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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 49

Psalms 49

The Psalm meets the temptation, which arises to the righteous from the prosperity of the wicked, (whose persecutions it sets forth,) with the very consolation, which is presented for it throughout the Old Testament, (comp. the introd. on Psalms 37 nearly related to the one before us, as also to Psalms 83), viz. that the issue divides between the righteous and the wicked, that the glory and the ascendancy of the latter are only temporary, that they end in terrors, while the righteous is delivered by God.

The Psalm consists of an introduction in Psalms 49:1-4, the chief portion in Psalms 49:5-15, and a conclusion in Psalms 49:16-20. In the chief portion the thesis is first set forth, Psalms 49:5-6, then follows the grounding of it in Psalms 49:7-15, which falls into three strophes, each of three verses. The whole has twenty verses.

Verses 1-4

The introduction: let all the world hear, for the Psalmist speaks wisdom. Ver. 1. Hear this, all peoples, give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world. Ver. 2. Both common men and lords, both rich and poor together. Ver. 3. My mouth shall speak; wisdom, and the meditation of my heart is understanding. Ver. 4. I will incline my ear to a similitude, open to the cythara my riddle. The call upon all men to attention without distinction of land, situation, or means, must, as the following context shows, be designed to indicate the high importance of the instructions, which the Psalmist has to convey. If the problem here handled was falsely solved, all fear of God must be overthrown. On the ground of Deuteronomy 32:1, it has been very common, at important announcements to call the whole world to listen, comp. Psalms 50:1, Micah 1:1, 1 Kings 22:28. Upon חלד prop. continuance, then world, comp. on Psalms 17:14. On בני איש , prop. sons of man, on Psalms 4:2. בני אדם , children of men, is limited by the contrast to the great mass. Against De Wette, who denies the distinction between the designations, comp. Gesell. in Thes. on אדם . Here this is favoured, not only by the גם־גם as well, as also, comp. Ew. § 628, but also by the following: rich and poor. What the Psalmist has delivered, serves to the rich for warning, comp. Psalms 49:5-6, Psalms 49:16, to the poor for consolation. Psalms 49:3 and Psalms 49:4 lay the ground for the call that is contained in Psalms 49:1 and Psalms 49:2. The Psalmist must utter wisdom without reserve, for he gives only what he has received. The plur. in חכמות and תבונות is used for the purpose of giving force to the idea. In the Proverbs the use of חכמות is quite similar, as indicating wisdom, κατʼ? ἐ?ξοχην , sapientia hypostatica, in which all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge lie concealed. Of a plural in the common sense חכמה in particular is not capable. Comp. my Beitr. P. II. p. 258. In the words: I will incline my ear to a similitude, it is plainly implied, that the wisdom, which the Psalmist could communicate, is no self-sprung possession, but one that has been acquired by him; comp. Isaiah 5:1, where the song, which the prophet sings to his beloved, is at the same time a song of his beloved, 2 Samuel 23:2. Calvin: “It certainly becomes all the prophets of God to be so affected, as to take God willingly for their master in common with the rest of the people, and first of all to receive his word, which they are to declare to others from their own mouth. But the prophet’s design was, to gain authority and reverence for his instruction, since he did not prate about his own notions, but only brought forth what he had learned in the school of God.” Upon משל , similitude, see Balaam, p. 78. חידה , riddle, a discourse of difficult comprehension, deep sense. Both, as here, connected in Psalms 78:2. Open, as in Amos 8:5, for openly to bring forth the treasure-chambers of the heart or the mouth.

Verses 5-6

There follows now the thesis; Ver. 5. Wherefore should I fear in the days of adversity, when the iniquity of my treaders-down compasses me about. Ver. 6. Those there confide in their wealth and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches. Calvin: “The prophet now enters upon the instruction itself, namely, that the sons of God should not be above measure disturbed by adversity, although the wicked may wantonly oppress them, and according to their pleasure, hold them enclosed on every side, because the Lord, though he may dissemble and be at rest, still does not sleep in heaven.” Before the second member of Psalms 49:5, we are not to supply some word like בימי , but it contains the closer description of the days of misfortune; the iniquity of my persecutor surrounds me, abrupt, for: in which surrounds me.

Verses 7-9

Ver. 7-9. The righteous has no reason to be troubled on account of the might and riches of the wicked, or the wicked to boast himself over him. This would only then be the case, if the wicked could assure himself of an eternal life through his riches, an eternal possession of his riches. But since he can by his riches deliver neither himself nor another from death, the king of which is quite inaccessible to him, he must therefore hang in constant dread of the destruction which inevitably awaits him, and it is for him, not for the righteous, to be afraid.

Ver. 7. His brother can no one redeem, nor give to God his atonement. Ver. 8. And precious is the ransom of their souls, and he must put it off for ever. Ver. 9. That he may continually live and not see the grave. In Psalms 49:7, the איש , any one, namely among the ungodly rich, is the subject, the אח is accus., the object placed before, in order to bring out distinctly the contrast in regard to the rich. The suff. in כפרו refers to the rich ungodly man. He cannot, with all his riches, once redeem another, to say nothing of himself. Many expositors render: a brother can redeem no one, no other can redeem the ungodly rich. But as the nothingness of the riches of the wicked must be indicated, the brother is not the person who redeems, but the person to be redeemed. The brother is also to be thought of as such in ungodliness, who in consequence of that has to fear destruction, comp. Genesis 49:5. The prefixed inf. פדה brings strongly out the idea of redemption, marks it as that, to which ultimately every thing depends. Whatever that be with which a man cannot redeem, free others or himself from death, that is of no value, such as that one should boast himself of it, or that others should be afraid of him on account of it. The discourse here is not of death generally, but of untimely, violent death, from which God defends his own, comp. Psalms 49:15. The words: he cannot give God his atonement, is said in reference to Exodus 21:30, according to which one might transact with men in certain circumstances ransom-money. There just as here כפר and פדיון are united. The plural suffix in Psalms 49:8: their soul, refers to the brother of the ungodly rich man, and this man himself. This pl. suffix also shows, that the rich man is the person who redeems, and that the suf. in כפדי , must be referred not to the brother, but to him. In Psalms 49:9 the Psalmist lets the brother drop, and confines himself only to him, whom it here especially concerns, the rich man himself. It is arbitrary to maintain, that this verse stands connected with Psalms 49:7 and not with Psalms 49:8. The expression: it ceases for ever, at the close of Psalms 49:8, substantially means, he never brings it thither, he never comes therewith to a conclusion; and with this fitly joins on the following: that he may live. Comp. on the vau of sequence before the abbrev. fut., corresponding to the Latin ut with the conj. Ew. § 334, a.

Verses 10-12

Ver. 10-12. The ungodly lives on in presence of the universal sovereignty of death, which shows him that God may call him away every moment, as if he had never to remove him from the earth. The dream of immortality possesses his whole being. But the Lord arouses him in a very rough manner from his dreams. Like the irrational beast, which formerly had no suspicion of its death, so he now is compelled suddenly to think of it. Ver. 10. When he sees, that wise men die, altogether fools and senseless ones perish, and must leave their substance to others: Ver. 11. This is their heart, that their houses last for ever, their dwellings remain for ever and ever, and their names are praised over their lands. Ver. 12. But man remains not in honour, is like the beast, shall be extirpated. When even wise men die, what dominion must death then have over the human race; how carefully should we reflect, that we cannot lay hold of his dominion; how foolish is it then to think, that one shall escape an untimely death, in case one has deserved it! When the wise and good die old and full of days, this is for the foolish and wicked a matter-of-fact announcement, that he shall be taken away in the midst of his days. But if he will shut his ears on this indirect announcement, the direct one must still force itself on him, which reaches him through the untimely and violent destruction of his companions in folly, (of this אבד , while of the wise מות .) The expression in Psalms 49:11: their inward is their house for ever, q. d. so is the whole heart full of thoughts, wishes, and endeavours, that their houses continue for ever, etc, comp. קרב in Psalms 5:9. The LXX., whom the Vulgate follows, have in their negligence interchanged קברם with קברם . The קרא בשם , to call, since one rests in the name of any one, partly to call upon with emotion, partly to call out with emotion, with reverence and admiration, here the latter, comp. Isaiah 44:5. In Psalms 49:12 there is the contrast to this their foolish, counter-experience course. A man, q. d. the ungodly, because with all his glory he still is only a man, and as such is liable to death, the avenging judgment of God. The לין , some take in the general sense of remaining, but it is better to regard it as possessing the special sig. of passing the night, in reference to the quick and sudden destruction, comp. in Psalms 49:14: and the righteous lord it over them in the morning, and Psalms 46:5, where the speedy deliverance of the righteous is in like manner described. They are like the beasts, which without any apprehension is overtaken by death, “which sports in pleasure and joy, and feels not approaching death.” For נדמו , we conceive, more emphatically than the beast, the ungodly to be the subject.

Verses 13-15

Ver. 13. This is their way, fools are they, and still men have pleasure, in their mouths after them. Selah. Ver. 14. Like sheep are they laid in hell, death feeds on them, and the righteous have dominion over them in the morning, and their form must pass away, hell is a habitation to them. Ver. 15. But God shall redeem my soul from the power of hell, for he takes me. Selah. Since in what immediately precedes the discourse is of what befals the ungodly, the expression: this is their way, is q. d. this is their fate. Because it happens thus to them, so is there to those, who were quite full of the thought of their immortality, follyכסל in this sig. Ecclesiastes 7:25, comp. Psalms 85:8. Against the sig.: hope, there is the כסיל in Psalms 49:10, the chastisement of their folly in Psalms 49:11, and the suitableness of the contrast: they are fools, and yet. The Psalmist, then, declares his astonishment, that although the fate of the wicked so manifestly betokens their folly, there are still always found persons, who adopt their principles, and thereby procure for themselves like destruction. רצה with ב is always to have pleasure in something. One has pleasure is=there are always found such, who etc. Their mouth, q. d. their discourse, principles. The Selah admonishes, that we should not belong to the number of fools, who will not be frightened by the result of their principles.—שׁ תו Psalms 49:14, from &שתת שות , comp. Psalms 73:9, they lay, for, one lays them, they are laid. Like sheep, Calvin: “For proud man the whole world is hardly sufficient. From that towering elevation in which they stretch themselves far and wide, the Psalmist crowds them together and gives them up to death to feed them.” רעה many expositors take falsely in the sense of feeding on; Luther: death gnaws them. Instead of: the righteous have dominion over them, most modern expositors: they trample upon them. But the sig. of trampling for רדה , is quite uncertain in the only other passage which is brought in support of it, Joel 4:13, and with ב it is currently used in the sig. of reigning over, comp. particularly, Isaiah 14:2. This sense is here also quite suitable. Saul, for example, after his death, was reigned over by David in his family and dependents, in the overthrow of the arrangements fixed by him, etc. It is said to be in the morning, because the destruction of the ungodly takes place in the night, by which its suddenness and unexpectedness is expressed,—comp. “the tempest steals him away in the night,” Job 27:20; or perhaps, just in the next morning, for, in a brief moment, comp. Psalms 49:12, Psalms 46:5. The words לבלות צירם , prop. their figure is for annihilation, their beauty is consumed. The last member literally: Sheol is to him of a dwelling away, q. d. a dwelling which is no dwelling. מן similarly as in 1 Samuel 15:23, Jeremiah 48:2, Isaiah 14.

In Psalms 49:15, the fate of the righteous, at present oppressed, is placed in contrast to that of the triumphing wicked. אךְ? , only denotes the certainty of the result, only this and nothing else shall happen, it is therefore equivalent to yea. According to the connection and the contrast, the redemption of the soul of the righteous from hell, can primarily mean nothing but deliverance from immediate danger. But what accomplishes this, at the same time pledges redemption from actually approaching death. As לקח neither means to receive nor to demean one’s self, we must, in the second member, supply from the first: out of the hand of sheol. While the wicked are laid down in sheol, the righteous are withdrawn from it.

Verses 16-20

The conclusion follows in ver. 16-20. Ver. 16. Be not thou afraid, when one is made rich, when the honour of his house is great. Ver. 17. For he shall not in his death take with him all, his honour shall not go after him. Ver. 18. For he blessed his soul in his life, and men praise thee, because thou dost treat thyself well. Ver. 19. He shall come to the generation of his fathers, never more do they see the light. Ver. 20. A man in honour without understanding, is like the beast, to be rooted out. The expression: be not afraid, resumes, after the proof has been given, the question: wherefore should I fear? in Psalms 49:5. כבוד denotes wealth, not in itself, but only in so far as it surrounds its possessor with honour and glory. The death, which according to Psalms 49:17, deprives the ungodly of all his glorious privileges, is to be thought of according to the preceding context, as near at hand. In Psalms 49:18, the reason is given why God does not permit the glory of the wicked to follow him, why it comes to so sudden and complete an end. His whole life was set on enjoyment, he has already enjoyed enough, already has he treated himself luxuriously enough, and he cannot complain if he should now come to want. We may compare Luke 16:25, a passage resting upon ours, and serving as a commentary to it, “But Abraham said, Son, remember, that thou in thy life-time, receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” On this: for he blesses his soul in his life, is to be compared the address of the rich man to his soul, Luke 12:19. In the second member, the ungodly rich man is addressed, and the irony thereby made more cutting: thou dost indeed treat thyself so kindly, that men generally praise thee as a virtuoso, as a hero in wine-bibbing, etc., comp. Isaiah 5:22. At the beginning of Psalms 49:19, the address is still continued: “thou shalt come,” but then it just as suddenly ceases again, as it had commenced, of his fathers; in which many cannot see their way, and hence take תבא as 3 fem., and refer it to the soul of the rich man. Under the generation of the fathers are here to be understood, not so much the corporeal ancestors of the ungodly, as his predecessors in wickedness, (although both often coincide,) with reference to the common expression: is gathered to his fathers.

In Psalms 49:20, Psalms 49:12 is repeated with a slight variation, (as is quite customary in such cases, (comp. on Psalms 42:5) so that there is no need of attempting, like Ewald, to correct the one passage by the other), in order to close the whole with the emphatic and pregnant declaration: the ungodly dies as an irrational beast. Luther excellently: in short, when a man, etc. The object of יבין , which is never placed absolutely, is to be supplied from the connection: the nothingness of riches, which are obtained and held without God.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 49". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-49.html.