As we read the 31st Psalm, many varied thoughts come to mind—everything from the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus to the persecution of God’s faithful that will occur in the last days, to the salvation and safety that God promises to His faithful children.
Clearly, it would be too voluminous to cover each of those topics in a single article. Instead, this article will concentrate on only three words in this Psalm: “sons of men” in verse 19.
“Oh, how great is Your goodness,
Which You have laid up for those who fear You,
Which You have prepared for those who trust in You
In the presence of the sons of men” (Psalm 31:19)!
The word that is translated “sons” occurs almost 5000 times in the OT, as son or sons approximately 3500 times; as children about 1500 times. It is also translated in several other ways, depending on the context of its use.
In this analysis, we will look at its broader use as either sons, daughters, or children.
A variant of the phrase sons of men occurs first in Scripture in Genesis 6.
“Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. And the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ There were giants (bullies or tyrants) on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:1–4).
The word for sons in this text is the same word that is used in Psalm 31:19. The word for daughters is derived from the feminine form of that same Hebrew word. In the plural, either could be translated children.
It is worth noting that even before the flood, two character types had developed and were identified either as sons of God or sons of men. Other terms were applied later to denote the same two groups: sons of righteousness or sons of unrighteousness and similar terms.
The word translated renown in Genesis 6:4 is the same word that is used in Genesis 11:4 referring to those who determined to build themselves a city and a tower on the plain of Shinar whose top was in the heavens to “make a name” for themselves—to become men of renown.
“And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’ ” (Genesis 11:4).
It is also the same word used for those who chose to stand with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram when they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. In Numbers 16:2, they are called “men of renown,” men who were well known, men who had made a name for themselves.
“Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:1, 2).
What were these “men of renown,” these sons of men, like? Let’s refer back to Genesis 6:5–7:
“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ ”
We know the story of Noah and his family—how only eight persons were saved from the millions, perhaps even a billion, who inhabited the earth at that time.
We can see that these men of renown, these sons—and daughters—of men, were very unrighteous—so much so that God saw that it was necessary to destroy all but eight. Unfortunately, there remained in at least one of those eight a vestige, a trace, of unrighteousness.
“To repeople the desolate earth, which the Flood had so lately swept from its moral corruption, God had preserved but one family, the household of Noah, to whom He had declared, ‘Thee have I seen righteous before Me in this generation’ (Genesis 7:1). Yet in the three sons of Noah was speedily developed the same great distinction seen in the world before the Flood. In Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who were to be the founders of the human race, was foreshadowed the character of their posterity.
“Noah, speaking by divine inspiration, foretold the history of the three great races to spring from these fathers of mankind. Tracing the descendants of Ham, through the son rather than the father, he declared, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ The unnatural crime of Ham [see Genesis 9:21–29] declared that filial reverence [respect that a son has toward his father] had long before been cast from his soul, and it revealed the impiety and vileness of his character. These evil characteristics were perpetuated in Canaan and his posterity, whose continued guilt called upon them the judgments of God.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 117.
What was the result of the unrighteousness of the “founders of the human race”—Ham specifically?
“For a time the descendants of Noah continued to dwell among the mountains where the ark had rested. As their numbers increased, apostasy soon led to division. Those who desired to forget their Creator and to cast off the restraint of His law felt a constant annoyance from the teaching and example of their God-fearing associates, and after a time they decided to separate from the worshipers of God. Accordingly they journeyed to the plain of Shinar, on the banks of the river Euphrates.” Ibid., 118.
The scriptural description of this situation is given in Genesis 11:1–5:
“Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.”
This effort was undertaken by Nimrod, the son of Canaan and the grandson of Ham. Their reasoning to separate from the descendants of Shem and Japheth reveals much about their character and is an indication of the ultimate fate of mankind as the meeting of time and eternity draws closer and closer. There will be those who leave the path of truth and righteousness (if they were ever even on it) and separate from those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.
It was here on the plain of Shinar that the many and varied nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples got their start. This story continues in Genesis 11, beginning with verse 6.
“And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:6–9).
We can see from this that those who were scattered abroad over the face of all the earth were descendants of Ham through Canaan. Thus we might conclude that much of the earth was populated by those who did not fear and reverence the God of creation.
“On the other hand, how richly rewarded was Shem’s respect for his father; and what an illustrious line of holy men appears in his posterity! ‘The Lord knoweth the days of the upright,’ ‘and his seed is blessed’ (Psalm 37:18, 26). ‘Know therefore that the Lord thy God He is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations’ (Deuteronomy 7:9).” Op. cit., 118.
Out of this illustrious line of holy men came David. By this time, the children of God and the children of men were dispersed throughout what we call the Middle East. Conflicts arose between these two groups which continue to this very day.
Even though those who abandoned worship of the true God of heaven turned to lives of sin, wickedness, and idolatry, God still used them—but in a rather unusual way. A warning of such an instance is given in 2 Samuel 7, where God is instructing Nathan to tell David to settle down and build Him a tabernacle. Included in the instructions that God tells Nathan to pass on to David are both uplifting encouragement for the obedient and a straightforward warning against apostasy.
“Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; nor shall the sons of wickedness oppress them anymore, as previously, since the time that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel, and have caused you to rest from all your enemies. Also the Lord tells you that He will make you a house. ‘When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever’ ” (2 Samuel 7:10–13).
Now notice what God says in verse 14:
“ ‘I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.’ According to all these words and according to all this vision, so Nathan spoke to David.”
It is interesting to note in these verses the different terms Scripture uses for sons of God and sons of men: “My people Israel” and “sons of wickedness,” respectively.
There are many other instances in Scripture where God used the sons of men to chastise the children of God because of their apostasy. The initial captivity of the Israelites by the Assyrians is probably the best known example. Their continued harassment by the Philistines is another.
An interesting and telling bit of the character of the sons of men is given in Psalm 4:2: “How long, O you sons of men, Will you turn My glory to shame? How long will you love worthlessness and seek falsehood?”
Two distinct characteristics are given here of the sons of men. They “love worthlessness” and “seek falsehood.”
The sons of men, according to Psalm 4:2, not only love vane, empty, worthless pursuits, but they seek out lies. In a broad sense, is this not a description of the broad-road churches of today? They would be offended if you openly accused them of loving worthlessness and seeking falsehood, but isn’t that what they are doing with their Sunday worship and what Inspiration calls “the senseless mummery” of the mass?
“The Scriptural ordinance of the Lord’s Supper had been supplanted by the idolatrous sacrifice of the mass. Papal priests pretended, by their senseless mummery, to convert the simple bread and wine into the actual ‘body and blood of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:16). … With blasphemous presumption, they openly claimed the power of creating God, the Creator of all things. Christians were required, on pain of death, to avow their faith in this horrible, Heaven-insulting heresy,” this love of worthlessness and seeking of falsehood. The Great Controversy, 59.
Solomon had a great deal to say about the vanity—the worthlessness, the emptiness—of the pursuits of the sons of men. Although those he wrote about were by birth sons of God, they, too—like the ones his father had written about earlier, had in character become sons of men.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds” (Ecclesiastes 2:1–8).
As we read these thoughts of Solomon, it becomes clear why he ended his words of wisdom as he did. First let’s look at a couple of other bits of his wisdom.
“Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, iniquity was there. I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.’ I said in my heart, ‘Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.’ For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:16–19).
The word that is translated in verse 18 as tests in the New King James is translated manifests in the King James. Strong’s definition indicates that the original Hebrew word implies that God reveals them to themselves. He puts men in situations to reveal to themselves their true character.
The wise man continues to lament the condition of the sons of men in Ecclesiastes 8:11:
“Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”
If sentence against an evil work were speedily executed, if we were made to realize immediately the consequences of evil actions by the swift execution of punishment, perhaps the evil actions that have become so widespread among the sons of men today would diminish significantly.
It would be tempting as we read through the book of Ecclesiastes to conclude that Solomon had become a bitter old man. However, in closing his polemic on the vanity of life and the condition of the sons of men, Solomon reaches this grand conclusion:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all [or, as the KJV says, “this is the whole duty of man”]. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14).
As we approach the meeting of time and eternity, it becomes clear when we engage in a serious study of God’s word and His will for us that we must understand the differentiating aspects of the character of the two classes of people who will exist when that time comes. We can only gain that understanding by digging deeply into God’s word to determine whether our behavior identifies us as a child of God or a child of man.
The outcome of those who fail to abandon the habits of the sons of men and acquire the character of the sons of God is clearly outlined in Psalm 21:8–10:
“Your hand will find all Your enemies;
Your right hand will find those who hate You.
You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger;
the Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath,
and the fire shall devour them.
Their offspring You shall destroy from the earth,
and their descendants from among the sons of men.”
However, a wonderful future lies ahead for those who are determined to become sons of God. Paul clearly understood that when he stated in Galatians 4:4–7, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
John the revelator also understood the significance of being children of God.
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God, [and we are, (margin)]! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:1, 2).
Then in verse 3, we are told what He is and what we are to become as we overcome those character traits that identify us as sons of men and transition by His grace into sons of God: “And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
May the Lord guide us as we seek to become His true children. [All emphasis added.]
All quotes NKJV unless otherwise noted.
John Pearson is the office manager and a board member of Steps to Life. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.