The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 49

Psa 49:1

SUPERSCRIPTION: "OF THE SONS OF KORAH. A PSALM". "Al-muth" ("unto death") (Psa 48:14) makes a very plausible SUPERSCRIPTIONion for Psa 49, which is indeed a meditation "Upon Death" (cp Psa 49:10,12,14,17,20).

INTRODUCTION: The exceptional emphasis in these vv can only mean that there is much more here than vague philosophical musing about the destiny of the dedicated materialist. It is a message for all to take notice of -- "both high and low, rich and poor together". "My mouth... and the (spoken) meditation of my heart (my mind)" bring a message of "wisdom" and "understanding" (v 3) concerning salvation from death (v 15; ct v 20). The one who speaks is the one who, in v 15, uses the same personal pronoun -- Hezekiah himself. He "opens his saying on the harp" (v 4) -- it is a claim to speak by inspiration (2Ki 3:15). This is underlined by the unexpected "I will incline mine ear to a parable" -- the psalmist giving special attention to his own message, as though there is something in it beyond his normal understanding (cp 1Pe 1:10,11). Hence also the word "parable", to emphasize the existence of a further message (a Messianic fulfillment?) beyond the more obvious meaning.

SETTING: "Woe unto Egypt!" At a time when wicked counselors were calling for reliance on Egypt -- a policy doomed to failure (Isa 18:1,2; 19:1-11; 20:3,4; 30:1-7; 31:1,3; 36:6) -- the author of Psa 49 (Hezekiah? or perhaps Isaiah?) protests against the foolishness of the Pharaohs. "Sons of Korah" strongly suggests a Hezekiah ref; and, remarkably, the sharp ct between v 5 and v 15, and the exposure of the futility of riches in the rest of the psalm, seem to correspond exactly to the ct in Isaiah 22 between Hezekiah (not Eliakim, as this ch is often read) in vv 20-25 and the scornful censure of Shebna and his worldly ambition (vv 15-19). Note that Shebna is a treasurer (the Heb means "intelligent", or "knowing one"), and that he is a presumptuous political and social climber. Also, he is set on having a grandiose tomb which will proclaim his fame to all succeeding generations -- but instead, he (being prob a foreigner) is to perish in foreign ignominy. Vv 11,14,16-20 are not inappropriate to such as he. Consider also the very telling ct provided by vv 5 and 15: Hezekiah is compassed about with evil both in his own person (leprosy) and in the hopeless situation created by Assyrian invasion. In all this, as it can be shown, the king is suffering for the sins of his people. Yet for his godliness he was "redeemed from the power of the grave" and "received" (v 15) into the Temple of the Lord on the third day (2Ki 20:8).

"A universal psalm, not only appealing to God's chosen, the Jews -- but an appeal to all the inhabitants of the world to cast off the fog of ignorance, and to acquaint themselves with the desirableness of seeking the true riches and wisdom of God, the only Redeemer. Internal evidence suggests that this psalm is written by the sons of Korah, to bring to light the iniquity of Korah, Dathan and Abiram when the earth opened up and swallowed them up alive, binding them in everlasting chains of darkness, where they lie, awaiting judgement at the last day: Jude 1:6" (CY).

MESSIANIC REFERENCE: A "parable" (v 4) has another meaning! The simple teaching of the psalm is this:
HEAR THIS, ALL YOU PEOPLES: Because this applies to all without exception, and is of vast importance (Deu 32:1; Psa 50:1; Mic 1:2; 1Ki 22:28).

ALL WHO LIVE IN THIS WORLD: The Heb "cheled" sig "age" (Psa 17:14; 39:5; 89:47; Job 11:17), suggesting the transitory nature of man's tenancy in this world.

Psa 49:2

LOW AND HIGH: "Sons of Adam and sons of ish".

Psa 49:3

WISDOM... UNDERSTANDING: Intensive plurals, in Heb, implying a special wisdom and a special understanding. What this Psa says is in fact the most obvious thing in the world, but men in their folly shut their eyes to it.

Psa 49:4

A PROVERB: Or "parable" (AV). The Heb is "mashal". Psa 78:2 and 1Co 10:1-12 (esp vv 6,11) similarly proclaim the history of Israel as a series of parables, if only men will look beyond the face-value of the story. But both there and in this psalm the lesson is too unpalatable for most. The LXX has problema (problem!), from proballo, "to shoot forth" (Luk 21:30).

MY RIDDLE: Or "dark saying" (AV). Heb "chiyad". Lit, "knots"; "riddle" (RSV, KD) or puzzle.

Psa 49:5

WHEN WICKED DECEIVERS SURROUND ME: "When the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about" (AV). That is, the iniquity which is at my heels, coiled to strike -- it is, of course, the picture of Gen 3:15: the sting of the serpent striking the heel which simultaneously bruises its head and destroys it for ever. The "bruised_" or crushed heel is obviously not so serious as the crushed head; therefore Christ lives (Rev 1:18), but the Serpent-power of Sin is doomed (Rev 20:1-3). In other words, Christ has put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:26; cp Heb 2:14; Rom 8:3; 1Co 15:56,57). Alternatively, "my heels" may be translated "my supplanters" (cp meaning of Jacob) or "my persecutors" (RSV).

Psa 49:6

Recalled in Mar 10:24. Cp also Mat 6:19 and 1Ti 6:17.

Psa 49:7

A RANSOM FOR HIM: That is, his bro. Lev 25:25,48 is relevant here. But "give to God" suggests Exo 30:12-16 with its emphasis on rich and poor (v 2 here) and the half shekel of the sanctuary, the kind of ransom which God specially esteems (the coin in the fish's mouth -- Mat 17:27 == ref specifically to this); cp Mat 20:28. See also 1Ti 2:6. The LXX has a specially impressive word here: exilasma, "to ransom out" (of the power of the grave: v 15).

Psa 49:8

THE RANSOM FOR A LIFE IS COSTLY, NO PAYMENT IS EVER ENOUGH: That is, this redemption cannot even be attempted by ordinary men. "Costly / precious" suggests "the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without spot or blemish" (1Pe 1:18,19). See also Heb 10:22,29; 12:24; Mat 26:28.

Psa 49:9

AND NOT SEE DECAY: This v along with v 12 = 2Pe 2:12.

Psa 49:10

There is a definite ct here: Wise men die, yet with the hope of ultimate redemption (v 15). But the fool and the brutish person perish, with no hope at all, like the ignorant and sensual beasts (vv 12,20).

Psa 49:11

THOUGH THEY HAD NAMED LANDS AFTER THEMSELVES: Cp Gen 4:17; Exo 1:11; 2Sa 18:18. A poor sort of eternity! Ct the wanderers who "have here no continuing city" (Heb 13:14), but rather look for a city with eternal foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God (Heb 11:10).

Psa 49:12

DOES NOT ENDURE: Heb "does not lodge overnight" -- ie there is no new existence for him "in the morning" of resurrection (v 14). "This night", in the parable of the rich fool (Luk 12:20), looks back to this phrase. Cp Ecc 3:19-21; Psa 146:3,4. Man is a creature of vanity (Psa 39:4,5; 144:3,4), of the dust (Psa 103:14-16; Gen 3:19; 18:27), like the grass (Isa 40:6-8,15-17), and of no consequence in his intrinsic value (Dan 4:35; Ecc 3:18). The rabbis read this passage: "Adam being in honor, did not lodge (even) one night" -- ie he sinned on the very first day, and was consequently expelled from Paradise before he could enjoy even one evening there!

HE IS LIKE THE BEAST THAT PERISH: This suggests a limited rather than a universal resurrection: cp Psa 88:5; Pro 21:16; Isa 26:14; Jer 23:39; 51:39,40,57; Hos 4:6; Oba 1:16; Dan 12:2 ("many", not all!).

Psa 49:13

See Lesson, Selah.

Psa 49:14

They are corralled, like sheep, in the grave. "Death shall feed on them" is, in the RSV, "Death shall shepherd them", stalking behind with threatening gestures, coercing his flock on toward the dark pit. (Cp the personification of Death in Jer 9:21, as a thief climbing in the windows to carry off the living.)

Keble's paraphrase:
"Even as a flock arrayed are they
For the dark grave;
Death guides their way;
Death is their shepherd now."

Ct this deadly "shepherd" with Eze 37:24 ("David my servant" as the One Shepherd of Israel) and Rev 7:17 (the "Lamb", now become a Shepherd).

THE UPRIGHT WILL RULE OVER THEM IN THE MORNING: In the time of waking up (Psa 17:15; 30:5; 90:14). Christ is the light of the morning (Psa 110:3; 2Sa 23:4; cp 2Pe 1:19; Num 24:7).

Psa 49:15

"But God!" An awesome and absolute turn-around. "One of the mountain tops of Old Testament hope" (Kidner). Yet some commentators claim that the Heb Scriptures have nothing to say about the hope of life beyond the grave!

BUT GOD WILL REDEEM MY LIFE: Or "soul" (AV). In the Bible there is no soul (nephesh) apart from the body. Then what is redeemed from the grave? The dead body (as in Psa 16:10; Num 9:6, sw), to become once again a living body.

HE WILL SURELY TAKE ME TO HIMSELF: Cp use of sw in Gen 5:24 and Psa 73:24.

See Lesson, Selah.

Psa 49:16

DO NOT BE OVERAWED WHEN A MAN GROWS RICH: A man of wealth is not to be feared because of his wealth. It is poss that this should read: "Do not look with envy" (as in NEB).

Psa 49:17

HIS SPLENDOR WILL NOT DESCEND WITH HIM: Some burials (eg Egyptian, or Westminster Abbey) seek to contradict this truth. But what is the good of a glory of which one has no consciousness?

Psa 49:18

WHILE HE LIVED HE COUNTED HIMSELF BLESSED: Calling himself "fortunate", and flattering himself with ease and plenty: Luk 12:19; 16:25.

AND MEN PRAISE YOU WHEN YOU PROSPER: But the Bible's commentary on this is Ecc 11:9.

Psa 49:20

WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING: Cp Psa 32:9, and ct v 3 here. Ignorance is an obvious characteristic of beasts (Psa 73:22), as is sensuality (Tit 1:12; 2Pe 2:12). Those believers who turned away from Christ and back to the Law of Moses are called "dogs" by Paul (Phi 3:2)!

LIKE THE BEASTS THAT PERISH: Nebuchadnezzar and his behavior and his judgment from God -- to be made like the beasts of the field for seven years (Dan 4) -- provides the scriptural rationale for various and sundry of the kingdoms of men to be signified by beasts, in Daniel and Revelation and elsewhere. The leaders of the nations may be ever so wise, in the wisdom of the world, in political expertise, and economics, and other disciplines besides -- but if they understand not the gospel of the kingdom of God... then they are -- in divine terms -- beasts! They may walk upright; they may wear expensive business suits; they may be driven about in fine limousines and fly around the world in luxurious jets; they may have state-of-the-art arsenals at their disposal... but for all that, they are beasts nonetheless.

And when and if they defy the plans of Almighty God, they will perish like the beasts. Sobering thoughts.

"It is interesting that when King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of the Kingdom of Men he sees a beautiful statue made of, for the most part, precious metals (Dan 2). When God presents the vision of the same kingdoms to Daniel in Dan 7, they are deformed beasts. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!" (KT).

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