Psalm 82 is a challenging passage for evangelical Christian interpreters. One of the main reasons why is the repeated references to “gods” (in the Hebrew, “elohim,” a plural noun also regularly used as a singular to refer to God himself). The key verses are:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment (v. 1)
I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (v. 6-7)
To complicate the matter, Jesus cites this passage in a dispute with the Jews, who were about to stone him for asserting his equality with God:
The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”? (John 10:33-36)
This passage has been used to justify a lot of really bad theology. Liberal scholars have seen in Psalm 82 seeming evidence for the evolution of Israelite theology from polytheism to monotheism. Word-of-Faith prosperity teachers appeal to it to tell their followers that they are “little gods” who can create new realities with “positive confessions.” Mormons point to it as biblical proof for their doctrine of “eternal progression,” which holds that human beings are of the same species as God and can attain godhood themselves.
Evangelicals dealing with Latter-Day Saints and “name-it-and-claim-it” adherents often see this psalm trotted out against them to “disprove” monotheism. Indeed, the passage looks daunting at first glance. However, a little patient examination of the text itself and its context in the broader tapestry of Scripture shows that it cannot be used in the way that these heretics have tried to twist it.
The first problem with arguing for polytheism or “little gods” from this text is that the word elohim, like many biblical terms, can be used in different ways. The same term is used in Exodus 22:8-9, where it refers to human judges. This is easily seen in translations like the King James, the NIV, the NASB, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The English Standard Version mistranslates the texts by reading “God” in the singular, but the verb used in verse 9 with reference to elohim is in the plural, not the singular. A similar case is found in Exodus 21:6, which in the Hebrew could read either way (there is no verb to indicate the number of the noun); yet the similarity to the next chapter would seem to suggest that human judges are also in view there. The ancient Jewish translators of the Greek Septuagint certainly seemed to think so, as they used the term kriterion (tribunal) to translate elohim.
In other words, the term elohim, depending on the context, can be used of God himself (if used with singular verbs and so on); as a generic term for other, multiple gods; or, for human judges acting in their capacity as instruments of divine judgment.
It is in this last sense that Psalm 82 uses the term, hence why a comparison with Exodus 21 and 22 is so useful. God is condemning the judges of Israel for failing to defend the weak and for showing partiality in judgment. These are common themes in the Old Testament, and particularly in the prophets. Given the ardent monotheism of the Jewish people, and the presence of the same repeated theme in condemning Israel’s leaders elsewhere, not only is the idea of a “divine council” of lesser gods most unlikely here, but there is every reason to see the elohim here as human officials.
Even putting aside the flexibility of the word itself, the passage as a whole supports the idea that men are in view here. In verse 7, God asserts that the elohim will “die” like men. Nowhere in Scripture are we taught that supernatural beings (such as angels, much less theoretical gods) can die. Whoever the elohim are, they are mortal. Conversely, God is by nature immortal (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16; John 5:26—he has life in himself). So these elohim cannot be compared to God.
Mormons might concede that the elohim condemned here are human, but object that the text, because it uses the same term that is applied to the Father, is teaching that they are nonetheless of the same kind or species, though undeveloped. But even in Mormon theology, while humans are of the same species as God, they are not yet gods until they attain exaltation. Yet if they are destroyed in judgment, how do they attain exaltation? And if they don’t attain that exaltation, how is it proper to call them “gods”?
Furthermore, even Jesus’ own words in John 10 disprove the idea other gods are in view in Psalm 82. When Jesus used the text to defend himself, he immediately took pains to go on and point out his unity with the Father:
If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (v. 37-38)
In Mormon theology, the Father and Son are “separate personages” (Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 576) and, indeed, with the Spirit are “three distinct personages and three Gods” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370). Word-Faith adherents are taught that human beings are “little gods” – smaller and separate versions of the Big God. Liberal scholars think ancient Israel believed in a pantheon of distinct deities. Jesus, far from agreeing with any of them, here in John 10 teaches the precise opposite of all three: the Father and Son interpenetrate one another and share one another’s essence. They cannot be separated in any way; where one is, the other is also. They are one. Rejecting Jesus, our Lord is telling the Jews, is the same thing as rejecting the Father.
Why is that point important? Jesus is actually giving an interpretation and application of Psalm 82. The Jews he is facing are threatening to stone him—they are coming in judgment, pronouncing a sentence of death. They are assuming the privileges and office of the elohim God is dealing with in Psalm 82. That’s why it’s significant that Jesus begins his defence in verse 32 by asking, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” Jesus, by pointing to his own good works, is already drawing a contrast with the judges condemned in Psalm 82 before he even cites the text. So, when Jesus does point to Psalm 82’s use of the term, it is not only a technical argument that the word “elohim” can in certain circumstances be applied to men without committing blasphemy. Critically, it is also a clever and veiled condemnation of his critics, who are assuming the role of unjust judge against one who has done no wrong.
Furthermore, Jesus is also making a “lesser to the greater” argument: if the term elohim can, without blasphemy, be legitimately applied to Israelite leaders who the Word (God’s judgment in the Psalm) came to in the first place, how much more can it apply to the very Son of God himself who has been personally commissioned and sent into the world by God? Put another way, Jesus is pointing out that, far from coming against him in unjust judgment, they should look upon him and see their elohim – their human (and divine!) judge. Hence why Jesus then asserts his unity with the Father: he is the Judge, because he is God.
So, Jesus cites Psalm 82 not to argue that “human beings are little gods,” but to argue that those who judge him are committing the same sin as the unjust judges in Psalm 82—and therefore are threatened with the same fate, because the One who pronounced the judgment in Psalm 82 is standing before them.