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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the Bible

Psalms 49

Psalms 49:0

STROPHE DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
The Folly of Trusting in Riches MT Intro For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah The Confidence of the Foolish Meditation on the Transience of Life and Wealth The Foolishness of Trusting in Riches The Futility of Wealth
Psalms 49:1-4 Psalms 49:1-4 Psalms 49:1-4 Psalms 49:1-4 Psalms 49:1-2
Psalms 49:3-4
Psalms 49:5-9 Psalms 49:5-9 Psalms 49:5-9 Psalms 49:5-9 Psalms 49:5-6
Psalms 49:7-8
Psalms 49:9
Psalms 49:10-12 Psalms 49:10-12 Psalms 49:10-12 Psalms 49:10-12 Psalms 49:10
Psalms 49:11
Psalms 49:12-13
Psalms 49:13-15 Psalms 49:13-15 Psalms 49:13-15 Psalms 49:13-15
Psalms 49:14a-c
Psalms 49:14d-15
Psalms 49:16-20 Psalms 49:16-20 Psalms 49:16-20 Psalms 49:16-18 Psalms 49:16-17
Psalms 49:18-19
Psalms 49:19-20
Psalms 49:20

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

A. Psalms 49:0 is a wisdom psalm (cf. Psalms 37:0). It is addressed to the covenant community, not to YHWH. It has much more in common with the book of Proverbs than it seems to have with the rest of the Psalter. Note the parallelism and terminology of Psalms 49:3-4, Psalms 49:10-12, Psalms 49:13.

B. The subject matter is similar to Psalms 37:0 and 73, which is basically described as “the two ways”; a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death (cf. Psalms 1:0 and Deuteronomy 30:1, Deuteronomy 30:15, Deuteronomy 30:19). The two ways are particularly seen in Psalms 49:3 and 5 compared to Psalms 49:6.

C. The theme is the folly of trusting in human, earthly wealth. This is somewhat surprising because wealth and success were viewed as a sign of YHWH's blessing for covenant obedience (cf. Leviticus 26:0; Deuteronomy 27-30).

Verses 1-4

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 49:1-4 1Hear this, all peoples; Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, 2Both low and high, Rich and poor together. 3My mouth will speak wisdom, And the meditation of my heart will be understanding. 4I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will express my riddle on the harp.

Psalms 49:1 Psalms 49:1 has two parallel imperatives (“hear” [Qal imperative] and “give ear” [Hiphil imperative]). It is significant that the author of this Psalm saw that it had universal implications far beyond the boundaries of the Promised Land (cf. Psalms 45:16; Psalms 46:10; Psalms 47:1-2, Psalms 47:7-9; Psalms 48:2, Psalms 48:10; Psalms 49:1; Psalms 50:1, Psalms 50:4, Psalms 50:12, i.e., “all peoples,” “all inhabitants of the world,” see Special Topic: YHWH's Eternal Redemptive Plan). It must be remembered that Wisdom Literature (see Special Topic: Wisdom Literature) was a literary genre well known and popular in the ANE.

The word “world” (BDB 317) is rare and can mean

1. life Job 11:17; Psalms 39:5; Psalms 89:47

2. world Psalms 17:14

Remember meaning is determined by contexts not dictionaries/lexicons.

Psalms 49:2 “Both low and high” This is a very common metaphor in Hebrew used to express two extremes, and thereby include everything in between (note parallel “rich and poor”). This phrase itself is very unusual because it literally is “the sons of men” and “the sons of men,” but may be a play on two different words for “men.” The first one is the word adam (BDB 9), which usually means “mankind.” The second one is the word ish (BDB 35), the general term for a male person. It is also possible the two phrases are synonymous (NEB, cf. Psalms 62:9; Isaiah 2:9; and NET Bible).

Psalms 49:3 “wisdom. . .understanding” Both of these terms are plural (a plural of majesty), which is a way of expressing a superlative idea. This is the highest wisdom and the deepest understanding. This inspired wisdom teacher speaks God's truth.

NASB, NKJV, NRSV“meditation” TEV, REB“thoughts” NJB“whisper” JPSOA“speech” NAB“utterance”

This is the only occurrence of this form of the root, הגה (BDB 212). The basic meaning of the root is “to groan,” “to sigh,” “to utter.”

In this context it refers to the internal thoughts of the psalmist. He may be

1. a sage/philosopher

2. a Levite/singer

3. a priest/theologian

Psalms 49:4 “I will incline my ear to a proverb” This is a striking metaphor of listening intently to a proverb so as to understand its meaning. The term “proverb” (BDB 605) is an ancient wisdom term, which seems to have the concept of a riddle, difficult saying, or mysterious truth. However, the second line of Psalms 49:4 may possibly be a way of saying that he is going to state a riddle (BDB 295) and then give its meaning. The two halves of Psalms 49:4 seem to show the basic wisdom form. The author will state this truth in a way that the people of his culture/world can understand it.

Verses 5-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 49:5-9 5Why should I fear in days of adversity, When the iniquity of my foes surrounds me, 6Even those who trust in their wealth And boast in the abundance of their riches? 7No man can by any means redeem his brother Or give to God a ransom for him 8For the redemption of his soul is costly, And he should cease trying forever 9That he should live on eternally, That he should not undergo decay.

Psalms 49:5-9 “Why should I fear in days of adversity” This is the theme which will be developed in this Psalm.

Godly people have always wondered about the unfairness of life (cf. Job, Psalms 73:0; Habakkuk). Often the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. This seems to violate Leviticus 26:0 and Deuteronomy 27-30. YHWH wanted to use the abundance and prosperity of His people to attract the nations to Himself. However, because of the Fall of Genesis 3:0, even covenant mankind could not keep the Law. The only prosperity came to violent, greedy, powerful people.

This is not the world that God created it to be. His people did not model His character (cf. Ezekiel 36:22-23). Fallen mankind cannot save/redeem themselves or their families, or their neighbors!

Psalms 49:5 “iniquities of my foes surround me” The KJV has the word “heels” in place of “foes.” The literal Hebrew term (BDB 784) seems to relate to Jacob as he held onto his brother's heel as he was born and, therefore, was named the “trickster,” “supplanter,” or “usurper.” This is the concept of the word “foes” here.

Psalms 49:6 “Even those who trust in their wealth” This verb “trust” (BDB 105, KB 120) occurs mostly in Psalms and Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 26:3-4; Isaiah 30:15). In Psalms 37:0 we learned that we are to trust in God alone! This verse is the exact opposite, humans trusting in themselves or their material possessions (cf. Job 31:24; Psalms 62:10; Proverbs 11:28; Proverbs 23:4-5; Mark 10:23-31; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). See Special Topic: Wealth.

Psalms 49:7 “No man can by any means redeem his brother” In Hebrew the term “brother” (BDB 26) appears first for emphasis. NEB, REB, RSV, NRSV change חא (brother) to אך (surely, BDB 36). The UBS Text Project (p. 245) gives “brother” an “A” rating. The Hebrew states that a person cannot redeem (i.e., save, deliver) even himself/herself.

Psalms 49:7, Psalms 49:8 “redeem. . .ransom. . .redemption” There are two Hebrew verbs:

1. “redeem” BDB 804, KB 911, Qal infinitive absolute and imperfect verb of the same root for emphasis

2. “ransom” (not BDB 145 I) BDB 678, KB 733, Qal imperfect with BDB 497 I, lit. “a man cannot give to God the price of his life”

Both of them refer to the buying back of someone from slavery or from incarceration as a prisoner of war. See SPECIAL TOPIC: RANSOM/REDEEM.

Psalms 49:8-9 “For the redemption of his soul is costly,

And he should cease trying forever” This is a parenthetical thought which emphasizes that no matter how wealthy a man is, the price to pay to prolong life or secure an afterlife, is too high. This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news (cf. Isaiah 53:0; Mark 10:45; 2 Corinthians 5:21)!

Notice the parallelism.

1. he should cease trying forever (BDB 761) BDB 292, KB 292, Qal perfect with waw

2. he should live on eternally (BDB 664) BDB 310, KB 309, Qal jussive

3. he should not see the pit (BDB 1001) BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal imperfect

It is difficult for Christians to interpret texts like this one because we read our NT understandings and definitions of words into these OT contexts. This is originally not related to Isaiah 53:0 or John 3:16. This is dealing with a long, healthy, prosperous life. Wealth cannot assure this! In a fallen world even covenant obedience could not assure this (i.e., Job, Isaac, Israel).

There are surely some hints of an afterlife in the OT (i.e., Job 14:14-15; Job 19:25-27; Psalms 16:10; Daniel 12:2), but for the most part the OT deals with this life!

Psalms 49:8 “costly” In the context of the OT, the cost of ransom/redemption was

1. the death of an innocent animal as a substitute (cf. Leviticus 4:0) for the sinful soul of a human being or Leviticus 16:0 for a community of faith

2. in Psalms 51:0 there was no sacrifice for the intentional sin of David (cf. Leviticus 4:2, Leviticus 4:22, Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:15-18; Leviticus 22:14), so David offered “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalms 51:17)

3. the ultimate cost was paid by “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. John 1:29). This was predicted in Isaiah 52:13-12 (i.e., the Suffering Servant). This concept of substitutionary atonement was documented by Jesus (cf. Mark 10:45), Paul (cf. Galatians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21), Peter (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24), and the author of Hebrews (cf. Hebrews 7:26-27; Hebrews 9:28).

Psalms 49:9 “That he should live on eternally,

That he should not undergo decay” Here is the problem of wealth. It does not provide ultimate answers. It cannot make a person right with God and it cannot prolong life. Therefore, it is false hope; it is a glimmer that lasts for only a moment and then is gone. The only true light, the only true hope, and the only true life is found in God.

Verses 10-12

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 49:10-12 10For he sees that even wise men die; The stupid and the senseless alike perish And leave their wealth to others. 11Their inner thought is that their houses are forever And their dwelling places to all generations; They have called their lands after their own names. 12But man in his pomp will not endure; He is like the beasts that perish.

Psalms 49:10 “For he sees that even wise men die;

The stupid and the senseless alike perish” Although this metaphor is similar to the one found in Ecclesiastes 2:15, Ecclesiastes 2:16, it is used in a different sense here. Here, the death of all things, including people and animals, is related to their inability to purchase longer life through wealth. There seem to be three different people or groups involved in Psalms 49:10; the wise (BDB 314) person, the stupid (BDB 493) person, and the senseless (BDB 129) person. Because animals are mentioned in Psalms 49:12 and 20, some would see them being referred to here in the “senseless” (BDB 129, animal-like, cf. Psalms 73:22).

SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR FOOLISH PEOPLE

“And leave their wealth to others” Again, Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 is very helpful. No matter how wealthy a person is, when he/she dies, he/she leaves it all to others.

Psalms 49:11 “Their inner thought is that their houses are forever” The MT Hebrew text has the idea that the rich person believes he and his wealth will last forever. However, the LXX changes the thought to “their graves are their houses forever.” Whichever is correct, it still shows the ultimate folly of trusting in riches.

The UBS Text Project (p. 246) has

1. קרבם their midst (NASB, “inner thought,” BDB 899)

2. קברם their graves (BDB 868). It gives a “B” rating (some doubt) to option #2 (cf. NJB, REB, JPSOA, LXX, Syrian, Vulgate)

The term “houses” probably refers to elaborately decorated and expensive tombs. These, like the Pharaohs, thought physical monuments to themselves would assure their memory and, in a sense, their immortality.

“They have called their lands after their own names” One way humans try to assure that they will be remembered is by naming geographical locations after themselves (or legal deeds in their names). This, too, is folly, for the names change from age to age.

Psalms 49:12 “But man in his pomp will not endure” In an attempt to provide a synonymous parallelism in Psalms 49:12 and 20, the NEB and REB change

“in honor” (NASB, “pomp”), ביקר, preposition ב and BDB 430, to

“cattle” (NEB, REB, “oven”), בקר, BDB 133

The UBS Text Project (p. 247) gives “in honor” a “B” rating (some doubt) in Psalms 49:12 and an “A” rating (high probability) in Psalms 49:20. It is obvious that the pride and arrogance of the rich are being emphasized here.

Verses 13-15

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 49:13-15 13This is the way of those who are foolish, And of those after them who approve their words. Selah. 14As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall rule over them in the morning, And their form shall be for Sheol to consume So that they have no habitation. 15But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me. Selah.

Psalms 49:13 “This is the way of those who are foolish” The foolish refers to either (1) the man who claims to know God but lives as if there is no God or (2) the overtly evil person. There is really no such thing as an atheist in the OT (cf. Isaiah 53:1).

“Way” is an OT idiom for lifestyle. See notes at Psalms 1:1.

“And of those after them who approve their words” This refers to those whom the arrogant wealthy influence with their philosophy of life. It may refer to their children, their students, other people who are seeking to be wealthy, or their friends. This is the end result of a false worldview (cf. Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:23).

“Selah” This is a word about which there is much discussion but little unanimity. Some say it refers to

1. a pause

2. a rising crescendo

3. a musical interlude

4. forever, according to the rabbis

The very fact that there are so many interpretations means that no one really knows. See notes at Psalms 3:2 and Introduction to Psalms, VII.

Psalms 49:14 “As sheep they are appointed for Sheol” The term Sheol refers to “the realm of the dead” in the OT. It was seen as a place of consciousness but there was no joy, no fellowship, and a gloomy prospect of many dark, quiet days. See SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead?

“Death shall be their shepherd” Literally this is “death feeds them.” What a terrible parallel to the beauty of Psalms 23:1. Death lures those with the pleasures of this world but in the end, it is poison (cf. Proverbs 1-8).

“And the upright shall rule over them” This truth is taught throughout the Bible (cf. Daniel 7:18; Malachi 4:3; 1 Corinthians 6:2; Revelation 2:26).

“in the morning” This could refer to

1. the light of God's truth

2. the light of life

3. the concept of the eschatological morning or the break of a new day

The NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 327, has a good list of things represented by “light.”

1. salvation Psalms 27:1; Isaiah 49:6

2. prosperity and peace Isaiah 45:7

3. YHWH's covenant Isaiah 42:6

4. justice and righteousness Isaiah 51:4; Isaiah 59:9

5. blessing Psalms 89:15

6. God, Himself Psalms 27:1; Isaiah 60:1-3, Isaiah 60:19-20

7. the Suffering Servant Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6

8. Messiah Isaiah 9:2

It is possible to divide the Hebrew consonants differently to “they shall go straight to the grave” (NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 713). This fits the central truth of the strophe better (NRSV, REB).

The verb “consume” (BDB 115, KB 132, Piel infinitive construct) is literally “wear out.” So the thought of the line is

1. Sheol will eat them (metaphor for Sheol as an animal with a voracious appetite or an allusion to the Canaanite god of death, Mot; see NASB Study Bible, p. 785, footnote and AB, p. 300).

2. The body will disintegrate to dust, as all bodies do after death (NRSV, TEV, JPSOA).

Psalms 49:15 “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol,

For He will receive me” What a tremendous truth! Notice the personal element “me”! Here we have the beginning of the affirmation of an afterlife (or an intimate fellowship with God here and now throughout life and the confidence it will continue!), based, not on the works of man, but on the love of God. Here, personal faith, as well as a life of obedience and trust, are rewarded with eternality with our God (see notes at Psalms 23:6).

The term “receive” (BDB 542, KB 534) was used in Genesis 5:24 of Enoch. He was translated into YHWH's presence!

For Sheol see notes at Psalms 49:5 and 9:13.

Verses 16-20

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 49:16-20 16Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, When the glory of his house is increased; 17For when he dies he will carry nothing away; His glory will not descend after him. 18Though while he lives he congratulates himself And though men praise you when you do well for yourself 19He shall go to the generation of his fathers; They will never see the light. 20Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, Is like the beasts that perish.

Psalms 49:17 “For when he dies he will carry nothing away” This is the truth that those who trust in wealth will leave it all at death (cf. 1 Timothy 6:7). Revelation 14:13 tells us that good deeds will follow after those who have lived for God. There is a book of life and a book of deeds (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TWO BOOKS OF GOD). God will reward those who have loved and served Him. Judgment day is comingfor those who know our God it will be a day of rewards, but for those who have trusted in themselves, it will be a day of eternal separation (cf. Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15).

“His glory” This Hebrew word (BDB 458 II, see Special Topic: Glory) can mean

1. abundance

2. honor

3. glory

“descend” This verb (BDB 432, KB 434, Qal imperfect) denotes the belief that the dead are in the ground or in the earth. See SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead? This would be a way of expressing a descent into the realm of the dead. OT Semites buried their dead loved ones.

Psalms 49:18 “Though while he lives he congratulates himself” This verse obviously is related to the bragging arrogance of those who trust in their own resources. But flattery is illusionary. God's world is moral and each will give an account unto God (cf. Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Revelation 20:11-15).

For “himself” (lit. nephesh) see notes at Psalms 3:2.

Psalms 49:19 “He shall go to the generation of his fathers” This refers to the fact that in the OT burial was often done in family tombs, caves. This is an OT allusion for being buried with the family.

“They shall never see the light” This probably refers to the same concept as Psalms 49:14. It could mean the light of life, the light of truth, but possibly it could mean the darkness of Sheolthe dwelling place of those who do not know our God (cf. Job 3:16; Job 33:28, Job 33:30; Psalms 36:9).

Psalms 49:20 This is exactly the same as Psalms 49:12 and is a fitting summary to the Psalm. It is pitiful but a true picture of a lost man as he stands wrapped in his own resources (cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did a Jewish sage desire to speak to the entire world?

2. What reasons does the psalmist give for not fearing in the days of adversity?

3. Explain the term “redeem.”

4. How is this Psalm related to Ecclesiastes?

5. What is Sheol?

6. What is the theological implication of Psalms 49:15?

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Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Psalms 49". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/psalms-49.html. 2021.