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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 49


‘For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.’

This is the last of the Psalms of the sons of Korah (42-49) to be found in this second part. (In the third part see 84-85; 87-88).

The Psalm is addressed to both rich and poor, and is a meditation on wealth. It can be seen as in very close parallel with the Book of Proverbs. It could be called a ‘wisdom’ Psalm, and gives warning that while wealth may appear desirable in this life, it offers nothing for the next. Then the only question that will count will be as to whether we were right with God.

Verses 1-5

An Appeal To Listen To His Words (Psalms 49:1-5 ).

The Psalmist commences by making an appeal to all men, both high and low, rich and poor, to listen to his wisdom. Note his recognition that he is speaking mysteries (parables, dark sayings). This would confirm that he expects them to see in what he is saying something more than the usual platitudes. For he is in fact indicating that for those who trust God this life is not the end. There is hope beyond the grave. Such glimpses of a future hope are found a number of times in Davidic Psalms (e.g. Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 23:6) and in Proverbs (Proverbs 11:4; Proverbs 13:14; compare Proverbs 10:2; Proverbs 14:27; Proverbs 14:32; Proverbs 15:24).

Psalms 49:1-5

‘Hear this, all you peoples,

Give ear, all you inhabitants of the world,

Both low and high,

Rich and poor together.

My mouth will speak wisdom,

And the meditation of my heart will be of understanding.

I will incline my ear to a parable,

I will open my dark saying on the harp.

For what reason should I fear in the days of evil,

When iniquity at my heels compasses me about?

His appeal is to all people of all classes. It contains a universal appeal which is characteristic of wisdom literature, but is also found in the prophets (see Micah 1:2). He wants it known that what he has to say applies to everyone. The word for ‘world’ is an unusual one indicating the transitory nature of the world. And it is the transitory nature of life that is a central idea in the Psalm.

He speaks to ‘both low and high’. This is literally ‘both sons of mankind (adam) and sons of men (ish - important men)’. Thus it is to the common man and also to the distinguished man. It is also to rich and poor. To the rich lest they trust in their riches. To the poor lest they become discontented with their lot. All need to heed his words. None must see themselves as outside their scope.

He explains that his aim is to give wisdom and understanding (literally ‘wisdoms and understandings’. The plural indicates the length and breadth of that wisdom and understanding). In other words he is speaking of the deeper things in life. Yet he recognises also that he can only do so in terms of simile and metaphor. He is not speaking of what is commonplace. He thus speaks in comparisons (mashal) and dark sayings (chidah).

‘I will incline my ear --.’ He leans forward, as it were, to hear what God has to say, for what he has to say is coming from God..

The word mashal (parable) indicates a comparison, a proverb, a parable, a metaphorical saying, or a poem (Isaiah 14:4). It is illustrative rather than literal. The word chidah (dark saying) indicates an enigma or riddle (Judges 14:12 ff; 1 Kings 10:1), a simile or parable (see Ezekiel 17:2), an obscure utterance, a mystery, a dark saying. For both words used together elsewhere see Psalms 78:2; Proverbs 1:6; Ezekiel 17:2. Certainly one of the great mysteries of life to many was the prosperity of the unrighteous. Why should God allow the unrighteous to prosper, and the truly righteous to go in need? Men often saw only the outward trimmings and not the importance of the inner heart which riches could destroy.

‘On the harp.’ He intends to set it to music. Men will often listen to the wisdom of a song where they would eschew the same words if plainly put.

And the question that he raises is as to why he should fear when evil abounds, and when he is dogged by injustice and sin which threaten to trip him up. David especially, for example, had known what it meant to be ‘on the run’, as had Elijah. And they had learned in such experiences to trust in God.

Verses 6-10

The Helplessness Of The Rich In The Face Of Death (Psalms 49:6-10 ).

He now points out that the rich are helpless in the face of death. None can redeem his brother, because the price of such redemption is too high. None can give to his brother eternal life and incorruptibility. The implication is that such a redemption might be possible. But not at a cost that the rich can pay, however rich they are.

Psalms 49:6-9

Those who trust in their wealth,

And boast themselves in the multitude of their riches,

None of them can by any means redeem his brother,

Nor give to God a ransom for him,

(For the redemption of their life is costly,

And it fails for ever),

That he should still live always,

That he should not see corruption.’

He sees men strutting around in their riches and splendour, confident that nothing can drag them down. And then they are suddenly faced with the death of a loved one, and there is nothing that they can do about it. Suddenly all their wealth has become useless. All their money cannot enable them to buy that person back from death. They cannot make anyone live for ever.

The words for ransom and redemption are found in Exodus 21:30 where a man is considered to bear the guilt for a death which is caused by an ox if that ox has gored men previously, thus showing its propensities, and has been allowed to live (thus putting its owner under a responsibility to ensure that it cannot happen again). If it gores a man to death the owner bears the guilt. But in that case ransom and redemption was possible and the courts and the relatives of the dead man could determine the size of compensation which would allow the owner to live.

However, the Psalmist’s point is that when it comes to a man or woman themselves dying, there is no price payable by man that can prevent them from dying and their body corrupting. In this case no ransom is sufficient. The redemption of such a life is too costly. Any attempt to achieve it must fail for ever. Again, however, there is the implication that there is such a redemption. It is simply one that is not achievable by man.

‘By any means redeem.’ This is translating the emphatic repetition of the root for ‘redeem’ in the Hebrew text (padoh yipdeh). We might paraphrase as ‘redeem by redemption’. The idea is that redemption by any earthly means is totally impossible.

‘Nor give to God a ransom for him.’ Indeed none is able to pay sufficient to satisfy God’s requirements. And that is because the price of redemption is too high (‘the redemption of their life is costly’) and all men’s efforts to achieve it can only fail (‘it fails for ever’).

Psalms 49:10

For he will see it.

Wise men die,

The fool and the brutish alike perish,

And leave their wealth to others.’

‘For he will see it.’ The one who dies will see corruption whatever men do to prevent it. It will be just as true for the wise man as for the fool and brutish. All alike perish. And all alike leave their wealth to others.

Verses 11-13

Man’s Vain Attempt To Perpetuate Himself Will Be In Vain Whatever He Does (Psalms 49:11-13 ).

Men do in their own ineffective way seek to perpetuate themselves. They think that they will live for ever in their children and their children. They set up establishments and foundations in their own name. And they vainly imagine that they will be perpetuated for ever. But it will always fail. Families die out, foundations fail, and any idea of the people themselves disappears into oblivion. Even Alexander the Great is but a bust and a name.

Psalms 49:11-13

Their inward thought is,

That their houses will continue for ever,

And their dwelling-places to all generations,

They call their lands after their own names.

But man being in honour abides not,’

He is like the beasts which perish.

This their way is their folly,

Yet after them men approve their sayings. [Selah

Man’s vanity and hopeless search for continued remembrance is well brought out here. They vainly hope that they will live on in their children’s children, that their houses will continue for ever. They vainly hope that their family residence will abide for ever. They even call their lands after their own name. Surely that will last for ever? But it does not. Sooner or later it will vanish from the combined memories of man.

For no man’s honour is permanently abiding. Even those whose memories abide are at the mercy of historians and wits. They are not remembered as they would wish to have been. So the truth is that in the end men are like the beasts that perish, with the result that all their attempts to perpetuate themselves turn out to be but folly. And yet after them other foolish men actually approve of their attempts to perpetuate themselves. Such is the folly of mankind.

Verses 14-15

But For The Upright There Is Hope. For Them There Is A Coming Morning and A Redemption (Psalms 49:14-15 ).

These two verses stand out on their own between the two ‘Selahs’. In them the fate of the unrighteous is contrasted with the of the upright. Once again we see in a Davidic Psalm his certainty that somehow God will not let him or the upright perish for ever. This is especially confirmed by the use of the term ‘redeem’ (same root as Psalms 49:8). Here there is a redemption. It is wrought by God Who alone can pay the price that is required

Psalms 49:14-15

‘They are appointed as a flock for Sheol,

Death will be their shepherd,

And the upright will have dominion over them in the morning,

And their beauty will be for Sheol to consume,

That there be no habitation for it.

But God will redeem my life from the power of Sheol,

For he will receive me. [Selah

The truth is that just as sheep follow one another without thought wherever the shepherd leads, so all these men described are appointed as a flock for the world of the grave, entering it by following their shepherd Death, with no way of escape. And all their wealth and beauty will be for the grave to consume. In Sheol there is nowhere for their wealth and beauty to be stored.

But this is in contrast with the upright for whom there is to be a morning. ‘And the upright will trample over them (rule over them, triumph over them) in the morning’, Had it not been for what follows we might simply have seen this as signifying that they would live on and enjoy fullness of life, but the mention of redemption from Sheol argues strongly that such a redemption is indicated for the upright. For them there will be a resurrection morning when at last they receive their reward and triumph over those who have spurned them. See Isaiah 26:19. We can compare how on our behalf Christ rose again from the dead and triumphed over those who assailed Him (Colossians 2:15)

This thought is confirmed by the certainty of the Psalmist himself that his soul will be redeemed from the power (literally ‘the hand’) of Sheol, so that God will receive him. In the light of the previous mention of a redemption so costly that no wealthy man can finance it, the thought must surely be that God Himself can pay that price. The Psalmist is therefore confident that he will be received into the presence of God. He possibly has in mind how Enoch walked with God, and ‘God took him’ (Genesis 5:22-24). A similar idea is in mind when Elijah was taken up into Heaven (2 Kings 2:11; 2 Kings 2:16-18). Both these examples indicated the possibility of the upright not finally dying. In view of the sacrifices that redeemed men from death it is not a great step from them to the possibility of a greater sacrifice that will redeem men from eternal death, but that is of course not mentioned here. It is, however, made more plain in Isaiah 53:10.

For the Christian the significance is even clearer. Through the offering of Christ once and for all, the greatest price that was ever paid (see 1 Peter 1:18-19), the truly believing Christian has been redeemed from the grave and has been guaranteed eternal life through the resurrection.

Verses 16-20

The Upright Are Not Therefore To Be Concerned About The Way That The Rich Seem To Flourish, For In The End The Rich Who Do Not Have True Understanding Will Simply Perish Like The Beasts (Psalms 49:16-20 ).

The Psalm ends with the assurance that there is no need to fear, or be puzzled, when the rich flourish and increase in wealth and glory, and lord it over men, because when those who lack true understanding die they will take nothing with them. They will no longer be rich. Their glory will not follow them. Rather they will go into everlasting darkness, and will be like the beasts which perish. It is very much a warning to the rich that they ensure that they walk in the ways of the Lord in all their doings.

Psalms 49:16-20

‘Do not be afraid when one is made rich,

When the glory of his house is increased.

For when he dies he will carry nothing away,

His glory will not descend after him.

Though while he lived he blessed his soul,

(And men praise you, when you do well to yourself,)

He will go to the generation of his fathers,

They will never see the light.

Man who is in honour, and understands not,

Is like the beasts which perish.

Jesus may well have had this Psalm in mind when He told the story of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-20). The picture is of men who appear to be blessed because their prosperity grows and their glory and fame increases. But the Psalmist assures us that they are not to be envied. For when they die they will leave it all behind. And then they will receive the due reward of their behaviour. While they are alive they preen themselves, and ‘bless their souls’, and others praise them because they do well for themselves, but eventually they must go to those who have died before them, and once there they will be in perpetual darkness. ‘They will never see the light.’

And the Psalmist ends the Psalm with the assurance that men who are held in honour on earth, but do not have true understanding (they do not walk in God’s ways), will simply be like the beasts that perish. For that is what by their behaviour they will have revealed themselves to be, mere brute beasts. (Compare how in Daniel 7:0 the people of God are likened to a ‘son of man’, while those who oppose God are seen as being like wild beasts).

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 49". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.