A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
Psalm 49 is another of the psalms of the sons of Korah. As we said before, the sons of Korah were singers, so it is hard to say if one or more of them wrote this psalm, or if it was merely dedicated to be sung by them. This psalm is a consideration of the ultimate fate of all and the foolishness of the wicked who trust only in this life.
1. Hear this, all peoples;
The psalmist calls upon all peoples to hear his words. This reminds us of the words of wisdom given in the book of Proverbs, as it cries in the streets in Proverbs 1:20:
20. Wisdom calls aloud outside;
She raises her voice in the open squares.
So this psalmist raises his voice for all to hear, and calls upon all to consider the wisdom he is setting forth.
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Again the psalmist calls upon all inhabitants of the world to give their ears over to hearing his words. The word for “world” here is the Hebrew cheled, which emphasizes the transitory nature of the world. We might make it “all inhabitants of this temporary world.”
2. Both low and high,
He calls on the low in rank and position to listen along with the high. In Hebrew, this is ben adam and ben ish. Adam, of course, is man as a race descended from the first man Adam. Ish can be used for a man in contrast with a woman, and sometimes is translated “husband.” It can also be used for a “high” man, as here, in contrast with ordinary men. The phrase “man of God” would always use ish, and when God appears in the Old Testament and is described as a “man,” it is always ish. Here, it is both ordinary men and extraordinary ones who are called upon to listen.
Rich and poor together.
He calls upon the rich in money and power and the poor in the same to listen together. Often the poor and the rich like to hear different things, but the wisdom the psalmist is about the set forth is applicable to and gives warning to both.
3. My mouth shall speak wisdom,
The psalmist promises that the things he is about to speak are wisdom. This is the same Hebrew word, chokmowth, as in Proverbs 1:20, though this is a rare word that occurs only five times.
And the meditation of my heart shall give understanding.
The things the psalmist is about to speak are not things he has come up with on the spur of the moment, but are things that he has meditated on much in his heart. He has pondered these things himself, and now he calls upon his audience to ponder the same things, knowing that they will get the benefit of understanding if they do so.
4. I will incline my ear to a proverb;
The psalmist will bend his own ear to hear the proverb that he will speak, for the wisdom it contains affects him as well. The word “proverb” here is the Hebrew mashal, and is the same word that is used in the book of Proverbs many times.
I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.
We are not to be deceived by the fact that he is singing the things he is saying and playing the harp as he sets them forth. These are dark sayings, and contain much truth, if we will learn from them.
The Hebrew word for “dark saying” is chiydah, and is the same word as is in Proverbs 1:6:
6. To understand a proverb and an enigma,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
The word is most often translated “riddle,” and is also translated “hard sayings.” It indicates a thought which is obscure or hard to understand, or, in this case, hard for men to grasp and live according to it.
5. Why should I fear in the days of evil,
He asks why he should fear in the days of evil? The word for “evil” here is ra’a. It does not mean “wickedness,” as we think of evil, but rather calamity. This might seem like a foolish question to us. Of course, we should be afraid when the days of calamity come upon us. No one wants to face calamity, and when one sees his life, or at least part of his life, falling into ruin, it seems natural to be afraid. Fear of the future seems obvious, or fear of what the rest of my life will be like. Why should one not fear in the days of calamity? But I think we know the answer to this: because of our God, and the hope we have in Him.
When the iniquity at my heels surrounds me?
In the New King James Version, this is ambiguous as to what this iniquity is. Does the psalmist mean his own iniquity is catching up with him? But other English versions all seem to take this as meaning his enemies are catching up with him. They are the ones bringing his calamity upon him. It seems like one should have a proper fear of his enemies, particularly when they show that they do have power to bring calamity upon you. Yet the psalmist is not afraid, and, as I said above, we know why.
6. Those who trust in their wealth
The psalmist contrasts himself with those who trust in their money and possessions. If this were the psalmist’s trust, then he certainly would have reason to fear in the day of calamity!
And boast in the multitude of their riches,
It is the multitude of their riches that these men boast in, not in the LORD. Yet this boasting will not do for them when their enemies are at their heals the same thing that the psalmist’s boast will do for him!
7. None of them can by any means redeem his brother,
Yet when the day comes that a loved one of theirs, like a brother, is facing death, all their wealth and riches will not allow them to redeem him from calamity. In that day, they will see that in which they trusted fail them, and that in which they boasted prove ineffectual to redeem.
The Companion Bible points out that some codices read “surely” instead of “brother,” which would make this, “Surely no man can redeem, nor give to God atonement for himself.” Yet this is not to say that this is the correct reading, only a possible alternative.
Nor give to God a ransom for him—
They might like it well if they could just give God a ransom, and he would spare their brothers from death. Yet God does not accept such ransoms. Their wealth will do them no good as they face the last end of men in this world!
8. For the redemption of their souls is costly,
The idea of “costly” here seems to be that of something that is highly valued and much sought after. All men wish to somehow be ransomed from death, and wish they could find some price they could pay to achieve this. Yet we know that the true price of redemption was costly indeed, and the Son of God gave His life to achieve it.
And it shall cease forever—
The meaning of this phrase is difficult. The idea seems to be that the reason rich men wish they could ransom their brothers from death is that they do not wish their souls to cease forever. The word “ever” here is a translation of the Hebrew word olam, which has to do with the outflow. When a man dies, his soul ceases for the outflow or perpetually, and he shall not be again until his soul is restored in the resurrection. This will happen to a man eventually no matter how much wealth he has or whatever ransom he tries to offer to God that he might keep on living.
9. That he should continue to live eternally,
The rich man desires to ransom himself that he might continue to live perpetually. Yet he will find that, though wealth might buy him many things, it cannot buy him this!
And not see the Pit.
The idea of the “Pit” here seems to be the grave, which he is striving with all his might to avoid, yet which will come upon him regardless of all his efforts.
10. For he sees wise men die;
These rich fear death because they see that even wise men die. Even their wisdom, so valuable for helping them through life, can do nothing to aid them in avoiding death.
Likewise the fool and the senseless person perish,
It is not wisdom which is at fault, however, for the fool and the senseless person perish as well. Avoiding wisdom does not help them!
And leave their wealth to others.
So whether foolish or wise, these men die, and leave what wealth they had to others. This terrifies those whose trust is in their wealth, rather than in God!
The Companion Bible points out that the word “leave” is a homonym, which can also mean “fortify.” In this case, it would say, “and fortify the wealth of others.” With a homonym, both meanings might carry truth.
11. Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever,
Another thing these wealthy try to do is that, though they know their own lives will not last forever, they imagine their houses will last for the outflow after them. This comforts them that something of themselves will remain perpetually. Yet this too is an empty hope.
Their dwelling places to all generations;
This repeats the previous phrase for emphasis, as is often done in Hebrew poetry. These rich men imagine the places they dwell will be passed down in their family to all generations to come.
They call their lands after their own names.
In light of this hope, they name their lands after themselves, hoping that this will somehow keep their memories alive and keep them from being forgotten to history.
12. Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain;
In spite of all these hopes of theirs, even honorable men do not remain after their lifetimes are through. The word “man” here is adam, man as part of Adam’s race, created from the dust. Certainly, this word makes sense in context, when we read what happens to him in the following phrase.
He is like the beasts that perish.
A man might be honored in his life, but when he dies he is no different than a beast. A man and his dog might both die in a house fire, and which would be the better off? Neither, certainly, for both are dead. It doesn’t matter what honors and privileges the man might have had over the dog in life. Now, in death, they are both reduced to the same state.
This is the truth of the Bible on the matter, but it is not a truth that men like to believe. Much of Christian theology is designed with the purpose of utterly denying this. They wish to believe that the man is either much better or much worse off than the dog when he dies, for the dog has ceased to exist, whereas the man is now either enjoying eternal bliss in heaven or eternal misery in hell. Yet this is not the testimony of the Word of God. The Bible declares that the man is no better off than the dog in death. The only difference between them is that the man will be raised from the dead to take his place in the judgment. Yet until that time, they are both alike dead, and if it were not for the resurrection, man would end in death just like the beast.
13. This is the way of those who are foolish,
This, the psalmist tells us, is the way of those who are foolish. They are constantly trying to avoid or deny the awful reality of death that will someday come upon them. Yet this is foolish, for nothing, and certainly neither wealth nor honor, can allow a man to avoid that dread reality.
And of their posterity who approve their sayings. Selah
Yet in spite of their foolishness and their eventual deaths, which prove their foolishness, their posterity arise and approve of the foolish sayings of their now-dead fathers, comforting themselves the same way.
The word “selah” here connects the fact of their coming death in verse 14 with their thought in verse 11 and the folly of it displayed in verses 12 and 13.
14. Like sheep they are laid in the grave;
For all their efforts, for all their force of will and power of personality, for all their fortunes and all their schemes to avoid death, yet these men are laid in the grave like sheep, and in death they make not the smallest protest.
The word “grave” here is the Hebrew word Sheol, which means the state of death with resurrection still in view. Of course, men are not “laid” in the death state, but then, neither are sheep. The point is their meekness and lack of resistance once death has actually taken them.
Death shall feed on them;
Again this is obviously poetic, for death is not a creature that can eat or feed on anything. The idea would seem to be that their flesh will rot away as if it is being eaten by death, once they are dead and all their efforts to avoid that state have come to nothing. Yet the word for “feed” is the Hebrew ra’ah, which means “to shepherd.” Having death as one’s shepherd is surely the opposite of having the LORD as one’s shepherd, as in Psalm 23. When death is one’s shepherd, one will find himself shepherded into Sheol!
The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
This statement seems almost out of place. Of course, the next morning after their deaths, there will be upright men still alive, which will give them a great advantage over these rich godless men. Yet there will be wicked men alive the next morning after they die as well, and there is no guarantee that they will be buried by upright men rather than wicked ones. There can be little doubt but that this refers, not to the next morning after their deaths, but rather to the resurrection morning. Then, the upright righteous will have their dominion, whereas these men who trusted in riches will be put down.
And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling.
The beauty of these godless men, whatever it might have been, consumes away with them in Sheol. For some, this beauty might be literal, for some do die young and wealthy. For others, it might be the splendor of their wealth or the luster of their reputation or the majesty of their political power. Yet when these men die, all these things go down to the state of death with them, and waste away along with them far from the lofty places where once men marveled at them.
15. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave,
The psalmist trusts in God, not in wealth, so he contrasts himself with these men. He knows that God will redeem his soul from the hand (or power) of Sheol. He trusts in the life to come, and does not fear the loss of all he has in this life, knowing that God will give him back all this and more in the life to come.
For He shall receive me. Selah
The psalmist is confident that God will receive him alive out of Sheol. His relationship with God makes him confident in this, and he knows he will not be turned away. May all of us have similar confidence! To know you have another life from God when this one is done is a precious knowledge indeed!
The word “selah” here connects the true hope of the Godly in verse 15 with the emptiness of the hope of men who trust in riches in verse 16.
16. Do not be afraid when one becomes rich,
The psalmist urges those who hear him not to be frightened or in awe of one when he becomes rich. Men in this world always look on such men as on a different level than the rest of us, be they ever so wicked and ever so godless.
When the glory of his house is increased;
Likewise, he urges us not to fear a man when the glory or esteem of his house increases among men. Such houses might have increasing power in this world, but this is no sign of any power or glory at all with God.
17. For when he dies he shall carry nothing away;
The reason one should not be afraid of those who become rich is that they will not be able to carry those things away with them when they die. Death is the great equalizer, and when they die, any advantage they gained in this life will have been lost. At that time, when only God can raise one from the dead, only the things that have been done for or against God will be significant. All the riches and power one might have collected will be meaningless. They will be utterly unable to save such a one from death.
His glory shall not descend after him.
All the honor this man achieved for himself and his house shall not descend after him either. What good will it ultimately do the man if his dead body is laid in state or laid in shame? For he is beyond the enjoyment of such things. Moreover, whatever honor he had with men will be inconsequential in the sight of God.
18. Though while he lives he blesses himself
The word “blessed” is far from having a plain meaning in English. The Hebrew word here is barak, and means “to speak well of.” From the next clause, we learn that this means that he caused others to lavish on him this praise, for certainly the rich are able to gather “yes men” around themselves who will praise them as much as they wish.
The word “himself” here is actually “his soul” in Hebrew. It means the man himself here, so the New King James translators have correctly interpreted the word, though perhaps it would have been better if they had simply translated it.
(For men will praise you when you do well for yourself),
The psalmist assures us that men will praise you when you do well for yourself, as most of us have probably observed. So this man had seen to it that he received the praises of men in this life.
19. He shall go to the generation of his fathers;
Yet ultimately this rich man will go the same way the generation of his fathers went: into death. They were poor, yet he has become rich, and that might have exalted him in this life. Yet when he dies, he is found to be no better off than they were, since he ended up the same way.
They shall never see light.
The Hebrew here might more accurately be put “they shall not perpetually see light.” This does not mean that they will not be raised from the dead, for we believe that there is a resurrection, both of the just and of the unjust. Yet these wicked men, when raised from the dead, shall be judged and then returned to death as unworthy of life in God’s kingdom. Therefore, they shall not see the light of the kingdom eon as it flows on in grace and truth.
20. A man who is in honor, yet does not understand,
There is nothing inherently wrong with honor in this life, and some very godly men have enjoyed it. The problem is a man who is in honor, and yet who does not understand the truth of God, and the reality that honor in this life is fleeting.
Is like the beasts that perish.
A man who is like this ends up like the beasts that perish. That is not to say that he will not be raised from the dead, of course, but that his ultimate end will be similar to that of animals: no hope of eonian life, but instead the silence of death perpetually. This is the powerful conclusion of the psalmist’s argument. You need not fear or be dismayed when you see a wicked man gaining riches and honor, because ultimately you are seeing the prelude to a dead man, one who will remain with the beasts in death.