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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Psalms 49

Verses 1-20

Listening to God

Psalms 49:4

In this Psalm the subject is the great and dark problem of Divine providence. The Psalmist tells us in his introduction that he will open the dark saying, the riddle on the harp. He pierces through the surface of things to declare the utter vanity of life without God. He tells us frankly that it is not by argument he arrives at this certitude but by inspiration. He has listened to the wisdom that is from above, and so has truth to declare. This is the attitude of a true Teacher, that he is a Learner: opens his ear morning by morning to receive the right impressions. A great preacher used to say that in preaching the thing of least importance was the sermon. I suppose what he meant was that it is not what he says but himself that counts most the spiritual atmosphere he creates, the indefinable impression of earnestness and seriousness and conviction. In all prophetic speech there is a subtle spirit which communicates itself to disciples, and which the teacher himself will lose if he forgets his true attitude. It is not what we say, but the spirit of our saying it, and this is true in the final judgment not only of speech but of all life.

I. In the higher reaches of all truth a moment of insight is of more worth than a year of laborious learning. Certainly in religion no door is opened except to those who bend, who wait, who incline their ear. That is why the child is the type of the kingdom of heaven, the mind that is open to the daily lesson, that morning by morning receives its portion, that sweetly accepts the teaching of the Master. The secret of wisdom and power and knowledge is humility. The secret of influence is simplicity. We learn to speak the high language of the soul as a child learns.

II. There is a moment which came to the prophets and to men called to exceptional work, a moment when the world has dissolved, when the earth has faded, and heaven has opened and reveals the eternal, a moment when in all the universe there seems nothing but God and the human soul. That moment altered the perspective of everything afterwards: they read everything in the light of that moment, and when in the future they were brought up against seemingly impassable difficulties and things that seemed irreconcilable with their faith they simply fell back on God. It is the old story, you say; a plea for faith. Yes, a plea for faith. But be sure you know what faith is before you dismiss it contemptuously. It is to have the ear of a learner, the heart of a child, to listen to the Father's voice.

III. The highest truths are not reached by analysis. The deepest appeal is not made to logic but to imagination; not to intellect, but to heart. This is true not only in religion, but in everything. To know and love flowers is a simpler and higher thing than to understand the botany of flowers. And to know and love Christ is a simpler and higher thing than to understand Christology. Let us not kill the poet in us for the lack of listening and looking; the poet that dies so young in most of us. We do not find the deep truths of life, they find us. This is how the contemplative life breeds in men a richer wisdom, mellower, sweeter than all worldly activities however varied can achieve. Surrender is the first word and the last word in this process. That surrender is faith. Hugh Black.

References. XLIX. 4. E. Paxton Hood, Dark Sayings on a Harp, p. 1. XLIX. 7. T. K. Cheyne, Expositor (3rd Series), vol. ii. p. 400. XLIX. 8. Bishop Bickersteth, Sermons, p. 1. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 22. XLIX. 11, 12. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 102. XLIX. 17. R. C. Trench, Sermons in Westminster Abbey, p. 364.

Success

Psalms 49:18

'Nothing succeeds like success' is a proverb invented by a famous man of the world, and the truth of it from the world's point of view there is no denying. It seems indeed to find something of sanction in some words of our Lord, applied not only to the secular but to the spiritual life, when He said, 'To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath'. The truth of this saying our Lord vindicated, as we know, by His parable of the talents, in which we are reminded that one who makes use of his gifts, spiritually or mentally, develops in exact ratio to the merits of that use; whereas one who spurns them eventually forfeits them. This is the Divine law of failure and success, and it rests on a just sequence of cause and effect The world does not trouble about just sequences of cause and effect, it simply looks at results, and usually it does not trouble to inquire too closely into the honesty of those results. And so we see, as a matter of fact, how essentially different is Christ's saying, 'To him that hath shall be given'.

I. The Uncertainty of Success. In our text we have first the fact and secondly the motive of that success which is of the earth earthy. Its motive is selfishness, doing well to oneself, looking after one's own interests, and making them the supreme consideration. Then again its nature is to be satisfied with present temporal conditions, not to trouble about any higher life than that of the time and sense. The most striking feature about this 49th Psalm is the author's firm conviction that in a future state the scale of fortune will be readjusted. Nowhere else do we find the Jewish writer contentedly permitting the final issue of the adjustment of the things of this world to the life beyond the grave. What we find asserted here so strongly is the unreality of the success which is not achieved on the eternal principles of righteousness. How true to life and experience is that expression, 'He counted himself a happy man'. How it brings out the situation of contented enjoyment, which is assumed in place of the genuine thing; the affectation of interest for the sake of mere appearance; the hypocritical sentiments mouthed out in order that the world may exclaim, 'What a noble fellow is here!' And yet there is always the haunting, ever-present consciousness of secret failure, the knowledge that nothing is quite what it seems.

II. The Intrinsic Worth of Success. We can only say, then, that failure and success in this world are too often but uncertain and capricious things. The all-important question for each is that which concerns the intrinsic worth of success in life. 'For while he lived he counted himself a happy man.' The inference is, I suppose, that when he died he found out his mistake. The answer that follows is full of irony: 'So long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee'; of course they will. All the world cares about is that you should keep up appearances. Look at the ideal man on the Exchange! He just took care of himself and feathered his own nest. Or again the ideal of society! Is he a man of honour and moral worth? Is he a pure and chivalrous gentleman? not a bit. He may be a toady who toadies openly but tactfully: his sole merit is that he knows how to make the most of himself, that he can persuade people to take him at his own valuation he can flatter people so successfully that they suspect nothing. It is his success that compels their homage. And the same vaunting world is not slow to extend its appreciation to success achieved by its own methods even in the very presence of Christ. There is the religious partisan who prays for every one but himself, and to whom no conscience is sacred but his own. The world rewards him with its votes.

III. The Right Side to Success. Nevertheless there is a right and wholesome side to the world's worship of success, for surely we were not sent here to court failure. There is a depreciation of success that is nothing but unreasoning affectation. It boasts of the so-called failure of the Cross, forgetting that our Lord's ministry on earth ended not with the Cross but with the resurrection and the ascension. Christ never speaks of failure, but looks forward to the restoration of all things. What the Christian should deprecate is not success, but sham, false success the success which does not last, that which is of the earth earthy. We know that the ancient Laodiceans had this in common with modern England, that they were given over to those temporal pleasures of which we have been speaking. Yet what does the Spirit say to the Church and to us: 'Be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.'

References. XLIX. International Critical Commentary, vol. i. p. 405. L. 3. T. J. Madden, Addresses to All Sorts and Conditions of Men, p. 58. L. 5. J. Keble, Village Sermons on the Baptismal Service, p. 135. L. 11. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Children's Bread, p. 95. L. 12. D. G. Watt, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvii. p. 292. L. 14, 15. J. L. Richardson, Sermons for Harvest, p. 62. L. 15. C. Bradley, The Christian Life, p. 113. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1505 and vol. xxxi. No. 1876. L. 21. T. J. Madden, Addresses to All Sorts and Conditions of Men, p. 58. C. J. Vaughan, Harrow School Sermons (2nd Series), p. 321. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 137. J. C. Miller, Penny Pulpit, No. 771.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 49". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/psalms-49.html. 1910.