Old Testament

The Gods of Psalm 82: Human or Divine?

photo of gods in the clouds

Psalm 82:1 states, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Later in Psalm 82:6-7 we read, “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.'” The identity of the “gods” in Psalm 82 has been interpreted a variety of ways. For sake of brevity, we will cover the two most popular understandings of “gods.”

The Gods as Human Judges

Interpreting the gods in Psalm 82 as a reference to human judges is very common. Support for this idea is drawn from Exodus 22:8, where someone accused of being an accomplice to a thief comes “near to God” to take an oath about what happened. This is often interpreted as going before the Israelite judges (cf. Exod 21:6, where a master brings his slave before God).

Conceptually this idea could relate to Exodus 18:13-24 where Moses represents God, but is overwhelmed by the amount of administrative judging he needs to do for the people, so on the advice of his father-in-law he appoints other judges. The thought could be that if Moses represents God, so do the other judges, and maybe they can be referred to as gods as a representative of God.

However, in Exodus 22:8 (and 21:6) there is no reason these references cannot refer to God. Clearly these are major life occurrences described, so going to the Tabernacle and taking an oath before the priest and God would be quite a sensible act.

There are other passages that should be considered. For example, Moses is referred to as God (Exod 4:16; 7:1), but there a clear comparison is being made specifying his relationship with Aaron as his prophet. Perhaps the clearest example of an individual being referred to as God would be Psalm 45:6, where the king of Israel seems to be called God. However, the Messianic implications of the Psalm may prohibit that verse from being applied too broadly.

The Gods as Divine Beings

The word for God is Elohim (אלהים), and can be used as a singular (e.g., God), or with reference to a plurality of gods. Because the word usually shows up in the same form, context helps the reader determine the referent. A study of the word Elohim reveals the following uses:

  • Yahweh, God of Israel (most common)
  • The gods which govern the nations (Deut 32:8-9; Ps 82?; cf. Dan 10:13)
  • The gods which foreign nations worship (e.g., 1 Kings 11:33)
  • Demons (Deut 32:17)
  • Spirits of the dead (1 Sam 28:13)
  • Angels (Ps 8:5)

Based on the above, I think it is helpful to describe the Hebrew concept of Elohim as a description of a spirit being that operates in a spiritual realm. This does not mean all spiritual beings are equal (obviously). Yahweh claims superiority over all so-called gods, and none can compare with Him (cf. Isa 45:5-6).

Not only does a broad survey of Scripture support the idea that the gods of Psalm 82 are divine beings, but the details in Psalm 82 also support this.

  • The setting is the “divine council/assembly” (v. 1)
  • The setting is additionally clarified as the “midst of the gods” (v. 1)
  • The “gods” are referred to as Elohim twice (v. 1, 6), and sons of the Most High once (v. 6)
  • The judgment, “like men you shall die” reads better if they are not men. Otherwise the judgment must simply be a metaphorical comparison.

One interesting question is, how are we to understand Psalm 82:7a, “like men [the gods] shall die”? Although we often view angels as immortal in contrast to human beings, this contrast is sometimes overplayed. Scripture seems to indicate fallen angels will participate in the Second Death alongside humans (Rev 21:14).

We are told that the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 19:20), and later the devil is included (Rev 20:10). Finally, all unrighteous humans are also emptied into the lake of fire (Rev 20:12-15). Although angels are not specifically mentioned by name, I find it reasonable to conclude that at the end of time, believers will act as judges of the angels (1 Cor 6:2-3), and they will follow their leader (the devil) into the lake of fire and the Second Death.

The Gods as Responsible for the Nations

If Psalm 82 is best understood as a reference to gods (i.e., spiritual beings), then the implication is that God has given certain spiritual beings (angels) charge over the nations.

When the most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage (Deut 32:8-9).

Although there is a textual critical issue in this passage, the best reading for Deuteronomy 32:8 mentions the nations put under the authority of the sons of God. The phrase sons of God is used elsewhere to clearly refer to angels (cf. Job 38:7). Thus, similar to what is talked about in Psalm 82, the gods (i.e., angels or spiritual beings) are given authority to judge and guide the nations.

Daniel 10:12-14 gives a similar picture into the spiritual realm. Daniel is told about a specific spiritual being that has authority over Persia. Later, Daniel is also told about an authority from Greece (Dan 10:20), which is presumably another spiritual entity.

Daniel 10, Deuteronomy 32, and Psalm 82 all argue for the existence of spiritual beings called gods, sons of God, or angels. They are given authority among the nations, and Psalm 82 makes very clear they will be held accountable for their actions.

Photo by Andreas Kind on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

3 Comments

  • Alex Krause

    It is at least curious why you do not interact with Jesus’ commentary on the phrase in Jn. 10.35 where He references Ps. 82. I believe Jesus instead of you.

    The divine counsel is probably the Trinity. All Christians are gods in some sense (Jn. 1.12). Godly Hebrews during O.T. times were “gods” and also angels and demons in some conception.
    Jesus, and those He used to write the N.T. have made God known (Jn. 1.18). What Moses wrote was mainly shadows of the heavenly reality (The Temple, priesthood, sacrifices, arrangement and order).

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