George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 49

1. Structure

As the psalm stands, this is markedly uneven. But if the refrain in v. 12 were to come instead immediately before v. 15, then all is tidy. Thus we have:

An impressive introduction, then:

My fears

6-11, 13, 14.
Mortality, even of the rich


My confidence

Mortality, even of the rich


The phrase al-muth (“unto death”) (48:14) makes a very plausible superscription for Psalm 49, which is indeed a meditation “Upon Death” (cp. vv. 10,12,14,17,20).

2. Introduction

The exceptional emphasis in these verses 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; contrast 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 (2 Kings 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. 1 Pet. 1:10,11). Hence also the word “parable”, to emphasize the existence of a further message (a Messianic fulfillment?) beyond the more obvious meaning.

3. Historical setting

Sons of Korah strongly suggests a Hezekiah reference; and, remarkably, the sharp contrast between vv. 5 and 15, and the exposure of the futility of riches in the rest of the psalm, seem to correspond exactly to the contrast in Isaiah 22 between Hezekiah (not Eliakim, as this chapter 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 Hebrew 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 probably a foreigner) is to perish in foreign ignominy. Verses 11, 14, and 16-20 are not inappropriate to such as he.

Compare the details about Shebna in Isaiah 22:

Isaiah 22

Psalm 49
Over the house
[They think] their houses will continue forever

When the glory of his house is increased
Sepulchre... an habitation for himself in the rock
“Their graves are their homes forever” (RSV)
The Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity
Man being in honour abideth not
I will drive thee from thy station

The chariots of thy glory shall be... shame
They that trust in wealth... and boast in... riches...

[will] leave their wealth to others

Now consider the very telling contrast provided by verses 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 (2 Kings 20:8).

4. Woe unto Egypt

At a time when wicked counsellors 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 Psalm 49 (Hezekiah? or perhaps Isaiah?) protests against the foolishness of the Pharaohs:

They trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in their riches.
They offer numerous “ransoms” to their numerous gods, all to no avail.
They think that they shall live forever, and appoint elaborate and meticulous embalming procedures so as to avoid the inevitable corruption.
Yet, of course they die — the richest Pharaoh having no preeminence over his lowliest subject, or even over the brutes of the field.
“Their graves [i.e. the pyramids] are their homes forever” (cp. RSV, Syriac, LXX: reading qibram, “graves”, for qirbam, “in their midst”). They even call their lands after their own names (Exod. 1:11)! But the only “real estate” they really own are their tombs!
There the awesome beauty of their clothing and possessions will do them no good whatsoever. And their extensive provisions of food and servants for the after-life will be seen in retrospect as the sheerest nonsense. (“For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out”: 1 Tim. 6:7.)

5. Messianic reference

As noted above, a “parable” (v. 4) has another meaning! The stark simple teaching of the psalm is this:

All men, no matter what their accomplishments or seeming worth, are under the power of Death (vv. 10,14,19).
There is, for such men, no life hereafter (vv. 12,20).
The best that men can make of life is paltry and useless when death comes (vv. 10,11,16-18).
Nor can any man do anything to redeem any of his fellows from this kind of fate (vv. 7-9). “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:37).

To all this there is one magnificent exception: the Man who, although compassed about with an inheritance of human sinfulness (v. 5; 38:4; 40:12; 51:5; etc.), can look with confidence to being “redeemed from the power of the grave” (v. 15). He will be “received” by God — this is the ascension of Jesus.
A Man good enough to share the fellowship of God, and who yet experiences the horror of death, must be good enough to “redeem his brother and give to God a ransom for him” (1 Pet. 1:18,19). “If the wealthiest be impotent for the redemption of one soul, how precious must the blood of the Yahweh-Name be, seeing it can ransom ‘a great multitude which no man can number’! — Rev. 7:9” (Eureka, vol. 1, p. 278).
And this brother, now called “upright”, shall “have dominion in the morning” of resurrection (v. 14).
The repeated “Selah’s” (vv. 13,15) bracket two contrasting allusions to sacrifice — the futile sacrifices of the self-centered rich (v. 14), and the redeeming sacrifice of Christ (v. 15).

6. The rich fool

There are pointed similarities to be traced between the story of Nabal (1 Sam. 25) and the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) and Psalm 49:

“I will pull down my barns and build greater... Soul, thou hast much goods... Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
Even the words of Jesus are a parable — of the men who revelled in the wealth and prestige of their temple (their temple — “your house left desolate”). The fate of this rich fool, as in Psalm 49, foretold the fate of all this man-centered splendor.

Few in Israel could match the wealth and splendor of the high priestly family. They grew fat and comfortable and proud on the illicit revenues of the Temple. As the fool was intent on building bigger barns, so they with Herod’s assistance were building the finest temple the world had even seen. Yet Jesus knew, and prophesied, that their essentially materialistic project would come to nothing, and themselves along with it:

“Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2; Luke 19:44; cp. Mic. 3:12; Jer. 26:18).
All that prosperity which was not carried to Rome disappeared into a Gehenna of unquenchable fire. And the priesthood and all other spiritual privileges were inherited by despised Gentile believers.

7. Other details

Hear, all ye people, because this applies to all without exception, and is of vast importance (Deut. 32:1; Psa. 50:1; Mic. 1:2; 1 Kings 22:28).

Inhabitants of the world. Cheled signifies “age” (Psa. 17:14; 39:5; 89:47; Job 11:17), suggesting the transitory nature of man’s tenancy in this world.
Low and high. “Sons of adam and sons of ish”.
Wisdom... understanding. Intensive plurals, in Hebrew, implying a special wisdom and a special understanding. What this psalm says is in fact the most obvious thing in the world, but men in their folly shut their eyes to it.
A parable. The Hebrew is mashal. Psa. 78:2 and 1 Cor. 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” (Luke 21:30).

Dark saying. Hebrew chiyad. Literally, “knots”; “riddle” (RSV, Delitzsch) or puzzle.
Fear: v. 16.

The days of evil: Eph. 6:13.

The iniquity of my heels. 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; 1 Cor. 15:56,57).

Alternatively, my heels may be translated “my supplanters” (cp. meaning of Jacob) or “my persecutors” (RSV). See notes, Psa. 41, Par. 5.
They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches is recalled in Mark 10:24: “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God.” Compare also Matt. 6:19 and 1 Tim. 6:17.
None of them can by any means... give to God a ransom for him (i.e. his brother). Lev. 25:25,48 is relevant here. But give to God suggests Exod. 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 — Matt. 17:27 — refers specifically to this); cp. Matt. 20:28. See also 1 Tim. 2:6. The LXX has a specially impressive word here: exilasma, “to ransom out” (of the power of the grave: v. 15).
RV: Costly, and must be let alone for ever. That is, this redemption cannot even be attempted by ordinary men.

Precious suggests “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without spot or blemish” (1 Pet. 1:18,19). See also Heb. 10:22,29; 12:24; Matt. 26:28.

It ceaseth for ever. “Soul” is feminine in Hebrew, but this verb is masculine; therefore it refers either to “the redemption” or to “his brother” (v. 7).

For ever. This is one of the very few places where this phrase means “for a long, long time” — that is, until the Redeemer comes.
Corruption. This verse along with v. 12 = 2 Pet. 2:12:

“But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not: and shall utterly perish in their own corruption.”
There is a definite contrast 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).
They call their lands after their own names. Compare Gen. 4:17; Exod. 1:11; 2 Sam. 18:18. A poor sort of eternity! Contrast 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 (11:10).
Abideth not. Hebrew: “does not lodge overnight”, i.e. there is no new existence for him “in the morning” of resurrection (v. 14). “This night”, in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:20), looks back to this phrase. Compare Eccl. 3:19-21; Psa. 146:3,4. Man is a creature of vanity (Psa. 39:4,5; 144:3,4), of the dust (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; Eccl. 3:18).

The rabbis read this passage: “Adam being in honor, did not lodge (even) one night” — i.e. 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 beasts that perish. This suggests a limited rather than a universal resurrection: cp. Psa. 88:5; Prov. 21:16; Isa. 26:14; Jer. 23:39; 51:39,40,57; Hos. 4:6; Obad. 16; Dan. 12:2 (“many”, not all!).
This their way is their folly. RV mg. has “confidence”. The Hebrew is a double-meaning word. But v. 10 (“the fool”) settles it.

Yet their posterity approve their sayings about the immortality of the soul!
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. (Compare 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.”

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

And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning, in the time of waking up (17:15; 30:5; 90:14). Christ is the light of the morning (110:3; 2 Sam. 23:4; cp. 2 Pet. 1:19; Num. 24:7).
But God! An awesome and absolute turn-around. “One of the mountain tops of Old Testament hope” (Kidner). Yet some commentators claim that the Hebrew Scriptures have nothing to say about the hope of life beyond the grave!

But God will redeem my soul. 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, s.w.), to become once again a living body.

For he shall receive me. Compare use of the s.w. in Gen. 5:24 and Psa. 73:24.
Be not thou afraid when one is made rich. A man of wealth is not to be feared because of his wealth. It is possible that this should read: “Do not look with envy” (as in NEB).
His glory shall not descend after him. Some burials (e.g. Egyptian, or Westminster Abbey) seek to set this at nought. But what is the good of a glory of which one has no consciousness?
While he lived, he blessed his soul. Calling himself “fortunate”, and flattering himself with ease and plenty: Luke 12:19; 16:25.

And men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself. But the Bible’s commentary on this is Eccl. 11:9: “But know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
More correctly: It (thy soul) shall go to the generation of his fathers.
Understandeth not. Compare Psa. 32:9, and contrast v. 3 here. Ignorance is an obvious characteristic of beasts (73:22), as is sensuality (Tit. 1:12; 2 Pet. 2:12). Those believers who turned away from Christ and back to the Law of Moses are called “dogs” by Paul (Phil. 3:2)!

8. Postscript

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansions call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull, cold ear of death?

                        (Thomas Gray)


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