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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 49

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-20

Psalms 49:1-20

Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world: both low and high, rich and poor, together.

The inequalities of society

Impressive and instructive that scene in the wood of Senart, when a luxurious Louis, royally caparisoned for hunting, met a wretched peasant with a coffin. “For whom? . . . For a poor brother slave, whom your majesty has sometimes noticed slaving in those quarters.” “What did he die of? . . . Of hunger.” The king gave his steed the spur. Sad is it that such a contrast was ever possible on earth, and sadder still that it may yet be witnessed even in this enlightened and philanthropic land. There are other inequalities. I read, not long since, that a Glasgow bank director, convicted of having appropriated half a million sterling, was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment; and that on the same day a little half-starved boy, charged with stealing cake worth a halfpenny, was sentenced to fourteen days’ hard labour and four years in a reformatory. “One law for the rich, and another for the poor.” These social inequalities have led to much disturbance. Christian divines have abandoned the subject to philosophers, agitators, and would-be reformers. It always has seemed to me that Christianity must have something to say that the world has a right to know; and unless this is done, there never will be a complete mastery of the problem. Social inequality must have arisen from some other kind of inequality. Social inequalities sprang out of the irregularities of human nature. No two men are made alike. Social inequalities are not without relief and compensation in some other kind of inequality. “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown,” and uneasy the heart of him who owns millions of dollars. The Saviour did not devote His attention to surface measures of reform, but to a new heart, confident that the regeneration of man means the regeneration of society. (G. C. Lorimer, D. D.)

Verse 4

Psalms 49:4

I will open my dark saying upon the harp.

Dark sayings

Some minds are darker than a dark saying. Doubt is cloudland; and cloudland presupposes the existence of some degree of light. In complete darkness no cloud is perceived. The time at which a man begins to doubt is the critical point of life. Doubt in a young and inexperienced mind may develop into a demon of free thought. Much depends upon the way in which doubt is treated by the doubter himself, and by his advisers. Doubt is not a thing to be injudiciously dealt with. Take care how you open a dark saying. The dark saying is any question difficult to answer or hard to solve. Notice that David does not say, I will close up my dark saying--I will fold the serpent up in my bosom, and let it sting me. He says, “I will open my dark saying.” Often enough a man’s peace of mind depends upon the way in which he opens his dark saying. Too often he has to open it himself, without sympathy or help from any one. It may save us some disappointment if we settle it as a general rule that a providential thing does not mean a pleasant thing. Tim ultimate end of Providence is the sanctification of the human heart, and it is not probable that God will sanctify us by letting us have our own way. We frequently apply the term Providence loosely. When we reap worldly advantage we say, It is quite providential. When trouble comes we omit the word. The opposite of this is true as a rule. Prosperity will never wean us from this world, but adversity may. When dark sayings trouble us, let us pray to the Father of lights that He may guide us into all truth. We are vexed and mystified by second causes, because we forget that He is the Great First Cause of all. His providence to us is like a piece of tapestry reversed. We see that a hand has been at work, but the threads are massed in confusion. In the day of account we shall see the other side. David further says “upon the harp.” Musical instruments are called instruments of God. It is to the Psalms, not to the Proverbs, that the heavy heart turns for consolation. Even when the harp hangs upon the willows, the spirit of song awakes in sympathy with the loved and lost. It was to the Psalms that the suffering Saviour turned in the hour and power of darkness. The introduction of the Gospel into Europe was marked by the strength of song. “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God.” Who shall say what resolutions, what ardent longings after purity, and peace, and truth, have been breathed into the souls of men by sacred song? “In days when liberty of thought was choked by tyranny, when bigotry warped the understanding and suppressed the truth, what was there left to the people but the emotion of a song?” The clark saying was opened upon the harp, and stray seeds of sanctity were germinated by the atmosphere of music, though sometimes it was but the music of some distant chime. By the power of song we are transported into a sphere where selfishness and worldliness have no part; a world where nothing defileth or maketh a lie. Man is the only creature who abuses the gift of sound. From him only comes the jarring note. He can only sing the new song in the world to come. (Henry J. Swallow.)

Dark sayings on a harp

My text points to two principles; first, there is the bowing before, and hearkening to, the mystery of things--the universal, parabolic utterances; and, second, the turning the mystery and the parable into a cheerful song--the dark saying becoming, like the bird’s song in the covert of the night, a clear stream, without sorrow and without care. Find the cheerful aspect of solemn things. See how sorrow is rounded by cheerfulness; hearken, and you will be able to give a cheerful response to the most solemn views of life. The greatest mystery of all art, perhaps, is music; the soul that leaps from the mere material chords and pipes, and, whilst it emanates from, plays upon the spirit of man. There is a mystery and a meaning in music we can never either expound or explore; and it is felt that those natures, which are the greatest burden and mystery to themselves, find most the solace of song in the combinations of all great sounds; we have known this, it is not always that in joyfulness of heart we sing. The girl oppressed by some great trial and loss, as she bends over her needle, or goes about her house-work, will sing, and, while she sings, finds unconsciously that her song has been her medicine, and has given to her relief. And something like this is a very general experience. Hence we have poetry for all cultured people, and hymns for holy people; and do we not know what it is to become happy while we sing? Good it is sometimes to utter the dark saying to the harp rather than to others; it composes, allays, and tranquillizes the mind while we utter it. Therefore, says David, “I will open my dark saying upon the harp.” David was a master of the harp, and we see, plainly enough, that to him life was full of dark sayings, uttered with more or less of clearness, coming upon him with more or less of gloom. His dark sayings are abundant. We have often thought together of that wonderful summary of holy genius, the Book of Psalms. He would seem to have given everything to his harp; everywhere, as in the words of the text before us, “he was inclining his ear to a parable.” To him, it would seem, nature was a great harp, framed, touched and moved by the finger of God, and every object became jubilant, and even prophetic.

All scripture itself is a dark saying on a harp. However you regard it, you must be amazed by its mysterious unity, not less by its mysterious murmurs--murmurs as of a distant, infinite sea, or as in a forest we listen to the tones as of strange bells among the far-off boughs. There is a Divine reticence in the Bible; there is aa awful secretiveness. Oh! it is all parable; it is all dark saying! Vainly do I ever think I have exhausted any single word or meaning; it is inspiration and revelation throughout. It is a “dark saying,” for it is inspiration; it is “uttered,” for it is a revelation.

Man himself is a dark saying on a harp. He is himself a universe of being in which life, and nature and grace seek to combine in music. Consider thy nature: how strange that we should be made thus, strange the opposition between sin and conscience, even in the best of men; strange the contradiction between what man effects and what man is. Has not his history through all time been a dark saying? What is this creature we call man? Is he angel, or is he beast, or is he fiend? for there are things he has done which warrant all these translations, read simply from the sensual eye. And what a mistake the life of man seems! And sometimes, how his failures and his inner conflicts seem to boast of him as of a being built out of the pieces of the wreck of the fall.

And providence is a dark saying on a harp. The mysteries of Providence were as startling to David as they are to us, and the very psalm whence I take this text recites and records them; it did not seem to be a world of highways to the psalmist; and this is one of the great causes of grief and of the dark sayings--the world and its sorrows. It is the cry, the incessant cry, “Why hast thou made all men in vain?” The world is full of dark sayings; it is hieroglyphic all, you feel the incongruity and the contradiction, but you have never felt it so clearly as the Bible has stated it, and especially the psalmists; they perpetually--Asaph, David and others--saw and uttered their sense of the solemn discords of this life. There is a picture I have often turned to look at in the chapel in one of the old palaces of France, and I have sometimes looked, as the dear dreamer said, till the water has found its way to my eyes; it is suspended over the altar--it is the cloud of eternity, and the Ancient of Days is there, and the Lamb is there, and round the circle the harpers harping with their harps--every one robed in white, and every brow bound with the crown--“kings and priests unto God and to the Lamb for ever”; every eye fixed on “the Lamb, as it had been slain,” and every crowned form bearing a harp, and striking it “to Him that hath loved.” “To them were given harps.” Why, what does it mean? Oh, it tells how the lost life will regain and be restored to its unity. This is that harp, all the chords of the being one, and for ever one. Then, indeed, may we say, “I will praise thee on the harp, O God, my God.” (E. Paxton Hood.)

Mysteries set to music

The mystery of nature. John Stuart Mill’s arraignment of created things is too well known to be repeated. A more recent writer is Mr. Laing, who says in his Modern Science and Modern Thought, “Is it true that love is creation’s finest law, when we find this enormous and apparently prodigal waste of life going on; these cruel internecine battles between individuals and species in the struggle for existence; this cynical indifference of nature to suffering? There are approximately 3,600 millions of deaths of human beings in every century, of whom at least 20 per cent., or 720 millions, die before they have attained to clear self-consciousness and conscience. What becomes of them? Why were they born? Axe they nature’s failures and cast as rubbish to the void? To such questions there is no answer.” Perhaps it is wrong to say there is no answer, for considerations exist in plenty which tone down the harsher aspects of nature’s work. But when this is admitted there remains much that is enigmatical. Now, the effect of this mystery upon some minds is to drive them into pessimism; it is a mystery whose discord is for ever jarring on their ears. Not so with the man who walks by faith. He says, “I believe in God,” and instantly there is harmony. Nature has mysteries still, but they are set to music.

The mystery of suffering. Huxley says, “If there is one thing plainer than another, it is that neither the pleasure nor the pains of life, in the merely animal world, are distributed according to desert, for it is admittedly impossible for the lower order of sentient beings to deserve either the one or the other. If there is a generalization from the facts of human life which has the assent of thoughtful men in every age and country it is that the violator of ethical rules constantly escapes the punishment he deserves; that the wicked flourishes like a green bay tree while the righteous begs his bread; that the sins of their fathers are visited upon the children; that in the realm of nature ignorance is punished just as severely as wilful wrong; and that thousands upon thousands of innocent beings suffer for the crime or unintentional trespass of one.” (Evolution and Ethics, p. 12.)

The professor’s statements are not cast in such a form as to be above challenge, but they may be taken as indicative of the attitude of many towards the problem of suffering. Broken law will explain much of the world’s woe, perhaps more than we are apt to imagine; and the educative influence of suffering is not far to seek. “Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress.” But after all there remains much that is mysterious; very often moral sequences seem to fail entirely, and the good man dies in his struggles to do right, whilst the prosperous sinner lives to satirize every sound principle of commercial morality. Hence we have the cynic in our midst, and the pessimist is always within shouting distance. But the man who discerns spiritual things after a spiritual manner can feel something more than hard and unexplainable facts in the problem of suffering. God is behind it, he says, and therefore all is well. The mystery has lost its bitterness; it is still a dark saying, but it is a dark saying upon the harp.

The mystery of death. Mr. Goldwin Smith looking at death and destruction in all grades of creation says, “Our satellite, so far as we can see, is either a miscarriage or a wreck,” and “if omnipotence and benevolence are to meet it must apparently be at a point at present beyond our ken.” Mr. Smith answers himself when he says, “so far as we can see.” Without God and immortality, the despair of the present generation is the most natural product of mental inquiry; the picture of blighted prospects and incompleted lives stricken down by the hand of death is enough to appal the stoutest heart. But in Christ all mysteries are set to music. It was the superior music of Orpheus which saved him from shipwreck on the siren’s shore, and since hope springs eternal in the human breast, Christianity, as a gospel of glad tidings, will always play other tunes than the note of wailing and despair; in the future, as in the past, her better music will be the world’s salvation. (T. S. Knowlson.)

Mysteries set to music

In seeking to get instruction from the text, we may regard it broadly as inculcating the principle, that the dark problems of the world may be so understood, that instead of leading us to despair they become a source of light and hope and joy.

The problem of the divine existence. This is the first of all problems--the earliest, the most necessary, the most irresistible. Primeval man long ago had to face it as we have to face it to-day. For the savage dwelling in the rude cave, or in the log-hut, reared on piles driven into the ground in the centre of a lonely lake, this was the principal theme of speculation, even as it is still the question which by its vastness wearies the strongest thought, and baffles the keenest insight. The first of all questions is, at the same time, the darkest. Interrogate Nature, and what is it that it tells you? It tells of a first cause, powerful, mighty and omnipotent. It points to a force that is infinite, a wisdom that is transcendent, and a will that is all-dominant. But it speaks of more than this. It speaks of a law that is invariable, relentless and cruel. It has its tale of pain, and suffering, and sorrow, and death. If it glories in the sunshine and the rain, it recounts with grief the story of the plague and the earthquake, and the unceasing strife of man, and beast, and earth, and sea, and sky. Over all there is the one necessity, for all there is the same struggle.

The problem of the world. How did the world come into being? Is it the result of chance, of fate, of a blind force working how and as it may? No millions of years, no unimaginable stretches of time, can bring the existent out of the non-existent, the intelligent out of the non-intelligent, the cosmos out of the chaos. How, then, can we open this dark saying of the world’s history on the harp? How can we set it to harmony and rhythm and music? There is one way only that I know. Behind the world there is a Divine Person; in the movements and the laws of the world there is a Divine will. All comes from God; all is under His care and governance.

The problem of man’s life. Taken as he is, and apart from his relation to God, man’s life is inexplicable. It is a contradiction, without meaning or purpose. There is in it the high and the low, the pure and the impure, the spiritual and the material. It is divided in interest; it is driven this way and that; and oftentimes it becomes the sport of a power and a fate that are too much for it. But, in the light of the Divine love, and the mediation of Jesus, this enigma of the human life becomes plain.

The progress of humanity. Nation follows nation, kingdoms and dynasties rise and fall, and there seems to be no real progress. Civilizations are more or less relative. We in these last times, notwithstanding our marvellous modern science and discovery, are, in some respects, behind the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and Romans, or even the Celts and the Scandinavians. Is there any progress then at all as the result of the conflict of the ages? Is life in the main stationary, or does it like a mighty wheel go round and round for ever? The key to this question can alone be found in Christianity. It has already infused new life into the nations, it has re.created their moral standards, and it has given them a pre-eminence which the old Pagan peoples never knew. It has done all this because it has set before men not only an infinite hope, but because it has supplied them with the motive and the power to realize it. It has given them a new ideal, it has also provided them with a new dynamic, or force, by which they can attain the ideal. We need have no fear for the future. Humanity, instead of having become effete and lived its day, is only setting out on the line of infinite progress that stretches before it. Much it has done in the past, much it has achieved in these modern times; but infinitely more will it yet achieve before its course is run. Physically, intellectually, morally, the race has still before it a boundless destiny. (R. Munro, B. D.)

The harp of the godly

Why are the words of godly life in scripture called “dark sayings”?

1. Because they are so far to seek. From the Creator, not the creature; from eternity, not from time.

2. Because they are so little known. The world disregards them.

3. Because they meet with so much repugnance. All the impulses of our depraved nature are averse and hostile to the wisdom that sanetifieth. Oh, how difficult to understand what opposes our heart’s propensities!

Why are the details of providence in scripture called “dark savings”?

1. Because the specific designs of Providence are concealed. A man knows not whether in any enterprise, though he has scrutinized his motive and implored Divine direction, he is to fail or succeed. Through his failures may come his truest successes.

2. Because the aim of Providence is overlooked (Ephesians 3:1-21.; John 2:1-25.). We fix our eyes on outward things, and call prosperity and adversity after them. That is a bright Providence wherein these abound, and a dark one whereby these are smitten. Now God looks at our souls;--their liberty from earthly fetters; their confidence in Divine support; their formation and sustenance of holy purpose; their culture and maturity of moral character.

3. Because the dispensations of Providence inflict pain and distress. What a dark passage leads to conversion!

Why may a Christian open these upon the harp?

1. Because God has put a harp into your hands. It would be ungrateful not to use this. Do you ask what this is? I reply, The Gospel in all its plenitude of mercy, remedy, promise, prospect.

2. Because your dark sayings are thus opened, i.e. they become clear and plain. Devotion illuminates the mind. While you are musing the fire kindles and burns.

3. Because every true prayer is a prophecy. The evils it deprecates will assuredly pass away. (W. Wheeler.)

Verse 8

Psalms 49:8

For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever.


Its subject--the soul of man. Think--

1. Of its powers.

2. Of its affections.

3. Of its duration.

Its price--the precious blood of Christ.

The period of its accomplishment. It is limited; “it ceaseth for ever.” How precious is time! what eternal results binge upon its right employment or neglect! (D. M’Allum, M. D.)

The preciousness of redemption

The subject of redeeming love--the soul. We cannot question its existence. Reflect upon--

1. Its origin.

2. Its prodigious faculties.

3. Its duration. The soul is a flower that always blooms, a fountain which ever flows, a seed which never dies, a plant which never withers; that mysterious flame which, once kindled, nought can ever quench.

4. Its last and rescued state.

The value of this redemption. It is “precious.” For consider--

1. From what the soul of man is redeemed.

2. To what the soul is redeemed. Some of you have already tasted something of the pleasure which arises to the soul that has been sensibly freed from the trammels of sin and of Satan, and which anticipates the blessedness reserved in heaven for those who love God.

3. By what the soul is redeemed--the precious blood of Christ.

The limits within which alone the benefits of this redemption are to be obtained. “It ceaseth for ever.” Consider, then--

1. The uncertainty of life.

2. How this world deceives us.

3. And Satan also deceives.

4. The positive evil which springs from delay. (John Gasken, M. A.)

The preciousness of the human soul

The soul of man is precious. For--

1. How high was the origin of the soul. See the history of its creation.

2. How vast its capacities. Small is the power of the human body, but the soul of man gives him a might and mastery all his own.

3. How eternal its duration.

Its redemption is precious.

1. See the greatness of the Author of Redemption.

2. The price that was paid to redeem us.

3. The stupendous nature of its results. These may affect the whole intelligent universe, and not this world alone. We are brought into a new relationship with God. Eternal woe is escaped and eternal blessedness gained. All this will be seen fully when the whole work of redemption is accomplished. How precious, then, must this work be. How important not to neglect it. (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)

The redemption of the soul precious

The worth of the soul. The soul is precious to God, for it is His own workmanship--the end of creation, for which all earthly things were made, which received His blessing and obtained dominion over everything below. It is precious to the angels, for “there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” It is precious to all Christians upon earth. How fervently and with what an undying flame did the love of it burn in the hearts of the apostles; and in how many forms did it show itself--in preaching, in writing, in continual prayer. And are not our souls precious to ourselves? If we find the soul to be precious, let us act as if it were so: if we discover that it is valueless, let us snatch the pleasures of life while they last. But the soul is precious. It must be so--

1. From the statements of God’s Word;

2. From its nature;

3. From the value of that which has been given for it;

4. From the means used to save it.

The impossibility of recovering the soul when it is lost. Our conduct in this world will determine our fate in the next.

1. The soul may be lost.

2. The soul must be lost, unless it be redeemed.

3. When once lost, the soul can never be regained.

4. The soul may be soon lost. It well becomes us, then, to improve our brief existence by endeavouring to secure the salvation of our souls; for in the future all is uncertainty but this one thing, that “the wicked are driven away in their wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death.” (W. Dickson.)

The value of a soul

When Sir John Franklin was lost, the most extraordinary measures were set on foot to recover him and his party. The British and American governments combined together to save him if he should be yet living. Nearly a million pounds were spent in the search. Besides money, good and fearless men were ready to expose their life in the distant hope of finding, and relieving their missing brothers. The exceeding value of man’s soul is seen in what Jesus has done for it. Men often put forth great efforts for very insignificant objects; but when we think of Christ leaving His bright throne in the heavens, and becoming a homeless wanderer upon the earth, that He might save lost souls, we are able to form some estimate of the soul’s value. This was the life, the spiritual being, the deathless power breathed into man by the breath of God when he was made. It is our greatest gift, and that over which we should exercise the most sacred care,

Verse 12

Psalms 49:12

Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.

The worldling’s downfall

A carnal man may possibly thrive and prosper, and grow great here on earth (Psalms 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1; Job 21:7-10). The Scripture also giveth more light to this doctrine by examples, proving thus much unto us, that even the children of God, such as fear Him, and make conscience of their ways, come often far behind the wicked in outward prosperity. Jacob, the loved, is put forth to keep sheep, and Esau, the hated, goes on hunting. If you look for Joseph, you shall find him in prison; for Daniel, you shall see him in the den.

The prosperity of the wicked is not perpetual. He shall not continue in honour; the words are properly, He shall not tarry all night in honour. We are wont to describe a short abode, by lodging in an inn, where a man seldom stayeth in his travel above a night. Now, the continuance of the carnal man in his honour and prosperity shall be far less; the time shall be, as it were, a degree shorter. The truth hereof is fulfilled by two means. For, first, either his prosperity continueth not to him, or else, secondly, he not to his prosperity.

The worldly man’s death like a beast’s. In four things especially.

1. The first is, that he dieth unwillingly. So it is with the beasts. It is in the nature of everything to desire the preservation of itself, and to abhor the contrary. Hereupon in the unreasonable creature there is a kind of struggling and wrestling with death, so that it doth not but by violence yield thereunto. Even so it is with the ungodly, which mindeth only earthly things. His death may be peaceable in show (the natural strength being wasted and abated by some long sickness), and in speech, he may pretend a willingness to depart; but it is impossible that it should be with fulness of inward consent.

2. The second particular wherein this earthly man is like to the dying beasts is this: the carcase of the beast so dying cannot choose but be noisome and unsavoury; the smell is offensive unto every one that passeth by, and the sight unpleasing. So is the dying worldling in God’s sight.

3. The third degree of likeness betwixt the dying beast and the dying worldling is this: the body of a beast, whom such a disease hath quelled, becometh a prey to the fowls of the air, and is torn in pieces by other beasts; Where the carcase is, thither the eagles resort, saith our Saviour. It fareth so with the worldling: for as his goods ill-gotten come many times, through the just judgment of God, to be a prey to others, and to be the spoil of strangers, so his soul is seized upon by the damned spirits, and is presently arraigned before the judgment seat of God.

4. The fourth point of likeness is this: there is no regard had of the death of a brute beast, the remembrance is soon gone. The owner may haply bewail that loss, it being some diminution of iris substance; but otherwise it is a matter which the world passeth by and taketh no notice of. So is the death of the carnal worldling. There may be some sorrow among his own people, who received some outward benefit by his means, and with them his memory may continue. But else there is no miss. (S. Hieron.)

Verse 13

Psalms 49:13

This their way is their folly.

The folly of sin

There can be no greater evidence of the degeneracy of mankind than their fond pursuits after the things which are light and momentary, and their wilful neglect of those which are of the greatest value and concern.

1. It is egregious folly to rely upon false principles, to build upon tottering and deceitful foundations; and yet so doth every vicious person. He discards all principles of right reason and understanding, and steers himself only by those which are apparently false, and have no other bottom than his own deluded fancy.

2. Then it is a high piece of folly to take up and content ourselves with small things, when we may be more welcome to greater, to strive for petty matters, and in the meantime to neglect those of moment, to aim only at base and unworthy ends, when we have high and noble ones to busy ourselves about; and yet this every sinner is apparently guilty of, and thereby betrays his folly. Children and fools pick straws, and tie knots on bulrushes, entertain themselves with trifles and inpertinences, and we may gravely smile at these their follies, and think we can do no less when we take notice of them. But, alas! their sport is our earnest, and their childish toys and rattles are but emblems of men’s serious employments and businesses.

3. He in the accounts of all intelligent persons is no other than a fool, who being left to his liberty and choice, chooses sensual and earthly delights before those that are spiritual and intellectual; and this is the guise of all sinners. Thus the intemperate and luxurious person most vainly esteems the pleasures of the taste and the delights of the palate above the more noble relishes of Divine and heavenly joys, which are the repast of the blessed, and the food of angels. The lascivious person unreasonably values the transitory emotions of his lust and lewd desires before the greater and more cherishing flames of Divine love. The covetous hugs his gold and silver, and broods over his bags with a mighty pleasure, preferring this before that other more generous and noble one of doing good with his wealth, of relieving some poor and comfortless widow, of succouring some fatherless child, of cheering the heart of some good man who is fallen into poverty, and is ready to perish. I appeal to any wise man, whether this be not a greater and more substantial pleasure than the other, whether this will not create a more lasting comfort in a man’s mind. And the same is to be said of all the pleasures which accompany the performance of good and holy actions: they are solid and durable, they are real and substantial, because indeed they are spiritual and Divine. But silly birds will fly to painted grapes; deluded sinners prosecute those delights which are false and counterfeit: they hunt after mere shadows, than which there cannot be a greater evidence of their folly.

4. Is it not folly to mind those things only which are present, and to have no eye at all to futurity? Do not sinners merit for this strange improvidence and stupidity to be reckoned among idiots? Nay, do they not deserve for this to be ranged among brute beasts, who mind only what is directly before them, but have no sense of that which is to come? Opposite unto which is the posture of the prudent man, who, Janus-like, is double-faced; he not only entertains his eyes with things that are past and present, but he looks forward to what is future, and dwells on the thoughts of those great things which are to be hereafter. By faith, which is founded on infallible revelation, he expects future treasures, riches, honours and delights; and on this persuasion and hope he despises this vain world, and is resolved never to dote on its gaudy and glittering follies. Not that he bids adieu to society, and turns religion into melancholy and solitude, but he lets not this world gain any great portion of his affections, or divert him from thinking of and preparing for that future state in the other life.

5. Can it be deemed any other than folly and madness to take great pains to purchase the eternal torments of hell, and to fit oneself for the devil? It was complained of at Rome in the days of Nero, and other bloody emperors, that death itself was grown costly, and criminals could not be executed without large fees; but hardened sinners buy their death and damnation at a very dear rate, and yet are never heard to complain of it, which argues their prodigious madness and stupidity.

6. What title but that of “fool” ought to be fastened upon him who, pretending to eternal happiness hereafter, never uses those means which are proportioned to that great end? If the intemperate man knew where a club of the debauched were met together to fill themselves with wine and empty themselves of their reasons and understandings, and knew withal that their reckoning at last must be every man’s blood, and the shot must be paid with their lives, would he not, think you, refrain from that meeting, and be persuaded not to be their comrade for that time? And this very person knows right well that luxury and drunkenness are awarded with no less than everlasting burnings, if the writings of the holy apostles be authentic, as certainly they are. What greater frenzy, then, can men labour under than to be guilty of the commission of sin in such circumstances, when they are convinced that they do amiss, and know that they take the wrong way to happiness, and see beforehand the unavoidable penalty of their misdoings?

7. Is not he to be esteemed a fool or a madman who glories in his shame, and boasts of that which is a real disgrace and reproach to him? Boasting at best is a loud indication of folly, but this is the grossest sort of folly to brag of that which really debaseth us to be proud of that which renders us vile and abominable. He is a fool indeed that makes a mock of sin.

8. It is the utmost degree of folly and frenzy to be confident and secure in the midst of the greatest dangers, and to be wholly unconcerned in that condition which is like to prove most perilous and destructive. This is the case of refractory sinners, and is as great a testimony of folly as can be produced. (J. Edwards, D. D.)

Yet their posterity approve their sayings.--

Disregarded signals

The question is sometimes discussed as to whether it were better to have lived in the first ages of the world, or in these later times. For some reasons, perhaps, it would have been better to have lived in the earlier ages, but we who live in the ends of the world have opportunity to profit by the experience of those who have gone before us. They tried a variety of experiments, and we may be guided by the results which often cost them so much.

Let us note and illustrate the fact affirmed by our text. Mr. Romanes, who has specially studied the minds of animals, says that we may infer intelligence in an animal whenever we see it able to profit by its own experience. But is it not the sign of a higher intelligence, the sign of human intelligence, that we are able to profit by the experience of others? Just as when a ship is lost, if it be possible some signal is placed on the fatal spot to apprise other vessels of the danger and to direct them into safe channels, so the merchant, the general, the statesman, consult the signals held forth by history that they may not make shipwreck of fortune, fame, or greatness. And yet our text accusing men of disregarding the lessons of history is painfully true. Whilst as a general rule men are anxious to profit by the experience of their ancestors on questions touching social or material interests, they are not nearly so scrupulous to profit by the moral page of history. Baxter tells how he once saw a man driving a flock of lambs, and something meeting and hindering them, one of the lambs leaped on the wall of a bridge and fell over into the river; whereupon the rest of the flock one by one leaped after it and were nearly all drowned. Thus we men often act blindly, madly.

We inquire into the reasons of this strange conduct. How is it men allow themselves in courses which have manifestly proved fatal to their predecessors?

1. Men blind themselves to the lessons of history by persuading themselves that variations of time and circumstance will prevent in their case the disastrous consequences which happened to others. No error could be greater than this, none more disastrous. What are circumstances to us? Absolutely nothing in comparison to the principle involved in the act, and whatever may be the surface variations the underlying principle will not fail to assert itself; and lust, pride, greed, vanity, materialism, ambition, thoughtlessness, will produce the fruit of misery and shame and ruin in any body, in any age, and in any place.

2. Men blind themselves to the lessons of history by presuming on their cleverness. It is manifest that specific sinful courses have proved the ruin of myriads, but we to-day meditating the same courses expect to come safely through by virtue of our acuteness. We form the fatal fancy that men perish not because they are wicked, but because they are weak; not because they are sinners, but because they are simpletons. In some parts of the Tyrol where the shooting has been severe, the birds of passage are said to deflect from their usual line of flight so that they may avoid the dangerous districts; but we persist in crossing dangerous places although we know countless numbers have fallen victims to the fowler, and this we do from one generation to another. Darwin tells us that animals learn from experience, imitating each other’s caution, and no animal can be caught long in the same kind of trap. But man is far less cautious. The devil keeps on using a few old traps smelling of the blood of ruined generations, and he has little need either to hide his traps or to change them; the same old baits--thirty pieces of silver, a wedge of gold, a rag of purple, a pretty face, a bottle, are abundantly and sorrowfully successful one age after another. If there is any acuteness about us, let us show it by letting evil things alone.

3. Men blind themselves to the lessons of history by presuming on their strength. “I know where to draw the line, where to pull up, where to put my foot down; they will find no weakness in me.” Men forget that once committed to a downward course they soon acquire a momentum not to be broken, not to be controlled. Some time ago the papers told us about a Californian stage-driver who was dying, and who in his delirium kept on exclaiming, “I am on the down-grade, and I can’t reach the brake.” Many a soul to-day is swinging down the dizzy steep and cannot stop. History teems with warnings. And you need not go to remote days for awakening, convincing examples. “This their way is their folly, yet their posterity fellow in their steps.” Oh I do not join them. Join the noble procession that moves upward, and with them shine as the stars for ever and ever. (W. L. Watkinson.)

Refusing to learn by experience

The power of learning by experience is the special prerogative of man.

1. Birds are endowed with that wondrous thing which we call instinct, about which we know as much when we have so labelled it as we did before; but with all their instinct they have but little power of learning from their own experience. There is no historian amongst them--Done to tell them of the past. So they travel round the same circle, and the last nest of a bird in the millennium shall be the same as the first in Paradise. The lark has never learnt to add one single bar to his carol. As the first did sing when he first broke the stillness of morning, so the last shall warble to the silent night. This power of taking other men’s failures and making them the lamp to guide our feet is reserved for man.

2. It is only when men use this power that it is profitable. The inhabitants of this island began with mud hovels, and they ended with marble palaces! There is Stonehenge, and there is also Westminster Abbey, and what is the cause of the difference?--each generation learning from the other. The wonderful implements for conquering the earth which are now used by agriculturalists are the result of past experience; and the marvellous skill of the medical profession is owing to its members bringing into practice their own knowledge, enriched with that of past ages in respect to medical science. Look at the power which is now possessed of navigating the seas, by means of steam and the mariner’s compass, to that which the ancients possessed. From the rock where one ship is split to pieces is plucked “the flower safety” for others who have to pass that dangerous way.

3. Multitudes fail to use this power of learning from experience in regard to the best, or spiritual things. They ignore past history, and despise the teachings of experience. Though it be proved that a certain way was a foolish one, yet they pursue it. When a young man goes on the path of pleasure you may show him a massive volume filled with the names of young men who have ruined their health by pursuing this path; another volume containing the names of those who have blasted the hope of thousands; and yet another, of those whom this path brought to despondency and they went on the sea of life, no one knows where; but despite of this they will pursue the same road. When the silly moth comes about the flame, how you would like to tell it how many thousands of moths have been killed in the same way; and if it had ears and speech how you would be surprised if it replied to your warning by saying, “Ah! but I am going to try an experiment as to whether I possess fire-proof wings.” (C. Vince.)

Verse 14

Psalms 49:14

Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them!

Two shepherds and two flocks

(with Revelation 7:17):--These two verses have a much closer parallelism in expression than appears in A.. The R.V. renders the former of my texts, “Death shall be their shepherd,” and the latter, “The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd.” The Old Testament psalmist and the blew Testament seer have fallen upon the same image to describe death and the future, but with how different a use! The one paints a grim picture, all sunless and full of shadow; the other dips his pencil in brilliant colours, and suffuses his canvas with a glow as of molten sunlight. The one is speaking of men whose portion is in this life, the other of men who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The grim picture drawn by the psalmist.

1. Death a shepherd! What a grim and bold inversion of a familiar metaphor! “Death is their shepherd.” Yes, but what kind of a shepherd? Not one that gently leads his flock, but one that stalks behind the huddled sheep, and drives them fiercely, club in hand, on a path on which they would not willingly go. The unwelcome necessity, by which men that have their portion in this world are hounded and herded out of all their sunny pastures and abundant feeding, is the thought that underlies the image. Ask yourself the question, Is the course of my life such as that the end of it shall be like that?--a grim necessity which I would do anything to avoid.

2. This first text suggests not only a shepherd, but a fold. “Like sheep they are thrust down to the grave.” He does not mean either the place where the body is deposited, or a place where there is punitive retribution for the wicked, but he means a dim region, or, if I might so say, a localized condition, in which all that have passed through life are gathered, where personality and consciousness continue, but where life is faint, stripped of all that characterizes it here; shadowy, unsubstantial, and where, according to the metaphor, there is inactivity, absolute cessation of all the occupations to which men were accustomed. But there may be restlessness along with inactivity; may there not? And there is no such restlessness as the restlessness of compulsory idleness. That is the main idea that is in the psalmist’s mind.

3. The kind of men whom the grim shepherd drives into that grim fold. The psalmist is speaking of men who have their portion in this life. Of every such man he says, “when he dieth he shall carry nothing away”--none of the possessions, none of the forms of activity which were familiar to him here on earth. He will go into a state where he finds nothing which interests him, and nothing for him to do. Surely there can be no more tragic folly than the folly of letting myself be so absorbed and entangled by this present world as that when the transient has passed I shall feel homeless and desolate, and have nothing that I can do or care about amidst the activities of eternity.

The sunny landscape drawn by the seer. To begin with, note the contrast of the other shepherd. “Death shall be their shepherd.” “The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd.” All Christ’s shepherding on earth and in heaven depends, as do all our hopes for heaven and earth, upon the fact of His sacrificial death. It is only because He is the “Lamb that was slain” that He is either the “Lamb in the midst of the Throne,” or the Shepherd of the flock. He is the Lamb, and He is Shepherd--that suggests not only that the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ is the basis of all His work for us on earth and in heaven, but the very incongruity of the metaphor making one who bears the same nature as the flock to be the Shepherd of the flock, is part of the beauty of the metaphor. They follow Him because He is one of themselves, and He could not be the Shepherd unless He were the Lamb. But then this other Shepherd is not only gracious, sympathetic, kind to us by common participation in a common nature, and fit to be our Guide because He has been our Sacrifice and the propitiation of our sins, but He is the Lamb “in the midst of the throne,” wielding therefore all Divine power, and standing in the middle point between it and the ring of worshippers, and so the Communicator to the outer circumference of all the blessings that dwell in the Divine centre. He shall be their Shepherd, not coercing, not driving by violence, but leading to the fountains of the waters of life, gently and graciously. And it is not compulsory energy which He exercises upon us, either on earth or in heaven, but it is the drawing of a Divine attraction, sweet to put forth and sweet to yield to. There is still another contrast. Death huddled and herded his reluctant sheep into a fold, where they lie inactive but struggling and restless. Christ leads His flock into a pasture. He shall guide them “to the fountains of waters of life.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

The sheep of death

The whole psalm pours contempt on wealth, pursues it with the most incisive and biting irony. Its pictures of the man who devotes his whole life to amassing a treasure of which, when he takes the inevitable journey of death, he cannot carry so much as a single shekel with him; of the man who calls his lands after his own name, as if to cheat death itself, and to secure a bastard immortality, perpetuating his name on earth while he himself perishes in Hades; and of the man who thinks it possible to bribe death, and buy the power “to live on for ever,” are quick with a scorn beyond that of satire. They tremble with a fervid moral indignation and contempt for the folly which can mistake wealth for man’s chief good. Wealth is not man’s chief good; it is wrong, it is wicked, it is a profound and fatal violation of the Divine law and order, to make it the governing and supreme aim of life. For all who do that, even though they violate no human law, end even though they acquire but little of the wealth they seek, the psalmist cherishes a pure, unutterable scorn. To him they are losing the very form and status of men. They are sinking to the level of “beasts that perish”; i.e. they are living as though they had no life but this, as if death were not, as if there were no light beyond the grave. But there is one picture of them, still hidden from us by a thin veil of words, in which his scorn for these brutish people culminates in a figure as terrible, perhaps, as any in the whole range of Scripture. In Psalms 49:14 he depicts them as the “sheep of death.” The opening clauses of the verses, rightly translated, run, “Like sheep they are gathered to Hades; death is their Shepherd” (He who feeds or finds pasture for them; not he who feeds on them). What the psalmist means is that men who make wealth their ruling aim are not simply like the beasts that perish, but are in very deed the sheep of death; that it is death whom they have chosen for their shepherd, instead of God, the Author and Source of life; that it is Death who finds pasture for them while they live, and who, when they die, drives them to his fold in the unseen world. Think of it! The sheep of death--men following that grim shadow to the darkness in which it dwells! And these the men who “bless their souls” (verse18), whom the world praises because they have done good to themselves, whose “sayings” the world quotes and approves after they have gone to their long, dark home! Was there ever a more grisly and dreadful metaphor? And yet is it one whir too dreadful? Is it not true that every man who trusts in riches, or longs for them as his chief good, is pursuing death, not life; has taken for his shepherd “the dark Shadow feared of man,” although he knows it not? Can we not see in that very trust or longing the very brand of death, the private and distinctive mark of that grim Shepherd? (The Expositor.)

Verses 15-20

Psalms 49:15-20

Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased.

Empty-handed we depart

I remember an Eastern legend which I have always thought furnished a remarkable commentary on these words of the psalmist. Alexander the Great, we are told, being upon his death-bed, commanded that when he was carried forth to his grave his hands should not be wrapped, as was usual, in the cerecloth, but should be left outside, so that all might see them, and might see that they were empty; that he, the possessor while he lived of two worlds--of the East and the West,--and of the treasures of both, yet now, when he was dead, could retain no smallest portion of these treasures. (Archbishop Trench.)

A sand sorrow

A story is told of a child crying by the seashore, and when mamma asked nurse the reason, her reply was, “Please, ma’am, it’s because he can’t bring home the holes he has made in the sand.”

“How many weep because they cannot take
To their last home the many holes they make.”

The deepest mines of wealth will have to be left behind. Wells of earthly joy cannot be taken with us. Hast thou buried thy talent? Thou wilt have to leave it.

Psalms 50:1-23

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Psalms 49". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/psalms-49.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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