This Psalm is unusual because apart from the first and last verses, the rest heard to be spoken by God.
If we try to imagine what that would have been like when it was used in the ancient temple, it would have been like hearing prophecy, the mood might have been quite serious during this psalm, as people were paying extra attention, listening to how the Lord addressed them in these words.
That’s one of the important features of the Psalms – they’re a vehicle through which we not only speak to God, but God speaks to us. Religious communities who sing through the psalms as part of their daily worship, like the Benedictine communities, are encouraged to engage in that activity with an attentive, listening attitude, open to the fact that God may well have something to say through the psalms, whether it’s a word, phrase, or image that leaps out.
For the same reason, the Book of Common Prayer included a daily diet of psalms, with the intention that people up and down this land would be both praising and listening to God every day.
I would encourage you to use at least one psalm every day in your own prayers. If we want God to speak to us, if we want to hear his voice, the Psalms are there as a tool for that.
The big theme of this psalm is justice, and the scene that’s depicted is God judging some other people or beings called ‘gods’.
1: God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”:
Who are these ‘gods’?
For some, this refers to a very ancient idea in the Old Testament (and a concept which was common in lots of the Ancient Near East) of a heavenly council, in which God is seated is ruler, surrounded by other divine beings or angels who are in given responsibility for the nations of the world.
Others see ‘gods’ here as a reference to the kings and leaders of those the nations of the world. Kings in the Ancient Near East were virtually regarded as gods, because of the level of power and responsibility they had.
Either way, these beings are on trial, being called to account for supporting agendas that are unjust and corrupt. Those who were judges are now being judged. And the message of this Psalm is that God notices.
He asks, in verse 2,
“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
In the world of the Old Testament (and today), the powerful were able to secure their own fair treatment, and it’s the particular task of God’s appointed authorities to protect the poor and powerless (which is emphasised repeatedly in so many of the Old Testament laws).
Verses 3 and 4 are a reminder:
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Those two verses are worth reflecting on deeply and prayerfully.
- Especially when we’re praying for the world, and world leaders.
- Whenever we’re praying for our own government, and especially when there’s a general election.
These verses say something really important about what God looks for in the people who rule and govern; those who have great influence; power, and resources.
Throughout the Old Testament the level of corruption and misjudgment in the world rulers–in particular the rulers of Israel and Judah, who should have known best–was constantly scrutinized and challenged by the prophets.
- So, when they wrote and sang about their longed-for messiah, there was great emphasis on his sense of justice, good judgement, and attention to the needs of the poorest.
- And when Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue, right at the beginning of his ministry (in Luke 4:18-19), he read from Isaiah 61 and said this was fulfilled:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Jesus perfectly modelled the intentions of the Old Testament laws.
Jesus epitomised what God looked for in the kings and rulers of his people.
And although it led to his own humiliation, suffering and death, God vindicated him and made him the one who will be judge of all. As the writer of Hebrews (in our second reading today, Hebrews 12:2), describes Jesus, who ‘for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarded its shame, and took his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.’
Just as Paul preached in Acts (17:31), ‘[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Psalm 82 ends with a prayer: a cry, for justice:
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.
It’s a prayer for any and every generation.
The psalm depicts the so-called ‘gods’ as being demoted.
“We don’t want their judgement – we can’t trust it!”
The person whom we can trust, the person whom God trusts with that task is Jesus.
Justice is the heart’s cry of millions of people all around the world:
- from the large scale things we see in the news, of those who are dispossessed and forced from their homes because of war, violence or poverty;
- right down to the silent cries for justice of people behind closed doors, of people who have been let down, mistreated, or ended up in impossible situations which are unjust.
That’s why so often in the Psalms, when judgement is talked about, it’s with a sense of excitement and hope.
‘God’s judgement’ is so often talked about with a sense of fear and foreboding. But not in the Psalms. “God is coming to judge the earth – yay!!!!”
That’s a good thing. Why?
Because it means true justice, goodness, truth, and the putting right of all wrongs.
So when we say in our Creed, “he will come again to judge the living and the dead”, I invite you not just to say it, but to pray it with the same sense of urgency, hope and confidence.
Sermon from Sunday 14th August 2016 by Rev James Pettit