This post is the first in a series in response to a multi-part question.
Part 1 of the question: What is the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” that is described in the Bible? Psalm 82 says that “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (And what is this judgment that is referred to?) Some kind of council also seems to be described in 1 Kings, where Micaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him.” There God poses a problem to those around him and various ones make suggestions until a solution is identified. What is really happening in the spiritual realm that seems to be affecting our world?
There is at least one more apparent reference in the Bible to a divine council. Psalm 89 asks, “Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared.”
These references indeed lead us to ask, “What’s going on here?” We ask this not only in the sense that you have—inquiring into the workings of the spiritual realm—but also because we are perplexed. Isn’t there supposed to be only one God? What is the Bible doing talking about other gods who aren’t just imaginary figures associated with idols but actual beings in heaven? Does the Bible really teach polytheism, rather than monotheism?
The place to start in addressing these issues is Psalm 82. Researching the answer to your question has led me to discover the brilliant and provocative work that Dr. Michael S. Heiser has done in recent years to explain that psalm and to address the entire issue of a “divine council.” I personally find his interpretations satisfying and persuasive. More about them shortly.
Out of a concern to preserve monotheism, many biblical interpreters and translators have taken the term “gods” in Psalm 82 to be ironic or mocking (they put the term in quotation marks or say “so-called gods”), or they have understood these “gods” to be human “judges” or “magistrates.” Correspondingly, they have taken the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” to be the “great assembly” or the “great meeting of His people,” that is, the whole congregation of the people of Israel.
Interpreters say that these understandings find support in an appeal that Jesus makes to the opening of Psalm 89 when he is accused of blasphemy. This is recorded in the Gospel of John. At the Feast of Dedication, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” For that, his opponents want to stone him because, they say, “you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus responds, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
Interpreters feel that they have a clue here to the identity of the “gods” in Psalm 89: They are those “to whom the word of God came.” Some conclude that this means they are the whole nation of Israel, which received the law at Mount Sinai; others say they are the judges appointed under the law, who received wisdom and guidance from God to decide cases. Either way, there would be no polytheism in Psalm 89; those who are being addressed, for whatever reason, as “gods” are actually mortal.
However, in his article “Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34,” Dr. Heiser points out a fatal flaw with these interpretations: They undermine Jesus’ claim of divinity. If Jesus is telling his opponents, “It’s all right for me to claim to be God, because in the Scriptures all those who received the law are called gods,” or, “those who received guidance to judge cases are called gods,” then Jesus is appealing to his membership in the nation of Israel or to his ethical teaching as the basis on which he, a mere man, can call himself God. That’s actually not what’s going on here in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” and his opponents know it: After this response, they try again to seize him, but he manages to escape.
And so, Heiser argues, we should understand those “to whom the word of God came” to be the participants in the “divine council” described in Psalm 82, and that “word of God” itself to be what they are told in that psalm: “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” In other words, Heiser insists, there actually are supernatural beings who participate in a council with God. (However, they are clearly subordinate to God, since he “presides” over the council—the meaning of “takes his place” or “takes his stand.”)
The particular beings described in Psalm 82 are being punished with the loss of immortality for some reason. (More about that in my third post in response to your question.) But they must be supernatural beings in order for Jesus to make his argument: If Scripture, which must be upheld, calls these supernatural beings “gods,” then certainly the one “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world,” not being a “mere man,” can use language (“I and the Father are one”) that suggests he is God.
Jesus, in other words, is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. And I think there may be a further dimension to this argument than I have yet found in Heiser’s writings (although it may be in some of them that I haven’t seen yet). I believe Jesus is saying, “If Scripture called these beings ‘gods’ even as God was decommissioning them, then certainly the whom God consecrated and sent into the world can be called God.” So it is not just Jesus’ greater status as the Son of God, but also his obedient mission in contrast with these beings’ disobedient failure, that entitles him to the name if they are allowed to have it.
I’ll say more about status and mission, and about the divine council itself, in my second and third posts in this series. But let me conclude this post by addressing a concern that is likely still outstanding: Isn’t this polytheism? Actually, no.
As Heiser explains in another article, “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” the term translated “gods” in Psalm 82 is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for a variety of supernatural beings, including the “demons” that Moses says the Israelites sacrificed to in the wilderness, possibly the “angels” that Jacob saw when he was fleeing from Esau, and the “spirit” of Samuel that appears to Saul. According to Heiser, elohim refers a being’s “plane of existence,” not to its “attributes.” When we hear the word “god,” we tend to think at least of a self-existent being, and probably one with unlimited powers. But when the Hebrews said or heard elohim, they were thinking only of a being that existed in the immaterial, spiritual realm. Whether it was created or self-existent, and what powers it might have had, were matters to be specified separately.
We’ll see in our next post that the beings in view in Psalm 82 actually are created and have limited powers. But we can conclude, at least for now, that God does seem to involve some other supernatural beings in the administration of the universe. We get only the vaguest hints of this in the Bible, and we certainly shouldn’t develop any elaborate theories about it. My personal feeling is that if we were supposed to know more about this, the Bible would have told us more. Instead, it seems as if we are being told, as Jesus said to one of his disciples who wanted to know more about the future than he needed to know, “What is that to you?” Jesus added, “Follow me,” and I think that’s the best resolution for anyone who is his committed follower. Let’s not speculate about things that are beyond us, which we don’t need to know about; instead, let’s understand what present obedience to Jesus would look like, and see if we can’t live that out.