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.
Psalm 82 begins like the book of Job – in the heavenly court (v. 1). God is in charge and he has no rivals (Psalm 86:8, Isaiah 40:25), but it seems he likes to delegate to the other spiritual beings that he has created. The only problem, according to the Psalmist, is that they are not up to the job. In fact, they have been criminally negligent! Specifically, these ‘gods’ have failed in their responsibility to look after the poor (vv. 2–4). For whatever reason, they have done the exact opposite – rather than safeguarding the vulnerable they have allowed injustice to run unchecked and have let those guilty of exploitation off the hook.
Their failure to ensure justice for the oppressed has shaken the earth to its foundations. Those responsible for the suffering of others through the neglect of their duties are complacent and self-satisfied and ignorant (v. 5). They may enjoy positions of power and prestige for the moment but they are heading for an almighty fall (v. 7).
Modern readers, indoctrinated by a materialist worldview, may have less confidence than the writer about the existence of an unseen spiritual realm, but metaphysical speculation may be missing the point.
The central feature of the Psalm, addressed to spiritual beings or earthly rulers, is that God is a God who is passionate about justice and who cares for the weak and the vulnerable. The God who is enthroned on righteousness and justice (Psalm 97:2) expects those whom he has given or allowed power to ensure that his reign of justice is delivered throughout the world. That challenge is not just to the ‘gods’ of the heavenly court or to human rulers here below but to each one of us to seek first God’s rule and his justice (Matthew 6:33).