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.”

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