I’ve recently been in a discussion with a friend of mine (and faithful reader of the blog!) about the divine council worldview. Among other things, we discussed concerns about the “gods” of Psalm 82.
Here it is in its entirety:
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; He judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, And accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: Rid them out of the hand of the wicked. They know not, neither will they understand; They walk on in darkness: All the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods; And all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth: For thou shalt inherit all nations.
There seem to be three primary ways of understanding this who the “gods” are in this passage, two of which involve humans and one of which involves heavenly beings:
Kings of other nations
There’s a lot to unpack here, so first, let’s take a look at why each view claims what it does.
Judges. On this view, the “gods” are the judges God appointed over Israel prior to receiving their first king. The strongest argument for this view, in my opinion, is that these gods receive judgment from Yahweh for failing to do precisely those duties which God tasked the judges with. The New Bible Commentary notes: “So what does it all mean? (i) The ‘gods’ may be the shadowy but real ‘principalities and powers’ working their own evil way in the affairs of earth (Is. 24:21; Dn. 10:12–13, 20; Eph. 6:12). The OT occasionally uses ‘gods’/‘sons of God’ for angelic beings (8:5; Jb. 1:6). (ii) The duties specified in vs 2–4 are, however, those of Israel’s judges (Ex. 22:22–24; 23:6–7; Dt. 1:16–17; 10:17–18; 16:18–20); their work is to exercise ‘the Lord’s judgment’ (Dt. 1:17). To bring a case ‘before God’ and ‘before the priests/judges’ are interchangeable terms (Ex. 21:6; 22:8, 9; Dt. 17:8–13; 19:17). Furthermore, the Lord Jesus understood ‘gods’ as humans ‘to whom the word of God came’ (Jn. 10:35).1
Kings of other nations. Supporters of this position see the context brought into focus by vv. 7b-8 as requiring the kings of all other nations to be in view. Thus, this Psalm describes God’s judging the rulers of other nations for failing to take care of their people.
Spiritual beings. Those who take this view rest their case on the meaning of the word elohim in v. 1. The word appears twice in this verse, the first time a singular reference (to Yahweh) and the second a plural (each demanded by the grammar of the verse). The argument suggests that God’s council is made up of other heavenly beings, and thus, God is standing in the midst of these heavenly beings; the lesser gods. They are being judged for their failure to do as he commanded and watch over the people over the nations.
There are multiple ways we could go about discussing this. For a fuller discussion of these passages, I would recommend
The Problem with Israelite Judges
For me, it seems very compelling that the exact problem Yahweh has with these “gods” is the failure to perform duties that he assigned to Israel’s judges. Despite this, I believe the “judges” view faces some insurmountable problems.
One problem is that the context is quite clearly all nations of the earth (see vv. 7b-8), and Israel’s judges were at no point given jurisdiction of the nations. In our dialogue, my friend mentioned that he thinks these two verses could be disconnected from the rest of the passage in the sense that, even if only judges are in view, the Psalm is merely closing with extolling God as the ruler of all nations.
There are a least two problems with his solution.
First of all, the word “judge” here is used. It is the same Hebrew lemma (or, dictionary word) as is used in v. 1. This would seem to indicate that this Psalm is presenting a holistic picture: The Psalmist is extolling God because he judges the nations and their leaders, including their gods. In other words, he judges among the gods of those nations.
Further, this is made clearer when noting the “inheritance” language of v. 8b. Here’s the question to ask: Why does the Psalmist include the fact that all the nations belong to Yahweh? Does this credential somehow lend more credence to the notion that he stands in authority over the affairs of Israel? It’s not clear how. It seems to me that, as Israel’s God, he has authority of them regardless.
However, if this Psalm is describing Yahweh’s right to judge all nations, even though he’s Israel’s God, its inclusion makes sense. We’ll return to this later when we discuss the “spiritual beings” view.
A second problem is that Israelite judges are never granted a portion in God’s divine council elsewhere in Scripture, yet heavenly beings absolutely are (see Ps. 89:5-8). They are certainly never considered “sons of the Most High”—human “sons of God” are part of NT theology, not OT.
A potential difficulty here arises from a discussion of Exodus 21 and 22, which in turn leads into a much larger discussion about what Scripture means by the term elohim. Chaffey sets up the problem:
Meredith Kline cited Psalm 82 as evidence that Israelite judges were called ’elohim because of their God-like dignity and authority…It is true that many English Bibles have translated ’elohim as judges in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8–9. Contrary to Kline’s statement, the rationale for doing this was not based on ancient Jewish lofty views of their judges. Instead, the immediate context seemed to imply that human judges were in view. However, a closer examination reveals that even in these passages ’elohim does not refer to human judges.3
Rather than rehash the arguments, let’s let Chaffey summarize his findings on the term elohim:
Do all of these ’elohim have something in common? Put another way, how could God, false gods, angels, demons, and the spirit of Samuel all be called ’elohim? Well, they all seem to share a couple of attributes. With the exception of Jesus Christ, none of them possess a permanent physical body. Also, they are all residents of the spiritual realm, or more accurately, the spiritual realm is their primary place of operation.4
He cites Heiser for agreement:
Dr. Michael Heiser, an expert in ancient Near Eastern languages, agrees with defining ’elohim based on location. He explained that Christians struggle to wrap their minds around the flexibility of this term because we are accustomed to thinking of it only in relation to the God of the Bible. Since He possesses unique and unshared attributes, it is difficult to think of other entities being called ’elohim: “While it’s true that the word came to be used as a name for the God of Israel, the term itself has no essence that must be equated with Yahweh. The Old Testament passages…that have demons and spirits of the dead as elohim forbid such an equation. This equation must be dispensed with. The word elohim more broadly does not refer to “deity attributes.” Rather, it points to a plane of existence. An elohim is simply a being whose proper habitation is the spirit world.” 5
To summarize: A study of the word elohim in Scripture reveals that each and every time (out of 2,876 times) the word is mentioned in Scripture, it is clearly referring to a member of the unseen world, with the potential exception of two pericopes in Exodus. Thus, either the passage at present (Psalm 82) argues, along with Exodus, that human judges can be called elohim, or the passages in Exodus have been incorrectly translated this way.
Given the clarity and overabundance of times this word is used to point to spiritual beings, it would seem to require a pretty airtight case that translating the word as human judges is correct, or even warranted, in these passages. Put another way, if it can easily mean “God” and the translation judges is not demanded by the context, it would seem more reasonable to translate them in this way.
Both passages in question refer to bringing someone “before the judges.” But as Chaffey notes, these passages would more sensibly be translated “before God,” given the way such terminology is used elsewhere in the surrounding passages. He writes:
We need to keep in mind that when this law was given, God was actually in the midst of the Israelite community—His divine presence was in the tabernacle—and someone could really be brought before Him. In fact, throughout this section of the Bible, several verses speak of people who must come before the Lord.
..Look at each of the following verses that speak of people coming before God. In the first two verses, it is the same word, ’elohim, that is used, and the NKJV translates it as “God.”
Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God [’elohim]. And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God [’elohim]. (Exodus 18:12, NKJV)
Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God [‘elohim] will be with you: Stand before God [‘elohim] for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God [’elohim]. (Exodus 18:19)
Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD. (Exodus 23:17)
Now He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD [YHWH], you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. And Moses alone shall come near the LORD [YHWH], but they shall not come near; nor shall the people go up with him.” (Exodus 24:1–2)
By comparing these passages we see that the Israelites were expected to come before the Lord for a variety of reasons. This may have been done during certain religious ceremonies and legal matters, or even under special circumstances. So it would be consistent to follow the example of the ESV to translate ’elohim as “God” in Exodus 21:6 and 22:9 instead of introducing a novel interpretation of the word that is not found anywhere else in Scripture.6
Given the above, there is not a shred of biblical support for the legitimacy of translating Psalm 82’s elohim as the human judges of Israel. The Hebrew word Is most plausibly used only of unseen entities, and restricting these gods to Israel’s judges fails to explain the larger context of all nations given by the passage.
The Problem with Kings of Other Nations
Believe it or not, this view is even less likely than the judges view given above, which may sound odd given that much of the above discussion focused on “all the nations” being the correct context.
Above, a problem I mentioned with the judges view was that they “are never granted a portion in God’s divine council elsewhere in Scripture, yet heavenly beings absolutely are (see Ps. 89:5-8). They are certainly never considered “sons of the Most High”—human “sons of God” are part of NT theology, not OT.”
The same exact problem applies here. God certainly does not confer with the earthy kings of other nations as part of his council. Nor are they considered “sons of God” or “sons of the Most High.”
We also saw above that elohim, the word rendered gods in English, is a term that applies to spiritual beings in over 2,500 places in Scripture, and is quite arguably not once used to denote an earthly being. Obviously, this would apply to earthly kings as well as earthly judges.
So while the judges view at least has another place in Scripture where translation decisions may have an impact on how we understand the term, we have nothing in Scripture that would seem to help the earthly kings view.
An additional problem with the kings view is introduced by vs. 7. The verse says that these elohim will die like humans and fall (or, again, die) like any other ruler. The force of this judgment seems quite benign since men will always die like men. However, in some ancient cultures, it is true that their kings were often viewed as having some sort of divine capacity and were given unique memorial and burial rituals.
Is this what the biblical text is referring to? That they would not receive special veneration at their funerals? That seems unlikely because it would imply that Yahweh recognized these rituals as having at least some sort of legitimacy. Further, just because there was some association between deity and kingship in certain cultures did not make such kings any less human! Certainly, God would not recognize them as such.
Finally, in our dialogue, my friend asserted that v. 7 would be problematic for the spiritual beings view (and thus, support a human view) since spiritual beings cannot die like men. For to do so, they would have to first live like a man. And further, humans have two deaths: Physical and spiritual, whereas spiritual beings only have one (spiritual).
Here was my response:
I think the biggest problem is that your points depend on taking the phrase “like men” in an extremely literal sense. This is a Psalm. When Tim McGraw says he hopes that, someday, we get the chance to “live like we are dying” he is not implying that we should live as though we are on our deathbed, in the hospital, eating terrible food. But instead, that we should “live life to the fullest.” In other words, there’s a sense in which the phase can be taken that expresses the writers point, given the context. It seems to me this is the same kind of idea. God is not saying these gods will have to become like a man, die two deaths, have a chance at redemption, etc. Instead he seems to be saying, “Your mortality is conditional. Your status (as a son of the Most High) does not protect you. Just because you are a son of God does mean you cannot die like a man.”
Therefore, it would appear something else entirely is going on here.
The “Problem” with the Spiritual Beings View
I placed the word “problem” in air quotes above not because I wanted to front-load this view with the idea that there are no problems, but rather, because the potential problems are of an altogether different nature. Really, there is only one problem; it’s simple to understand, but it’s a doozy:
If this view is true, spiritual beings called gods exist that are not Yahweh.
This would seem to be a big problem given the way most have traditionally understood Israelite monotheism.7
Note something telling, though—there’s no textual problem with this approach. That is to say, the text itself not only allows this interpretation, but argues for it, since the plain meaning of elohim elsewhere denotes spiritual beings.
Is this problem insurmountable for the spiritual beings view?
Positive Argument for Spiritual Beings in Psalm 82
This passage seems to be just one idea in the matrix of the Divine Council Worldview (DCW). Put succinctly, this view maintains that the gods of other nations around Israel were real—not like Yahweh in the sense of his attributes, but like him insofar as they are members of the unseen world.8
There are three chief elements in the passage which, in my opinion, show this is unmistakably a divine council scene: (1) the language of the council, (2) Yahweh’s identification of the council, and (3) the language of Yahweh’s inheritance.
The Language of the Council
The first “tell” that this is a divine council scene comes, not surprisingly, from the Hebrew words that tell us it is. In transliterated Hebrew, it looks like this:
mizmor le’asaph elohim nitstsav ba’adath-el beqerev elohim yishpo
The text pretty much says: “God has taken his place in the divine council (or, assembly).”
That such a council exists is clear both from Scripture and even outside of Scripture. First, Scripture teaches this concept in numerous places, and can be seen in many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible.9
Aside from Psalm 82, this idea is perhaps taught most clearly just a few chapters later, in Psalm 89:5-8:
And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O Lord: Thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints. For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, And to be had in reverence of all them that are about him. O Lord God of hosts, Who is a strong Lord like unto thee? Or to thy faithfulness round about thee?
Unfortunately, some translations seem to obscure the meaning of this passage by translating the word qedoshim as “saints.” The liability here is that we tend to import our understanding of the word “saint” (i.e., our deceased Christian loved ones) into this passage, when that is not at all what is in view.
It’s important to realize that in Jewish theology, there is no such idea as “to be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord.” Again, this is Christian thinking and would not be found anywhere in Hebrew writing. For Hebrews, the departed dead go to a sort of intermediary place known as Sheol. The hope of the ancient Israelite was that, at the final resurrection, Yahweh would rescue them from Sheol to live with him.10
As it turns out, most translators (I think rightly) render this passage as “holy ones.”
There are clear references to the divine council in these verses, such as the “assembly of the holy ones” (v. 5) and the “council of the holy ones” (v. 7). The Hebrew word for “holy ones” is qedoshim, and it can refer to holy people, holy angels, or even the author of holiness, God, as it does in Proverbs 9:10. Some Christians have sought to identify this assembly as a group of holy people that worship the Lord, but the context makes this interpretation implausible. The setting is undoubtedly in “the heavens” (v. 5), also called “the skies” (v. 6) or literally, the “clouds.” God is referred to as “LORD God of hosts” a term widely acknowledged as a reference to God ruling over angelic beings. There can be little question that heavenly beings are in view in these verses. Verse 6 makes this point even stronger when it asks the rhetorical question, “Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD?” Obviously, the answer is that there are none like Yahweh among the other heavenly beings. The words translated as “heavenly beings” are bene elim, which could just as accurately be translated as “sons of God.”11
Therefore, Psalm 82 appears to be setting the scene as God presiding in judgment over his divine council for their transgressions.
Second, the “council” is not merely an Israelite idea; most ancient cultures have a very similar concept. In fact, a perfectly legitimate translation of Psalm 82:1 would be that God has taken his place in “the council of El.” While most assume that “El” is just another name for Yahweh, it is that, but more. It’s the proper name for the Canaanite high god.
Thus, some see this passage as a polemic against the Canaanite religion in much the same way the 10 plagues served as a polemic against the gods of Egypt. In other words, the passage would be depicting a scene where Yahweh takes his rightful place in the midst of El’s council (an invasion of sorts) and pronounces judgment on them for their treatment of their people.
It certainly appears to have this effect; there’s no reason, however, to think the passage holds merely polemical intent, given the overabundance (mentioned above) of Scriptural references to Yahweh’s council and its participants.
The point is that the existence of a divine council is found throughout ancient writings. Some seem to think this means the Israelites would have held the opposite view of these ancient cultures, but, at least in this case, such a position is demonstrably false.
Yahweh’s Identification of the Council
In v. 6, we see our second “tell” that this is a divine council scene; namely, Yahweh tells precisely who these gods were.
According to God himself, these individuals are children (or, sons) of the Most High. Although some commentators want to see the Israelite judges in view with this phrase, we have already seen reason to think that understanding is unlikely.
“Sons of the Most High” is the Hebrew bene elyon, and could be legitimately translated “sons of God.”12 Such a designation is well-known by biblical scholars as being a reference to heavenly beings (see Genesis 6:1-4, Job 1:6, Job 38:7, etc).
Job 38:7 is a particularly helpful example for our purposes:
When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
In the verse above, God is responding with a host of rhetorical questions to the diatribe that has been the book to this point. There are many poetic elements happening in these passages (Job 38-40). One of the ways we identify Hebrew poetry is the presence of couplets, commonly called “parallelism.” While English poetry rhymes with sound, Hebrew poetry “rhymes” with ideas.
Thus, the same ideas are being expressed, using slightly different language, in v. 7a and 7b above. Whatever the “morning stars” are, so are the sons of God. Many scholars seem to think that ancient cultures, even the ancient Hebrews, thought the stars were literally divine beings since they moved in the sky.
But even if that is not the case, there is always tight association in the biblical text between angelic or heavenly beings and so-called “star language.”13
What’s more, the context of the passage makes clear these cannot be humans, since they are rejoicing with Yahweh as he creates the earth! So we see here a tight association: sons of the Most High (God) are just sons of God, which are clearly identified throughout the Hebrew Bible as heavenly beings. Yahweh therefore identifies exactly who he is talking to in this divine council scene.
There is one more striking piece to discuss here, though I saved it for last because it is part of New Testament theology. Since we, as believers, view the entire Bible as inspired, it is important to see what New Testament authors thought about the usage of Old Testament terms and passages.
In Luke 1, we see the announcement to Mary from the angel Gabriel. He declares to her:
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
The phrase “Son of the Highest” is the same thing as “Son of the Most High.” Jesus is the Son of the Most High! Whether or not Scripture teaches God can have more than one “son” is well beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say that it sure seems possible, given the Old Testament evidence above.14.
What seems to follow from this is that these other “sons of the Most High” are at least in some ways similar to the Son of the Most High! Mere humans are not in view; Jesus was not a mere human, and neither were the sons of God.
The Language of Yahweh’s Inheritance
There are two lesser-known concepts extremely important to forming a sound biblical theology: Inheritance and allotment.
Allow me to briefly summarize the concept. The Bible teaches that, at the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11, God scattered the nations and placed them under the jurisdiction of the lesser gods. Then, he supernaturally intervened to create for himself a people from Abram and Sarai: Israel.
This is most clearly taught in Deuteronomy 32:7-8:
Remember the days of old, Consider the years of many generations: Ask thy father, and he will shew thee; Thy elders, and they will tell thee. When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people According to the number of the children of Israel.
One thing in this passage might stand out as immediately problematic, though. The text says the nations were divided according to the children of Israel. But Babel (i.e., the division of the nations) took place prior to the establishment of Israel! Furthermore, the nations at Babel were divided into 70 (see Genesis 10); there were only 12 tribes of Israel. What is going on here?
Most English translations follow the Masoretic Text in verse 8 and instead of “sons of God” they have “sons of Israel” (bene yisrael). So why does the ESV have “sons of God” and the NET Bible have “heavenly assembly”? If you look at the text notes in most Bibles you will find the answer. The Septuagint has always had “angels of God” or “sons of God” in this verse. Two fragments of this verse have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate the Masoretic Text. One fragment has bene ’elohim and the other fragment is incomplete, but it has bene ’el (the rest of the word is not present). Obviously, the word was not Israel in this text, but it could easily have been ’elohim or ’elim. Either one of these names would have yielded the same meaning: the sons of God.15
What may surprise you is just how much Moses writes about this event!
Here’s Deuteronomy 4:19-20:
And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. But the Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.
And Deuteronomy 29:24-26:
Even all nations shall say, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger? Then men shall say, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt: For they went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given unto them:
Chaffey provides a very helpful summary which brings us back around to Psalm 82:
As strange as it may seem to modern readers, when we put all of these passages together, we see that God gave control of one nation to each bene ’elohim of the divine council. Or put another way, he allotted gods to each of the nations, although He kept Israel for Himself. He charged these gods to rule justly, and now we know why—so that the people would seek God [see Acts 17:26-27]. But we learn from Psalm 82 that they showed partiality to the wicked (v. 2) rather than providing justice. They failed to uphold the practices God required of them, such as defending the poor and fatherless and being just toward the afflicted and needy (v. 3). Do you remember the last line of that psalm? It will make more sense now that we’ve looked at these three passages in Deuteronomy. Psalm 82:8 states, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations” (ESV). At Babel, God gave the bene ’elohim authority over the nations, except for the one nation He would start with one man and his barren wife (Abram and Sarai). By the time Psalm 82 was written, the divine council members had failed miserably in their assigned tasks. They had led their own peoples into idolatry and injustice. Consequently, they deserved to be judged, and Yahweh would inherit all the nations.16
From the above, it seems clear to me that any attempt to make human judges or pagan rulers out of Psalm 82 just fails to reckon with the other biblical data which speaks of these events and the existence of God’s heavenly council.
Although there are a lot of ideas here, and some of it may be new to you, you should not be alarmed or overwhelmed.
This view has gospel implications, but only in the sense that it makes more of the mission of Jesus. Certainly, nothing is taken away from the gospel by the divine council worldview, and therefore, you can rest easy knowing that this information and context, while helpful to have, is not something to fret over.
We want to be careful students of the text; if nothing else, perhaps this little exercise will be helpful in showing you how to penetrate the text a bit deeper and discover concepts you’ve never noticed before.
Thank God, all nations are his, and all people who will call on his name, are his!
That means you and me! And for that, there is reason to rejoice.
- I hesitated to include their comments about 10:35, because that is a different can of worms that may not actually support their case. Nevertheless, I felt it appropriate to conclude so you would have adequate context.
- See also here.
- Chaffey, Tim. Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim (pp. 44-45). Risen Books. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid., citing Michael S. Heiser, “What Is an Elohim?” p. 4. Available online at
- We could have a discussion about this definition, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say it is probably not precise.
- See here for a more thorough explanation of this.
- Ge 35:7; Ex 22:8; Dt 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 17; 1 Sa 28:13–14; 1 Ki 22:19–23; Job 1:6; 2:1; 15:7–8; 38:7–8; Ps 29:1; 82:1–8; 89:5–8; 97:7; 148:2–3; Is 2:2–4; 14:13; Je 23:18, 22; Da 7:9–11; 10:13, 21; Mic 4:1–3; Zec 3:1–2
- This is one reason many commentators feel that Jesus rescued the righteous during his “descent into hell” following his resurrection. More on that can be found here:
- Chaffey, Tim. Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim (pp. 60-61). Risen Books. Kindle Edition.
- Even a cursory search of the Bible reveals that the Most High is obviously Yahweh, therefore, “God” is a legitimate translation of elyon.
- Psalm 148:2-3; Judges 5:20; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 12:3-4.
- The short version is that, just as there are many gods but only one God, so there are many sons but only one Son. Jesus arguably even uses Psalm 82 in John 10:35-38 to make this exact point.
- Chaffey, Tim. Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim (pp. 89-90). Risen Books. Kindle Edition.
- Chaffey, Tim. Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim (p. 96). Risen Books. Kindle Edition.