach us to 'love our neighbour and hate our enemy' (Matthew 5:43). True religion urges us to love and pray even for those who hate us and persecute us (Matthew 5:44). The basic reason why such extravagantly generous behaviour is right, is that this same generous attitude exists within God himself. He sends his benefits and favours in this life on the evil as well as on the good (Matthew 5:45). His children must do likewise, says the Saviour.
Bad religion is interested exclusively in the brotherhood. It forgets that we are not only to love our brother but also to love our neighbour who is outside our religious circle. Bad religion has warm feelings for those inside the group but cannot stretch to those outside of the group, even when they believe virtually the same things. Bad religion unchurches all who are of another denomination, however holy and orthodox they may be. Behind all such inward-looking narrowness is a weak and unscriptural view of God. Bad religion wants to claim God as its own exclusive property and cannot bear to share him with others, not even with others who are good and godly. This, according to Paul, is a spiritual disease by which men's 'bowels' are 'straitened', or narrowed (2 Corinthians 6:12).
Psalm 82 takes an expansive view of God, as do very many of the Psalms. It opens with the announcement that God is present in human parliaments and presides over the courts and congresses of this world, no less than he presides over the universal church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is surely a reassuring and a timely reminder. The Bible knows nothing of a God whose sovereignty and activity are confined solely to ecclesiastical affairs. It is true that the interests of Christ's church on earth take precedence in God's purposes over the agenda of national leaders and of world governments. But we must never forget that 'the powers that be are ordained of God' (Romans 13:1) and that he places governments and their leaders in their places of power because they have a part, albeit perhaps an unwitting part, to play in his all-embracing plan for his world.
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.Psalm 82:1
This announcement is to the effect that God is always invisibly present when parliaments gather to frame laws and when world-leaders (called 'gods' because government is a God-like exercise of power) discuss political issues. God 'judges' among these leaders. He weighs up their policies, evaluates their opinions and agendas, passes silent judgment on their public and private lives. Political leaders wield power, whether they know it or not, only because God has placed it in their hands for wise reasons of his own.
Belshazzar was not the first, nor was he the last, world-leader to be 'weighed in the balances' (Daniel 5:27). He had forgotten God and paid the terrible price of all who commit the sin of wilful forgetfulness. Shocked too as Pilate must have been to hear it from the lips of the meek and lowly Jesus, he must have agreed in his own conscience that he 'could have no power at all ... except it was given ... from above' (John 19:11). Pilate was a hard man but he sensed something supernatural in Jesus which left him afraid. Here indeed, though Pilate did not know his Old Testament, was a prime case of God standing among the gods and judging his judges! Pilate had more sense than the religious leaders who felt none of his fear before Christ.
The term 'democracy' is surely overworked in our day. It is a term which has slipped down in the scale to become a mere slogan whose meaning is not defined or understood. In pagan Rome it was policy on the part of the ruling powers to keep the unruly populace happy with 'bread and circuses'. But life in pagan Rome was cheap. Slaves were thrown weekly into the arena to die as gladiators to amuse the coarse and crude tastes of the men of that day. The rich kept their wealth and the poor groaned for want of public justice.
Public justice, as Psalm 82 shows us, is what God expects and will require from those in high places of government. It is evident that God does not find it as often as he should:
How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked?Psalm 82:2
It is a question whether modern governments have anything more than a passing acquaintance with the claims of justice and moral integrity, even though the great nations of the West have had the influences of the gospel for nigh on two millennia. What God clearly demands from governments, whatever their colour or party, is that they do govern:
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked.Psalm 82:3-4
Put simply, this means that God requires of governments that they frame laws which protect the vulnerable. He expects and demands of governments that they pursue policies which make it safe for people to live and go about their innocent occupations and lawful business without fear or molestation.
It is hard to believe that God could approve of much that goes by the name of democratic government today, in our Western countries at any rate. It is an affront to the moral law of God that our national laws have been drastically liberalised over the past three or four decades. Those who take the Bible seriously must be compelled to believe that the toleration of moral rottenness, when governments might act to punish, deter and prevent it, is nothing short of a profanation of God's great name. The millions of abortions carried out only for social reasons, the exposure of young persons to sensuality and promiscuity, the lowering of the age of homosexual consent and the threat to lower it still farther — all these and many similar evils which governments might restrict if they would, are things which cry to high heaven for God's intervention. 'He judgeth among the gods' (v. 1).
It is no excuse of modern governments that they introduce liberal laws because the people want them. The authority which God has given to human governments he has given in order that they might rule 'justly' and for the protection of the vulnerable (vv. 3-4). There are certain punishments which God himself has prescribed for serious crimes and governments sin when they fail adequately to punish gross violations of his moral code (Genesis 9:5-6; Romans 13:6). The civil government is under obligation to be a 'terror' to the wicked and to use 'the sword' when the wicked man sheds the blood of his innocent neighbour (Romans 13:4).
The irony of the modern state is that it has not only bound its own hands so that it punishes evildoers neither corporally nor capitally, but it is attempting to bind the hand of everybody else. The moderate, disciplinary use of the cane is forbidden in our schools and there is a vociferous lobby attempting to stop parents from giving their own children a firm corrective smack! Meanwhile our prison populations are continually rising and laws are becoming more and more difficult to police and to enforce.
If Psalm 82 teaches anything, it is that God is deeply concerned for matters of law and order. What else could He mean by challenging civil rulers with such words as these: 'Deliver the poor and needy'? What other meaning can we attach to such words as: 'Rid them out of the hand of the wicked' (v. 4)? There is no way for governments to rid the world of wicked men other than by punishing them as their wickedness deserves. The punishment of social crimes presupposes the existence of righteous moral standards in society. It obliges political rulers to find the moral courage to enshrine high moral standards in well-drafted statutes, the breaking of which will certainly lead to punishment. In no other way can governments protect the defenceless and the vulnerable, as it is in their highest interests to do. 'A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them' (Proverbs 20:26).
Observant Christians are sympathetic to the need for governments these days to place a high priority on such matters as economics, trade and employment. But the Bible-reader must point out to those in public office who are willing to listen to us that the duty of governments is not confined to such matters as the above.
God requires of them that they really use their God-given power to legislate for righteousness, for the moral safety of the population and for the protection of those at risk. And God requires of governments that they issue realistic threats of punishment to all would-be enemies of the public good. What governing powers ought not to do, yet too often do, is to 'accept the persons of the wicked' (v. 2). Governments who do so become themselves guilty in God's sight. The reluctance of political leaders in any state to rule in righteousness is a thing which God will take account of. He 'stands in the congregation of the mighty' (v. 1), whether it be the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the House of Representatives or any other governmental body. He informs us in this Psalm that he is well aware of man's readiness to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor and defenceless. God comments on this dereliction of duty in the following stern tones which ought to make politicians quake: 'They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness'. This is as much as to say that weak political leaders, whatever their party, are guilty of putting 'political correctness' before duty to God. That they 'walk on in darkness' is a reflection of their own personal refusal to seek after God and to choose right religion for themselves and their families. Where leaders lead without the light which God's Word alone can give, their policies are nothing better than manifestos of 'darkness' which steer national life into still deeper problems.
This perversity of governments is a thing to be expected, alas! As long as we live in this world because 'all the foundations of the earth are out of course' (v. 5). But those who advocate 'out of course' measures in their political lives are answerable to God for them. God's judgment of civil rulers who fail to rule well is awesome:
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.Psalm 82:6-7
It is as if God said to them: 'You have been entrusted with some of the power which properly only belongs to God himself and you have misused your privilege. Instead of ruling justly and protecting the needy you have neglected your duty and will be cast away from your office in dishonour'.
It is surely high time for the questions to be asked, are modern governments interested in the great concepts of righteousness, moral law, religion and retributive justice? We do not of course seek to imply that politicians should become preachers or that minority religious groups should be persecuted. But we suggest that political leaders cannot afford to ignore the fact of history, not to say of the Word of God, that 'righteousness exalteth a nation' whereas 'sin is a reproach to any people' (Proverbs 13:34).
There cannot be right living in any society unless there is a healthy fear of punishment. The Bible teaches all who believe it to fear first the punishment of God. The Christian observes the laws of the state out of duty to God as well as out of respect for civil law. But where there is no Bible-reading and therefore no fear of God, men must be made to fear the power of punishment which God has given to civil governments. That power is expressed in the right of governments, where appropriate, to punish its citizens corporally and capitally.
However, whilst injustice prevails the people of God must look up:
Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.Psalm 82:8
Wickedness will be punished in corrupt princes and government leaders as surely as in corrupt citizens. God will see to that.
Let us pray that when God next 'arises' it may be not in wrath against our nations and bad leaders, but rather to bless us with a spirit of faith and repentance. The way things are looking in many lands today suggests that, one way or another, the time for God to 'arise' may not be very far away.