82:1 God stands in the assembly of El;
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment.

Cf. Psa 89:7; Jn 10:34.

NIV: ‘God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:’

The Heb. word underlying both ‘God’ and ‘gods’ in this verse is the same – ‘elohim‘.

God stands is lit. ‘takes his place’.

Who are these 'gods'?
Some think that this verse countenances the existence of other gods (see, for example, John Loftus’ comment in God or Godless, p22f).  This would then be a concession to polytheism.

Others think that the reference is to angels.  The OT occasionally refers to angelic beings as ‘gods’ or ‘sons of God’ (Psa 8:5; Job 1:6).  J. Stafford Wright thinks that this passage is about the judgement of angelic rulers, who have abused their authority.  What said in v5f ‘would be meaningless if they were already men and princes.’ Wright adds that ‘this interpretation is not negatives by Christ’s quotation of v6 in Jn 10:34-36, since he interprets the vierse as applying to those “unto whom the word of God came,” i.e. those who are called to account by God in this Psalm; leaving the question open as to whether they are men or angels.  Christ’s argument of course is that if the title “elohim” is applied in Scripture even to evil beings who exercise authority under god, the title “Son of God” in its fullest sense can be assumed by him without blasphemy when his divine mission is unique, and his works declare that he is what he claims to be.’ (What is man?)

Still others think that this psalm is referring to human judges, in their God-given capacity for ruling.  The contributor to Hard Sayings of the Bible says that God ‘is addressing the earthly judges and administrators of his law whom he has set up to represent him.’  The same word ‘elohim‘ is used in Ex 21:6 and Ex 22:8 (and probably also in Psa 138:1).  This understanding of the “gods” as human rulers who are abusing their God-given authority is borne out by v2, and also by Psa 82:6, where all those who are ‘sons of the Most High’ are called ‘gods’.

An alternative view is taken by Mays, in his commentary.  He suggests that the psalmist is dealing, in a vividly poetic way, with the worldview that was prevalent in the ANE, in which the gods were thought to meet in an assembly under the presidency of a leading deity.  Clearly, within this picture, the Lord is the supreme deity.  The other gods are subordinate deities, responsible for order and justice in the nations to which they have been assigned.  They have failed in this task.  So they will be removed from office and condemned to die, just like men.  In this way, says Mays, this 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.”‘

Heiser offers a further variation on the theme.  He says that terms such as ‘monotheism’, ‘polytheism’, ‘henotheism’ and ‘monolatry’ are all of limited usefulness, because they import modern understandings into ancients texts that should be allowed to speak for themselves.  Moreover, they lend themselves to an evolutionary approach (where Israel’s faith is thought to have progressed polytheism or henotheism to monotheism).  Those who reject an evolutionary approach, says Heiser, tend to view the ‘other gods’ as either human beings or idols.  But when the biblical texts are allowed to speak for themselves, says Heiser, we find that they assume the existence of other gods, but uniformly assert that Yahweh is unique among them.  Put simply, to the biblical writer Yahweh was a god, but no other god was Yahweh.  He was the only eternal and uncreated being, and all other beings – including the hosts of heaven – owe their existence to him (Ps 148:1–5; Isa 43:10; 44:6–8; Neh 9:6).  He alone is worthy of worship, being unique in his nature (uncreated), and supreme in his power.

82:2 He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions
and show favoritism to the wicked?
82:3 Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless!
Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!
82:4 Rescue the poor and needy!
Deliver them from the power of the wicked!
82:5 They neither know nor understand.
They stumble around in the dark,
while all the foundations of the earth crumble.

‘There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: In the first place, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community, “Do good to all people.” The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

82:6 I thought, ‘You are gods;
all of you are sons of the Most High.’
82:7 Yet you will die like mortals;
you will fall like all the other rulers.”
82:8 Rise up, O God, and execute judgment on the earth!
For you own all the nations.