In On the Book of Psalms, Nahum Sarna often pointed out the mythological language behind the psalms. This factor is well-known. Some scholars interpret it to mean that Israelite religion is warmed over paganism. Sarna was not one of these. He usually pointed out how the psalmists take up mythological language and transform and cleanse it so that it adheres to the Israelite devotion to one God.
It will be interesting to see how he dealt with Psalm 82, since it is one of the Psalms most clearly founded on Canaanite myth. It uses a lot of language and imagery that we also find in hymns and stories from Ugarit, which represent Phoenician polytheism.
Everything in Psalm 82 except for the last verse is a vision somewhat like the vision Isaiah had when he saw God among the cherubim (Isaiah 6). But here God is in the presence of something called the “divine assembly” (v. 1). This phrase does not occur elsewhere in the Bible, but is found in Ugaritic texts. What the Hebrew Bible does have is references to a divine council. For instance, when Satan approaches God in Job 1, he is part of the divine council. In their mind’s eye the prophets, sages, and singers of Ancient Israel saw God as surrounded by a court just as earthly kings were.
In the vision God poses a question to somebody: How long will injustice be permitted (v. 2)? Furthermore, God tells someone to set things right (vs 3-4). Then in v. 5 whoever it is has apparently failed and falls under a judgment of death. Those that God is addressing are called gods and sons of the Most High.
Now the question is who God is talking to in this vision. One theory is that he is talking to humans, oppressors of the weak. Sarna talked about the social injustice during the monarchy when Israel sat across a rich trade route, but those who mostly benefited were unscrupulous merchants in cahoots with corrupt royal officials.
However, Sarna seemed to veer toward the other theory: that God is addressing divine beings. He points out that the gods are more demoted than disbelieved in Israelite thought. At least metaphorically, YHWH worshipers were willing to attribute supernatural guardians to nations, cities, and clans. Interestingly, Sarna thought that the being Jacob had wrestled with was originally the divine protector of Esau’s clan (Genesis 32:22 ff).
He cited Deuteronomy 4:19 as expressing the kind of monotheism Israel adopted.
“When you look up to the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars – the whole heavenly creation – you must not be seduced to worship and serve them, for the Lord your God has assigned them to all the people of the world.” NET Bible
It is not clear whether these heavenly beings were real entities. But imaginatively, a psalmist might speak of them that way. In the book of Daniel guardian angels of nations get mentioned often. Apparently the archangel, Michael, is the guardian angel of Israel. In the first chapters of Revelation, the various churches seem to have guardian angels. There is not much to back up our idea of individual guardian angels, although it is not hard to see how that idea developed. These beings, whether imaginary or real, are always under the authority of God, even in cases where they appear as fallen angels.
(I have no religious problem with the fact that I am going to dress as a demon tomorrow night, because even as a demon I am a creature of God. In fact, it seem kind of pompous for clergymen to dress as angels or as Jesus. In passion plays, I always tried to play Judas or Pilate ).
Back to the vision in Psalm 82, we see the court of God, which includes angels in charge of various earthly realms. There has been a hearing and now God stands to render judgment. The afflictions of God’s people get laid upon these angels. In verse 7, God pronounces that they will not be immortal like gods, but will die like “any prince.”
Then the vision is over and verse 8 prays for God to judge the earth. It also affirms God’s sovereignty.
But, as I reflect on this, it seems that God’s sovereignty is indirect. The question that people today ask is why God relies on his underlings, men or gods, to fix things. Why doesn’t God directly fix things? Why delay it until a future day of judgment? Why does not an all-powerful God just call an end to injustice and suffering right this minute?
I do not know. All I see is that prophets and psalmists recognize that it doesn’t work that way.
Visions in the Bible, it seems to me, are not usually crystal balls giving us access to future events. Rather, they are faith’s imagination trying to understand.
The 82nd Psalm ends with the prayer in v. 8. Perhaps that is the appropriate end of visions, not as doctrine and knowledge, but as a seminal beginning for prayer and hope.