Monday, August 15, 2016

Forget God

Forget God
Psalm 50[1]
We who claim to follow Christ as our Savior and Lord face a constant temptation. It is incredibly easy for us to forget God in the midst of all our religious activities.[2] How often do we lose sight of the basic affirmations of our faith! The Bible teaches us that all that we are and have and ever will be come to us as a gift from God who is the creator of all things and all people. Our faith is in the good news that through Jesus the Christ we have been given the freedom to live our lives without fear or guilt or shame. And the Bible consistently instructs those of us who have received the love of God to relate to other people—all other people—in a manner consistent with that amazing grace.
Despite all that, we have an unsettling tendency to simply “forget God” and go about our lives as we see fit. Of course, given the pace of life these days, even the best of us can lose focus when it comes to our faith. Between our jobs and our homes and our families, it seems like life is a never-ending roller-coaster. But this is more than just a matter of slipping into a routine that empties our religion of any real meaning. I don’t think I have to remind you that when the church has forgotten God, it has been capable of committing horrific atrocities. This is not a matter of ancient history. All you have to do is turn on your TV to see Christian people “forgetting God” and acting in ways that contradict our faith.
That is the point of our Psalm for today. If you read the history of Israel, it’s not too hard to discover that they forgot God many times.[3] And when they did, they fell into a pattern of worship and living that dishonored God. For a time, God would be patient with them, attempting to draw them back to the commitment they had made to him. But when their walk didn’t match their talk, and their standards for living fell to a level where they betrayed the love he had poured into their hearts, he broke silence and called them to account.[4] This psalm is unique in that it constitutes a summons by “The mighty one, God the Lord” to the people who had pledged their love and loyalty to him to answer for the fact that, once again, they had forgotten God.
In the Psalm, God calls his people to account for this in two ways: their worship and their lives. When it came to their worship, it would appear that they had fallen into the pattern that so many have over the ages: thinking that somehow our worship, and specifically our offerings, are a “gift” we give to God. And, of course, we believe we deserve credit for being so generous toward God.[5] But in this Psalm, God reminds his people of all ages once again that because he is the one Creator of all things, “the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps. 50:12). That includes us and everything we think we own! For that reason, the kind of worship that honors God reflects our ultimate dependence on God for everything—for all that we have and all that we are, for life itself. Anything less constitutes a “trampling” of God’s courts, according to the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 1:12).
Equally problematic was the fact that they had fallen into a pattern of living that contradicted their  profession of faith.[6] And so it was that God’s people had gone from being his “faithful ones” (Ps. 50:5) and had become the “wicked” (Ps. 50:16).[7] That wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. The prophets had repeatedly rebuked Israel for claiming to be God’s people while blatantly violating God’s commands. Here, the psalm singles out the commandments regarding stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness. But as the witness of the whole Bible bears out, any time those of us who have vowed to love and serve God live in a way that betrays our faith, we are guilty of having forgotten God.  And Jesus made it clear that this is not just about our actions, but also about what’s in our hearts. As he interpreted the command against murder, we violate God’s will when we even speak to another human being in a demeaning way.
In this unique Psalm, “the mighty one, God the Lord” calls out to us all to put his justice into practice.  What God wants from us is not ritual or lip service, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s kingdom in the world.[8] It is the same message the prophet Micah had:  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  Throughout the Bible, what God desires from us most of all is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant are most frequently named in the Bible, but we could add others to the list, like the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill.[9] When we turn our backs on them, we forget God.
We live in a world where God’s name has been invoked to justify some of the worst of atrocities. We live in a world where God’s name is invoked on a regular basis to justify hatred, violence, and injustice. And when we condone that kind of thing, we indict ourselves as those who have forgotten God—or at least the very basic principles the Bible teaches us about God. I think that in these matters it might help us gain clarity if we simplify it. One time-tested principle we can use to measure our lives is whether what we do and say matches what Jesus would do and say. Perhaps, though we need to put it on a more basic level: can we honestly say that our lives match up with what we teach our children? Those are both hard tests for any of us, but I think if we pay more attention to them, it will help us avoid the temptation to forget God.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/7/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:883: “Good faith is always in danger of becoming bad religion—a mechanistic system to put God at our disposal and to give us the illusion of merit and self-control. If we think that we are deserving, and if we think that we have things essentially under control, then there will be no need for us to call upon God or to live in dependence upon God.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 39: “To say that Israel ‘forgets’ God means that the people are disregarding God’s covenant and precepts; but it also means that they are forgetting God’s history with Israel: Exodus, covenant and election.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 195: “The patience of God with his people, the forbearance of the LORD in the face of misunderstanding and faithlessness, could lead to a terrible conclusion”: they may “think of the LORD as one like themselves” instead of recognizing “the revelation of God and the covenant to be the determination of life”. “For that reason God must break silence in the face of error. God must judge.” Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “we should remember that God’s purpose in judgment is to set right people and things—that is, to establish justice.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1 278: “In sacrifice Israel—fallible, sinful and unfaithful Israel—is summoned to bow beneath the divine judgment, but also to hold fast to the divine grace. Of course, this living meaning of sacrifice can sometimes fade. It may become a mere religious observance. It may be understood as a do ut des [tit for tat]. It may become an attempt on the part of the people to acquire power over God, to assure oneself before him, to hide one’s sin instead of acknowledging it.” Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 195-96: “The indictment of worship is not a rejection of sacrifice as such. … The problem is a misunderstanding and misuse of sacrifice. If sacrifice is brought as a gift to God … and offered as something transferred from their ownership to God’s possession, that sacrifice is rejected. Such a sacrifice denies that God is creator and owner of all … . If sacrifice is brought to God as something that God needs and is dependent upon the people to bring, that denies God’s absolute sovereignty … .”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 196: “The problem with the people is that “there is a disparity … between confession (v. 16) and conduct (v. 17). They recite the statutes and ignore the commandments. They confess the covenant and reject its discipline.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:881: “The mention of a covenant ‘by sacrifice’ recalls the covenant ceremony following the giving of the Decalogue (Exod 24:1-8), where sacrifice accompanied the reading of ‘the book of the covenant’ (Exod 24:7 NRSV). In that setting, the people promised, ‘We will obey’ (Exod 24:7 NIV). Psalm 50 suggests that God’s people have not obeyed; rather, they have violated the covenant.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “it is precisely God’s people who have become ‘the wicked.’ They apparently say the right things (v. 16) but fail to act in accordance with their covenant identity (v. 17).
[8] Cf. H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 495-96: “The judgment speech in vv. 16-21, …, rules out all external piety, even formal lip-confession, as ungodly and godless ‘religiosity.’ Yahweh is not silent over against the hypocritical measures of his covenant partners.”
[9] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Psalm 107[1]
The people in this world who have the ability to make us want to be around them are unique. They possess many positive qualities, like kindness, joy, and acceptance. But I think one of key qualities that defines a person like this is that they are grateful. They are grateful for life as it is, not caught up in complaints about life as they wish it would be. They have discovered the secret that gratitude “turns what we have into enough, and more.”[2] Like the Apostle Paul, they have learned “to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11, NIV).[3] It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but it’s one to which I think we all need to pay attention.
One of the ironies about gratitude is that some of the most grateful people you meet may surprise you. Their life stories are not those of one success after another, a life in which all their dreams come true. In fact, I would say some of the most grateful people I’ve ever met are those who have learned to accept life circumstances that are less than ideal, to say the least. And many of them have been through hardships that would astonish the rest of us if we really knew their story. Gratitude is not tied to whether or not we get what we want out of life. It is a mindset that we choose, and it makes all the difference in our ability to live life with peace and joy instead of pain and striving.
Our Psalm lesson for today is all about gratitude. Some suggest that it may have been used as an expression of thanksgiving during a fall harvest festival. Others have pointed out that this Psalm opens the last of the five “books” into which the Psalms are grouped.[4] The fact that the final “chapter” of the Psalms begins with an extensive declaration of Gods’ “steadfast love,” God’s love that never ends, relates to some of the situations that we’ve already talked about. Even if this Psalm was not composed to directly address the crisis of faith that the people of Israel experienced when they were forced into exile, it would seem that it does address some of the questions raised by the trauma they went through.
The Psalm opens with the ultimate reason for gratitude: The Lord is “good” and “his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1).[5] As I’ve mentioned before, this aspect of God’s character is one of the central affirmations of the Hebrew Bible, indeed the whole Bible. God’s love is described with different words in the Bible, but this one emphasizes that God’s love is a love that will never let us go. It is a love that remains faithful, no matter what. The only way for God to stop loving us in this way is for God to stop being God. And so the true foundation for our gratitude is not our circumstances, but the never-ending love that God has for every one of us.[6]
As a result, the Psalmist issues the call to “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Ps. 107:2). He enumerates specific situations in which God has demonstrated his love. The Psalmist reminds us that God’s love is such that “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9).  God’s love means “he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” to set the prisoners free (Ps. 107:16). God in his love “turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps. 107:35). God’s love is such that he “raises up the needy out of distress” (Ps. 107:41). The Psalm leaves the impression that there is no situation in which we may find ourselves that God’s love will not make right.[7]
In fact, there is a kind of refrain that echoes throughout this Psalm. In each of the situations that demonstrate God’s love in action, the Psalmist says, “They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Ps. 107:6, 13; 19; 28). Whether the people were lost in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, confined in prisons of darkness and gloom, or whether they were at their wits’ end due to the dangers they encountered, in each and every circumstance, the Psalmist says “They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” I think his point is that this is the nature of God’s love that never lets us go, no matter where we find ourselves in life.
One of the potential problems with this Psalm is that it creates the impression that those who faced any kind of trouble cried to the Lord, and he delivered them immediately. Because of that, it may create an expectation on our part that if we pray with enough faith and with the right words, then God will answer our cries for deliverance right now. Yet the Bible is full of examples of people who cried to the Lord and had to wait for their deliverance. Sometimes years. Sometimes decades! I think recognizing that can help correct the false impression that if we pray the right way, God will deliver us on our timetable.
At least part of what this means for us, I think, is that an important aspect of God’s love delivering us from our troubles is found in learning “to be content whatever the circumstances,” as St. Paul could say from his own less than ideal situation: confined under guard in Rome. The truth about prayers for deliverance is that we may not understand what God is doing in our lives through the difficulties we are experiencing. I don’t believe God ever punishes us with our afflictions. Rather, in all our troubles, God’s “steadfast love” is working for our good. At times God does intervene to change the situation. But I think the most important outcome of prayer is the change it produces in us. And I think that means that “deliverance” may come to us in the form of the ability to be grateful right where we are.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/31/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Melodie Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, 218: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, who like many commentators, mentions the strange tension between Paul’s expression of gratitude for the gift he received from the Philippians and his affirmation of his independence from the need for any support. Craddock says (p. 78), “Paul reminds his friends that he is free. He is able to live with abundance, but it is not necessary that he have it. He is able to live in hunger and want, but it is not necessary that he be poor. He is defined neither by wealth or poverty but by a contentment that transcends both and by a power in Christ which enables him to live in any circumstance. It is important for his friends to see their gift in this context.”
[4] Cf. for example, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1117: “Book V begins in a manner that suggests that the editors of the psalter intended it, like Book IV …, to serve as a response to Book III and its elaboration of the theological crisis of exile and its aftermath …. Psalm 107, for instance, serves as a pointed response to the question raised in Ps 89:49: ‘Lord, where is your steadfast love of old?’”
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 27: the basis for giving thanks is a focus “not on might or holiness or any other attributes commonly given God in the psalms” but rather on “the goodness of the LORD as the attribute beyond all others that calls for and calls forth praise.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 344: “Psalm 107 is a song that praises the loyal love (hesed) of the LORD shown in marvelous works of deliverance performed in answer to the cry of those in distress.” Cf. also ibid., 346: ““Hesed is the goodness of the LORD as redeemer. It is at once an everlasting attribute of the character of God and occasional in its manifestation in saving actions. The psalm uses the singular (v. 1) and the plural (v. 43) of hesed as a way of indicating that the eternal reality of God is revealed and can be known in specific temporal acts of salvation.”
[7] Cf. Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 687: “The hymn glorifies the sovereign power of the divine saving rule which … continually manifests itself in the baffling ups and downs of life, in its fluctuations between wealth and poverty, adversity and deliverance, wickedness and faith.”

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Bending Towards Justice

Bending Towards Justice
Psalm 52[1]
It’s not too hard to notice that the values and the principles taught in the Bible contradict those of our society.[2] That is, if we take the Bible seriously. The Bible’s values are determined by the confidence that God’s reign is the reality that is ultimately true in this world. The Bible looks forward to the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven: when justice and fairness prevail; when love and mercy and compassion define the human family. It is an outlook on life and on our world that will not let us stay comfortable with the “values” of our society. The Bible teaches us to hope that the affairs of this world are “bending toward justice.”
It’s also not too hard to discover what our true values are. In our world, winning isn’t just a good thing, or even an important thing, it’s the only thing that matters. We value winning and really don’t care what it takes to get there. In our world, money makes the world go around, and those who have the most money can spin just about anything to suit their every whim. In our world, might makes right, whether we’re talking about physical strength or other kinds of power. If we can do or say something and get away with it, we will, with little or no thought to whether it’s actually right. In our world, the only thought we give to justice is whether or not those we deem to be criminals get punished adequately.
We saw last week that the Psalmist attributed this state of affairs to the spiritual “powers that be.” And God essentially fires them for not seeing to it that his justice was done on earth as it is in heaven. But as we touched on last week, the Bible also addresses those who abuse their position and their power to get whatever they want, regardless of the consequences.[3] Not only the Psalms, but also the prophets rebuked the “high and mighty” for taking advantage of their power to take advantage of other people. They spared no one in the process— the wealthy, the powerful, even prophets, priests, and kings. Anyone who abused their power to benefit themselves was exposed by the truth they spoke.[4]
Our Psalm lesson for today unmasks the blatant evil in what those who are the “high and mighty” can get away with. The psalmist doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings in his rebuke: “you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth” (Ps. 52:2-3). It’s not a pretty picture. He cuts through all the fanfare and the acclaim that can surround those who climb the ladder of success by stepping on anyone who gets in their way. And the essential message is that anyone who presumes to take this path in life will eventually find it to be their undoing.
One of the interesting features of this Psalm is that the “title,” which was very likely added later, seeks to identify a specific individual who was guilty of this kind of arrogance.[5] The psalmist finds such a villain in a story that took place when King Saul was pursuing David in the wilderness of Judea. It mentions someone most of us probably never heard of: Doeg the Edomite. What we have to understand is that in the days of ancient Israel, the quintessential villain probably would have been Doeg the Edomite.  Doeg was the man who informed Saul that David consulted with and received help from a priest named Ahimelech.  But worse than that, when Saul’s own troops refused to kill Ahimelech because he was a priest of God Most High, Doeg not only killed him, but also all the others who were with him—in all 85 priests!
Part of the problem with this story in the Hebrew Bible is that we never learn what happens to him.[6] There’s no resolution to the tension that’s left when Doeg the Edomite seemingly gets away with a vicious crime scot free.  That’s why the title of Psalm 52 designates it as a response to his treachery.  But in fact the Psalm addresses the problem of anyone who abuses their power and wealth to get what they want—no matter what it takes.  Psalm 52 promises those who “boast of mischief,” who practice this kind of blatant injustice, that “what goes around comes around.”
What this Psalm reinforces is the conviction that anyone like Doeg the Edomite will not get away with such blatant injustice without facing the consequences.  Even the worst of the “high and mighty” who apparently think themselves above the law and above God’s justice will one day learn the lesson that “you reap whatever you sow” (Gal. 6:7).[7]  It’s a truth that Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of stating: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[8] Those who seem to get away with all kinds of evil now will ultimately confront God’s judgment of their dirty work.
But the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ goes beyond the justice of retribution that says, “an eye for an eye.” The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells, the Lord of all the powers, does not resolve the problem of injustice by “breaking down forever” the villains of this world.  Jesus resolves the problem of injustice by reconciling all things to God. Jesus undoes the evil of those who arrogantly presume to abuse their power by “making peace” through his death on the cross. Essentially, he brings us all back to God and realigns our hearts to God’s ways And as the effects of that peace continue to work in the lives of people like you and me, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of this world “bending toward justice” after all.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 891: where he says that the depiction of the “mighty one” in Psalm 52 depicts “precisely what much of contemporary society consistently presses us to do—to ground our lives in nothing but ourselves and our possessions.” Cf. also Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 413: “Without trust in God man falls prey to the power of evil; he cannot help trusting in something and, if it is not God whom he trusts, then it is his own self or his wealth which he makes his idol, and even his malice appears to him to be a sign of strength of which he can boast.”
[3] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 890: “The mighty one is willing to use any means to get ahead, regardless of how destructive. In short, the mighty one represents the essence of wickedness in the Psalms: autonomy, self-rule.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 205: “The psalm was composed for a time when power joined to wealth was destructive of the social order and a tribulation and scandal for those who loved good and trusted in God. Its basic theme is the conflict between the wicked and the righteous in a world governed by God. … The basic confidence is that God will overrule the way of the wicked.” Cf. similarly H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 511-512.
[5] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 890: “The superscription identifies this “mighty one” as Doeg, one of Saul’s servants, who informed Saul of David’s locale and killed the priests of Nob at Saul’s command (see 1 Samuel 21–22; 22:9 is quoted in the superscription). While Psalm 52 makes sense as the words of David in such a situation, it is much more likely that the superscription should be taken illustratively rather than historically.”
[6] Cf. F. Hossfeld  & E. Zenger, Psalms 2: A commentary on Psalms 51-100, 30: “The Samuel narratives leave Doeg’s fate open, whereas the psalm announces his punishment.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:891: “In contrast to the affirmation that God ‘will uproot’ the wicked, …the psalmist knows the nature of true security: Life ultimately depends on God rather than on ourselves or our possessions (see Luke 12:13-21, esp. v. 15).” Cf. also ibid., “The punishment of the wicked is that by pursuing wealth they have cut themselves off from God, who is the source of life. Conversely, the reward of the righteous is that they are grounded in God and thus connected to life’s source and destiny.”
[8] Cf. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 16 August 1967. Accessed at /where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/ . Dr. King very likely was paraphrasing from a statement made by Theodore Parker, a controversial 19th Century Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, in a sermon entitled “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in Ten Sermons of Religion, 1853, 84-85: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Accessed at /tensermonsofreli00inpark/tensermonsofreli00inpark_bw.pdf.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Powers that Were?

Powers that Were?
Psalm 82[1]
It doesn’t take a person too long to recognize that in this world of ours there are certain facts of life it would seem we have to accept. Those who have the most power generally get their way, even at the expense of others; sometimes at the expense of the vast majority. Those who are wealthy have plenty of ways at their disposal to make sure they hold onto their wealth and even add as much to it as possible. Again, even if it means running roughshod over anyone who gets in their way. The “movers and shakers” use their power and their money in ways that typically take care of themselves and others like them, and they look down their noses at the rest of us. We call them “the powers that be.”
For many people in the history of the world these powers have been personified as deities. In fact, they believed that the power to determine our fate was held by a pantheon of gods who ruled over every aspect of human life, from weather, to fortune, to food, to love, to success, to even life and death itself.[2] Even to this day many millions of people believe that there are multiple deities who control their lives and our destinies. While this way of looking at things is understandable, the sad thing is that those “gods” usually wouldn’t make very decent people, let alone deities! For most people throughout history, life was at the mercy of “powers” that could be capricious and thoughtless at best, and at worst cruel and ruthless.
It’s interesting that sometimes that worldview works its way even into our faith, even into our scriptures. Our lesson from the Psalms for today is a case in point. It represents an ancient belief system that was more characteristic of the Canaanites than it was of the faith of the Hebrew people. The psalmist speaks of a gathering of the gods, coming together under a chief god to make decisions about human life. When this concept shows up in the Hebrew Bible, it presents this council as one presided over by Yahweh, the Most High God who rules over lesser deities.[3] That seems to be the context in our Psalm text. In the New Testament, it shows up as a belief in spiritual entities, “principalities and powers,” as St. Paul describes them.
The interesting note about this in Psalm 82 is that the Most High God, Yahweh, has called this council essentially to give the other gods their walking papers! Apparently, the purpose of the council of the gods was to see to it that the will of the Most High God would be done in the affairs of humankind. That means that they were to have given “justice to the weak and the orphan”; they were to have maintained “the right of the lowly and the destitute”; they were to have “rescued the weak and the needy;” they were to have “delivered them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).[4]
Unfortunately, they had failed to do that. Instead they had shown “partiality to the wicked” (Ps. 82:2). What we have to understand is that in the Hebrew Bible, the wicked aren’t those living on the margins of society, whom “decent” people have always seen as a threat. In fact, they were the “movers and the shakers.” They were wicked because they used their power and their wealth to enrich themselves and to enhance the quality of their lives. And they did it without any thought to whom they hurt or oppressed or took advantage of or even destroyed in the process. The “gods” had failed to do God’s will because they allowed “the powers that be” to have the freedom to do as they pleased.[5]
For that reason, in our Psalm for today, God essentially fires the “gods.” This all may seem very foreign to us, but it would seem the Psalm uses a concept that was widespread in that day to take apart the very idea of the existence of “powers” other than God.[6] The text undercuts the idea that there could be any entities—gods or otherwise—who can actually thwart God’s will. Despite the fact that we humans tend to want “someone” to blame for the evil in this world, the Psalms reflect the heart of the Hebrew faith that there is no being—spiritual or otherwise—who is powerful enough to effectively stand over against God as a rival.[7]
In the Psalms, as elsewhere in the Bible, it is God’s reign that is the reality that is ultimately true in this world, even though it may not always seem that way. And that means is that any so-called “powers that be” have no power at all in comparison with God. The Psalms express the faith that God effectively puts out of business any “powers” that try to subvert his purpose for the human family: that the weak and the lowly and the needy of this world will be raised up to the life God intends. As the Bible puts it, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5).
We tend to think of the “powers that be” as the movers and shakers in our day. They are the ones who can throw their weight around and do just as they please with no regard for consequences. But the Scripture reminds us that despite appearances now, these so-called “powers that be” have no ultimate power in the face of God’s will that justice and fairness shall prevail; that love and mercy and compassion shall be the final destiny for the human family.[8] The “powers” may be able to make life difficult now. But one day, they will be shown for what they truly are: has-beens. One day, the “powers that be” will become at best powers that were.[9]

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at
[2] Cf. Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 4-7, where he summarizes this worldview as one that attributes the “creative energies” in human society as coming (p. 4) “from an inspiring power, creative, expressive, truly supernatural since it is beyond the natural powers of most humans.”
[3] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1006: “Psalm 82 portrays the death of all other gods. In so doing, it offers a clear picture of the ancient Near Eastern polytheistic culture that formed Israel’s religious background. In Canaanite religion, the high god El convened the council of the gods (see this concept also in 1 Kgs 22:19-23; Job 1:6-12; and perhaps Ps 58:1-2). In v. 1, Israel’s God has displaced El and convenes what proves to be an extraordinary meeting. Israel’s God proceeds to put the gods on trial.” Cf. also H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 60-150, 155, where he insists that “The older interpretation, that the Elohim are human judges or princes (F. Delitzsch), has been proved to be out of the question by religion-historical research, especially by texts discovered in Ras Shamra. The Syrian-Canaanite mythology thinks of the heavenly world as populated by innumerable ‘divine essences.’”
[4] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 1006: “For the God of Israel, the criterion of justice involves what is done for the weak, the orphaned, the destitute, the needy (see Pss 9:7-9, 18; 10:17-18; 68:5-6; 113:7; 146:7-9). Not surprisingly, justice and righteousness also appear as parallels in the psalms that proclaim God’s reign or describe the reign of God’s earthly agent, the king (see Pss 72:1-2; 97:2; 99:4; see also 96:10, 13; 98:9). Here again, the establishment of justice and righteousness is the measure of divinity and of human life as God intends it.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 121: “If the gods are as ‘blind’ as chance, if they have ‘neither insight nor understanding’, then they will bring the whole structure of the world to destruction; then nothing is certain any more; then you can no longer rely on anything. Everything threatens to sink into chaos.” By contrast (ibid., 126), “When YHWH rises up in his whole greatness as creator of the heavens and the earth, ‘he will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the wretched’ (Isa. 11:4). ‘Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field’ (Isa. 32:16). Then the whims of chance will disappear, and fate will no longer be blind, for righteousness and justice will put everything to rights: gods and human beings, heaven and earth.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1006: “In short, the council of the gods is permanently adjourned, and so Psalm 82 affirms again the message that forms the theological heart of the book of Psalms: God rules the world.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 269-70: “This portrayal of the assembly of the gods is unlike any other because it announces the permanent adjournment of the assembly and the execution of its constituency: the psalm announces the death of the gods. It is a way of saying in the face of a polytheistic worldview, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty.’”
[7] Cf. Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 557, where he says that the idea of a council of gods “serves to explain the riddle presented by life that violence so often triumphs over what is right, and that the weak and the poor do not come into their own and are exposed to oppression by ungodly rulers.” He adds (ibid., 558), however, that “this attempt contains in embryo the dualistic solution of the problem, a solution which, after all, is only an attempt to solve the problem, but is not in itself a proper solution.  For the existence of evil is here attributed to the activities of forces hostile to God; but at the same time God’s righteousness as such remains untouched by the injustice that exists in the world. … Wherever the reality of evil in the world is felt as a power menacing man’s existence, it is considered to be the result of the activities of a personal power. Both the notion of Satan, which, springing from other sources, penetrated the Old Testament, and the figure of the Devil in the Christian faith are but different figures of speech, expressing the same state of affairs, in which evil is taken quite seriously as the activity of a real personal being. However, the psalmist holds the view that the attempt at a dualistic solution of the problem of theodicy is not the final word in the quest for God’s righteousness. In principle the faith in the One God and in his righteousness remains unshaken here. With a prophetic assurance the psalmist recognizes that the real and final solution of the problem is to be found in the ultimate vindication of the righteousness of God.”
[8] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 1007: “Psalm 82 raises the question of how we are to hear such an overtly mythological text in our very different world. The first step is to approach the psalm as a poetic expression of faith rather than a literal description of a trial in heaven. The truth of the psalm’s message lies in its ability to illumine reality, which it does in a remarkable way—so much so that in our day, and with our distance from the ancient Near Eastern worldview, it is possible for us to appreciate the psalmist’s conviction that injustice destroys the world. Indeed, we see it happening all around us—in our cities and neighborhoods, in our schools and churches and homes.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 270-71: “It becomes an axiom of Old Testament theology that the worship of the LORD must and shall bring justice to the weak. On the other hand, the forces and powers that control a society in which rights of the needy are violated and neglected are unmasked as failed gods.”