Click to donate today!
Of the Vanity of Earthly Prosperity and Good: A Didactic Poem
To the pair of Psalms 47:1-9 and Psalms 48:1-14 is appended Psalms 49, which likewise begins with an appealing “all ye peoples;” in other respects, being a didactic song, it has nothing in common with the national and historical Psalms, Psalms 46:1. The poet here steps forward as a preacher in the midst of men. His theme is the transitoriness of the prosperity of the ungodly, and, on the other hand, the hope of the upright which rests on God. Accordingly the Psalm falls into the following divisions: an introduction, Psalms 49:2, which by its very promissory tone reminds one of the speeches of Elihu in the Book of Job, and the two parts of the sermon following thereupon, Psalms 49:6, Psalms 49:14, which are marked out by a refrain, in which there is only a slight variation of expression. In its dogmatic character it harmonizes with the Psalms of the time of David, and by its antique and bold form takes rank with such Psalms as Psalms 17:1-15 by David and Ps 83 by Asaph. Since also in the didactic Psalms of David and Asaph we meet with a style differing from that of their other Psalms, and, where the doings of the ungodly are severely rebuked, we find a harsher and more concise mode of expression and a duller, heavier tone, there is nothing at variance with the assumption that Ps 49 was composed by the writer of Psalms 42:1 and Psalms 84:1; and more especially since David has composed Psalms of a kindred character (Psalms 39:1-13 and Psalms 62:1-12) in the time of the persecution by Absalom. Nothing, however, is involved in this unity of the author.
(Heb.: 49:2-5) Introduction. Very similarly do the elder (in the reign of Jehoshaphat) and the younger Micha (Micah) introduce their prophecies (1 Kings 22:28; Micah 1:2); and Elihu in the Book of Job his didactic discourses (Psalms 34:2, cf. Psalms 33:2). It is an universal theme which the poet intends to take up, hence he calls upon all peoples and all the inhabitants of the חלד . Such is the word first of all for this temporal life, which glides by unnoticed, them for the present transitory world itself (vid., on Psalms 17:14). It is his intention to declare to the rich the utter nothingness or vanity of their false ground of hope, and to the poor the superiority of their true ground of hope; hence he wishes to have as hearers both בני אדם , children of the common people, who are men and have otherwise nothing distinctive about them, and בּני־אישׁ , children of men, i.e., of rank and distinction (vid., on Psalms 4:3) - rich and poor, as he adds to make his meaning more clear. For his mouth will, or shall, utter הכמות , not: all sorts of wise teachings, but: weighty wisdom. Just in like manner תּבוּנות signifies profound insight or understanding; cf. plurals like בּינות , Isaiah 27:11, ישּׁוּעת , Ps. 42:12 and frequently, שׁלוּת , Jeremiah 22:21. The parallel word תּבוּנות in the passage before us, and the plural predicate in Proverbs 24:7, show that חכמות , here and in Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 9:1, cf. Psalms 14:1, is not to be regarded, with Hitzig, Olshausen, and others, as another form of the singular חכמוּת . Side by side with the speaking of the mouth stands חגוּת לב (with an unchangeable Kametz before the tone-syllable, Ew. §166, c): the meditation (lxx μελέτη ) of the heart, and in accordance therewith the well-thought-out discourse. What he intends to discourse is, however, not the creation of his own brain, but what he has received. A משׁל , a saying embodying the wisdom of practical life, as God teaches men it, presents itself to his mind demanding to be heard; and to this he inclines his ear in order that, from being a diligent scholar of the wisdom from above, he may become a useful teacher of men, inasmuch as he opens up, i.e., unravels, the divine Mashal, which in the depth and fulness of its contents is a חידה , i.e., an involved riddle (from חוּד , cogn. אגד עקד ), and plays the cithern thereby ( ב of the accompaniment). The opening of the riddle does not consist in the solving of it, but in the setting of it forth. פּתח , to open = to propound, deliver of a discourse, comes from the phrase את־ּפּיו פּתח , Proverbs 31:26; cf. Psalms 119:130, where פּתח , an opening, is equivalent to an unlocking, a revelation.
(Heb.: 49:6-13) First division of the sermon. Those who have to endure suffering from rich sinners have no need to fear, for the might and splendour of their oppressors is hastening towards destruction. ימי רע are days in which one experiences evil, as in Psalms 94:13, cf. Amos 6:3. The genitive r` is continued in Amos 6:6 in a clause that is subordinate to the בימי of Psalms 49:6 (cf. 1 Samuel 25:15; Job 29:2; Psalms 90:15). The poet calls his crafty and malicious foes עקבי . There is no necessity for reading עקבי as Böttcher does, since without doubt a participial noun עקב , supplantator, can be formed from עקב , supplantare ; and although in its branchings out it coincides with עקב , planta , its meaning is made secure by the connection. To render the passage: “when wickedness surrounds me about my heels,” whether with or without changing עון into עון (Hupfeld, von Ortenberg), is proved on all sides to be inadmissible: it ought to have been עול instead of עון ; but even then it would still be an awkward expression, “to surround any one's heels,”
(Note: This might be avoided if it were possible for עון עקבי to mean “the sin that follows my heels, that follows me at the heels;” but apart from עון being unsuitable with this interpretation, an impossible meaning is thereby extorted from the genitive construction. This, however, is perhaps what is meant by the expression of the lxx, ἡ ἀνομία τῆς πτέρνης μου , so much spoken of in the Greek Church down to the present day.)
and the הבּטחים , which follows, would be unconnected with what precedes. This last word comes after עקבי , giving minuteness to the description, and is then continued quite regularly in Psalms 49:7 by the finite verb. Up to this point all is clear enough; but now the difficulties accumulate. One naturally expects the thought, that the rich man is not able to redeem himself from death. Instead of this it is said, that no man is able to redeem another from death. Ewald, Böttcher, and others, therefore, take אח , as in Ezekiel 18:10; Ezekiel 21:20 (vid., Hitzig), to be a careless form of writing for אך , and change יפדּה into the reflexive יפּדה ; but the thought that is sought thus to be brought to is only then arrived at with great difficulty: the words ought to be אך אישׁ לא יפדּה נפשׁו . The words as they stand assert: a brother ( אח , as a prominently placed object, with Rebia magnum , = אהיו , cf. Ezekiel 5:10; Ezekiel 18:18; Micah 7:6; Malachi 1:6) can a man by no means redeem, i.e., men cannot redeem one another. Hengstenberg and Hitzig find the thought that is to be expected in Psalms 49:8: the rich ungodly man can with all his riches not even redeem another ( אח ) , much less then can he redeem himself, offer a כּפר for himself. But if the poet meant to be so understood, he must have written ולא and כּפר נפשׁו . Psalms 49:8 and Psalms 49:8 bear no appearance of referring to different persons; the second clause is, on the contrary, the necessary supplement of the first: Among men certainly it is possible under some circumstances for one who is delivered over to death to be freed by money, but no כּפר (= פּדיון נפשׁ , Exodus 21:30 and frequently) can be given to God ( לאלהים ).
All idea of the thought one would most naturally look for must therefore be given up, so far as it can be made clear why the poet has given no direct expression to it. And this can be done. The thought of a man's redeeming himself is far from the poet's mind; and the contrast which he has before his mind is this: no man can redeem another, Elohim only can redeem man. That one of his fellow-men cannot redeem a man, is expressed as strongly as possible by the words לא־פדה יפדּה ; the negative in other instances stands after the intensive infinitive, but here, as in Genesis 3:4; Amos 9:8; Isaiah 28:28, before it. By an easy flight of irony, Psalms 49:9 says that the lu'tron which is required to be paid for the souls of men is too precious, i.e., exorbitant, or such as cannot be found, and that he (whoever might wish to lay it down) lets it alone (is obliged to let it alone) for ever Thus much is clear enough, so far as the language is concerned ( וחדל according to the consec. temp. = ויחדּל ), and, although somewhat fully expressed, is perfectly in accordance with the connection. But how is Psalms 49:10 attached to what precedes? Hengstenberg renders it, “he must for ever give it up, that he should live continually and not see the grave.” But according to the syntax, ויהי cannot be attached to וחדל , but only to the futures in Psalms 49:8, ranking with which the voluntative ויחי , ut vivat (Ew. §347, a). Thus, therefore, nothing remains but to take Psalms 49:9 (which von Ortenberg expunges as a gloss upon Psalms 49:8) as a parenthesis; the principal clause affirms that no man can give to God a ransom that shall protect another against death, so that this other should still continue ( עוד ) to live, and that without end ( לנצח ) , without seeing the grave, i.e., without being obliged to go down into the grave. The כּי in Psalms 49:11 is now confirmatory of what is denied by its opposite; it is, therefore, according to the sense, imo (cf. 1 Kings 21:15): ...that he may not see the grave - no indeed, without being able to interpose and alter it, he must see how all men, without distinction, succumb to death. Designedly the word used of the death of wise men is מוּת , and of the death of the fool and the stupid man, אבד . Kurtz renders: “together with the fool and the slow of understanding;”; but יחד as a proposition cannot be supported; moreover, ועזבוּ would then have “the wise” as its subject, which is surely not the intention of the poet. Everything without distinction, and in mingled confusion, falls a prey to death; the rich man must see it, and yet he is at the same time possessed by the foolish delusion that he, with his wealth, is immortal.
The reading קברם (lxx, Targ., Syr.), preferred by Ewald, and the conjecture קברם , adopted by Olshausen and Riehm, give a thought that is not altogether contrary to the connection, viz., the narrow grave is the eternal habitation of those who called broad lands their own; but this thought appears here, in view of Psalms 49:12, too early. קרב denotes the inward part, or that which is within, described according to that which encircles or contains it: that which is within them is, “their houses (pronounce bāttēmo ) are for ever” (Hengstenberg, Hitzig); i.e., the contents of their inward part is the self-delusion that their houses are everlasting, and their habitations so durable that one generation after another will pass over them; cf. the similar style of expression in Psalms 10:4, Esther 5:7. Hitzig further renders: men celebrate their names in the lands; קרא בשׁם , to call with a name = solemnly to proclaim it, to mention any one's name with honour (Isaiah 44:5). But it is unlikely that the subject of קראוּ should now again be any other than the rich men themselves; and עלי אדמות for בּכל־הארץ or בּארצות is contrary to the usage of the language. אדמה is the earth as tillage, אדמות (only in this passage) in this connection, fields, estates, lands; the proclaiming of names is, according to 2 Samuel 12:28; 1 Kings 8:43; Amos 9:12, equivalent to the calling of the lands or estates after their (the possessors') names (Böttcher, Hupfeld, Kurtz). The idea of the rich is, their houses and dwelling-places (and they themselves who have grown up together with them) are of eternal duration; accordingly they solemnly give their own names to their lands, as being the names of immortals. But, adds the poet, man בּיקר , in the pomp of his riches and outward show, abideth not ( non pernoctat = non permanet ). ביקר is the complement of the subject, although it logically (cf. Psalms 45:13) also belongs to בּל־ילין . Böttcher has shown the impropriety of reading בּל־יבין here according to Psalms 49:20. There are other instances also of refrains that are not exact repetitions; and this correction is moreover at once overthrown by the fact that בל will not suit יבין , it would stamp each man of rank, as such, as one deficient in intelligence. On the other hand, this emotional negative בל is admirably suitable to ילין : no indeed, he has no abiding. He is compared ( נמשׁל like the New Testament ὡμοιώθη ), of like kind and lot, to cattle ( כּ as in Job 30:19). נדמוּ is an attributive clause to כּבּהמות : like heads of cattle which are cut off or destroyed. The verb is so chosen that it is appropriate at the same time to men who are likened to the beasts (Hosea 10:7, Hosea 10:15, Obadiah 1:5, Isaiah 6:5).
(Heb.: 49:14-21) Second part of the discourse, of equal compass with the first. Those who are thought to be immortal are laid low in Hades; whilst, on the other hand, those who cleave to God can hope to be redeemed by Him out of Hades. Olshausen complains on this passage that the expression is abrupt, rugged, and in part altogether obscure. The fault, however, lies not, as he thinks, in a serious corruption of the text, but in the style, designedly adopted, of Psalms like this of a gloomy turn. זה דרכּם refers back to Psalms 49:13, which is the proper mashal of the Psalm: this is their way or walk ( דּרך as in Psalms 37:5, cf. Haggai 1:5). Close upon this follows כּסל למו (their way), of those (cf. Psalms 69:4) who possess self-confidence; כּסל signifies confidence both in a good and bad sense, self-confidence, impudence, and even (Ecclesiastes 7:25) in general, folly. The attributive clause is continued in Psalms 49:14: and of those who after them (i.e., when they have spoken, as Hitzig takes it), or in a more universal sense: after or behind them (i.e., treading in their footsteps), have pleasure in their mouth, i.e., their haughty, insolent, rash words (cf. Judges 9:38). If the meaning were “and after them go those who,” etc., then one would expect to find a verb in connection with אחריהם (cf. Job 21:33). As a collateral definition, “after them = after their death,” it would, however, without any reason, exclude the idea of the assent given by their contemporaries. It is therefore to be explained according to Job 29:22, or more universally according to Deuteronomy 12:30. It may seem remarkable that the music here strikes in forte; but music can on its part, in mournfully shrill tones, also bewail the folly of the world.
Psalms 49:14, so full of eschatological meaning, now describes what becomes of the departed. The subject of שׁתּוּ (as in Psalms 73:9, where it is Milra , for שׁתוּ ) is not, as perhaps in the case of ἀπαιτοῦσιν , Luke 12:20, higher powers that are not named; but שׁוּת (here שׁתת ), as in Psalms 3:7, Hosea 6:11; Isaiah 22:7, is used in a semi-passive sense: like a herd of sheep they lay themselves down or they are made to lie down לשׁאול (thus it is pointed by Ben-Asher; whereas Ben-Naphtali points לשׁאול , with a silent Shebâ), to Hades = down into Hades (cf. Psalms 88:7), so that they are shut up in it like sheep in their fold. And who is the shepherd there who rules these sheep with his rod? מות ירעם . Not the good Shepherd (Psalms 23:1), whose pasture is the land of the living, but Death, into whose power they have fallen irrecoverably, shall pasture them. Death is personified, as in Job 18:14, as the king of terrors. The modus consecutivus , ויּרדּוּ , now expresses the fact that will be realized in the future, which is the reverse side of that other fact. After the night of affliction has swiftly passed away, there breaks forth, for the upright, a morning; and in this morning they find themselves to be lords over these their oppressors, like conquerors, who put their feet upon the necks of the vanquished (the lxx well renders it by κατακυριεύσουσιν ). Thus shall it be with the upright, whilst the rich at their feet beneath, in the ground, are utterly destroyed. לבּקר has Rebia magnum , ישׁרים has Asla-Legarme; accordingly the former word does not belong to what follows (in the morning, then vanishes...), but to what precedes. צוּר or ציר (as in Isaiah 45:16) signifies a form or image, just as צוּרה (Arab. tsûrat ) is generally used; properly, that which is pressed in or pressed out, i.e., primarily something moulded or fashioned by the pressure of the hand (as in the case of the potter, יצר ) or by means of some instrument that impresses and cuts the material. Here the word is used to denote materiality or corporeity, including the whole outward appearance ( φαντασία , Acts 25:23). The לו which refers to this, shows that וצוּרם is not a contraction of וצוּרתם (vid., on Psalms 27:5). Their materiality, their whole outward form belonging to this present state of being, becomes (falls away) לבלּות שׁאול . The Lamed is used in the same way as in היה לבער , Isaiah 6:13; and שׁאול is subject, like, e.g., the noun that follows the infinitive in Psalms 68:19; Job 34:22. The same idea is obtained if it is rendered: and their form Hades is ready to consume ( consumturus est ); but the order of the words, though not making this rendering impossible (cf. Psalms 32:9, so far as עדיו there means “its cheek”), is, however, less favourable to it (cf. Proverbs 19:8; Esther 3:11). בּלּה was the most appropriate word for the slow, but sure and entire, consuming away (Job 13:28) of the dead body which is gnawed or destroyed in the grave, this gate of the lower world. To this is added מזּבל לו as a negative definition of the effect: so that there no longer remains to it, i.e., to the pompous external nature of the ungodly, any dwelling-place, and in general any place whatever; for whatever they had in and about themselves is destroyed, so that they wander to and fro as bare shadows in the dreary waste of Hades. To them, who thought to have built houses for eternity and called great districts of country after their own names, there remains no longer any זבל of this corporeal nature, inasmuch as Hades gradually and surely destroys it; it is for ever freed from its solid and dazzling shell, it wastes away lonesome in the grave, it perishes leaving no trace behind. Hupfeld's interpretation is substantially the same, and that of Jerome even is similar: et figura eorum conteretur in infero post habitaculum suum ; and Symmachus: τὸ δὲ κρατερὸν αὐτῶν παλαιώσει ᾴδης ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκήσεως τῆς ἐντίμου αὐτῶν .
Other expositors, it is true, solve the riddle of the half-verse in a totally different way. Mendelssohn refers צוּרם to the upright: whose being lasts longer than the grave (survives it), hence it cannot be a habitation (eternal dwelling) to it; and adds, “the poet could not speak more clearly of the resurrection (immortality).”
(Note: In the fragments of a commentary to his translation of Psalms, contributed by David Friedländer.)
A modern Jewish Christian, Isr. Pick, looked upon in Jerusalem as dead, sees here a prediction of the breaking through of the realm of the dead by the risen One: “Their Rock is there, to break through the realm of the dead, that it may no longer serve Him as an abode.”
(Note: In a fugitive paper of the so-called Amen Congregation, which noo unhappily exists no longer, in München-Gladbach.)
Von Hofmann's interpretation (last of all in his Schriftbeweis ii. 2, 499, 2nd edition) lays claim to a more detailed consideration, because it has been sought to maintain it against all objections. By the morning he understands the end of the state or condition of death both of the righteous and of the ungodly. “In the state of death have they both alike found themselves: but now the dominion of death is at an end, and the dominion of the righteous beings.” But those who have, according to Psalms 49:15, died are only the ungodly, not the righteous as well. Hofmann then goes on to explain: their bodily form succumbs to the destruction of the lower world, so that it no longer has any abode; which is said to convey the thought, that the ungodly, “by means of the destruction of the lower world, to which their corporeal nature in common with themselves becomes subject, lose its last gloomy abode, but thereby lose their corporeal nature itself, which has now no longer any continuance:” “their existence becomes henceforth one absolutely devoid of possessions and of space, [“the exact opposite of the time when they possessed houses built for eternity, and broad tracts of country bore their name.”] But even according to the teaching of the Old Testament concerning the last things, in the period after the Exile, the resurrection includes the righteous and the unrighteous (Daniel 12:2); and according to the teaching of the New Testament, the damned, after Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire, receive another זבול , viz., Gehenna, which stands in just the same relation to Hades as the transformed world does to the old heavens and the old earth. The thought discovered in Psalms 49:15, therefore, will not bear being put to the proof. There is, however, this further consideration, that nothing whatever is known in any other part of the Old Testament of such a destruction of Sheôl; and לבלּות found in the Psalm before us would be a most inappropriate word to express it, instead of which it ought to have been לכלּות ; for the figurative language in Psalms 102:27; Isaiah 51:6, is worthless as a justification of this word, which signifies a gradual wearing out and using up or consuming, and must not, in opposition to the usage of the language, be explained according to עב and בּלי . For this reason we refrain from making this passage a locus classicus in favour of an eschatological conception which cannot be supported by any other passage in the Old Testament. On the other side, however, the meaning of לבּקר is limited if it be understood only of the morning which dawns upon the righteous one after the night of affliction, as Kurtz does. What is, in fact, meant is a morning which not merely for individuals, but for all the upright, will be the end of oppression and the dawn of dominion: the ungodly are totally destroyed, and they (the upright) now triumph above their graves. In these words is expressed, in the manner of the Old Testament, the end of all time. Even according to Old Testament conception human history closes with the victory of good over evil. So far Psalms 49:15 is really a “riddle” of the last great day; expressed in New Testament language, of the resurrection morn, in which οἱ ἅγιοι τὸν κόσμον κρινοῦσι (1 Corinthians 6:2).
With אך , in Psalms 49:16 (used here adversatively, as e.g., in Job 13:15, and as אכן is more frequently used), the poet contrasts the totally different lot that awaits him with the lot of the rich who are satisfied in themselves and unmindful of God. אך belongs logically to נפשׁי , but (as is moreover frequently the case with רק גּם , and אף ) is, notwithstanding this relation to the following member of the sentence, placed at the head of the sentence: yet Elohim will redeem my soul out of the hand of Sheôl (Psalms 89:49; Hosea 13:14). In what sense the poet means this redemption to be understood is shown by the allusion to the history of Enoch (Genesis 5:24) contained in כּי יקּחני . Böttcher shrewdly remarks, that this line of the verse is all the more expressive by reason of its relative shortness. Its meaning cannot be: He will take me under His protection; for לקח does not mean this. The true parallels are Psalms 73:24, Genesis 5:24. The removals of Enoch and Elijah were, as it were, fingerposts which pointed forward beyond the cheerless idea they possessed of the way of all men, into the depth of Hades. Glancing at these, the poet, who here speaks in the name of all upright sufferers, gives expression to the hope, that God will wrest him out of the power of Sheôl and take him to Himself. It is a hope that possesses not direct word of God upon which it could rest; it is not until later on that it receives the support of divine promise, and is for the present only a “bold flight” of faith. Now can we, for this very reason, attempt to define in what way the poet conceived of this redemption and this taking to Himself. In this matter he himself has no fully developed knowledge; the substance of his hope is only a dim inkling of what may be. This dimness that is only gradually lighted up, which lies over the last things in the Old Testament, is the result of a divine plan of education, in accordance with which the hope of eternal life was gradually to mature, and to be born as it were out of this wrestling faith itself. This faith is expressed in Psalms 49:16; and the music accompanies his confidence in cheerful and rejoicing strains.
After this, in Psalms 49:17, there is a return from the lyric strain to the gnomic and didactic. It must not, with Mendelssohn, be rendered: let it (my soul) not be afraid; but, since the psalmist begins after the manner of a discourse: fear thou not. The increasing כבוד , i.e., might, abundance, and outward show (all these combined, from כּבד , grave esse ), of the prosperous oppressor is not to make the saint afraid: he must after all die, and cannot take hence with him הכּל , the all = anything whatever (cf. לכּל , for anything whatever, Jeremiah 13:7). כּי , Psalms 49:17, like ἐάν , puts a supposable case; כּי , Psalms 49:18, is confirmatory; and כּי , Psalms 49:19, is concessive, in the sense of גּם־כּי , according to Ew. §362, b: even though he blessed his soul during his life, i.e., called it fortunate, and flattered it by cherished voluptuousness (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18, התבּרך בּנפשׁו , and the soliloquy of the rich man in Luke 12:19), and though they praise thee, O rich man, because thou dost enjoy thyself (Luke 16:25), wishing themselves equally fortunate, still it (the soul of such an one) will be obliged to come or pass עד־דּור אבותיו . There is no necessity for taking the noun דּור here in the rare signification dwelling (Arabic dâr , synonym of Menzı̂l ), and it appears the most natural way to supply נפשׁו as the subject to תּבוא (Hofmann, Kurtz, and others), seeing that one would expect to find אבותיך in the case of תבוא being a form of address. And there is then no need, in order to support the synallage, which is at any rate inelegant, to suppose that the suffix יו - takes its rise from the formula אל־אבתיו נאסף בּוא , and is, in spite of the unsuitable grammatical connection, retained, just as יחדּו and כּלּם , without regard to the suffixes, signify “together” and “all together” (Böttcher). Certainly the poet delights in difficulties of style, of which quite sufficient remain to him without adding this to the list. It is also not clear whether Psalms 49:20 is intended to be taken as a relative clause intimately attached to אבותיו , or as an independent clause. The latter is admissible, and therefore to be preferred: there are the proud rich men together with their fathers buried in darkness for ever, without ever again seeing the light of a life which is not a mere shadowy life.
The didactic discourse now closes with the same proverb as the first part, Psalms 49:13. But instead of בּל־ילין the expression here used is ולא יבין , which is co-ordinate with בּיקר as a second attributive definition of the subject (Ew. §351, b): a man in glory and who has no understanding, viz., does not distinguish between that which is perishable and that which is imperishable, between time and eternity. The proverb is here more precisely expressed. The gloomy prospect of the future does not belong to the rich man as such, but to the worldly and carnally minded rich man.
The Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary is a derivative of a public domain electronic edition.
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Psalms 49". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19