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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 49

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Here we have the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament instructions against the folly of trusting in material riches. Christ’s declaration that, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of his possessions,” as well as his encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, and his parable of the Rich Fool, are doctrinally anticipated in this psalm.

Scholars refer to this psalm as `didactic,’ i.e., a psalm loaded with teaching or instructions. In some of the psalms, the psalmist is (1) praising God; in others he is (2) prophesying; and in some he is (3) praying; but, “In this one, he is (4) preaching.”(F1)

In all discussions of the folly of trusting in riches, it should be pointed out that riches are a threatening temptation, not only to their possessors, but to the poor also. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” as an apostle noted; and people who are without riches may inordinately desire them, covet them, and commit all kinds of wickedness in order to procure them. Thus, the scriptural warning to all men: (1) let not those who have riches inordinately glory in them or trust them; and (2) let not those of us who are poor inordinately desire them or sinfully seek to possess them.

Yes, there are some wonderful instructions here regarding the folly of trusting in earthly riches; but there is one verse that outweighs all the others in the psalm put together. It is Psalms 49:15.

“But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for He will receive me” (Psalms 49:15).

We have made this the title of the psalm. Everything else in it fades into the background, because the glory of this verse shines like the sun at perihelion.

We shall devote most of our attention to this verse, because it provides the answers, the eternal answers, to all of the great problems encountered in the lives of mortal men, including that of the perplexity arising from the inequalities between the wicked rich and the godly poor.

The date and occasion when the psalm was written are unknown, although the superscription that assigns it to the sons of Korah has caused some to suppose it was written in the times of David, or soon afterwards. Such questions are of little importance.

The organization of the psalm suggested by Addis is as follows.

I. The announcement that a great mystery is about to be revealed (Psalms 49:1-4).

II. The haughty boastfulness of wicked men trusting in untrustworthy riches (Psalms 49:5-8).

III. Those who trust in riches live as if they were immortal, but they all die (Psalms 49:9-12).

IV. Why such conduct is foolish, and why the hope of the godly is preferable (Psalms 49:13-15).

V. Fate of the wicked contrasted with that of the righteous (Psalms 49:16-20).(F2)

Addis also identified Psalms 49:12; Psalms 49:20 as a refrain and suggested that it would be appropriate to insert it again after Psalms 49:4; Psalms 49:8, and Psalms 49:15, just as it already appears after Psalms 49:12 and Psalms 49:20.

Verses 1-4

“Hear this, all ye peoples; Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, Both low and high, Rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom; And the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.”

“All ye peoples… all ye inhabitants of the earth” Only a world-shaking truth, significant for every soul who ever lived on earth, could be entitled to such an introduction as this. The revelation of this great truth is not for Jews only, but for all men and all classes of peoples in the whole world.

“Both low and high, rich and poor together” Spurgeon suggested that all preaching should thus be directed to all ranks and divisions of mankind. “To suit our word for the rich alone is wicked sycophancy; and to aim at pleasing the poor alone is to act the part of a demagogue. Truth must be spoken so as to command the ear of all; and wise men seek to learn that acceptable style.”(F3)

“A parable… I will open my dark saying” The `parable’ and the `dark saying’ here are the same thing, i.e. the truth announced in Psalms 49:15. “Both in Hebrew and in Greek, the words `parable,’ and `proverb’ are translated from the same word.”(F4) The meaning here is, “That the psalmist is inspired to make the pronouncement which he is about to utter.”(F5)

Thus we have three different words applicable to the earthshaking truth to be announced, namely, proverb, parable, and dark saying. We might even call it a riddle or a mystery.

Verses 5-8


“Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, When iniquity at my heels compasseth me about? They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them by any means can redeem his brother, Nor give to God a ransom for him (For the redemption of their life is costly, And it abideth forever).”

“Days of evil… iniquity at my heels… they that trust in riches” The proximity of Psalms 49:5-6, is not accidental. Although the psalm does not say that all rich persons are wicked, it is clear enough that the days of evil and the encircling iniquity mentioned in Psalms 49:5 are clearly due to rich men who are evil, who trust in their riches and boast of their great wealth.

The problem here confronted is that of the contrasting lots of the wealthy wicked and the righteous man, persecuted by wicked men who are wealthy, boasting of their riches and trusting in them. There have been many very rich men who were righteous, such as Abraham, Job, and many others; but as the Lord himself noted, “Money itself is wicked”; and it is able to corrupt and destroy many of the people who possess it. (For a discussion of “Why Money is Wicked,” see Vol. 3 (Luke) of my New Testament series of commentaries, pp. 316,317.)

As Rawlinson pointed out, this old problem about the prosperity of the wicked, coupled with the persecutions and sufferings of the righteous, “Is solved in this psalm more distinctly than anywhere else in the Psalter by the announcement of compensation in a future life (Psalms 49:13-15).”(F6)

“None of them can redeem his brother” This is only one of many things that riches cannot do:

(1) They cannot bring the possessor happiness.

(2) They cannot enable their owner to redeem a brother, either from a fatal illness, or for the salvation of his soul.

(3) They cannot endow their possessor with power to redeem himself from a terminal illness, nor prevent his dying just like all men. Diamond Jim Brady of New York once offered a physician a million dollars to get him a new stomach, but he didn’t get it, and died for the lack of it.

(4) They cannot provide salvation for their owner.

(5) They cannot even guarantee their owner’s continued possession of them throughout his life. Many who once were rich became poor.

Verses 9-12


“That he should still live always. That he should not see corruption. For he shall see it. Wise men die; The fool and the brutish alike perish, And leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue forever, And their dwelling-places to all generations; They call their lands after their own name. But man being in honor abideth not: He is like the beasts that perish.”

In addition to the things mentioned above which riches cannot do, there are some additional inabilities mentioned here.

(1) They do not enable the owner to live always (Psalms 49:9).

(2) They do not enable `their houses’ to continue forever (Psalms 49:11).

(3) Riches do not enable the owner to determine what shall happen to them after his death (Psalms 49:10).

The picture of the man who trusts in riches here is that of a man who is living in this world exactly as if he fully intended to live here for ever! What a tragic blindness!

Verses 13-15


“This their way is their folly; Yet, after them, men approve their sayings (Selah) They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume, That there be no habitation for it. But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; For he will receive me.”

“Their way is folly… yet men approve their sayings” Men do not merely approve their sayings, they also approve their ways, their life-style, their attitudes, etc., and eagerly follow in the very patterns rich men have established, futile and foolish though they are.

“For Sheol… Death shall be their shepherd.” Dahood stated that there are no less than five designations for the realm of the dead in this one psalm. He followed the marginal alternative in Psalms 49:9, reading `Pit’ instead of `corruption,’ commenting that, “This is one of the five poetic names for Sheol in this Psalm.”(F7) He even translated the words `in honor’ as `Mansion,’ a sarcastic word for the realm of the dead in Psalms 49:12; Psalms 49:20. Our version does not corroborate this.

The figure here is that the wicked shall descend like a great flock of sheep into the nether world, where Death shall be their shepherd!

Addis’ summary of these three verses is, “The wicked like the righteous die, but the righteous alone have the prospect of immortality.”(F8)

“The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning” We might ask, `What morning’? and Rawlinson gives this answer:

“When the resurrection morning comes - and no other explanation seems possible (see even Cheyne) - it will bring them no release; the righteous will then `have dominion over them,’ and certainly shall not set them free (Revelation 21:8).”(F9)

In this quotation, Rawlinson could not have meant that in the future life the righteous shall rule over the wicked or that they shall in some way control the wicked, but rather that their right of dominion in whatever the purpose of God may be shall be preferred `over’ and above that of the wicked whose destiny is the lake of fire.

“But God shall redeem my soul; from the power of Sheol; For He (God) will receive me” (Psalms 49:15).

Both liberal and conservative scholars alike have tried to surpass each other in extolling the glory and importance of these words:

  • “Here is the solution to the `parable’ and the `dark saying’ (Psalms 49:4). The souls of the righteous will be redeemed, not by themselves, but by God. They will be delivered from the power of the grave (or Hades); while the ungodly shall be held under by Death and the grave (Psalms 49:14). The righteous shall be released from Death and will enter upon a higher life.”(F10)

  • “Here is the hope of faith that reaches beyond death, and in doing so overcomes death spiritually.”(F11)

  • “This is one of the rare references in the Old Testament to a belief in an afterlife.”(F12)

  • “Clearly, the writer expected a resurrection from the dead. The notion that God’s children in the Old Testament had no hope in the resurrection is simply not the truth.”(F13)

  • “Here the psalmist makes one of the few Old Testament confessions of faith in a meaningful afterlife. Others are Psalms 16:10; Psalms 73:24; Job 19:25-27; Daniel 12:2-3; and Isaiah 26:19).”(F14)

  • “This is one of the mountain-tops of Old Testament hope.”(F15)

  • “The psalmist here says, `I shall have a resurrection from the dead and an entrance into God’s glory; and death shall have no dominion over me.’“(F16)

  • “The text here rendered, `He will receive me,’ is just as accurately translated, `He will take me.’“(F17)

  • “This is one of the most important verses in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for `take’ (or `receive’) here is technical. It is applied in Genesis 5:24 to the translation of Enoch, and in 2 Kings 29f to the translation of Elijah.”(F18)

Such a glorious witness of the Resurrection is, of course, challenged by unbelievers, some of whom have claimed that, “This verse refers only to premature death”; but as Leupold stated, “Such a view scarcely does justice to this text.”(F19)

Also, Addis cited another device employed to get around what is plainly said here. “They interpret the Psalm as the voice of Israel (the nation); individuals might perish, but not Israel, God’s Son. The language here, however, gives no hint of any such personification.”(F20)

We cite another comment, unfortunately made by a man whom we consider to be a believer; but his comment seems to us to detract from the luster of this marvelous text. Yates wrote: “Psalms 49:15 is one of the clearest evidences of a hint of immortality in the Old Testament.”(F21)

Indeed, indeed! “A hint of immortality?” This reminds us of an incident that happened in Boston during the gang wars, an event widely publicized in the AP and the UP. A man opened up a bar; and one night several members of a rival `Mob’ raided the place, lined up six of the employees in the basement and executed all six with gun fire. In his interview with the police next day, the owner said, “I detect a hint of opposition in this”! In our view that hint resembles the one Kyle Yates mentioned!

A few other die-hards, unwilling to admit what the text here dogmatically declares, speak knowingly of damaged MSS, and defective text. However, Leupold put that type of objection to rest with his declaration, “That type of criticism is greatly exaggerated; true, difficulties exist; but the current translations are reasonably constructed.”(F22)

Our own personal view is that there was a much more widespread conviction in ancient Israel of the certainty of a resurrection than is usually admitted. The very brief, off-hand manner in which this glorious promise of the resurrection is treated in this psalm can be logically explained as being fully sufficient, no arguments in favor of it being necessary, due to the fact of such a conviction being general among all the people. “It must be that the hope of life with God was more real in Old Testament days than many commentators would allow.”(F23) That this was the general expectation of all Israel is indeed indicated by Hebrews 11:35. This does not deny that the New Testament light on this subject is far more adequate.

Verses 16-20


“Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, When the glory of his house is increased: For when he dieth, he shall carry nothing away; His glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lived he blessed his soul (And men praise thee when thou doest well to thyself), He shall go to the generation of his fathers; They shall never see the light. Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, Is like the beasts that perish.”

The futility of trusting in riches continues to be the theme here. Psalms 49:17 reminds us of what the apostle Paul said, “We brought nothing into this world, and neither can we carry anything out” (1 Timothy 6:7). The proverb, “You can’t take it with you,” is not nullified by Bob Hope’s wisecrack, that, “If I can’t take it with me, I ain’t goin’.” All men need to be reminded that a hearse never has a U-haul trailer! Also, for the curious question which reporters always ask the survivors, namely, `How much did he leave’? the monotonous answer is always the same, `He left everything; he left it all.’

“His glory shall not descend after him” “The `glory’ here is contrasted with the `darkness’ there (Psalms 49:19).”(F24)

McCaw also commented on the change in the RSV, which omits the words, `and understandeth not,’ “If for all his dignity man does not understand the eternal issues of life, and death, and salvation, then, indeed, what is his dignity worth?”(F25)

However, Rawlinson saw the words omitted in RSV as, “An important qualification in the refrain. All men die; but only those who are `without understanding’ die, like the beasts without hope.”(F26) Men of understanding are entitled to the hope of Psalms 49:15, provided, of course, that they are willing to receive it upon the conditions laid down in the New Testament by the Christ.

We think Jones’ prayer is an appropriate conclusion for this wonderful psalm.

My rich brother, trust not in uncertain riches; use thy wealth wisely that it may bless both thee and others. My poor brother neither envy nor fear the power of wealthy worldlings; but rejoice in thine own inalienable and blessed portion.(F27)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 49". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-49.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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