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Superscription.—“A Psalm of Asaph.” (See Introduction to Psalms 74:0.) Occasion.—We are unable to determine upon what occasion the Psalm was written. It is clear, however, that it is addressed to wicked magistrates or judges. It has been called “the Judges’ Psalm, wherein is taught the duty of judges and rulers.” The question has arisen whether the Psalm is directed against wicked judges amongst the Jews, or whether we are to regard the Jews as the poor and afflicted, and their heathen enemies as the unjust judges. The former appears to be the correct opinion. All that is here said of corrupt magistrates may frequently have been said of the judges of the Hebrews. (Comp. Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 1:26.) And there are in the Psalm itself convincing evidences that it was intended to apply to the Israelitish rulers.
ASPECTS OF MAGISTRACY
In this Psalm Asaph sets magistrates and judges before us in several aspects.
I. As occupying a distinguished position. He speaks of them as “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” The word Elohim, “gods,” is one of the names applied to the Supreme Being. It is not like Jehovah, a name indicating essence, but a name of office. The word Elohim occurs in several places, where it is translated “judges” (Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9; Exodus 22:28). This name was given to the judges as representing God in the theocracy, and as judging in His name and by His authority. In charging the judges, Moses distinctly asserted that “the judgment is God’s.” And in seeking judgment from them the people are said to seek it from Elohim. The office of magistrate is Divine. God by His servants applies to them one of His own names. They are appointed to administer judgment for Him. They represent Him in His judicial relation to men. They are to be honoured because of their office. And, under the theocracy, any insult which was offered to them was regarded as offered to God Himself. St. Paul says, “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” The office of magistrate and judge is one of the most responsible and honourable of all offices, and should be filled by men of keen and comprehensive intelligence and of unimpeachable uprightness. It is an office, too, which should ever be regarded with respect and honour.
II. As observed by God. “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; He judgeth among the gods.” Perowne: “God standeth in the congregation of God.” “The congregation of God” is the congregation of Israel, the people of God, among whom the judges were called to exercise their functions, and among whom He can suffer no injustice. The idea seems to be that the exercise of magistracy among His people was carried on beneath His inspection.
1. He is the observer of all magisterial acts. He stands in the congregation of His people, mindful of their interests, taking cognisance of their affairs, noting their oppressions, and watching how they fared at the seat of judgment. In all courts of justice He is present, seeing whether righteousness is enthroned there.
2. He is the judge of all magisterial acts. “He judgeth among the gods.” At His bar those who have judged others must stand and be judged themselves. It is a solemn consideration for all magistrates and judges that they must appear at the judgment seat of Christ, and render an account for every administration of the law which they have exercised. Let them ponder it, and strive to discharge their important duties uprightly and faithfully. Let the oppressed remember it and rejoice. God judgeth in the earth. He will ultimately correct all false judgments, and judge righteously amongst all men.
III. As called to the highest duties. Judges are exhorted by the poet to “judge the poor and fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and needy; deliver the poor and needy, rid them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Comp. Isaiah 1:17.) The idea seems to be that judges were to take up the causes of those who were unable to urge them themselves, whether by reason of orphanhood, poverty, or any other disability. Not that they should pronounce verdicts in their favour because they were orphans or poor, but that their poverty or orphanhood should not be any barrier in the way of obtaining their rights. The Supreme Judge has ever warmly espoused the cause of the widow, the fatherless, the poor, and the oppressed. Hear His Word on this subject. (See Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalms 68:5; Psalms 146:9.) Let magistrates remember that God is the helper of the helpless, the champion of the cause of the fatherless, the widow, and the needy: and let them see to it that they attentively regard and justly deal with the causes which God has espoused. “If a poor man has an honest cause, his poverty must be no prejudice to his cause, how great and powerful soever those are that contend with him.” “Suffer not the afflicted to be further afflicted by enduring injustice, and let not the needy long stand in need of an equitable hearing.”
IV. As exhibiting the worst perversity. The judges and magistrates are charged with the gravest perversion of their high office. The Psalmist accuses them of—
1. Ignorance. “They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness.” They were ignorant probably in two respects—
(1.) As regards the law. They had not striven to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the law which they were appointed to administer.
(2.) As regards the facts of the causes which were brought before them. They did not patiently and thoroughly investigate the causes on which they were called to adjudicate. Their ignorance was wilful. They did not care to know the law or the facts. Their high office had lost for them its sacredness. The ruling motive of their conduct was selfishness rather than the desire to discharge their duties intelligently and conscientiously. They love bribes rather than truth and righteousness. They have left “the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness,” and now “they walk on in darkness.” How can such men discharge the holy duties of their office aright? The Psalmist accuses them of—
2. Injustice. “How long will ye judge unjustly and accept the persons of the wicked?” The injustice with which the judges are charged is that of partiality or favouritism. They did not deal with and decide cases according to their facts and circumstances, according to their merits, but according to the wealth, or rank, or influence of the persons concerned. They not simply showed favour to the rich, the exalted in rank, and the powerful. That would have been evil. Partiality is ever wrong in a judge. But they accepted the persons of the wicked. They showed favour to them in their wickedness. A greater perversion of judgment is almost, if not quite, inconceivable As we have seen, the office of magistrate or judge is one of the highest and most important, but when it is perverted, the perversion is most sinful, and the result most terrible. The office itself is Divine; the conduct of the men who filled it was diabolic. And the result of this maladministration of justice was extreme social disorder. “All the foundations of the earth are out of course.” The whole fabric of society was shaken, and seemed to be tottering into ruin. Its very foundation principles were dislocated. These corrupt judges, instead of promoting order and harmony, were bringing all things into a state of anarchy and misery.
V. As tending to a great change. “Ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” Here we have—
1. Something which is common to all men. These judges had been spoken of as “gods,” but they must submit to death like the poorest wretch who had ever stood at their unrighteous judgment bar. Death comes equally to us all, and makes all equal when it comes. In that respect, the peer has no advantage over the peasant, or the prince over the pauper. “He bringeth the princes to nothing; He maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.” “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.” Death is the great leveller.
2. Something peculiar to men of exalted position. “Fall like one of the princes.” Some interpret this that death would be more painful to them amid their worldly power and material luxuries than to the poor amid their poverty and hardship. Their elevated position would render their fall the more distressing. But the true interpretation seems to be that they should die a violent death, and be cut off in the midst of their days. “The expression, ‘as one of the princes,’ reminds them of the numerous examples in early times of similar dignitaries who were removed by the judgment of God. The connection shows that it is fallen princes that are meant.” Men holding high and responsible positions who abuse their privileges and powers, are frequently cut down by violence. “Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days.” How vain, then, is it for men to pride themselves upon their eminent positions or sounding titles!
The conduct of magistrates and judges is here set forth—
VI. As leading man to cry for the inauguration of the direct magistracy of God. “Arise, O God, judge the earth: for Thou shalt inherit all nations.”
1. This cry springs from man’s longing for judgment. In all ages the wronged and oppressed have lifted up their hands to heaven, and implored the interposition of God. Justice being denied them here, they have turned their imploring eyes to God and cried, “Arise, O God, judge the earth.”
2. This cry implies the inadequacy of human judgments. Man has failed to rectify the wrongs under which the race has groaned for ages. The administration of justice has often been maladministration, a disgrace and a curse. And, even at its best, human magistracy is not able to rectify the disorders, and adjust the inequalities of this world.
3. This cry implies confidence in the judgment of God. The Psalmist trusted the justice of God. From the partiality and corruption of human judges he confidently carried his appeal to “the Judge of all the earth.”
“Heaven is above all, yet; there sits a Judge
That no king can corrupt.”—Shakespeare.
The Psalmist trusted the sovereignty of God. He knew that all nations belonged to Him. The administration of the affairs of the whole world pertained to Him. And so the Psalmist appealed to Him, in strong assurance that He would hear and respond to his appeal. The grand hope of the world is in the interposition of Him whose justice is unimpeachable, and whose sovereignty is universal.
1. Let us be thankful that in this land and in this age, as a rule, justice is administered with great intelligence and strict impartiality.
2. Let unjust magistrates and judges, and all who seek to gain or promote an unrighteous cause, be warned. “He judgeth among the gods.”
“In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice:
And oft ’tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In its true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
E’en to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.”—Shakespeare.
3. Let the oppressed behold their hope. “He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. He shall judge the poor of the people, He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.” “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for Thou shalt inherit all nations.”
THE PILGRIMAGE OF THE WICKED
“They walk on in darkness.”
The life of all men upon earth is a pilgrimage, a journey.
1. A journey constantly prosecuted. Asleep or awake, frivolous or earnest, sinful or holy, we are ever advancing on this journey.
2. A journey rapidly prosecuted. “My days are swifter than a post; they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships; as the eagle that hasteth to the prey.”
3. A journey irretraceably prosecuted. In the walk of life there is no going back to our yesterdays. We pass along the way but once.
4. A journey of great importance. There is an end to our earthly pilgrimage, and the nature of the end is determined by our conduct on the journey. We are preparing our future heaven or hell as we tread the path of daily life. In this journey the wicked “walk on in darkness.” Their pilgrimage is characterised by—
I. Privation. Night hides the beauties and sublimities of the landscape. They are there even as in the daytime, but the darkness veils them. When the darkness is very great even the stars, the peculiar glory of the night, are obscured. The sinner sees not the morally sublime and beautiful. The glory of God surrounds him, but he is in darkness, and beholds it not. The truth of God is revealed, but he sees it not, for he walks on in darkness. The spiritual privations of the wicked are many and great; e.g., pardon, peace, &c.
II. Folly. The wicked condemn themselves to these privations. “They walk on in darkness,” because they will so to do. Light is in the world, but they elect to prosecute their journey in the dark. They may walk in the day if they will, but they prefer to walk at night. The sinner excludes himself from all the true brightness and joy of life. Sin is arrant folly.
III. Peril. “If a man walk in the night, be stumbleth.” Obstacles may overthrow him, he may step over a precipice and be shattered into fragments, hostile powers may approach unobserved and kill him. Faint images these of the moral perils which beset the sinner in his darkened walk.
IV. Criminality. To walk on in moral darkness when we may walk in the light of truth is sinful. “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
V. Ruinousness. If men persist in walking in darkness they will, sooner or later, stumble into hell.
Sinners, turn from your dangerous course. While yet you may, turn from darkness to light, from sin to the Saviour, from hell to heaven.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 82". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30