An oracle of Korahite wisdom: “People who boast of their wealth don’t understand; they will die, just like animals.” ~Psalm 49:20 (NLT).
Comfort is always gathered at the foot of such an oracle as the one above. As we cling to our grasp of this world, endeavouring to find our purpose in the swirling breeze of life, the wisdom of God grounds us peacefully in tranquil grace, and we envy less.
Psalm 49 fits with solidity in the Wisdom genre, with Psalms 1, 37, 73, 112, 119, 127, 133, and even 139. Parts of these psalms may, in fact, read like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. The great thing about the forty-ninth psalm is its simplicity of theme and its clear directive purpose.
A Call to Hear
The opening appeal of the psalm, in verses 1-4, gives us an important clue; this is a barking wisdom oracle, and the ‘speaker’ insists on being heard. Their message is an urgent one.
This opening is intentioned to draw the notice of all who might perceive.
The Sweet Trickle of Wisdom
Verses 5-9 find the psalmist in a reflectively resolute mood.
He knows there is no need, and no point, to fear. He sees right now from a strangely balanced viewpoint; the transience of life, and the ‘blessings’ of wealth, have lost their glint.
The persecutor trusts in their wealth and the psalmist knows that his success and celebration will be short lived. He commends it better to cast an eye over eternity; to focus on transcending himself rather than bonding with the world.
The Value of Worldly Life Is Exaggerated
Drawing closer to the climax, verses 10-12 discuss death and graves and dwelling places chosen. Very reminiscent of Ecclesiastes are these specific oracles—we read them and we are shocked at the irony of how truthful they are and how dark life seems.
It is our human nature to trust in our wealth, to focus on our status, to revere fame, and to cherish things in numbers—more followers, more friends, more ‘influence’.
But, what for?
That is the psalmist’s implicit question.
Do Not Be Pleased With What You Have!
There is a verse that stands alone. That is verse 13. There is a paragraph break after verse 12 and a Selah after verse 13. The psalmist meant for us, perhaps, to seriously reflect over this pithy proverb:
“Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot.”
~Psalm 49:13 (NRSV).
It’s a fact that we live in a reverse life. Whenever we are proudly pleased with our lot or how we think things are turning out, we’re due for a fall.
The fate of the foolhardy is the same as the pauper.
A Question of Faith – The Faithful Will Be Vindicated
The psalmist breaks through with a rare buoyant positive in verse 15, which is immediately followed by another Selah—pause for reflection.
The Lord will ransom the soul of the faithful from Sheol.
A fresh confidence underpins the words following. The psalmist is acutely blessed to have been shown the truth in the way of life, such that they might make decisions for wisdom and not out of envy.
The proud success of the ungodly will not last; soon they will plummet and be disconnected from their riches. The person who trusts in the Wisdom of life, however, will live forever. True riches they will receive!
© 2011 S. J. Wickham.