A bleak vision. The opening, more of a dirge than a praisesong. The singer sees a spiritual desert where “there is no doer of good” (v. 1). Worse yet, God “from the heavens observed the sons of man to see, is there someone wise, a seeker of God”; the implication built into the question is that He finds none. The singer adds, emphatically,
Everything and everyone, all, go astray;
They have become loathesome.
There is no doer of good, there is not even one. (v. 3)
Verse 3’s repetition of the phrase of verse 1 –“there is no doer of good”—but with the addition of “there is not even one”, makes the absence of goodness even starker.
On first reading, it might seem that no possibility of goodness exists, that the desert cannot flower. Some glimmers of hope, however, show through the structure itself of the song; for example, the song consists of seven stanzas; seven is the number characteristic of the material universe. Moreover, verse 2 uses the name “Elohim” for God as He looks down upon humankind, searching for anyone who is seeking Him; the name, Elohim, describes that aspect of God which is the source of the physical universe. The world bereft of the righteous, seemingly populated by the corrupt, is, then, the world of physicality, of animality. Accordingly, it is a world in which the lawless can boast of their freedom from any moral codes; a world its distant creator looks down upon, and apparently does not enter. The very fact, however, that Elohim looks upon this world shows that it is not disconnected from the God it denies.
“There”, an indicator of location, is repeated throughout the first five verses: verse 1, “there is no God”; verse 2, “is there someone wise”; verse 3, “there is no doer of good”. The location, in the first three verses, then, is a world devoid of righteousness. Verse 4 explains: the righteous, those who seek God, have not merely been suppressed by the evil-doers. They have been consumed by them, so much so that their very existence is threatened by those “eaters of my nation”, those who do not even distinguish between people and bread, but devour both. This far have the evil-doers descended into animality.
Verse 5, voicing the final repetition of “there”, is ambiguous:
There they fearfully fear, for God dwells among
the generation of the righteous.
The “they” is confusing –does it refer to the evil-doers or to the nation? If to the nation, then its fear is understandable; surely it would fear those seeking its annihilation. Yet the source of the pronoun is not so clear. For the verse following begins with “you”, referring, no doubt, to the evil-doers. It would seem, then, that the evil-doers are the ones terrified in verse 5. Ironically, they fear the very God they have denied. The second clause in the poetic sentence asserts, “for God dwells among the generation of the righteous”(v. 5). The righteous, nearly annihilated by the evil-doers, are, then, more powerful than they, simply because God dwells among them. It may even be that the evil-doers realize their domination of the nation will cease when the righteous “call out” to God (v. 4). Certainly the close of verse 6 declares that Adonai is the “shelter” of the poor, thereby linking the poor to the righteous., inferring both are the generation blessed by God’s presence;
The counsel of the poor will bring you shame,
for Adonai is his shelter. (v. 6)
Thus the close of the song offers the hope that, until now, the singer’s bleak vision did not appear to allow. God, sheltering the poor, finds in them the seekers He searched for; in them, righteousness is found, given a specific location –“there”.
The song closes on a hope of redemption in a future time and place: the question, “Who will give from Zion the deliverance of Israel?” is immediately answered: in Zion, both location and time will converge,
When Adonai restores the dwelling of His nation,
Jacob will rejoice, Israel will be glad. (v. 7)
The difference between the two names of God used throughout the song is clarified by its close: it is Adonai Who looks down upon the world (v. 2); the very name, Adonai, revealing a God Who is not the absent creator but ever-present. The evil-doers see no God of creation –Elohim – in their world of animality, nor, in turn, does Adonai find anyone seeking God, Elohim, in such unrighteousness. The singer’s assurance, in verse 5, is that Elohim is ‘’there”, even amidst a world of the devouring and the devoured. While verse 7 yearns for Adonai, creator and ever-present God, to restore and deliver the people Israel.