Psalm 49 – What Money Can’t Buy
As are many of the songs in Book Two of the Psalter, this psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. These sons of Korah were Levites, from the family of Kohath. By David’s time it seems they served in the musical aspect of the temple worship (2 Chronicles 20:19).
“The teaching of the song is simple, and sublime, present, and perpetual.” (G. Campbell Morgan) “This psalm touches the high-water mark of Old Testament faith in a future life.” (Alexander Maclaren)
A. The limits of material wealth.
1. (1-4) Introduction to this psalm of wisdom.
Hear this, all peoples;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Both low and high,
Rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom,
And the meditation of my heart shall give understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.
a. Hear this, all peoples: The psalmist spoke to everyone, especially including rich and poor together. He hoped to guide those who were troubled about the wealth of the wicked.
i. There are four kinds of riches. There are riches in what you have, riches in what you do, riches in what you know, and riches in what you are – riches of character. The psalmist spoke of those who are only rich in the first way – the least important kind of wealth.
ii. “It is evident that he was conscious of the greatness of the thing he sang, in that he commenced by calling all people, of all classes, to listen.” (Morgan)
iii. “Like most of the Wisdom writings, this psalm speaks to men in the common humanity, not only to Israelites in their special bond of covenant with God.” (Kidner)
b. My mouth shall speak wisdom: Other psalms praise and pray to God; this psalm teaches wisdom and imparts understanding. The psalm will focus on the folly of trusting in wealth or envying others just for their wealth. It sets the present prosperity of those who don’t know God in an eternal perspective.
i. VanGemeren wrote this regarding the somewhat long introduction to the heart of this psalm: “He keeps them in suspense by impressing on them the importance of the discussion.”
c. My dark saying: The better translation is riddle. The psalmist wasn’t interested in hidden, mystical knowledge but in things that were simply difficult to understand and perceive. He hoped that doing it on the harp might help the message to be better remembered.
i. “[New English Bible] paraphrases it well: ‘and tell on the harp how I read the riddle.’” (Kidner)
ii. “The doctrine of life eternal, and the judgment to come, here more clearly delivered than anywhere else almost in the Old Testament, is a mystery.” (Trapp)
2. (5-9) What money can’t buy.
Why should I fear in the days of evil,
When the iniquity at my heels surrounds me?
Those who trust in their wealth
And boast 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 souls is costly,
And it shall cease forever—
That he should continue to live eternally,
And not see the Pit.
a. Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity at my heels surrounds me: The psalmist made a contrast between himself and those he will mention in the following lines. He, in contrast to them, has no reason to fear in the days of evil.
i. “Days of evil to others cannot be so to me, for the presence of God transmutes the evil to good.” (Meyer)
b. Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches: When this psalm speaks of the rich, this is what it means. It isn’t merely the possession of material things that makes one rich in the sense that Psalm 49 means it. It is to trust in that wealth and to boast in their riches.
i. This is simply idolatry. Though the Bible presents several godly rich men to us (such as Abraham and King David, who by modern measures would probably be billionaires), they were men who still trusted in the LORD and made their boast in Him. They did not trust in their wealth or boast in their riches.
· One can know if he puts his trust in heir wealth if he finds too much peace and security by his accounts and holdings, and if he despairs when such things decline. He can ask the question, What loss in life would most trouble me – material or spiritual?
· One can know if he boasts in his riches if he finds deepest satisfaction in gaining and measuring his wealth and if he looks for ways to display his riches. He can ask the question, What am I appropriately proud of – material things or spiritual things?
· In general, God’s answer to these things for the rich is to practice radical generosity – a way for them to declare their trust in the LORD and to guard against a boast in their riches.
ii. Boice pointed out that in some ways this psalm is a commentary on the story of the rich fool in Luke 12:15-21. Jesus applied the principle from that story: So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. Psalm 49 has in mind just that kind of man.
c. None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: The psalmist revealed the great limitation of the idolatry of trusting and boasting in material wealth – this idol is of no help in the spiritual world. Money itself can’t rescue a soul because the redemption of their souls is costly – that is, beyond the ability of material things to purchase.
i. The redemption of their souls is a spiritual work, accomplished only by God’s atoning sacrifice. This sacrifice began in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21), was practiced among the patriarchs (Genesis 22:13-14), and instituted in a sacrificial system (Leviticus 1-7). The concept of a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice was fulfilled and perfected by the work of Jesus at the cross (Isaiah 53:10-11, Hebrews 10:12 and many others). This spiritual work is what provides for the redemption of their souls.
ii. “And therefore all the money that hath been given for masses, dirges, trentals, etc., hath been cast away; seeing Christ is the only Redeemer, and in the other world money beareth no mastery.” (Trapp)
iii. Voltaire was a French atheist and enemy of Christianity, and his popularity made him very wealthy. “Yet when Voltaire came to die, it is reported that he cried to his doctor in pained desperation, ‘I will give you half of all I possess if you will give me six months more of life.’” (Boice) Voltaire died in despair.
iv. Redeem…ransom: “The ransom picture is doubly appropriate, since being held to ransom is as much the hazard of the very rich as redemption is the need of the very poor.” (Kidner)
d. That he should continue to live eternally, and not see the Pit: Those who have the redemption of their souls will live eternally and not see the Pit. Here we see the concept of sheol (the Pit) as more than just the grave, but the ultimate and empty destiny of those who reject God.
i. The Pit: “The Chaldee understandeth it of hell; to which the wicked man’s death is as a trap-door.” (Trapp)
B. True wealth and the world to come.
1. (10-12) Unreliable wealth, limited honor.
For he sees wise men die;
Likewise the fool and the senseless person perish,
And leave their wealth to others.
Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever,
Their dwelling places to all generations;
They call their lands after their own names.
Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain;
He is like the beasts that perish.
a. The fool and the senseless person perish, and leave their wealth to others: Much in the pattern of the writer of Ecclesiastes (6:1-2), the psalmist noted that we can’t take our material wealth with us into the world beyond.
i. “Money is the monarch of this world, but not of the next.” (Trapp)
ii. We can’t take our material wealth with us to the world beyond, but there is a real sense in which we can send it on ahead. Jesus spoke of using our present material resources to store up treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21). Our material wealth can do us good in the world to come, but that happens through kingdom-minded generosity more than accumulation.
b. Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever: Hungering for some kind of immortality, they that trust in riches believe their estates will last forever, beyond their own life to all generations. They memorialize themselves by calling their lands after their own names.
i. “This is the ambition still of many, that take little care to know that their names are written in heaven; but strive to propagate them, as they are able, upon earth, Nimrod by his tower, Absalom by his pillar, Alexander by his Alexandria…. But the name of the wicked shall rot, Proverbs 10:7.” (Trapp)
ii. “Common enough is this practice. His grounds are made to bear the groundling’s name; he might as well write it on the water. Men have even called countries by their own names, but what are they better for the idle compliment, even if men perpetuate their nomenclature?” (Spurgeon)
c. Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain: Though a man may have some measure of honor through estates or descendants or memorials, he still dies – just like an animal dies.
i. Therefore, the truly wise man or woman does not trust in riches or boast in wealth. He prepares for eternity by trusting God and making their boast in the LORD.
ii. He is like the beasts that perish: “It is the ability to think and reason that sets human beings apart from the remainder of creation. Yet how animal-like we are when we fail to consider the shortness of our days and prepare for how we will spend eternity!” (Boice)
2. (13) Two paths to perish.
This is the way of those who are foolish,
And of their posterity who approve their sayings. Selah
a. This is the way of those who are foolish: The psalmist noted that the way that values the material over the spiritual and that does not prepare for the world to come is foolish and will be revealed as so.
b. And of their posterity who approve their sayings: There is a second foolish way: to be a descendant of the one who trusted and boasted in riches and to approve of his world view. This also is foolish and will be revealed as so.
i. Of their posterity: “Grace is not hereditary, but sordid worldliness goes from generation to generation. The race of fools never dies out.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Who approve of their sayings: “Those who agree with their words, often benefiting from their power and prestige, will also die and be no more.” (VanGemeren)
3. (14-15) The dominion of the upright.
Like sheep they are laid in the grave;
Death shall feed on them;
The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling.
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave,
For He shall receive me. Selah
a. Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them: The psalmist painted a ghastly picture. A man is buried like an animal (Psalm 49:12) and death consumes his material body. Of their once-beautiful bodies, their beauty shall be consumed in the grave.
i. The idea is that the upright – those who did not trust or boast in riches – have a beauty beyond the material and therefore beyond the grave. Those whose beauty was mainly measured in mirrors and bank accounts will find that their beauty shall be consumed in the grave. There is a better beauty to live for.
ii. Like sheep they are laid in the grave: “Those fatlings of the world, these brainless yonkers, that will not be warned by other men’s harms, but walk on in the same dark and dangerous ways.” (Trapp)
iii. “Why like sheep? I answer, not for the innocency of their lives, but for their impotency in death; as if it had been said, when once death took them in hand to lay them in the grave, they could make no more resistance than a sheep can against a lion or a wolf.” (Caryl, cited in Spurgeon)
b. The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning: When that morning finally comes, those who did not trust or boast in wealth (the upright) will be justified. They will have dominion over those who lived and died with a focus on the material and with no urgency to prepare for the world to come.
i. “Yet there is a mastery over Sheol and death. It is found in uprightness.” (Morgan)
c. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me: The psalmist was confident that he was among the upright, and not among those who foolishly trusted and boasted in riches.
i. The one who trusted and boasted in riches had no power to ransom or redeem a soul (Psalm 49:7-8). The psalmist understood that God and God alone had the power to redeem my soul from the power of the grave.
ii. God gave a similar staggering announcement in Hosea 13:14:
I will ransom them from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
O Death, I will be your plagues!
O Grave, I will be your destruction!
iii. The power of the grave is staggering. Every graveyard tells of the power that death has over humanity. Yet God is greater than the power of the grave, and in Jesus Christ we can even taunt the grave saying, O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55).
iv. As a wisdom psalm, this shares many characteristics as the Book of Ecclesiastes. Yet the words But God begin a significant difference. “The great But God…(Psalm 49:15) is one of the mountain-tops of Old Testament hope…it brings out into the open the assurance of victory over death which Ecclesiastes leaves concealed.” (Kidner)
v. God will redeem my soul: “We must remember that redeem is a commercial term, meaning ‘to buy,’ ‘buy out,’ or ‘buy [a slave so that he or she need never again return to the marketplace].’ Spiritually, it refers to God’s work in buying us out of sin’s marketplace and setting us free. Who can do this? No one but God.” (Boice)
d. For He shall receive me: The assurance and confidence of the psalmist is worthy of note and should be taken as an example for us. He was confident that God would receive the one who trusted in Him and made his boast in the LORD.
i. “The he and me confirm that this is not salvation at arm’s length, but face to face.” (Kidner)
ii. “The word receive is more positive than it may sound to us; it is Enoch’s word: ‘God took him’ (Genesis 5:24).” (Kidner)
4. (16-20) Practical application of this wisdom.
Do not be afraid when one becomes rich,
When the glory of his house is increased;
For when he dies he shall carry nothing away;
His glory shall not descend after him.
Though while he lives he blesses himself
(For men will praise you when you do well for yourself),
He shall go to the generation of his fathers;
They shall never see light.
A man who is in honor, yet does not understand,
Is like the beasts that perish.
a. Do not be afraid when one becomes rich: This might seem like a strange way to phrase the matter. Most of us are not consciously afraid at the prosperity of another or when the glory of his house is increased. Yet the fears may come in subtle ways:
· Afraid because I think they prosper at my expense.
· Afraid because perhaps material things matter more than spiritual things do.
· Afraid because maybe God does not govern the universe as I believe He does.
· Afraid because maybe there is no reward for the righteous or punishment for the wicked in the world beyond; there is no moral government to the universe.
· Afraid because the jerks of the world won’t get what is coming to them.
b. When he dies he shall carry nothing away: The psalmist assures us that our reasons for fear are unfounded. The fool who trusted and boasted in riches can take nothing with him to the world beyond. His glory shall not descend after him; all the glory he will ever deserve he has had in this life.
i. For the upright, the opposite is true; their glory shall ascend after them, and they will in some sense be brought to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and even obtain God’s glory in the world to come (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
ii. For those who trust and boast in riches, this world is the best they will ever have it. For the upright who look to God for their redemption, this world is the worst they will ever have it.
iii. His glory shall not descend after him: “His worship, his honour, his lordship, and his grace, will alike find their titles ridiculous in the tomb. Hell knows no aristocracy. Your dainty and delicate sinners shall find that eternal burnings have no respect for their affectations and refinements.” (Spurgeon)
c. While he lives he blesses himself…for men will praise you: Yes, the men and women who trust and boast in riches are often pleased with themselves and others are pleased with them. Yet that is short-lived. Each will die, and go to the generations of his fathers.
i. For men will praise you: “The generality of men worship success, however it may be gained. The colour of the winning horse is no matter; it is the winner, and that is enough.” (Spurgeon)
d. They shall never see light: The psalmist only had a dim understanding of punishment in the world to come, but he knew it to be in some sense a place of darkness. This is reserved for those who are in honor yet do not understand.
e. A man who is in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts that perish: The psalm ends by repeating the warning first given in Psalm 49:12. It is the grave warning to those who may have honor in this world but no understanding. Their honor in this world will not preserve them in the next.
i. “The banker rots as fast as the shoe-black, and the peer becomes as putrid as the pauper.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Oh that wicked rich men would think of this, before the cold grave hold their bodies, and hot hell hold their souls.” (Trapp)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org