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All men are invited to attend to lessons of wisdom relative to
the insufficiency of earthly good to save or prolong life; to
secure the resurrection frown the dead, 1-9.
Death is inevitable, 10.
The vain expectations of rich men, 11-13.
Death renders all alike, 14.
The psalmist encourages and fortifies himself against envying
the apparently prosperous state of the wicked, who are brutish,
and die like beasts, 15-20.
The title, To the chief Musician, A Psalm for the sons of Korah, has nothing particular in it; and the Versions say little about it. One of the descendants of the children of Korah might have been the author of it; but when or on what occasion it was made, cannot now be discovered. The author aimed to be obscure, and has succeeded; for it is very difficult to make out his meaning. It is so much in the style of the Book of Job, that one might believe they had the same author; and that this Psalm might have made originally a part of that book. "It seems," says Dr. Dodd, "to be a meditation on the vanity of riches, and the usual haughtiness of those who possess them. As a remedy for this, he sets before them the near prospect of death, from which no riches can save, in which no riches can avail. The author considers the subject he is treating as a kind of wisdom concealed from the world; a mystery, an occult science with respect to the generality of mankind." Dr. Kennicott has given an excellent translation of this Psalm, which is very literal, simple, and elegant; and by it the reader will be convinced that a good translation of a difficult passage is often better than a comment.
Verse Psalms 49:1. Hear this, all ye people — The four first verses contain the author's exordium or introduction, delivered in a very pompous style and promising the deepest lessons of wisdom and instruction. But what was rare then is common-place now.
Verse Psalms 49:4. I will incline mine ear to a parable — This was the general method of conveying instruction among the Asiatics. They used much figure and metaphor to induce the reader to study deeply in order to find out the meaning. This had its use; it obliged men to think and reflect deeply; and thus in some measure taught them the use, government, and management of their minds.
My dark saying upon the harp. — Music was sometimes used to soothe the animal spirits, and thus prepare the mind for the prophetic influx.
Verse Psalms 49:5. The iniquity of my heels — Perhaps עקבי akebai, which we translate my heels, should be considered the contracted plural of עקבים akebim, supplanters. The verse would then read thus: "Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, though the iniquity of my supplanters should compass me about." The Syriac and Arabic have taken a similar view of the passage: "Why should I fear in the evil day, when the iniquity of my enemies compasses me about." And so Dr. Kennicott translates it.
Verse Psalms 49:7. None of them can by any means redeem his brother — Wealth cannot save from death; brother, however rich, cannot save his brother; nor will God accept riches as a ransom for the life or soul of any transgressor. To procure health of body, peace of mind, redemption from death, and eternal glory, riches are sought for and applied in vain.
Verse Psalms 49:8. For the redemption of their soul is precious — It is of too high a price to be redeemed with corruptible things, such as silver or gold, and has required the sacrificial death of Christ.
And it ceaseth for ever — This is very obscure, and may apply to the ransom which riches could produce. That ransom must be for ever unavailable, because of the value of the soul. Or this clause should be added to the following verse, and read thus: "And though he cease to be, (וחדל vechadal,) during the hidden time, (לעולם leolam;) yet he shall live on through eternity, (ויחי עוד לנצח vichi od lanetsach,) and not see corruption." This is probably the dark saying which it was the design of the author to utter in a parable, and leave it to the ingenuity of posterity to find it out. The verb חדל chadal signifies a cessation of being or action, and עולם olam often signifies hidden time, that which is not defined, and the end of which is not ascertained, though it is frequently used to express endless duration. This translation requires no alteration of the original text, and conveys a precise and consistent meaning.
Verse Psalms 49:10. For he seeth that wise men die — Though they may be rich, and their wisdom teach them the best method of managing their riches so as to derive all the good from them they can possibly produce, yet they die as well as the fool and the poor ignorant man; and their wealth is left to others who will be equally disappointed in their expectation from it.
Verse Psalms 49:11. Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever — Thus, by interpolation, we have endeavoured to patch up a sense to this clause. Instead of קרבם kirbam, their inward part, the Septuagint appear to have used a copy in which the second and third letters have been transposed קברם kibram, their sepulchres; for they translate: Και οἱ ταφοι αυτων οικιαι αυτων εις τον αιωνα· "For their graves are their dwellings for ever." So six or seven feet long, and two or three wide, is sufficient to hold the greatest conqueror in the universe! What a small house for the quondam possessor of numerous palaces and potent kingdoms!
They call their lands after their own names. — There would have been no evil in this if it had not been done on an infidel principle. They expected no state but the present; and if they could not continue themselves, yet they took as much pains as possible to perpetuate their memorial.
Verse Psalms 49:12. Man being in honour abideth not — However rich, wise, or honourable, they must die; and if they die not with a sure hope of eternal life, they die like beasts. See on Psalms 49:20.
Verse Psalms 49:13. Their posterity approve their sayings. — Go the same way; adopt their maxims.
Verse Psalms 49:14. Like sheep they are laid in the grave — לשאול lishol, into sheol, the place of separate spirits.
Death shall feed on them — מות ירעם maveth yirem, "Death shall feed them!" What an astonishing change! All the good things of life were once their portion, and they lived only to eat and drink; and now they live in sheol, and Death himself feeds them! and with what? Damnation. Houbigant reads the verse thus: "Like sheep they shall be laid in the place of the dead; death shall feed on them; their morning shepherds rule over them; and their flesh is to be consumed. Destruction is to them in their folds."
Verse Psalms 49:15. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave — מיד שאול miyad sheol, "from the hand of sheol." That is, by the plainest construction, I shall have a resurrection from the dead, and an entrance into his glory; and death shall have no dominion over me.
Verse Psalms 49:16. Be not thou afraid when one is made rich — Do not be envious; do not grieve: it will do you no harm; it will do him no good. All he gets will be left behind; he can carry nothing with him. Even his glory must stay behind; he shall mingle with the common earth.
Verse Psalms 49:18. He blessed his soul — He did all he could to procure himself animal gratifications, and he was applauded for it; for it is the custom of the world to praise them who pay most attention to their secular interest; and he who attends most to the concerns of his soul is deemed weak and foolish, and is often persecuted by an ungodly world.
Verse Psalms 49:19. They shall never see light. — Rise again they shall; but they shall never see the light of glory, for there is prepared for them the blackness of darkness for ever.
Verse Psalms 49:20. Man that is in honour — The rich and honourable man who has no spiritual understanding, is a beast in the sight of God. The spirit of this maxim is, A man who is in a dignified official situation, but destitute of learning and sound sense, is like a beast. The important place which he occupies reflects no honour upon him, but is disgraced by him. Who has not read the fable of the beautifully carved head? It was every thing that it should be, but had no brains.
This verse has been often quoted as a proof of the fall of man; and from ילין yalin, (in Psalms 49:12,) which signifies to lodge for a night, it has been inferred that Adam fell on the same day on which he was created, and that he did not spend a single night in the terrestrial paradise. Adam, who was in a state of glory, did not remain in it one night, but became stupid and ignorant as the beasts which perish. But we may rest assured this is no meaning of the text.
The doctrine taught by this Psalm is the following: That rich men be not proud of their wealth, nor poor men dejected nor humbled at their mean estate, since all men are mortal; and it is not the wealth of the one can make them happy, nor the poverty of the others can make them unhappy, there being another life by which the condition of both is to be judged.
The Psalm has three parts: -
I. An exordium or preface: Psalms 49:1-4.
II. The matter proposed, debated, and argued, Psalms 49:5-16.
III. The advice or admonition given, Psalms 49:16-20.
I. In the exordium: -
1. He calls together his auditory: "All people, all nations, low, high, rich, and poor;" because what he speaks concerns all.
2. Then he calls them to be attentive. "Hear, give ear."
3. He labours to make them teachable, by commending the matter of which he treats; they are not frivolous, but weighty and important things: 1. "My mouth shall speak of wisdom," c. I will speak of what I know, and speak so that others may understand. 2. "I will incline my ear." I will teach you nothing but what I teach myself. 3. It is a parable which I am about to deliver, and will require all your attention. 4. That it may be brought to your ear with more delight, I shall accompany it with the harp: "I will open my dark saying upon the harp."
II. Having now assembled his congregation endeavoured to make them attentive, docile, and well-disposed, lest any should suppose that he was envious at the prosperity of the wicked, or had so little trust in God that he lived in terror of his adversaries; he says, "Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, though the iniquity of my supplanters surrounds me?" He had no reason thus to fear; but the wealthy and ambitious had. And this he demonstrates two ways: for he takes away happiness from the one, Psalms 49:6-15, and places happiness in the other, Psalms 49:16.
1. They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches, are not happy, Psalms 49:6. For wealth will not deliver in the evil day.
1. It will save no man's life: "None of them (the rich men) can redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him." God will not be bribed to save any man's life.
2. It will save no man's soul. The ransom required for that is more valuable than any thing the earth can produce.
3. Suppose he was wise, and a long-lived man, yet he must die at last: "For he seeth that wise men die; likewise the fool, and the brutish."
4. Which sufficiently shows the vanity of their riches: 1. They leave them. 2. They leave these great riches. 3. They leave them to others; sometimes to children, but often to strangers, such as they thought never would have entered into their labours.
5. "Their thoughts are vain." For, 1. "Their inward thoughts are that their houses shall continue," c. 2. To this end, "They call their lands after their own names" they not only study to be rich, but they are vain-glorious also.
But their study is, 1. Vanity. 2. Folly.
1. Vanity: "Nevertheless, man being in honour, abideth not;" a change there will be, and the most glorious man will be like the beasts that perish.
2. Folly: "This their way is their foolishness." A great foolery to place their chief good in riches; yet their posterity act in the same way, tread in their steps, and pant after riches and honours.
To correct this propensity, he lays before them certain considerations relative to their future condition: -
1. "Like sheep they are laid in the grave." That is their common condition; like sheep they are fatted for slaughter.
2. "Death shall feed on them." The second death; for, like Dives, they shall be burned in hell; and the fire that cannot be extinguished shall feed upon their souls and bodies.
3. In the morning of the resurrection, the "upright shall have power over them." The righteous shall shine like the sun, when they shall be Christ's footstool. The godly shall be placed on the right hand, and seated on thrones to judge them; when they shall be seated on the left, and be condemned.
4. "Their beauty shall consume in the grave." Their riches, power, and glory, shall wax old as doth a garment: "For the figure of this world passeth away." Therefore the rich of this world, and the possessors of great glory, are not happy. He therefore sets down the happy man: the man who trusts in God, and lives to him, he is happy in life, notwithstanding his afflictions, and he shall be happy for ever. Therefore he says, "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave," c.
1. He shall redeem me. All good men's souls.
2. Not from the grave, for die we must but from the hand, that is, the dominion and power, of death: "Death shall not reign over them."
3. The reason is, For he shall receive me - adopt me into his family, and make me a partaker of the Divine nature.
III. On these considerations, relative to good and bad men, and their different conditions, he admonishes the good that they be not troubled at the prosperity of the wicked: "Be not thou afraid," c.
1. Not at the great wealth of the rich: "Be not afraid when one is made rich."
2. Not at the glory and honour of the mighty: "Nor when the glory of his house is increased."
And he repeats the former reason: "For when he dieth, he shall carry nothing away his glory shall not descend after him." Their happiness, such as it was, was only momentary.
This he amplifies: Be it granted that they flattered themselves, and were flattered by others.
1. "Though while he lived he blessed his own soul." "Soul, take thy ease," c.
2. Though men will praise thee, and sound in thy ears, Well done! "so long as thou doest well to thyself," - heapest up riches, and followest after honour.
1. A mortal thou art, short-lived as all that went before thee: "He shall go to the generation of his fathers." And,
2. If wicked, be cast into utter darkness: "They shall never see the light."
3. Surely any man, however rich, however great, who understands not thus much, must be a beast and with this sentiment concludes the Psalm; and it is doubled that it may be remembered: "Man who is in honour, and understandeth not is like the beasts that perish." Even while he lives, without this understanding, his life is little more than the life of the beast.
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Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Psalms 49". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20