Uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed — Psalm 82:3

Psalm 82 — Psalms of Asaph

Jesus quoted verse 6 of this psalm. When accused by the Jewish leaders of blasphemy, calling himself Son of God made him equal with God, they said, Jesus pointed out that in this poem that judges are called gods.

Welsh judges
mage from wikimedia commons

Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s reply. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy

Psalm 82

A psalm of Asaph.

God presides in the great assembly;
    he renders judgment among the ‘gods’:

‘How long will you defend the unjust
    and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

‘The “gods” know nothing, they understand nothing.
    They walk about in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

‘I said, “You are ‘gods’;
    you are all sons of the Most High.”
But you will die like mere mortals;
    you will fall like every other ruler.’

Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
    for all the nations are your inheritance.

What those who wished to do away with Jesus would have known was that Jesus reply, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘ I said, you are gods’?” were not just words in Jesus’ defence, he is on the attack, although John 10:33–34 says it is ‘the Jews’ that opposed Jesus, the context is that Jesus did not punch down, always having time for those on the edges of society, lepers, foreigners widows and even women (historical reference, don’t hate me). Jesus is hitting upwards, these are the leaders of the Jews, the Judges of Judea. They would have understood the reference to the judges of Israel as gods as negative, they were religious leaders as well as judges. Jesus was not just quoting a few words of a psalm to them, Jesus was directing the whole psalm, along with its condemnation at them. 176

What does Psalm 82 say then?

Verse 1 sets the context: God is the great judge, all true judgements come from God, God is even the judge of the judges.

Then God’s judgement on the judges of Israel is passed first in verse 2 is what they got wrong; they gave partiality to evil people. Who the evil people are is implied in the next two verses. The weak, the fatherless, the poor and the oppressed are the people whose cases should be upheld. This implies that the opposites are what were meant by evil: The powerful, those from a ‘good’ background, the rich and those who support the status quo. Not that it is wrong to be rich or have power, but a system where the rich and powerful can get results in court because they can afford the better, more expensive lawyers goes against the values of God’s kingdom and deserves condemnation. Judges and lawyers may have very high qualification, but unless the results are on the same level for all, a justice system that favours the rich and powerful, if if discriminates against women, or non-whites, or LGBT+, or trans people or any other group then it is not justice. These judges, as it says in verse 5, know nothing and understand nothing.

Verse 6 is God at his ironic best, close to sarcasm. In calling them gods the opposite is true, they are going against the justice of God. They are putting themselves above the people they judge rather than being of the people and they will die like mere mortals, sharing the fate of those they have ruled against.

The last verse is a plea of the people to God to rise up against the privileged. My plea is the same, please join me in praying. Rise up O God against those who support the system which favours the privileged.”

Another take on this psalm can be found here: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/defend-the-poor-and-fatherless-a-response-to-psalm-82/

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