In Psalm 138, what does it mean by “I will sing praises to You before the gods” in verse 1?
That’s a great question. The Hebrew word is elohim, which really does mean gods. I think the simplest explanation is that David is expressing his complete commitment to worshiping the Lord, even when surrounded by other nations who worshiped idols. Israel lived in the midst of idol worship, and that worship often pushed its way into the land of Israel and proved to be a stumbling block to God’s people. But David declares that the presence of idols will not cause him to fear false gods; on the contrary, he strengthens his resolve to worship the Living God. This is fitting for us as we live in a culture which increasingly gives itself to the worship of idols. We should not be afraid to continue praising God’s name in the presence of the gods of our culture or in the presence of those who worship those gods.
It is possible David also had in mind the invisible demonic powers at work behind the nations’ idols. Some theologians think (and I’m inclined to agree) that when the Old Testament refers to “gods” (or sometimes “sons of God” or “son of the gods”) in contexts like this, it refers to angelic powers given real authority in the world in various ways, whether good or evil. We get glimpses into this invisible realm of spiritual forces when we read things like Daniel 10, which talks about Michael the archangel’s conflict with the “prince of Persia” and the “prince of Greece” (which is perhaps alluded to in Jude 1:9). We know there are demonic powers at work in the world who seek to draw worship away from the one true God to themselves. While they are not gods in the way that God is, Scripture does refer to these spiritual beings by using the word “gods.” Of course, when it does so, it always makes it clear that they are nothing like the one true God who alone is worthy of our worship.
For example, Deuteronomy 32:17–18 says,
They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.
You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.
“Gods” here is used in a comparative sense to show why it’s foolish for Yahweh’s people to give themselves to worshiping any other so-called god besides Him. They are “gods” who are “not God.” If we remember that in its simplest sense the word “god” can mean any object of worship, it’s not necessarily wrong to apply it to something which people do worship, even though that thing should not be worshiped.