1 For the director.[b] A psalm of the sons of Korah.
2 [c]Hear this, all you peoples;
listen carefully, all you inhabitants of the world,
3 whether lowborn or highborn,
rich and poor alike.
4 My mouth will speak words of wisdom,
and the utterance of my heart[d] will give understanding.
5 I will listen carefully to a proverb,
and with the harp[e] I will interpret my riddle.
6 Why should I be afraid in evil times
when I am beset by the wickedness of my foes,[f]
7 those who place their trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
8 [g]For no one can ever redeem himself
or pay a ransom to God for his release.
9 The price to ransom a life would be too costly;
no one would ever have enough
10 to enable him to live on forever
and avoid being consigned to the pit.
11 [h]For all can see that the wise die,
just as the foolish and the stupid also pass away,
and all leave their wealth to others.[i]
12 Their graves are their eternal homes,
their dwelling places for all generations,
even though they had named lands after themselves.
13 Despite his riches,
a man cannot escape death;
he is like the beasts that perish.[j]
14 Such is the destiny of those who trust in themselves alone,
the fate of those who are pleased with their lot.[k] Selah
15 Like sheep[l] they are destined for the netherworld,
with death as their shepherd.
They descend straight to the grave
where their bodies will waste away;
the netherworld will be their home.
16 But God will ransom me from the netherworld;
he will take me[m] to himself. Selah
17 [n]Do not be afraid when someone becomes rich
and the splendor of his house increases.
18 When he dies, he will take nothing with him;
his wealth will not accompany him below.[o]
19 Although during his lifetime he considered himself blessed:
“They will praise me because I have done well,”
20 he will end up joining the company of his ancestors
who will never again see the light.[p]
21 Despite his riches,
a man who does not have wisdom
is like the beasts that perish.[q]
- Psalm 49:1 The psalmist meditates on the vanity of riches and the problem of retribution (see Pss 37; 73), after introducing his discourse with a solemnity that is somewhat pretentious. He believes that he has the answer to the problems that torment many (though they are still far from experiencing the crisis of Job). Certainly, fortune is powerless to save the rich from the clutches of death, and no one can buy escape from death; on the contrary, the poor are “filled” because God pays for them what the rich cannot offer despite all their wealth.
The author also seems convinced that death cannot take away from him the divine friendship. The lot of the righteous cannot be the same as that of the wicked, for he suspects (without knowing how to imagine it) that the former will receive some kind of liberation at God’s hand (v. 16).
In praying this psalm, we should be mindful that riches cannot assure our physical life and constitute an obstacle to our spiritual life. However, if we remain united with Christ, who has conquered death, we will rise with him (1 Cor 15:45f).
- Psalm 49:1 For the director: these words are thought to be a musical or liturgical notation. Sons of Korah: see note on Ps 42:1.
- Psalm 49:2 Solemn introduction: the first part (vv. 2-3) recalls the Prophets (see 1 Ki 22:28; Isa 34:1; Mic 1:2) and the second (vv. 4-5) recalls Ps 78:2; Job 33:4; 34:19; Prov 8:4f.
- Psalm 49:4 See Mt 12:34. Heart: see note on Ps 4:8.
- Psalm 49:5 The psalmist alludes to a kind of inspiration: since all wisdom is from God (see Job 28), he lent his ear to hear it; at the same time, he makes use of the harp, the instrument that accompanied prophesying (see 1 Sam 10:5f; 2 Ki 3:15).
- Psalm 49:6 The psalmist stresses that there is no reason to fear the wicked, for they place their trust in their wealth—which is powerless to save them from God (see vv. 8-10).
- Psalm 49:8 Wealth is useless to evade death; only God has the power to bring it about (see v. 16; 116:15; Job 33:24-26; Prov 11:4; Ezek 7:19; Mt 16:26; Rom 3:24). A wealthy person may live lavishly and give the impression that he will live forever. However, he too must at some point face death—which is a separation from the land of the living, from all life’s comforts, and from social and economic advantages. Pit: a synonym for the netherworld (see Ps 16:10) that signifies death and perhaps retribution for evil done during life (see Ps 94:13).
- Psalm 49:11 Those who have amassed wealth for themselves (see Lk 12:20) or those who have rejected the voice of wisdom (see Prov 1:17f) are the foolish and the stupid. These have taken pains to ensure their memory by naming property after themselves but will be remembered only by the names engraved on their tombs (v. 12; see Isa 22:16). They will perish, forever bereft of their wealth.
- Psalm 49:11 A passage very close to Eccl 2:16 (see Pss 39:7; 92:7f).
- Psalm 49:13 The psalmist states that death is an inevitable part of earthly existence. He says nothing about life beyond death or the difference between human and animal life.
- Psalm 49:14 The psalmist does not condemn riches in themselves but only the attitude of self-sufficiency so often associated with wealth, which then leads to insensitivity, scheming, deception, and arrogance (see Jas 5:1-6) in both the rich and their followers.
- Psalm 49:15 Like sheep: death has become their shepherd, leading them to the grave. They descend . . . waste away: an alternative text is: “The upright will rule over them in the morning, / and their bodies will waste away.” In the morning: the customary time for eschatological judgments and the triumph of the righteous (see Pss 17:15; 46:5; 101:8; Song 2:17; Isa 17:14).
- Psalm 49:16 Take me: this is the same Hebrew verb that is used for God “taking up” his favored servants: Enoch (see Gen 5:24), Elijah (see 2 Ki 2:11f), and the righteous person (see Ps 73:24). The psalmist thus harbors the hope that God will rescue the righteous from the grave in some way. This hope will become stronger in Israel, as later Books show (see 2 Mac 7:9f; 12:44f; 14:46; Wis 2:23; 3:9; 6:19; Dan 12:2).
- Psalm 49:17 Faith enables the godly to avoid fearing anything that is transitory. Riches, splendor, and praise (garnered from self or from others) make no difference in the grave. Although wealth can protect one from the rigors of life, it is powerless against death, a place of utter darkness without even a ray of hope (light).
- Psalm 49:18 In contrast, God will glorify the righteous (see Pss 62:8; 73:24; 91:15; 1 Sam 2:30; Wis 3:7; 1 Tim 6:6-8).
- Psalm 49:20 See note on Ps 27:1.
- Psalm 49:21 The psalmist indicates that the godly who are wealthy are different from the senseless rich. Godly persons have understanding about riches as well as about their own mortality and about God, and they act accordingly.