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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Let the Old Gods Fall (Psalm 82 sermon)

Psalm 82 is a difficult psalm to place contextually; we don’t know when it was written. Though it is included in the “Psalms of Asaph” – which seem to mostly fit during the Babylonian exile – some have suggested that Psalm 82 is much, much older, perhaps even predating the monarchical period of Israel’s history (Dahood 269)

It begins in the heavens, in the space beyond space; it begins in in the throne room of eternity where the gods and the sons of the gods have assembled to be judged. “God takes his stand in the divine assembly, surrounded by the gods he gives judgment” Psalm 82: 1 (New Jerusalem Bible).  The word there is “Elohim” – gods – though some translations read this as human ruler sand leaders. This is an acceptable translation – there are instances where “Elohim” is used to refer to human judges (Exodus 21:6 for instance) but let’s stick with the divine assembly idea for now – these are “the gods” that are being judged.

We’ve been taught that the Israelites were monotheists, that they believed in one and only one God. But this is only partly true. By the time that we get to the New Testament they were what we would think of as monotheists, believing that there is only one God and that all other so-called gods were only evil spirits masquerading as gods. But in the Old Testament /Hebrew Bible, especially the older parts of it, there is the idea that there are, in fact, a great many gods.  The Israelites chose from among all these gods to worship only Yahweh. This is, to use one of those fancy college words, henotheism. The commandment “you shall have no other gods before me” doesn’t make much sense in terms of monotheism, you can’t have other gods before Yahweh if there are no other gods… But if we start from henotheism, there are other (lesser, inferior) gods.

And in Psalm 82 we have all those lesser, inferior, little g gods gathered together for a divine assembly. I particularly like the way Mitchell Dahood (in the Anchor Bible series) translates this first verse:

God presides in the divine council
in the midst of the gods adjudicates (Dahood, 268).

I like the formal verbs there: “presides” and “adjudicates.” This is serious and official business. This is a formal legal procedure. The gods are assembled for judgment and the charge is that they have not been defending the poor and the weak. Instead, they have been siding with the rich, and the powerful, and the wicked.

How much longer will you give unjust judgments
and uphold the prestige of the wicked?
Let the weak and the orphan have justice,
be fair to the wretched and the destitute (Psalm 82: 2 – 3 NJB).

God delivers the accusation and there is silence. Selah. (that is, assuming for the moment, Selah means something like “stop and listen,” or “pause and think on that.” We don’t know exactly what the word Selah means. But “silence” seems to make a certain sort of sense. It heightens the tension as we wait for someone to respond.)

No one speaks. No one can answer the charge.
After the awkward silence, God reiterates the charge, challenging them to do what is right:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82: 3 – 4 New Revised Standard Version).

These lesser, inferior, little g gods are ignorant and walking around in darkness. Because of their failures the very foundations of the earth are shaken. (Psalm 82: 5).

In verse 6 the psalmist gives his/her voice (whoever he/she might have been).:

I had thought, “You are gods
all of you sons of the Most High,
yet you shall die as men do
and fall like any prince” Psalm 82: 6 -7 (Dahood 268).

The psalmist had at one point thought these gods were something to be feared, entities to be respected because of their power and their position. But no longer. They are not gods. They are nothing. They are nothing because they are unable or unwilling to help the poor.  And so, they are ejected from divine realm, no longer immortal, they’ll die like any man and fall into the grave like any prince. But as they fall from glory, the psalmist calls for God to rise up in their place. I like the movement here; the no-gods fall as God rises to assume direct rule over all the nations. No more middle management gods.

Now we can also read this psalm as pertaining to human rulers and judges, to human leaders and kings and officials, leaders who have failed in their divinely appointed duty to protect and defend the poor and the powerless. It is a prophetic liturgy of judgment on pagan gods/human leaders who have failed to be agents of justice.

And there is no justice if there is no justice for the poor. There is no justice if there is no justice for the weak, for the orphan, for the widow, for the immigrant, the refugee, the minority. If justice is sold to special interest groups or powerful lobbyist, it is not justice. If we give up on justice. If we give up on peace, the foundations of the earth are shaken; all is darkness and ignorance and death without justice.

And we have been shaken in recent days, by news report after news report of violence death and murder in the streets. We live in darkness. We have a problem in our country: our gods have failed us. They have not been agents of justice, of righteousness, of peace. And we are shaken.

So we cry out with the psalmist and demand:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless,
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute
rescue the weak and the needy
deliver them – deliver us – from the hands of the wicked.

In the words of the hymn writer, Fanny Crosby: “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying.”

Let God arise.
Let God arise within us.
Let the old gods fall, die like any mortal man or woman
and let God rise up.

They are nothing – if they will not work for the right.
They are nothing – if they will not promote justice, and justice for all – the immigrant, the minority, the woman, the black, the Latino, the Asian, the Native American, the homosexual, the transgendered.
They are nothing, nothing at all - if they will not make peace.

We may have thought of them as people of power and prestige because of their political positions, because of their wealth, because of their dynastic families, but they are nothing, no-gods if they prove incapable of or unwilling to defend the poor and rescue the perishing.

They are nothing.

Arise God, arise within us, and judge the earth, for all the nations, including this one, are your possession.

Dahood, Mitchel, Psalms II: 51 – 100 – Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York, 1968.  

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