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Psalm 49

 

STROPHE DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
The Folly of Trusting in Riches
MT Intro
For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah
The Confidence of the Foolish Meditation on the Transience of Life and Wealth The Foolishness of Trusting in Riches The Futility of Wealth
49:1-4 49:1-4 49:1-4 49:1-4 49:1-2
        49:3-4
49:5-9 49:5-9 49:5-9 49:5-9 49:5-6
        49:7-8
        49:9
49:10-12 49:10-12 49:10-12 49:10-12 49:10
        49:11
        49:12-13
49:13-15 49:13-15 49:13-15 49:13-15  
        49:14a-c
        49:14d-15
49:16-20 49:16-20 49:16-20 49:16-18 49:16-17
        49:18-19
      49:19-20  
        49:20

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

 

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

A. Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm (cf. Psalm 37). It is addressed to the covenant community, not to YHWH. It has much more in common with the book of Proverbs than it seems to have with the rest of the Psalter. Note the parallelism and terminology of verses 3-4,10-12,13.

 

B. The subject matter is similar to Psalms 37 and 73 which is basically described as "the two ways"; a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death (cf. Psalm 1 and Deut. 30:1,15,19). The two ways are particularly seen in verses 3 and 5 compared to verse 6.

 

C. The theme is the folly of trusting in human, earthly wealth. This is somewhat surprising because wealth and success were viewed as a sign of YHWH's blessing for covenant obedience (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-30).

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: PSALM 49:1-4
 1Hear this, all peoples;
 Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
 2Both low and high,
 Rich and poor together.
 3My mouth will speak wisdom,
 And the meditation of my heart will be understanding.
 4I will incline my ear to a proverb;
 I will express my riddle on the harp.

49:1 Verse 1 has two parallel imperatives ("hear" [Qal imperative] and "give ear" [Hiphil imperative). It is significant that the author of this Psalm saw that it had universal implications far beyond the boundaries of the Promised Land (cf. Ps. 45:16; 46:10; 47:1-2,7-9; 48:2,10; 49:1; 50:1,4,12, i.e., "all peoples," "all inhabitants of the world"). It must be remembered that Wisdom Literature (see opening Article, p. xxv) was a literary genre well known and popular in the ANE.

49:2 "Both low and high" This is a very common metaphor in Hebrew used to express two extremes, and thereby include everything in between (note parallel "rich and poor"). This phrase itself is very unusual because it literally is "the sons of men" and "the sons of men," but may be a play on two different words for "men." The first one is the word adam (BDB 9), which usually means "mankind." The second one is the word ish (BDB 35), the general term for a male person. It is also possible the two phrases are synonymous (NEB, cf. Ps. 62:9; Isa. 2:9; NET Bible).

49:3 "wisdom. . .understanding" Both of these terms are plural (a plural of majesty), which is a way of expressing a superlative idea. This is the highest wisdom and the deepest understanding. This inspired wisdom teacher speaks God's truth.

NASB, NKJV,
NRSV"meditation"
TEV, REB"thoughts"
NJB"whisper"
JPSOA"speech"
NAB"utterance"

This is the only occurrence of this form of the root, הגה (BDB 212). The basic meaning of the root is "to groan," "to sigh," "to utter."

In this context it refers to the internal thoughts of the psalmist. He may be

1. a sage/philosopher

2. a Levite/singer

3. a priest/theologian

 

49:4 "I will incline my ear to a proverb" This is a striking metaphor of listening intently to a proverb so as to understand its meaning. The term "proverb" (BDB 605) is an ancient wisdom term, which seems to have the concept of a riddle, difficult saying, or mysterious truth. However, the second line of verse 4 may possibly be a way of saying that he is going to state a riddle (BDB 295) and then give its meaning. The two halves of verse 4 seem to show the basic wisdom form. The author will state this truth in a way that the people of his culture/world can understand it.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: PSALM 49:5-9
 5Why should I fear in days of adversity,
 When the iniquity of my foes surrounds me,
 6Even those who trust in their wealth
 And boast in the abundance of their riches?
 7No man can by any means redeem his brother
 Or give to God a ransom for him—
 8For the redemption of his soul is costly,
 And he should cease trying forever—
 9That he should live on eternally,
 That he should not undergo decay.

49:5-9 "Why should I fear in days of adversity" This is the theme which will be developed in this Psalm.

The word "world" (BDB 317) is rare and can mean

1. life — Job 11:17; Ps. 39:5; 89:47

2. world — Ps. 17:14

Remember meaning is determined by contexts not dictionaries/lexicons.

Godly people have always wondered about the unfairness of life (cf. Job, Psalm 73; Habakkuk). Often the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. This seems to violate Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-30. YHWH wanted to use the abundance and prosperity of His people to attract the nations to Himself. However, because of the Fall of Genesis 3, even covenant mankind could not keep the Law. The only prosperity came to violent, greedy, powerful people.

This is not the world that God created it to be. His people did not model His character (cf. Ezek. 36:22-23). Fallen mankind cannot save/redeem themselves or their families, or their neighbors!

49:5 "iniquities of my foes surround me" The KJV has the word "heels" in place of "foes." The literal Hebrew term (BDB 784) seems to relate to Jacob as he held onto his brother's heel as he was born and, therefore, was named the "trickster," "supplanter," or "usurper." This is the concept of the word "foes" here.

49:6 "Even those who trust in their wealth" This verb "trust" (BDB 105, KB 120) occurs mostly in Psalms and Isaiah (cf. Isa. 26:3-4; 30:15). In Psalm 37 we learned that we are to trust in God alone! This verse is the exact opposite, humans trusting in themselves or their material possessions (cf. Job 31:24; Ps. 62:10; Pro. 11:28; 23:4-5; Mark 10:23-31; 1 Tim. 6:17-19).

49:7 "No man can by any means redeem his brother" In Hebrew the term "brother" (BDB 26) appears first for emphasis. NEB, REB, RSV, NRSV change אח (brother) to אך (surely, BDB 36). The UBS Text Project (p. 245) gives "brother" an "A" rating. The Hebrew states that a person cannot redeem (i.e., save, deliver) even himself/herself.

49:7,8 "redeem. . .ransom. . .redemption" There are two Hebrew verbs:

1. "redeem" — BDB 804, KB 911, Qal infinitive absolute and imperfect verb of the same root for emphasis

2. "ransom" (not BDB 145 I) — BDB 678, KB 733, Qal imperfect with BDB 497 I, lit. "a man cannot give to God the price of his life"

Both of them refer to the buying back of someone from slavery or from incarceration as a prisoner of war. See SPECIAL TOPIC: RANSOM/REDEEM at Ps. 19:14.

49:8-9 "For the redemption of his soul is costly,

 And he should cease trying forever" This is a parenthetical thought which emphasizes that no matter how wealthy a man is, the price to pay to prolong life or secure an afterlife, is too high. This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news (cf. Isaiah 53; Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:21)!

Notice the parallelism.

1. he should cease trying forever (BDB 761) — BDB 292, KB 292, Qal perfect with waw

2. he should live on eternally (BDB 664) — BDB 310, KB 309, Qal jussive

3. he should not see the pit (BDB 1001) — BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal imperfect

It is difficult for Christians to interpret texts like this one because we read our NT understandings and definitions of words into these OT contexts. This is originally not related to Isaiah 53 or John 3:16. This is dealing with a long, healthy, prosperous life. Wealth cannot assure this! In a fallen world even covenant obedience could not assure this (i.e., Job, Isaac, Israel).

There are surely some hints of an afterlife in the OT (i.e., Job 14:14-15; 19:25-27; Ps. 16:10; Dan. 12:2), but for the most part the OT deals with this life!

49:8 "costly" In the context of the OT, the cost of ransom/redemption was

1. the death of an innocent animal as a substitute (cf. Leviticus 4) for the sinful soul of a human being or Leviticus 16 for a community of faith

2. in Psalm 51 there was no sacrifice for the intentional sin of David (cf. Lev. 4:2,22,27; 5:15-18; 22:14), so David offered "a broken and contrite heart" (Ps. 51:17)

3. the ultimate cost was paid by "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (cf. John 1:29). This was predicted in Isa. 52:13-53:12 (i.e., the Suffering Servant). This concept of substitutionary atonement was documented by Jesus (cf. Mark 10:45), Paul (cf. Gal. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21), Peter (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21-24), and the author of Hebrews (cf. Heb. 7:26-27; 9:28).

 

49:9 "That he should live on eternally,

 That he should not undergo decay" Here is the problem of wealth. It does not provide ultimate answers. It cannot make a person right with God and it cannot prolong life. Therefore, it is false hope; it is a glimmer that lasts for only a moment and then is gone. The only true light, the only true hope, and the only true life is found in God.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: PSALM 49:10-12
 10For he sees that even wise men die;
 The stupid and the senseless alike perish
 And leave their wealth to others.
 11Their inner thought is that their houses are forever
 And their dwelling places to all generations;
 They have called their lands after their own names.
 12But man in his pomp will not endure;
 He is like the beasts that perish.

49:10 "For he sees that even wise men die;

 The stupid and the senseless alike perish" Although this metaphor is similar to the one found in Eccl. 2:15,16, it is used in a different sense here. Here, the death of all things, including people and animals, is related to their inability to purchase longer life through wealth. There seem to be three different people or groups involved in Ps. 49:10; the wise person, the stupid person, and the senseless person. Because animals are mentioned in vv.12 and 20, some would see them being referred to here in the "senseless" (BDB 129, animal-like, cf. Ps. 73:22).

▣ "And leave their wealth to others" Again, Eccl. 2:18-23 is very helpful. No matter how wealthy a person is, when he/she dies, he/she leaves it all to others.

49:11 "Their inner thought is that their houses are forever" The MT Hebrew text has the idea that the rich person believes he and his wealth will last forever. However, the LXX changes the thought to "their graves are their houses forever." Whichever is correct, it still shows the ultimate folly of trusting in riches.

The UBS Text Project (p. 246) has

1. קרבם — their midst (NASB, "inner thought," BDB 899)

2.קברם — their graves (BDB 868). It gives a "B" rating (some doubt) to option #2 (cf. NJB, REB, JPSOA, LXX, Syrian, Vulgate)

The term "houses" probably refers to elaborately decorated and expensive tombs. These, like the Pharaohs, thought physical monuments to themselves would assure their memory and, in a sense, their immortality.

▣ "They have called their lands after their own names" One way humans try to assure that they will be remembered is by naming geographical locations after themselves (or legal deeds in their names). This, too, is folly, for the names change from age to age.

49:12 "But man in his pomp will not endure" In an attempt to provide a synonymous parallelism in verses 12 and 20, the NEB and REB change —

"in honor" (NASB, "pomp"), ביקר, BDB 430, to

"cattle" (NEB, REB, "oven"), בקר, BDB 133

The UBS Text Project gives "in honor" a "B" rating (some doubt) in verse 12 and an "A" rating (certain) in verse 20. It is obvious that the pride and arrogance of the rich are being emphasized here (cf. Eccl. 3:19-23).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: PSALM 49:13-15
 13This is the way of those who are foolish,
 And of those after them who approve their words. Selah.
 14As sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
 Death shall be their shepherd;
 And the upright shall rule over them in the morning,
 And their form shall be for Sheol to consume
 So that they have no habitation.
 15But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol,
 For He will receive me.  Selah.

49:13 "This is the way of those who are foolish" The foolish refers to either (1) the man who claims to know God but lives as if there is no God or (2) the overtly evil person. There is really no such thing as an atheist in the OT (cf. Isa. 53:1).

"Way" is an OT idiom for lifestyle. See notes at Ps. 1:1.

▣ "And of those after them who approve their words" This refers to those whom the arrogant wealthy influence with their philosophy of life. It may refer to their children, their students, other people who are seeking to be wealthy, or their friends. This is the end result of a false worldview (cf. Matt. 15:14; Luke 6:23).

▣ "Selah" This is a word about which there is much discussion but little unanimity. Some say it refers to

1. a pause

2. a rising crescendo

3. a musical interlude

4. forever, according to the rabbis

The very fact that there are so many interpretations means that no one really knows. See notes at Ps. 3:2 and Introduction to Psalms, VII.

40:14 "As sheep they are appointed for Sheol" The term Sheol refers to "the realm of the dead" in the OT. It was seen as a place of consciousness but there was no joy, no fellowship, and a gloomy prospect of many dark, quiet days. See Special Topic at Ps. 1:6.

▣ "Death shall be their shepherd" Literally this is "death feeds them." What a terrible parallel to the beauty of Ps. 23:1. Death lures those with the pleasures of this world but in the end, it is poison (cf. Proverbs 1-8).

▣ "And the upright shall rule over them" This truth is taught throughout the Bible (cf. Dan. 7:18; Mal. 4:3; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26).

▣ "in the morning" This could refer to

1. the light of God's truth

2. the light of life

3. the concept of the eschatological morning or the break of a new day

The NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 327, has a good list of things represented by "light."

1. salvation — Ps. 27:1; Isa. 49:6

2. prosperity and peace — Isa. 45:7

3. YHWH's covenant — Isa. 42:6

4. justice and righteousness — Isa. 51:4; 59:9

5. blessing — Ps. 89:15

6. God, Himself — Ps. 27:1; Isa. 60:1-3,19-20

7. the Suffering Servant — Isa. 42:6; 49:6

8. Messiah — Isa. 9:2

It is possible to divide the Hebrew consonants differently to "they shall go straight to the grave" (NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 713). This fits the central truth of the strophe better (NRSV, REB).

The verb "consume" (BDB 115, KB 132, Piel infinitive construct) is literally "wear out." So the thought of the line is

1. Sheol will eat them (metaphor for Sheol as an animal with a voracious appetite or an allusion to the Canaanite god of death, Mot; see NASB Study Bible, p. 785, footnote and AB, p. 300).

2. The body will disintegrate to dust, as all bodies do after death (NRSV, TEV, JPSOA).

 

49:15 "But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol,

 For He will receive me" What a tremendous truth! Notice the personal element — "me"! Here we have the beginning of the affirmation of an afterlife (or an intimate fellowship with God here and now throughout life and the confidence it will continue!), based, not on the works of man, but on the love of God. Here, personal faith, as well as a life of obedience and trust, are rewarded with eternality with our God (see notes at Ps. 23:6).

The term "receive" (BDB 542, KB 534) was used in Gen. 5:24 of Enoch. He was translated into YHWH's presence!

For Sheol see notes at Ps. 6:5 and 9:13.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: PSALM 49:16-20
 16Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich,
 When the glory of his house is increased;
 17For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
 His glory will not descend after him.
 18Though while he lives he congratulates himself—
 And though men praise you when you do well for yourself—
 19He shall go to the generation of his fathers;
 They will never see the light.
 20Man in his pomp, yet without understanding,
 Is like the beasts that perish.

49:17 "For when he dies he will carry nothing away" This is the truth that those who trust in wealth will leave it all at death (cf. 1 Tim. 6:7). Revelation 13:14 tells us that good deeds will follow after those who have lived for God. There is a book of life and a book of deeds (see Special Topic at Ps. 9:5). God will reward those who have loved and served Him. Judgment day is coming—for those who know our God it will be a day of rewards, but for those who have trusted in themselves, it will be a day of eternal separation (cf. Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 20:11-15).

▣ "His glory" This Hebrew word (BDB 458 II) can mean

1. abundance

2. honor

3. glory

 

▣ "descend" This verb (BDB 432, KB 434, Qal imperfect) denotes the belief that the dead are in the ground or in the earth. See SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead? at Ps. 1:6. This would be a way of expressing a descent into the realm of the dead. OT Semites buried their dead loved ones.

49:18 "Though while he lives he congratulates himself" This verse obviously is related to the bragging arrogance of those who trust in their own resources. But flattery is illusionary. God's world is moral and each will give an account unto God (cf. Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:31-46; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 20:11-15).

For "himself" (lit. nephesh) see notes at Ps. 3:2.

49:19 "He shall go to the generation of his fathers" This refers to the fact that in the OT burial was often done in family tombs, caves. This is an OT allusion for being buried with the family.

▣ "They shall never see the light" This probably refers to the same concept as Ps. 49:14. It could mean the light of life, the light of truth, but possibly it could mean the darkness of Sheol—the dwelling place of those who do not know our God (cf. Job 3:16; 33:28,30; Ps. 36:9).

49:20 This is exactly the same as verse 12 and is a fitting summary to the Psalm. It is pitiful but a true picture of a lost man as he stands wrapped in his own resources (cf. Matt. 7:13-14).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did a Jewish sage desire to speak to the entire world?

2. What reasons does the psalmist give for not fearing in the days of adversity?

3. Explain the term "redeem."

4. How is this Psalm related to Ecclesiastes?

5. What is Sheol?

6. What is the theological implication of verse 15?