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the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 49

Kingcomments on the Whole BibleKingcomments

Verses 1-4


This is the last psalm in this series of psalms of the Korahites. They paint in this psalm the emptiness of the world in the light of God’s judgment at the end of time. That emptiness will then be visible to all. What is written in this psalm already reveals that emptiness to the believers now and therefore will already have its effect on all that we possess, are, and strive for.

We do not hear a cry to God or a thanksgiving to Him. The point of the psalm is to give us the proper view of the value of wealth. The psalmist does this under the guidance of God’s Spirit by viewing its value against the background of death. Death proves the folly of all human wisdom and greatness. This is not taken into account in the world, nor by carnally minded believers. However, it is a fact that is always true. Those who are open to the teaching of this psalm will fully and wholeheartedly agree with that.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Preacher communicates the result of his research into the meaning of life from man’s point of view. His conclusion: it is empty and volatile. In Psalm 49 we find the psalmist’s conclusion to the meaning of life in response to the experience of suffering through the great tribulation described in Psalms 42-48.

The psalmist communicates his conclusion as a proverb (singular, Psalms 49:4). He does so in two stanzas, both of which end with a refrain (Psalms 49:12 and Psalms 49:20). This refrain speaks of the perishableness of wealth and the inevitability of death. We see an illustration of this in the parable the Lord Jesus tells about a rich fool (Luke 12:16-Ecclesiastes :).

The psalm can be divided as follows:
Psalms 49:1-Numbers : Announcement of wisdom.
Psalms 49:5-2 Kings : The inability of wealth to prevent death. This section ends with the refrain in Psalms 49:12.
Psalms 49:13-Proverbs : (a) The inability of wealth to change your final destination (Psalms 49:13-Ezra :). (b) Therefore, do not be impressed by wealth (Psalms 49:16-Proverbs :). This section ends with the refrain in Psalms 49:20.

Hear This

For “for the choir director” (Psalms 49:1) see at Psalm 4:1.

For “of the sons of Korah” see at Psalm 42:1.

Psalms 49:1-Numbers : form an unusually long introduction for Psalms. It really is a special psalm; we might say it is a ‘wisdom psalm’. In this psalm, as in Ecclesiastes, a wisdom teacher is speaking, someone who has been taught by God. His message is universal, it is meant for everyone, for “all peoples” and for “all the inhabitants of the world” (Psalms 49:1). The inhabitants of the world are short-lived, mortal people; they inhabit the world only briefly.

We recognize them in “those who dwell on the earth”, who are frequently mentioned in the book of Revelation (Revelation 3:10; Revelation 8:13Revelation 11:10; Revelation 13:8Revelation 13:12; Revelation 13:14). They are the earthlings, people who stick to this world, who are glued to it. They are the people whose portion is in this life (Psalms 17:14). They are so short-sighted that they live only for the here and now. They are all called to “give ear”.

Whether they are “low” or “high”, whether they are “rich” or “poor”, each one has to deal with it individually (Psalms 49:2). What one’s standing in society or social status is does not matter. What matters in this psalm is how we are to deal with the inequality that is present in it.

We learn this by letting the ‘light’ of death shine on it. Then we see that this inequality that is present in life has no impact whatsoever on death. For everyone inevitably has to deal with death. And in death all differences cease. Death is the great ‘equalizer’.

In the context of these psalms of the Korahites, it is mainly about the oppression of the simple, poor remnant, by the distinguished and rich. The remnant comes to the conclusion that in death all differences are gone, having passed through the great tribulation.

The New Testament believer sees more. He knows that the Lord Jesus can come at any time to take up the believers. This is unknown to the Old Testament believer, for it is a mystery to him (1 Corinthians 15:51-Philemon :). This does not make the message of the Korahites any less important to us, but on the contrary, even more important. If our spiritual eyes are open, it makes us see the relativity of wealth even more clearly.

The psalmist attracts the attention of his hearers or readers by saying how he is going to speak (Psalms 49:3). He does not yet say what he is going to speak about, although he has already given a hint in Psalms 49:2. To hold their attention, so that they will listen to what he is going to say, he holds out to them that he brings his message with “wisdom”, “meditation of my heart”, “a proverb”, and in “riddle” (cf. Proverbs 1:6). He will “express” his riddle “on the harp”.

The words of wisdom are important in order to get the right view of the subject on which the poet is going to speak. To benefit from these words, one must trust the poet. He has thought about what he is going to say. His words are the result of the contemplation of the subject in his heart.

He has not only thought about it, he has actually lived it in the midst of oppression and persecution (Psalms 49:5). Right through the needs, he put his trust in God (Psalms 49:15). This has given him insight into the subject on which he will speak. He speaks of wealth and the fear among those who are not rich of those who are rich.

He calls all peoples to listen (Psalms 49:1), but he himself is a listener as well (Psalms 49:4). The wisdom of the psalmist, then, does not come from him himself. It is wisdom that has been entrusted to him, although he does not mention its source here. The wisdom comes to him as a proverb. He first listens himself to what he has to say.

Before we can say anything meaningful, we must first listen. And when we speak, we must keep listening for the voice of God’s Spirit. The poet is inspired by the Spirit and is aware that he can only say something about wealth if he continues to listen to the Spirit’s voice.

What he says is “a proverb”. The word proverb means “parable” or “comparison”. We see the expression reflected in “like the beasts” in Psalms 49:12 and Psalms 49:20. This confirms the idea that in these two verses, like a refrain, we have the core message of this psalm.

For the use of a proverb in order to clarify his subject with it, he inclines his ear. In Hebrew it is literally “he keeps his ears open”. This means more than understanding, for it also implies that he is willing to listen. In Revelation 2-3 we find this characteristic of a listening ear among the remnant in the recurring “whoever has an ear, let him hear …” (Revelation 2:7; Revelation 2:11Revelation 2:17; Revelation 2:29Revelation 3:6; Revelation 3:13Revelation 3:22).

The psalmist keeps his open ear, as it were, very close to his subject to know which proverb to use. It is not an easy subject, for the majority have a wrong view of wealth. But by listening carefully he will receive wisdom which he now expresses as a single proverb and will use the correct comparison.

He can therefore say that he will reveal his mysteries and do so in an eloquent manner, accompanied by a harp. The LORD uses the tones of the harp to calm the turmoil in the psalmist’s mind (cf. 2 Kings 3:13-Ezra :). The psalmist’s state of mind is restless in the days of evil, as we can see from Psalms 49:5. Because of the soothing music, he is able to understand God’s voice, to unveil and pass on the mysteries.

‘Riddle’ here has the meaning of mysteries, of something hidden in the darkness. We are talking about the mysteries or riddles of life and death, and their relationship to each other in relation to wealth. The poet manages to reveal this riddle in an outstandingly clear manner, capturing the curiosity and attention of the listener.

Many are blind to the dangers associated with wealth; to them it is a mystery. For them he is going to reveal the real meaning of wealth. He is going to remove the covering that lies over it. He does this with the accompaniment of harp playing, giving his teaching the character of prophesying (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:3). Prophesying means that he applies the truth of God to the heart and conscience of the hearer (1 Corinthians 14:3). His subject, as mentioned, is wealth. He prophesies about the danger that is present when people are doing well financially.

Verses 5-15

Trusting In Riches Is Foolish

The teacher of wisdom begins his teaching with a question (Psalms 49:5). It is the question of how the faithful God-fearing can be calm, without fear in days of calamity, in a time of great tribulation. It is a time when unrighteous people are on his heels and enclose him. These unrighteous are ungodly, wicked rich, who oppress the poor. Prophetically, it is about the apostate mass of the Jews oppressing the faithful remnant. According to Old Testament esteem, the rich bear the appearance of God’s approval, while the poor bear the appearance of God’s disapproval. This is how Job’s friends and Job himself reasoned.

While the preacher shows us the emptiness, the meaninglessness of wealth, the psalmist goes one step further. He pays attention to the end of those who rely on their wealth (cf. Psalms 73:17). In this psalm, the wisdom teacher helps us get rid of the misconception that the rich have the favor of God and the poor have God against them. The solution to the issue is found in having the right view, God’s view, of life and death. If someone has that view, it makes him fearless of people who exercise power over him by means of their wealth. The teacher shows that wealth and the rich are only temporary, passing (cf. James 1:11).

Let the God-fearing look closely at the unjust, silly rich. What will they see? People who are so foolish that they trust in their wealth, which means they do not trust in God (Psalms 49:6). Serving God and at the same time serving Mammon, which is the god of money, is not possible. It is not only foolishness but also sin (Matthew 6:24; cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).

Wealthy people here are rich, powerful people, oppressing poor people or the believing remnant. The word “wealth” contains both wealth and power. These wealthy people are also haughty, for they “boast in the abundance of their riches”.

But what does their wealth, no matter how great, mean at all? Can a rich fool use it to save someone from death? Just a moment of well thinking makes that clear. The poet now indicates why the God-fearing need not have fear of the foolish rich. For those people, with all their money, have no authority over death (Psalms 49:7-1 Samuel :).

A rich person cannot preserve himself or anyone else from death with his money (Psalms 49:7). Wealth and power have limited value and are a perishable possession, for they do not secure against death (cf. Proverbs 10:2). Therefore, we need not fear or envy the proud rich. These people think that nothing can happen to them. But life cannot be bought with money. Life is therefore perishable, finite possession. This is true of all people with no exception.

Rich, proud people who rely on their wealth and boast of their great richness often have a bad conscience. They have often obtained their wealth through dishonest practices (cf. James 5:1-Joshua :). Money is not called “the unrighteous Mammon” by the Lord Jesus for nothing (Luke 16:9).

On earth, rich people can buy off a punishment with money, but they cannot buy off with their wealth the inevitable death as the wages of sin. In the sphere of the Old Testament, this is about a manslayer who committed premeditated murder. For him there is no redeemer, nor does the city of refuge offer him protection from death (Numbers 35:9-Ecclesiastes :). There is no way for him to escape death as punishment for his sin.

Nor can the debt accumulated by a life of sin be bought off with money (cf. Mark 8:36-Haggai :). There can be no reconciliation with God for all the sins committed by paying any price, not even with all the gold of the whole world (cf. 1 Peter 1:18). Nor can they use it to ransom or redeem a brother in evil and thus free him from the righteous judgment of God. Only God can do that (Hosea 13:14).

Their lives are far too precious to be expressed in a sum of money (Psalms 49:9). Never, ever, will any amount of money be able to be deposited or credited to God’s bank account sufficient to safeguard from death. Any wealth will be eternally inadequate. It shows the total and eternal worthlessness of money and goods compared to the life of a human being.

The rich person believes that he can continue to live forever because he has a lot of money (Psalms 49:9). Great investments are made that should make it medically possible for a person to become immortal. But “living on eternally and not undergo decay” is and remains a nonsensical illusion. Yet the rich fool continues to strive for it. It proves his total blindness, the complete darkening of his mind (cf. Ephesians 4:17-Job :).

As a general principle, no man can buy spiritual life for another man or give it to him. Only the Lord Jesus can, because He became equal to the brethren. He took on blood and flesh to redeem brethren (Hebrews 2:14-Esther :). No one can do it, only He. To receive the life He gives requires confession of sins before God and faith in Christ and His work on the cross.

The living man, in all his blindness, does see that no one escapes death (Psalms 49:10). He cannot deny that fact. He sees that this is true for the “wise” as much as for “the stupid and the senseless”. They “alike perish. He also sees that they will “leave their wealth to others”. The departed have nothing to gain themselves once they have perished. And who are these others (cf. Luke 12:20)? That is not said. This puts even more emphasis on the fact that the rich man’s life will end one day, that it will not remain as it is now.

The stupid and the senseless see it all, but it doesn’t affect them, they shut themselves off from this inescapable reality. They do not allow themselves to be warned by what they see with their own eyes. Everyone dies once, no one escapes death. They see this, but in their proud self-conceit they imagine that this will not happen to them.

In their foolishness and pride they think “their houses are forever” (Psalms 49:11). This depraved thinking is ineradicably deep in them. If they themselves perish at all, they will continue to live on, so they think in their foolishness, in their homes, their families or the generations to come.

They think they are great and put their own name on everything. They name the nations after them (cf. Genesis 4:17). They attach their name to them because they believe that this is how they will continue to live. As kings they have had their names proclaimed over them and thereby made a claim on them. It is the proclamation of ownership of it, by which they will continue to live on even after death, they think, fools that they are.

They ignore the truth that they are dust and will return to dust (Genesis 3:19). They think they control the future, that they can control it themselves. Their possessions will ensure that they do not die, they believe. That is how much their lives are intertwined with the material world. They have no thought of anything higher.

This is really living on the level of the beasts (Psalms 49:12). This is the refrain, or summary of the psalm, repeated in almost identical terms in Psalms 49:20. “Man in [his] pomp will not endure.” Whatever he may have achieved in life, whatever prestige he may have acquired, he does not continue to live on, but “is like the beasts, that perish”. To live like a beast is to live without a sense of God. We see this in what happens to Nebuchadnezzar, which teaches us a lesson. Without God, he truly lives like a beast (Daniel 4:28-Micah :). Only when he raises his eye to God does his mind return (Daniel 4:34).

Man who has lived like a beast, that is, without God, will die like a beast. He leaves the world in which he was honored, in the same way that a beast does, and he perishes like a beast. Therefore, the poor, oppressed psalmist is not afraid of the rich oppressor, for the oppressor awaits the same fate as a beast: death.

This, of course, refers only to physical death. Only in this is a human being equal to a beast. That a human being above a beast has a spirit, which lives on after death, is not considered here. The unbeliever, the man who lives without God, does not realize that man has a spirit that returns to God and must give an account of his life to his Creator (Ecclesiastes 3:19-:). Those who believe in the doctrine of evolution are blind to this. Also, man’s body will rise once, either to life or to judgment (John 5:28-Joel :; Daniel 12:2). Man, unlike a beast, continues to live on without end.

With Psalms 49:13, the second stanza begins. “This is the way” they go is the way of a beast. Going that way is their foolishness. It is the way of relying on themselves and their wealth, without any thought of death. Their way is foolishness, but yet “those after them … approve their words”. His descendants praise him because he has made it this far. He is their guru from whom they can learn the way to success.

They want to learn from him, adopt his vision of life, because that’s how they want to live and let their name live on. It proves that they are just as foolish as he is. We can think in this context of the great names in the world of music and sports. The books written about these people are sold graciously.

The foolish rich may imagine so many things to be true, but they are no more than sheep shepherded by death (Psalms 49:14). The comparison to sheep illustrates their dependence on a shepherd. Like sheep, they are in the power of another: death, which pastures them. A sheep dies, leaving nothing behind to its descendants; its name perishes. To perish means “to be silenced”.

The inevitable end of the foolish rich man is like that of a sheep, for he is like that. He leaves the world in the same way as a sheep and ends up in the grave. His accumulated reputation is of no use to him, and others are deceived by his example. The God-fearing must realize that the power of Satan is only for this life. After that, there is no deception anymore.

That death is their shepherd them means that when they die, death will drive them like a flock into his special domain, Sheol, the realm of the dead. Behind the mask of friendliness is the grim face of death. Death is already grazing them now, during their lives. Everything they do, they do because they are prompted to do so by death as their shepherd. Their whole existence and all their possessions are connected to the realm of the dead. The contrast with the LORD as Shepherd, Who causes His sheep to lie down in green pastures and leads them beside quiet waters (Psalms 23:2), can hardly be presented more impressively.

Because the foolish rich are in the power of death, their rule will not endure. That the upright will rule over them in the morning is a reference to the resurrection (cf. Isaiah 26:19). In this context it means that after death and in the resurrection the roles will be reversed (cf. Luke 16:25). This may encourage the God-fearing who are now still oppressed by the rich fools.

The power of the rich is short-lived. Then they will die and “their form shall be for Sheol to consume”, meaning that all outward glory will shrivel in the grave to something insubstantial (cf. Lamentations 3:4). To perish does not have to do with ceasing to exist. The rich fools dwell in death for all eternity, far from their beautiful home in which they have dwelt on earth.

The faithful, the remnant, trusts in God (Psalms 49:15). He knows that God redeems his life from the power of the grave. Redeeming also has the idea of “liberating” or “ransoming”. What man cannot do for himself or another (Psalms 49:7-1 Samuel :), God can. He has obtained the ransom for each of His own through the work of His Son, Who gave His life “as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

God will raise the faithful from the grave and take them to Himself. Death has no permanent dominion over him. Death will have to give back to Him to Whom they belong, all who are of His through the work of His Son. The word “receive“ has emphasis. It means ‘to take up for certain’ and is used for Enoch and for Elijah (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:5), over whom death has been unable to exercise power.

God can preserve for death so that one who belongs to Him does not enter into it, and He can receive from death when one who belongs to Him has entered into it. In both cases, His power over death is demonstrated. For us, this is a New Testament truth. We expect the coming of Christ through which, like Enoch, we will be taken up without seeing death (1 Thessalonians 4:14-Job :).

Here in the Old Testament this truth is not yet known. The Old Testament believers expect to be saved from death somehow. How, they do not know. What they do know for sure is that death does not have the last word. All Old Testament believers lived in this faith (cf. Hebrews 11:39-Matthew :).

Verses 16-20

The Fool Perishes

In view of the God-fearing’s trust in God (Psalms 49:15) and the foolishness of the rich man’s reliance on his wealth, there is no reason to fear the increasing wealth and power of the wicked. In the beginning, the poet asked the question why he should fear (Psalms 49:5). Now he tells his hearer, his disciple – for he is teaching – not to fear (Psalms 49:16). He is going to motivate this again.

Wealth often leads one to rely on that rather than on God. The rich fool shows this by the use of his wealth. He does not use his wealth to serve God, but to increase the honor of his own house. With that, he impresses others. He wants others to praise him for his good taste. In addition, and this is the main idea in this psalm, wealth gives power to oppress the poor.

Then the poet points out to the faithful the end of the foolish rich (Psalms 49:17; cf. Psalms 73:15-Esther :). The rich man is a fool, for he “says in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 14:1; Psalms 53:1). The fool plods, dies, and can take nothing of his wealth with him (Ecclesiastes 5:14; 1 Timothy 6:7; Job 27:16-Psalms :). Nor does he benefit from all the honors people have given him during his life and speak of it at his funeral (cf. Isaiah 14:10). He can take all his titles and diplomas with him in his coffin and into the grave, as well as a copy of his enormous bank balance; they are completely without value and meaning to him in the grave.

He congratulated himself with his life (Psalms 49:18). His circumstances are as he has wanted them to be. He can do what he likes to do without having to ask anyone for a favor or be accountable to anyone. Others see that he has had success in life and praise him for his successes. He taps himself on the shoulder and others do the same. That’s the way it should be, he thinks. Egotists can often meet with approval. It strikes their ego, but they don’t realize that it is hypocrisy and that the flatterers are just as big egotists as he is.

The harsh reality is that he dies and spends eternity in darkness (Psalms 49:19). He can praise himself into heaven, but when he dies he joins the family of his fathers, that is all those people who had success in life, but after their death will never see the light again. His fate is exactly the reverse of what he has thought. He has thought that he would live on forever (Psalms 49:9) and that his house would exist forever (Psalms 49:11). The reality is that he “never” will see the light. To see light is to see the light of life and to enjoy prosperity and joy. He has no part in that in all eternity.

The foolish rich man, like the beasts, is “without understanding” (Psalms 49:20), i.e. he has no view of the true state of affairs. Nor can he judge it. He completely lacks discernment because, like the beasts, he walks with his head down and looks down. He who has insight or understanding looks upward (cf. Daniel 4:33-Nahum :).

The ‘psalmist-teacher’ penned this psalm to thereby give ‘understanding’ to those who will hear (Psalms 49:3). The foolish rich man is not lost because of his possessions, but because of his lack of understanding of true wealth, which is wealth in God (Luke 12:20-Ecclesiastes :). He also shuts himself off from gaining this insight.

The material also holds enormous temptation for us, members of the New Testament church. We can easily become slaves to money. This can happen by working hard for your own business. You tell yourself that it is your responsibility after all, but you don’t realize that you are in the power of the money. A good help to see how things really are is to consider the relationship between being busy with and for material things and the things of God. If we do this honestly, it will quickly become clear where our priorities lie.

We can also deal with spiritual riches in a wrong way: if we boast about our knowledge of biblical truths and spiritual achievements. We see this in the church in Laodicea. The Lord Jesus makes severe reproaches to that church about this (Revelation 3:14-Job :). They must first be detached from all their supposed riches in order to be truly rich, that is, so that the Lord Jesus can be in their midst again. He is, in fact, outside, at the door (Revelation 3:19-Proverbs :). If we are full of ourselves, there is no room for Him.

What the psalmist wants to teach the God-fearing is that he should not marvel at the prosperity of the foolish rich (Psalms 49:11). He should not be impressed by them. They all perish and can take nothing of their wealth with them. Also, may the God-fearing know that God leads him till death and delivers him from the grip of the grave by raising him from the dead. All this is an encouragement to the believing remnant to persevere.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 49". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/psalms-49.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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