Psalm 82:1 states, “God has taken his place in the divine council,” a line parallel in thought to the next: “in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (ESV). The divine council is made up of the gods. These gods are charged with injustice and partiality (Ps 82:2–4) and lacking the knowledge and understanding necessary to their roles (82:5). God thus condemns these gods for their sins, addressing them directly: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince’” (Ps 82:6–7 ESV). The psalmist ends with a plea for God to restore justice, something these gods could not do (Ps 82:8).
Who are these gods?
One suggestion is that the gods are human rulers based on the use of elohim in other passages (cf. Exod 21:6; 22:8–9, 28; Deut 1:17), but it is questionable as to whether or not these passages refer to gods as human rulers or (more likely) God Himself, only implying the role of these rulers.
Another suggestion is that these gods are angels, being that these “sons of the Most High” (Ps 82:6) are the same as angels identified elsewhere as “the sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1; cf also Job 38:7; Exod 15:11; Ps 8:6; 29:1; 89:6–7).
Throwing a sound view of Scripture out the window is the view that Israel saw her God ruling among the pantheon of gods, just as the nations around them. The reality of God and these gods in this view is not necessary, since Israel’s religion is simply one to be compared to many of like, human origin.
What seems to be the best understanding is that these gods are the people of Israel who were accountable to administer justice according to God’s Word. Both God and gods are translations of the same Hebrew term elohim, a word that is technically in the plural. In the Hebrew, a plural noun can sometimes bring out the majesty of a singular referent, as is the case with God. Since elohim refers to both the Judge of sinners and the sinners being judged in this psalm, context obviously decides the translation of each instance of elohim. Within the psalm, these gods are responsible for judging the matters of men, do so poorly, and are thus condemned to death, the last of which indicates they are human.
Another indicator that these gods are human is Jesus’ argument against the Jews in John 10:34–36. Jesus was accused of making Himself out to be God by claiming He and the Father were one (John 10:33; cf. 10:30). In response, Jesus quoted part of Ps 82:6 (“I said, you are gods”) in order to remind His opponents that “he called them gods to whom the word of God came” (John 10:34–35). Being written by Asaph, one of David’s musicians (ca. 1000 BC), a reference to the coming of the Word of God would have referred to God’s giving of the Law to Israel on the mountain over 400 years earlier (cf. Exod 19–24). Jesus’ argument went from the lesser to greater and could be summarized like this: if God could call these erring Israelites gods, then all the more am I justified in calling myself the Son of God who was consecrated and sent by the Father (John 10:35–36).
Being more specific, these gods were not just humans but those who had the responsibility of administrating justice according to the Word of God on His behalf. It is no surprise that Asaph would call them elohim. Using this one term in multiple instances and moving back and forth between meanings poetically highlighted the importance of their responsibility to administer justice on God’s behalf.