God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
. . . 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.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!
Psalm 82, ESV
Traditionally this passage has been viewed by exegetes as referring to God condemning human leaders and judges for perverting justice. John Wesley, in his explanatory notes on this Psalm, argues that “judges and magistrates are called gods, because they have their commission from God, and act as his deputies.” When the Most High God tells these “gods” that they will die like men, Wesley reasons that he only means “like ordinary men,” though is silent on the verse’s parallel statement, “and fall like any prince.” 1
On the other side of the Calvinist/Arminian divide, Charles Spurgeon likewise takes the view that human magistrates are the focus on this Psalm, arguing: 2
They are gods to other men, but he is GOD to them. He lends them his name, and this is their authority for acting as judges, but they must take care that they do not misuse the power entrusted to them, for the Judge of judges is in session among them . . . There must be some government among men, and as angels are not sent to dispense it, God allows men to rule over men.
However, there are a number of pointers which suggest a different interpretation—that God, in the setting of a “divine” council, is condemning angelic beings for their poor superintendence over the nations of the earth.
As evidence for this latter view, the word translated “gods” in the ESV is the Hebrew elohim, a word used to describe divine beings and used both of the one true God (Genesis 1:1) and of generic divinities such as angels (Psalm 8:5) and pagan deities (Judges 11:24). It is sometimes used of humans (Exodus 4:16, 7:1), though in a metaphorical sense (Moses was like God to Pharaoh because He spoke on behalf of God). It is also worth noting passages in the Old Testament where angels are referred to as sons of God (as in verse 6), such as Job 1:6, Job 38:7, Genesis 6:2, and Deuteronomy 32:8. This word usage suggests that divine and not human beings are likely in view.
“The real problem with the human view, though,” according to biblical scholar and Semitic languages expert Dr. Michael S. Heiser, “is that it cannot be reconciled with other references in the Hebrew Old Testament that refer to a divine council of elohim.” 3 For instance, Psalm 89:5-11 gives a parallel description of a scene wherein a congregation of holy ones are gathered about God. That Psalmist likewise informs us that none can compare to the Lord; that He has the power to crush the gods of the nations because both heaven and earth are His to take. Heiser notes that in this passage, “God’s divine council is an assembly in the heavens, not on earth.” 4 Similar scenes of divine beings presenting themselves to God are described in the first few chapters of Job; 1 Kings 22:19-23 likewise presents a heavenly council scene with similar imagery.
Finally, the notion of divine beings presiding over the nations of the earth is found in Old Testament writings as early as Deuteronomy (“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” 5) and as late as Daniel. 6 It is clear, therefore, that this divine council is truly made up of divine beings and not human ones.
Having established the identities of the players in this Psalm, let us turn to its relevance for final judgment. The ultimate fate of these rebellious angels is capital punishment—death (this is the standard Hebrew word for death, “moot,” used in the Old Testament nearly 1,000 times). This is an odd turn in the text because unlike humans, death is not a natural part of the life cycle of angelic beings; and yet for those angels which have behaved wickedly, it will be their inevitable end. The Psalmist uses a simile to create a picture in the minds of his hearers of what this will entail. Though these beings are divine in a general sense, and therefore not susceptible to the fragilities of human experience, they will nevertheless die just like human beings do.
What, then, does it mean for humans to die? Does it entail the cessation of bodily life despite an ongoing spiritual existence? If we take the traditional view of the angelic nature—that it is spiritual and not material—then this fails to serve as a meaningful parallel for the Psalmist to use. Indeed, what the writer must have in mind is how death appears to human observers: the cessation of personality, knowledge, and experience. Another Hebrew writer, the author of Ecclesiastes, muses that, “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecc 9:5, ESV).
Therefore, it is the fate of rebellious angels to meet utter destruction—to be annihilated. The New Testament tells us that this destruction will take place through the means of a consuming fire which unredeemed humans will likewise take part in after the resurrection of the dead: 7
“Then [God] will say to those [the lost] on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (Matt. 25:41 ESV)
In other words, the same fate awaits both fallen angels and unredeemed men and women—the lake of fire. If this fire will destroy wicked angels, who are not prone to human frailties such as natural death, how much more destructive will it be to human beings?
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- Psalm 82 Bible Commentary. (n.d.). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=wes&b=19&c=82
- Psalm 82 by C. H. Spurgeon. (n.d.). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/spurgeon_charles/tod/ps82.cfm
- Heiser, M. S. (2015). The unseen realm: recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. Kindle edition.
- Deuteronomy 32:8, ESV
- See Daniel 10:10-14
- See also Revelation 20:10-15, where both Satan and the lost are thrown into the lake of fire.