Psalm 49 is in many ways a curious psalm in terms of its location within the Book of Psalms, and is a rather obscure psalm despite being of interest in terms of its meaning. As the last psalm in the first series of the Sons of Korah, this psalm is (not surprisingly) greatly focused on matters of the end, like death and judgment and salvation. Whichever among the Sons of Korah who composed this particular meditation had a great deal to say that is of interest in general salvation, and not only of interest to the people of Israel. By providing a distinctive examination of the question of death and salvation and judgement, this psalm is one of the typically serious hymns from the Sons of Korah within their collection.
Among biblical writings, Psalm 49 approaches Ecclesiastes in terms of its deep and melancholy reflection on the temporary nature of mankind and the futility of our hopes and plans. The psalmist is particularly pointed in his examination of the folly of mankind and in the need for redemption for sins for all mankind. If Psalm 49 would have appeared as a lengthy exposition in the epistles of Paul or the writings of John, no one would have batted an eye, but appearing as it does about a third of the way through the book of Psalms, its impact is diluted simply because few people tend to look for doctrinal wisdom (which this song contains) from the psalms. Fortunately, I happen to be one of those few people, so we will look for matters of judgment and salvation and reflections on death here for their doctrinal importance, while recognizing them as psalms with musical qualities.
Psalm 49 is divided into several sections, some of which share common refrains (for example, see “He is like the beasts that perish” in Psalm 49:12, 20). Each of these sections contains worthwhile reflection on the most serious questions people wrestle with–the purpose and ultimate fate of their lives. Rather than denying death or wallowing it, the psalmist of Psalm 49 examines death and judgment from the point of view of a tragic optimist, looking at death as the frustration of our hopes and plans but also looking forward to eternal life as a believer. This combination of realism and optimism makes Psalm 49 a particularly notable examination of a strong biblical understanding of God’s judgment that is reflected in the writings of the Apostle John in Revelation, a rare and notable case of such a mature perspective on the final judgment.
Psalm 49:1-4 reads as follows: “Hear this, all peoples; give year, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall give understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.” Like Psalm 87 , Psalm 49 makes it clear that its intended audience is all people on the earth. The psalmist makes it clear that no one is excluded from the message about judgment and (potential) salvation–ethnicity, class, and wealth are of no importance when it comes to facing God in judgment. All will stand before God and be accountable for their words and actions without exception. The psalmist then comments that he is providing wisdom, which marks Psalm 49 as a “wisdom psalm,” which is particularly meditative in quality, a sort of thoughtful and philosophical blog post of the ancient world set to the music of the harp for others to hear and understand. The psalmist makes it clear that his work is a proverb and a meditation as well as a dark saying, dealing as it does with death. The psalmist, even before discussing his subject, makes it clear what he has written and that his message is for everyone to hear.
Psalm 49:5-9 reads: “Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity at my heels surrounds me? Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches, none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him–for the redemption of their souls is costly, and it shall cease forever–that he should continue to live eternally, and not see the Pit.” In light of the darkness of this psalm, the bravery of the psalmist is commendable. When faced with the reality of death, and the fact that no one is wealthy enough to buy an escape from death or to pay the price of their sins, the psalmist places his trust in God since wealth is futile in seeking redemption from the grave. Since we have all sinned and are all deserving of death, and since the price of our souls (lives) is far greater than any of us can pay, a price which ultimately required the death of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, our faith and trust must be in heavenly things since our own possessions are ultimately of no lasting value.
Psalm 49:10-12 reads: “For he sees wise men die; likewise the fool and the senseless person perish, and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever, their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.” The psalmist here confronts one of the primary differences between mankind and animals, and in the tragic nature of mankind in that we recognize death as mocking all of our hopes for eternity while we still strive to have our houses endure forever. The psalmist honestly reflects on the fact that mankind is more honored than the animals because of our capacity for reason and the fact that we were created in the image and likeness of God, but also honestly points out the reality of our death, the end of our dynasties, and the fact that our arrogance in naming lands after ourselves and our families and our nations is an exercise in hubris that is destined to fail because we will all pass and our deeds will no longer be remembered on this planet, if they were ever known.
Psalm 49:13-15 reads: “This is the way of those who are foolish, and of their posterity who approve their sayings. Selah. Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for she shall receive me. Selah.” Here, the psalmist reflects on the different ultimate fate of the foolish and the upright. As a wisdom psalm, there is a contrast between the wisdom of the godly psalmist and the folly of those who reject God’s ways. While all must die, the psalmist trusts that he will be raised from the grave and received into the Kingdom of heaven, as one of the upright whose job it will be to reign on earth as kings and priests. This is a typically “New Testament” understanding, found in the heart of the “Old Covenant” times of ancient Israel, a knowledge that would not be out of place coming from Paul or John or any of the other writers of the apostolic era. The wisdom that the psalmist knew some 3000 or so years ago is still valid today as a believer.
Psalm 49:16-20 reads: “Do not be afraid when one becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he shall carry nothing away; his glory shall not descend after him. Tough while he lives he blesses himself (for men will praise you when you do well for yourself), he shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light. A man who is in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts that perish.” In his closing, the author continues the bravery of his opening (pointing to the chiastic nature of the psalm), showing once again that wealth is temporary and so there is no need to be upset or afraid when an unworthy and dishonorable person receives wealth and influence (Haman in Esther comes readily to mind, though there are many other exmaples in our present world and throughout the melancholy course of human history) because that wealth and influence will not continue indefinitely and will eventually pass away when that person dies and goes to their fathers in the grave. All of the honor and glory that human beings have, if it does not lead to eternal life, is of no more lasting value than the lives of the beasts and animals that we pride ourselves on being so superior to. And yet the author does not fall into despair because his trust is in God and not his own glory or power or riches.
This psalm is full of rich irony and ought to be reflected deeply, especially by those of us who come from propserous cultures, even if within our own culture we are not particularly well off. All of our money cannot buy our salvation, nor will God except our treasures and resources as payment for the sins that we have committed when we face Him in judgment. Only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the costliest of all ransoms, is acceptable as the propitiation of our sins, the payment of the debt we owe because of our corruption and weakness and unbelief. Therefore all human beings, being created in the image of God and being accountable to Him for judgment. Instead of feeling a sense despair about this fact, the author is hopeful and confident in his salvation, even as he honestly recognizes the sting of death here and now. We would all do well to appropriate that courage and that balanced mindset for ourselves, lest our reflections on death lead us into despair or lest we think that our wealth and honor and dignity will pass on forever after us to our children and our children’s children.