28 Jul 2018

Psalm 82: Tuesday’s Psalm, Defend the Weak, the Core Value of God’s Kingdom

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Deuteronomy, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Kingdom, Kingdom Come, Mission, Psalms, Worship

Tuesday’s Psalm

This is our second installment in our series on the Psalms for the Days of the Week.  Before Jesus was born specific psalms had been assigned to days of the week in the temple. Worshipers coming to God’s house would hear and sing these psalms. Pious Jews integrated them into the daily rhythms of their lives. See my blog Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced for a complete listing of the daily psalms and how the psalms were integrated into temple worship.

Pious Jews, like Jesus’s family, adopted the rhythm of the temple for their daily lives. These psalms became reminders of what life before God was all about.  It was true then, as it is now, that God’s people often sing a better gospel than they believe or live. But by looking at these psalms we come closer to the world in which Jesus himself grew in “wisdom and favor” as Luke tells us plainly (Lk 2.40, 52).

The Tuesday Psalm was Ps 82. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd who sang “Tuesdays gone with the wind,” a song proclaiming the singer’s faithlessness as he abandons his female companion, our Tuesday psalm calls us to faithfulness to the powerless in our world.

Save the Weak 

In Jesus’s day, on Tuesday’s, pilgrims would be challenged with the fundamental principles of the kingdom of God: justice for the marginalized in our world.

As they approached with their sacrifices in honor of their vows (like Paul in Acts 21.17-27) or of thanksgiving or of atonement they would hear the words thundering in the Temple from the steps in the Court of Women,

Save the weak and the orphans;
do justice for the poor and the needy.
Set the needy and suffering free;
save them from the hand of the wicked
(82.3-4, my translation)

Here is the central charge of Yahweh to the rulers, the judges, the people (cf. Psalm 72). But here we learn that this task of saving the weak, the poor and needy is not just for the king. It is for the people who are also to have the heart of God for the alien, poor, needy, in a word the ostracized.  As we sing the Psalm we are reminded of why God are placed here, in this age. We join God’s mission to rescue those who were just like ourselves in Egypt. We were created as a people to practice justice, mercy and faithfulness. To live the core values of God’s own throne. Tuesday’s psalm brought the Israelite face to face with the heart of the matter, the weightier matters of the law so to speak. Caring for the poor and needy (including aliens) was, and still is, viewed as one of the “Three Pillars of Judaism.”  Knowing this, and knowing it was hammered away at every Tuesday, sheds considerable light on Jesus’s ministry, the Way as presented in Acts, and Paul’s eagerness to “remember the poor” as the Council of Jerusalem exhorted him.

Psalm 82 begins by telling us that God takes his place among “the assembly.” In the cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, it was believed that there was a “council of the gods.” This is reflected in Baal’s mythology but is also seen in Greek mythology with Zeus and the gods of Olympus and in most pagan systems. In the ancient world these “gods” were supposed to ensure the practice of justice and mercy on Earth. But it is plain this does not happen. So in Psalm 82, Israel’s God, Yahweh, has entered into their midst and decreed the “death of the gods” (v.7).

Also in Israel, it was believed that the divine sphere (God’s space) and the human sphere overlapped. This is often called “sacred space.” In Psalm 82 this means that what is happening in the divine sphere is mirrored in the human sphere.  That overlapping, interlocking, space was the Temple itself.  In the Temple heaven and earth were “one.” This is also why the Temple was regarded so highly because it was the Space where God was living with God’s people on earth, a miniature Garden of Eden where deity and humans live together.

But in the human sphere those concerned with making sure the least of these (widows, orphans, aliens) are protected are those in power: Kings and Judges. The king, in Israel, is a representative of the God and he is supposed to use God’s very own justice to save the widows, the orphans and the aliens (see Psalm 72.1-3, 12-14).

When the God of Israel shows up in the assembly of the “gods,” or the “judges,” Yahweh puts them on trial for failure to discharge their reason for being. That is what is happening in v. 2 in this direct accusation,

How long will y’all [“you” is a plural] judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

The criteria of the trial of the gods/judges is none other than Yahweh’s personal attributes. The prophet Moses told Israel,

So now, O Israel,
what does Yahweh require of you? …
Circumcise your heart,
and do not be stiff necked any longer …
God shows no partiality,
executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the aliens providing them food and clothing.
You shall also love the alien
(Deuteronomy 10.12, 16-19).

God comes among the council of the “gods/judges” and demands to know why they are not behaving like him? Their job, their reason for existence, is to protect the weak from the powers that be. Instead they collude with the powers of oppression. So Yahweh decrees the death of the gods: “you shall die like mortals” (v.6).

Judgement in the king’s hall or in the city gates (cf. Ruth 4) was supposed bring salvation to the poor. But it did not. Yahweh declares that the gods/judges are dumb, blind, and ignorant thus bringing the Earth into turmoil. Failure to practice justice and mercy is not simply bad, it is an attack upon God’s kingdom. Justice and mercy are the foundations of God’s throne. As the Israelites in Gathered worship confessed,

righteousness and justice are the
foundation of your throne;
Hesed/steadfast love and faithfulness go before you
(Ps 89.14; cf. 97.2)

Or as Jesus, echoing the themes of Tuesday’s psalm, instructed us to pray, God’s will is not being done “on earth as it is in heaven!

Your Kingdom Come

The Gathered congregation in the Temple, and synagogues, on those Tuesday’s, would have joined the prayer, respond to verses 1-7 with the words,

RISE UP [i.e. from his throne], O God,
judge the earth;

for all the nations belong to you” (v.8)

The congregation Yahweh to action. God needs to do what the “gods” and “judges” have not done. That is save the poor and needy. The God of Israel must come and save the world.

The gods of the nations are consigned to death. The faux judges share their fate. The nations, notice the universal claim made every Tuesday in the Temple, belong to the God of Israel. So Yahweh will banish the gods, he will dispense with the faux judges, and God himself will rule creation.

Psalm 82, especially the prayer in v.8, is the heart of Jesus’s instruction on prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray,

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven
(Mt 6.9-10).

This is in fact what all pious Jews, and Jesus himself from his days as a child, had been praying every week. God come rule the world. When Yahweh’s rule is extended, salvation flows to the weak, the poor, the powerless, the aliens.

Instead with God’s own coming to judge … salvation has finally arrived for even the poor. No wonder Jesus claimed that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to proclaim “forgiveness” (aphesin, same word used in Acts 2.38 beloved!) to the poor at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth (Lk 4.18-19). In Jesus, God has “risen” from the throne to come rule the nations.

Israel was reminded every Tuesday, our offerings of sacrifice, and our songs of praise, are meaningless apart from saving the poor, the widows, the orphans, the aliens because we know that God has decreed the death of the false gods that trample on the weak. Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in the public arena.”  This is hardly original such truth was proclaimed in the Hebrew Bible for centuries and sung in the Temple where the Way gathered “daily.” The Psalm calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus’s prayer is the prayer of every Israelite.


One Response to “Psalm 82: Tuesday’s Psalm, Defend the Weak, the Core Value of God’s Kingdom”

  1. Dwight Says:

    In the coC we have argued that we should help only those who are saints through the church and yet here is God talking to the Jews as a nation telling them not ignore those outside of their nation. God shows grace and mercy towards man, so how cannot man show this to other men. True worship of God is showing how God has been reflected in what we do.

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