After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the Jewish people witnessed and experienced the conquest of the known world by successive pagan empires. Under these idolatrous oppressors, the Jewish people grappled with confusion and hopelessness as their convictions about the sovereignty of their God were viscerally challenged and subverted. Was YHWH unable to protect his righteous people from godless evildoers? Had the Israelite God been overpowered by the gods of the nations?
In this distress a number of answers emerged, the most potent of which was apocalyptic theodicy. Various sects of Judaism began to await a coming calamity, a day on which God would condemn the wicked, exalt the righteous, and give an obedient Israel dominance over the rebellious nations. By means of this apocalypse, God’s power, goodness, and loyalty to his people would finally be vindicated on the world’s stage. In the hands of Jewish apocalypticists, certain Biblical books (Daniel & Zechariah), along with certain Biblical poems (Psalms 2 & 110), were masterfully exploited towards these ends during the periods of Greek and Roman expansion. According to a growing array of Jewish voices then, from Qumran to the Solomonic psalmist to the visionaries behind Revelation and 4 Ezra, God would not let pagan power run rampant upon the earth forever; against all odds, YHWH and his saints would soon inherit the nations. The socio-political problem that was pagan imperialism would soon be met with a divine socio-political response: the apocalypse.
Yet as we alluded to above, this socio-political problem was also conceived as a theological problem. Behind every earthly pagan empire stood a cast of pagan deities, each channeling their demonic powers against God’s chosen people. Through imperial taxation, oppression, torture, desecration, and war, these spiritual beings instigated Jewish suffering and apostasy. In light of such circumstances, pressing theological questions arose: Why had God Most High, the God of Israel, permitted such mutiny in the heavenly realm? When would the earthly and the heavenly realms be subjected to God’s rule?
Among Biblical texts that attempt to answer these questions, Psalm 82 is preeminent. Its solution, far from cleanly separating the physical muscle from the spiritual fat as contemporary theology often does, joins together earthly and heavenly sinews into one flesh. And being as this matrimonial perichoresis between the gritty political earthly sphere and the otherworldly spiritual sphere lies at the center of early Christian hope, it is crucial that we bring Psalm 82 to bear on New Testament interpretation.
My translation of the LXX follows.
1 God stands in the divine council and among the gods he passes judgement:
2 “How long are you going to prefer injustice and take bribes from sinners? 3 Give the orphan and the destitute what they need, protect the lowly and the poor. 4 Deliver the destitute and rescue the poor from the hand of the abuser. 5 They don’t know or understand; in darkness they wander. Yet the earth will be shaken to its foundations. 6 I myself had said: ‘You are all gods, sons of the highest god…’ 7 “Yet [now] as mortals you will perish, and as any prince you too will sink [into Hades].”
8 Rise up, o God, be judge over the earth, for you will inherit all the nations [from the gods].
The structure and substance of the psalm
- The psalm begins with a statement of fact: God has now arisen to judge the gods, to evaluate the works of his heavenly council.
- In the middle of the psalm God’s decree is revealed. YHWH has condemned the immortal gods, the wicked custodians of the nations, to death.
- The psalm finishes with the psalmist’s petition, a prayer that parallels the first line. Just as God has judged his divine council, he is now entreated to “judge the earth.”
With the pagan gods disposed of, the psalmist turns his attention to their former holdings, the nations. According to the psalmist, Israel’s God can now take possession of these peoples, exerting direct control over their governance and bringing them into harmony with his chosen people. The old gods who directed the Greco-Roman nations to persecute righteous Jew and Christian alike have died; out of their slaughter arises a new theo-political order: God’s unilateral reign over the nations. No longer will rulers, whether divine or earthly, trample the poor and favor the wicked with impunity. Whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable from the pagan order may survive. Whatever is false, dishonorable, wrong, impure, hateful, and shameful will perish with the gods.
Psalm 82 among the first Christians
While it cannot be said that Psalm 82 is regularly quoted or alluded to by the early Christian writers (cf. John 10:34), its message can be glimpsed everywhere underneath early Christian rhetoric once we have unleashed the theo-political force latent in the language of the demonic. For, the Judaeo-Christian mythos surrounding Satan, his demons, and his angels, represents not a disparate conceptual path, but rather the logical conclusion predicated upon the henotheistic patterns exhibited in Psalm 82. The gods of the idolatrous and rebellious peoples are not incompetent overseers but “demonic beings” (Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37, 1 Cor 10:20) in league with Satan (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 12:9). As such, these members of the divine council have guided the nations neither toward good nor even neutrality. Rather, they actively defy God and disdain his people. Yet like the divine custodians of Psalm 82, the gods targeted by early Christian polemic must also die and be replaced at the apocalypse. And as in Psalm 82, the heavenly downfall of Satan and his demons must result in the collapse of every idolatrous system of power (cf. Revelation 18-19). Once the demonic gods have died, their idols will be smashed (cf. Revelation 13), the Greco-Roman world (like Líf and Lífþrasir) will awaken from its pagan slumber. God will then take the reins.
A helpful analogy
Whether the tale of Ragnarök was invented by Christian missionaries, by converted Norsemen, or by the pagan folk themselves, the story recapitulates the message of Psalm 82 and the climax of Christian apocalyptic expectation. Once and for all, Israel’s God would prove himself Lord over heaven and over earth by engineering the death of the immortal gods. The peoples would now serve the true God, not Jove or Odin. A new Heaven, one empty of the old gods, would reflect back upon the earth.
Just as the Olympians once defeated the Titans, as the Æsir once overshadowed the Vanir, and as Ba’al destroyed Yam, so too did the first Christians believe God was about to throw overboard the gods at the helm of the Roman empire.