What the Bible Teaches About a Divine Council, Part 1
I’ve written a lot on this subject, particularly in scholarly journals and my book for non-specialists, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. I am often asked about what the term “divine council” means.
The term divine council is an academic synonym for God’s heavenly host—the spirit beings that inhabit the spiritual world who are loyal to God. It refers to the whole assembly of heavenly beings who were created to serve God in the spiritual realm. These members administer the cosmos under God’s direction. Like the Church, whose members assist God’s plans on earth, God doesn’t needassistance in the spiritual world, but he choose to carry out his will that way.
What the Bible Teaches About a Divine Council: Who is in the Divine Council?
The phrase “divine council” comes primarily from Psalm 82:1 (“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment”; ESV). The words “God” and “gods” in this verse are both the Hebrew word ʾelohim.The first instance must be singular because of the Hebrew grammar (the verb translated “has taken his place” is grammatically singular), while the second instance must be treated as a plural since it is preceded by “in the midst of” (prepositional phrase beqereb). The gods (plural ʾelohim) of Psa 82:1 are called “gods” and “sons of the Most High” (the God of Israel) later in verse 6 of the same psalm.
These same “sons of God” are described as being in God’s council or assembly—located in the heavens, the spiritual realm of divine beings, not on earth—in Psalm 89:5-7:
5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
6 For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,
7 a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him?
The divine council is said to meet with God to decide the fate of people and nations. For example, in 1 Kings 22:19-23 God allows the spirit-members of his council to decide how his decree that Ahab must die will be carried out:
19And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”
Notice that the biblical text describes the members of the heavenly host as spirits. The ʾelohimof God’s council are not people, nor are they idols. The council is “in the skies” (Psa 89:6). Idols do not work for God, nor does God work with idols and the evil, rebellious divine beings people presumed were inhabiting idols. And though God consented to the council member’s proposal, it is the Lord who is said to be behind Ahab’s death. God is the one who judges evil.
In Daniel 7:9-10 the council meets to decide the fate of empires:
9“As I looked,
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
The council (“court”) took their seats (v. 10) and the meeting began.
The same idea is conveyed less explicitly in Daniel 4, the passage where Nebuchadnezzar is told he would be temporarily judged with insanity because of his arrogance. In Dan 4:13 Nebuchadnezzar is visited by “a watcher, a holy one.” This divine being tells the king what awaits him and describes the verdict as “by decree of the Watchers” (Dan 4:17). And yet we cannot conclude that God’s council is deciding things apart from his will. A few verses later, Nebuchadnezzar’s fate is described as “a decree of the Most High” (Dan 4:24).
Some members of God’s council rebelled against God and were expelled (e.g., Satan) or will be punished in the last days.
What the Bible Teaches About a Divine Council: Is this Polytheism in the Bible?
The short answer is a resounding “no”. The reason English readers presume this is because when we see the letters g-o-d we assumethat those letters carry with them a set of unique divine attributes. That’s why we hesitate to put an “s” in those letters. But biblical writers did not view the word ʾelohimthis way. It had nothing to do with a specific set of unique attributes.
How do we know this? By examining the way ʾelohimis used by biblical writers.
Such a study will reveal that there are several different entities are referred to as ʾelohimin the Old Testament:
The diverse use of the term ʾelohimshows us clearly that the term is not an exclusive synonym for the God of Israel. Consequently, it cannot be meant to convey a set of unique attributes. The deceased human dead, for example, do not have the unique attributes of the God of Israel (e.g., eternality, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). Nor are the ʾelohimof the other nations ever described in such terms. Having multiple ʾelohimis therefore not polytheism as moderns think of that concept. What biblical writes believed was that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was one of many ʾelohim—but no other ʾelohimwas Yahweh.
Naturally, there are other questions to be asked and answered, such as what the Bible means by phrases like “there is none like God” or “besides (God) there is no other,” and “Where does Jesus fit in with all this?” For those questions, keep reading!
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