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Psalm 49

The Folly of Trust in Riches

To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.

1

Hear this, all you peoples;

give ear, all inhabitants of the world,

2

both low and high,

rich and poor together.

3

My mouth shall speak wisdom;

the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

4

I will incline my ear to a proverb;

I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

 

5

Why should I fear in times of trouble,

when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,

6

those who trust in their wealth

and boast of the abundance of their riches?

7

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,

there is no price one can give to God for it.

8

For the ransom of life is costly,

and can never suffice,

9

that one should live on forever

and never see the grave.

 

10

When we look at the wise, they die;

fool and dolt perish together

and leave their wealth to others.

11

Their graves are their homes forever,

their dwelling places to all generations,

though they named lands their own.

12

Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;

they are like the animals that perish.

 


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1. Hear this, all ye people. Whoever may have been the penman of this psalm, it discusses one of the most important principles in divine philosophy, and there is a propriety in the elevated terms designed to awaken and secure attention, with which the Psalmist announces his purpose to discourse of things of a deep and momentous nature. To a superficial view, indeed, the subject might seem trite and common-place, treating, as he does, of the shortness of human life, and the vanity of those objects in which worldly men confide. But the real scope of the psalm is, to comfort the people of God under the sufferings to which they are exposed, by teaching them to expect a happy change in their condition, when God, in his own time, shall interpose to rectify the disorders of the present system. There is a higher lesson still inculcated by the Psalmist — that, as God’s providence of the world is not presently apparent, we must exercise patience, and rise superior to the suggestions of carnal sense in anticipating the favorable issue. That it is our duty to maintain a resolute struggle with our afflictions, however severe these may be, and that it were foolish to place happiness in the enjoyment of such fleeting possessions as the riches, honors, or pleasures of this world, may be precepts which even the heathen philosophers have enforced, but they have uniformly failed in setting before us the true source of consolation. However admirably they discourse of a happy life, they confine themselves entirely to commendations upon virtue, and do not bring prominently forward to our view that God, who governs the world, and to whom alone we can repair with confidence in the most desperate circumstances. But slender comfort can be derived upon this subject from the teaching of philosophy. If, therefore, the Holy Ghost in this psalm introduces to our notice truths which are sufficiently familiar to experience, it is that he may raise our minds from them to the higher truth of the divine government of the world, assuring us of the fact, that God sits supreme, even when the wicked are triumphing most in their success, or when the righteous are trampled under the foot of contumely, and that a day is coming when he will dash the cup of pleasure out of the hands of his enemies, and rejoice the hearts of his friends, by delivering them out of their severest distresses. This is the only consideration which can impart solid comfort under our afflictions. Formidable and terrible in themselves, they would overwhelm our souls, did not the Lord lift upon us the light of his countenance. Were we not assured that he watches over our safety, we could find no remedy from our evils, and no quarter to which we might resort under them.

The remarks which have been made may explain the manner in which the inspired writer introduces the psalm, soliciting our attention, as about to discourse on a theme unusually high and important. Two things are implied in this verse, that the subject upon which he proposes to enter is of universal application, and that we require to be admonished and aroused ere we are brought to a due measure of consideration. The words which I have translated, inhabitants of the world, are translated by others, inhabitants of time; but this is a harsh mode of expression, however much it may agree with the scope of the psalm. He calls upon all men indiscriminately, because all were equally concerned in the truths which he intended to announce. By sons of Adam, we may understand the meaner or lower class of mankind; and by sons of men, 212212     The original words for the first of these expressions are, בני אדם bene adam; and those for the second, בני איש bene ish אדם, adam, from אדמה, adamah, earth, means an earthly, frail, mortal, mean man. The term איש, ish, on the other hand, is often used to describe a man who is great and eminent, distinguished for his extraction, strength, valor, and dignity. Thus, in 1 Samuel 25:15, we read, “Art thou not איש, ish, a man?” which is explained by what follows, “And who is like thee in Israel?” denoting there the military valor and reputation of Abner. When the two expressions, בני אדם, bene adam, and בני איש, bene ish, are used together as in this place, in Psalm 62:9, Isaiah 2:9, and 5:15, the Jewish Rabbins and modern Christian interpreters have understood a difference of rank to be stated; the former expression, denoting persons of obscure birth, of low rank, the common people: and the latter, meaning men of illustrious descent, the great or nobler sorts of men. See Archbishop Secker’s Dissertation on the words אנוש איש אדם, in Appendix to Merrick’s Annotations on the Psalms, No. 5. The Septuagint translates the former phrase by “Οἵ γηγενεῖς,” the earth-born.” The Chaldee expresses the former by the sons of old Adam, and the latter by the sons of Jacob; thus intending to comprehend Jews and Gentiles, all men in the world. “But,” says Hammond, “it is more likely that the phrases denote only the several conditions of men, men of the lower and higher rank, for so the consequeents interpret it, rich and poor.” the high, the noble, or such as sustain any pre-eminence in life. Thus, in the outset, he states it to be his purpose to instruct high and low without exception; his subject being one in which the whole human family was interested, and in which every individual belonging to it required to be instructed.

3. My mouth shall speak of wisdom The prophet was warranted in applying these commendatory terms to the doctrine which he was about to communicate. It is, no doubt, by plain appeals to observation that we find him reproving human folly; but the general principle upon which his instruction proceeds is one by no means obvious to the common sense of mankind, not to say that his design in using such terms is less to assert the dignity of his subject than simply to awaken attention. This he does all the more effectually by speaking as one who would apply his own mind to instruction rather than assume the office of exhortation. He puts himself forward as an humble scholar, one who, in acting the part of teacher, has an eye at the same time to his own improvement. It were desirable that all the ministers of God should be actuated by a similar spirit, disposing them to regard God as at once their own teacher and that of the common people, and to embrace in the first place themselves that divine word which they preach to others. 213213     “Aussi certes il est bien requis que tous les Prophetes de Dieu ayent un tel vouloir et affection, ascavoir qu’ils souffrent volontiers que Dieu soit leur maistre aussi bien que de tout le peuple, et qu’ils recoyvent tous les premiers sa parolle, laquelle ils portent de leur bouche aux autres.” — Fr. The Psalmist had another object in view. He would secure the greater weight and deference to his doctrine by announcing that he had no intention to vend fancies of his own, but to advance what he had learned in the school of God. This is the true method of instruction to be followed in the Church. The man who holds the office of teacher must apply himself to the reception of truth before he attempt to communicate it, and in this manner become the means of conveying to the hands of others that which God has committed to his own. Wisdom is not the growth of human genius. It must be sought from above, and it is impossible that any should speak with the propriety and knowledge necessary for the edification of the Church, who has not, in the first place, been taught at the feet of the Lord. To condescend upon the words, some read in the third verse, And the meditation of my heart shall speak of understanding But as it were a harsh and improper expression to say that the meditation of the heart speaks, I have adopted the simpler reading.

4. I will incline my ear 214214     Bythner and Fry are of opinion, that “the inclining of the ear” is a metaphor taken from the position of the minstrel, who, in accommodating his words to the tune, brings his ear close to the harp, that he may catch the sounds. Thus the Psalmist expresses the sense he himself had of the importance of his subject, and his purpose of giving to it the most serious attention. to a parable The Hebrew word משל, mashal, 215215     This word is of great latitude in its signification. It signifies primarily any similitude by which another thing is expressed. Thence it comes to denote a figurative discourse, either in the form of fiction and fable, such as riddles or significant apologues, as that of Jotham, Judges 9:7, or in which application is made of some true example or similitude, as when the sluggard is bidden “go to the ant,” and the impenitent sinner to consider the “swallow and crane,” which return at their certain seasons, and so are fitted to give a lesson to sinners to repent. And, finally, it belongs to all moral doctrine, either darkly or sententiously delivered; wise men, in ancient times, having been in the habit of delivering their lessons in short concise sentences, sometimes in schemes and figures, and sometimes without them, as we see in the Proverbs of Solomon, many of which are plain moral sayings without any figure or comparison. Of this sort is that which is here introduced to our attention; it is a moral theme not much veiled with figures, nor so concise as proverbs usually are, but which contains the most instructive lessons on the vanity of the prosperity of all wicked men. See Hammond in loco. which I have translated parable, properly denotes a similitude; but it is often applied to any deep or weighty sayings, because these are generally embellished with figures and metaphors. The noun which follows, חידת, chidoth 216216     This word is derived from an Arabic root which signifies to bend a thing aside, to tie knots, etc.; and thus it means an intricate species of composition, a riddle It is used for a riddle in the story of Samson, Judges 14:14, 15; and for difficult questions, as those put by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, 1 Kings 10:1. See Lowth’s Lectures on Sacred Poetry, volume1, p. 78. Accordingly, it is here rendered by the Septuagint, “τὸ πρόβλημά μου,” “my problem or difficult question,” which is not only asked in the fifth verse, but also answered in the subsequent verses. The word, however, is also applied to poetical compositions of a highly adorned and finished style, in which nothing enigmatical appears, but which contain weighty and important matter set forth in the parabolic style to secure the reader’s or the hearer’s attention, Psalm 78:2. See Gesenius’ Lexicon. In the subject-matter of this psalm there does not appear to be any thing peculiarly intricate. It treats of the vanity of riches, and the folly of those who trust in them; their insufficiency to save from the power of death; and the final triumph of all the suffering people of God over their rich and haughty persecutors. This is indeed a dark theme to the worldly-minded man; but it contains nothing occult or mysterious to those who are taught of God. and which I have rendered an enigma, or riddle, is to be understood in nearly the same sense. In Ezekiel 17:2, we have both the nouns with their corresponding verbs joined together, חור חידה ומשל משל, chud chedah umshol mashal, the literal translation being, “Enigmatize an enigma, and parabolize a parable.” I am aware that the reference in this place is to an allegorical discourse, but I have already adverted to the reason why, in Hebrew, the name of enigmas or similitudes is given to any remarkable or important sayings. The Psalmist, when he adds that he will open his dark saying, shows that nothing was farther from his intention than to wrap the subject of his discourse in perplexing and intricate obscurity. The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all Scripture profitable for instruction. None can plead ignorance: for the deepest and most difficult doctrines are made plain to the most simple and unlettered of mankind. I see little force in the idea suggested by several interpreters, of the Psalmist having employed his harp, that he might render a subject in itself harsh and disagreeable more engaging by the charms of music. He would merely follow the usual practice of accompanying the psalm with the harp.

5. Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil? The Psalmist now enters upon the point on which he proposed to discourse, That the people of God must not yield to despondency even in the most distressing circumstances, when their enemies may seem to have enclosed them on every side, but must rest assured that God, although he connives for a time, is awake to their condition, and only watches the best opportunity of executing his judgments. This manner of introducing the subject by interrogation is much more emphatic than if he had simply asserted his resolution to preserve his mind undisturbed in the midst of adversity. In the second clause of the verse he particularises the heaviest and most bitter of all afflictions, those which are experienced by the righteous when their enemies triumph in the unrestrained indulgence of their wickedness. When, the adverb of time, must therefore be understood — When the iniquity of my heel shall compass me about There is a different meaning which some interpreters have attached to the words, namely, If I should fear in the days of evil, and be guilty of the excessive anxieties of the unbeliever, — in that case, when the hour of my death came, my iniquity would compass me about. The heel they take to be the end of life. But this interpretation is to be dismissed at once as most unnatural. Nor do I see what reason others have for referring this word to the thoughts, for I believe that in no other part of Scripture can such a metaphor or similitude be found. Others, with more plausibility, have rendered the original word liers in wait, 217217     Lowth reads, “The wickedness of those who lie in wait for me, or endeavor to supplant me;” and Horsley, “When the iniquity of those who plot against me environs me.” The original word is עקבי, akabey, which Dr Adam Clarke thinks is to be considered as the contracted plural of עקבים, akabim, supplanters, from עקב, akab, to supplant, to defraud It is literally, “My Jacobs;” that is, those who would act towards me as Jacob acted towards Esau. See Genesis 27:36, and Jeremiah 9:4-17, 9. The Syriac and Arabic versions read it, “My enemies.” because the Hebrew verb עקב, akab, signifies to deceive; and they consider the Psalmist as intimating, that he would not fear though crafty and treacherous men laid snares for him. In my opinion, there is no figure intended; and he means to say, that he would have no fear when his enemies surrounded him, and in pursuing him, trode, as it were, upon his heel. The French have a similar expression, “Poursuyvre jusques aux talons.” 218218     i.e. “To pursue even to the heels.” I agree with them, that he speaks of enemies, but it is of their wicked persecution as they press upon him in the height of their power, and with design to destroy him, keep themselves near him, and tread, so to speak, upon his very heel.

6. They trust in their wealth. We are now furnished with the reason why the suffering children of God should dismiss their apprehensions, and keep themselves from despondency, even when reduced to extremity by the violence and treachery of their enemies. Any boasted power which they possess is fleeting and evanescent. The Psalmist would convince us that the fear of man is unwarrantable; that it argues ignorance of what man is even at his best; and that it were as reasonable to startle at a shadow or a spectre. They boast themselves, he adds, in the multitude of their riches, and this is an error into which we are disposed to fall, forgetting that the condition of man in this world is fluctuating and transitory. It is not merely from the intrinsic insufficiency of wealth, honors, or pleasures, to confer true happiness, that the Psalmist proves the misery of worldly men, but from their manifest and total incapacity of forming a correct judgment of such possessions. Happiness is connected with the state of mind of that man who enjoys it, and none would call those happy who are sunk in stupidity and security, and are destitute of understanding. The Psalmist satisfactorily proves the infatuation of the wicked from the confidence which they place in their power and wealth, and their disposition to boast of them. It is a convincing sign of folly when one cannot discern what is before his eyes. Not a day passes without forcing the plain fact upon their notice, that none can redeem the life of another; so that their conduct is nothing less than insanity. Some read, A man shall not be able to redeem his brother; which amounts to the same meaning, and the text admits of this translation. The Hebrew word אח, ach, which I have rendered brother, is by others translated one; but I do not approve, although I would not absolutely reject, this reading. The Psalmist adds, that none can give a price to God for the ransom of another, where he adverts to the truth that men’s lives are absolutely at the disposal of God, and that they never can be extended by any human arrangement one moment beyond the period which God has fixed.

He enforces the same lesson in the verse which follows, where he states that the redemption of their soul is precious, an expression not to be understood as implying merely that it is an event of rare occurrence, but that it never can take place, as 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord is said to have been precious under the priesthood of Eli, when it is evidently meant that it had ceased altogether. The Psalmist would assert that no man can hope to purchase an immortality either for himself or others in this world. I have rendered the close of verse 8, And their continuance for ever; but others, who construe the Hebrew word חדל, chadal, as a verb, meaning to cease, read, And ceaseth for ever, as if the Psalmist meant that no price was sufficiently great to answer the purpose, and that it must therefore cease for ever, as what could never obtain the end desired. I consider that which I have given to be the real meaning of the word, having had occasion already to observe upon Psalm 39:5, that it signifies the fixed term of human life. The words in verse 9, That he should still live for ever, more fully express the truth, that it is not merely impossible to redeem the life of men when they are dead, but impossible while they are yet living, to extend the term of their existence. A definite limit has been assigned to every man’s life. This he cannot pass over, and the Psalmist would impress the fact upon us as one which stamps folly upon the conduct of the wicked, who will cherish their unfounded confidence even at the moment when they are upon the brink of the grave. In all this, it may strike the reader that he has not announced any thing which merits being called a dark saying, and has rather been treating a popular subject in a very plain style of language; but if he consider that David here condemns, as by a voice issuing from the awful judgment-seat of God, the stupidity of such as forget that they are men, he will not be disposed to reckon the expression inapplicable. Again, we have seen that he has opened his dark saying, it being the divine will that instruction should be delivered in a form adapted to the meanest capacity.

10 For he shall see that wise men die. I consider the ninth and tenth verses to be connected, and that it is the intention of the Psalmist to censure the folly of those who dream of spending an eternity in this world, and set themselves seriously to establish a permanent settlement in it, though they cannot but see their fellow-creatures cut down daily before their eyes by the stroke of death. It is a common proverb, that experience teaches fools, and they may be looked upon as something worse who will not lay to heart their mortality, when surrounded by so many convincing illustrations of it. This seems obviously to be the connection. These infatuated enemies of God, as if he had said, cannot fail to perceive that death is the universal lot of mankind, that the wise are equally liable to it with the foolish; and yet they persist in the imagination that they will remain here always, and will live as if they were never to quit with this world! They see what happens to others, that all, without exception or discrimination, are involved in the common mortality; and they must observe how often it happens that wealth passes into the hands of strangers The word אחרים, acherim, I translate strangers, rather than others; for although it may be extended to successors of any kind, yet I think that the Psalmist here supposes the case of wealth passing into the hands of those who are not our natural and lawful heirs, and cannot be considered in any sense as representing us. Many not only die, but die childless, and their name becomes extinct, which is an additional ingredient of bitterness in the cup of the worldling. And yet all these affecting lessons of experience are entirely lost upon them, and they still in their secret thoughts fondly cherish the idea of living here for ever. The Hebrew word קרב, kereb, means the middle of anything; but it is taken metaphorically to signify the heart, or inward parts of the man. Here it denotes that their secret thoughts are occupied with an imaginary eternity which they hope to enjoy upon earth. Another and more ingenious interpretation has been suggested by some, that as the word occasionally means a tomb, the Psalmist may here be satirising those who think to perpetuate their memory after death by rearing expensive mausoleums. 220220     The reading of the Septuagint is, “Καὶ οἱ τάφοι αὐτῶν ὀικίαι αὐτῶν εἰς τὸν αἰω̑να.” “And their sepulchres are their houses for ever.” The Vulgate, Syriac, and Chaldee, also read “sepulchres.” Kennicott supposes that the authors of these versions must have read קברם, kaberam, their graves, instead of קרבם, kirbam, their inward part The text as it stands admits of a good sense. Some eminent critics, however, are disposed to think that the reading of the ancient versions is the true one. This view of the words is strained and unnatural; and what immediately follows proves that the other is the most correct, when it is added, that worldly men call out their names upon the earth; that is, make every exertion in their power to win reputation amongst their fellow-creatures. Their desire should be to have their names written in the book of life, and to be blessed before God and his holy angels; but their ambition is of another kind — to be renowned and extolled upon earth. By the expression, calling out, it is insinuated that the fame of ungodly men is but an empty sound. Some interpreters prefer reading, They have called their lands by their own names, 221221     Some also read the verse thus, “Their grave is their house for ever, their dwelling-place through all generations, though their names are celebrated over countries.” that they might leave some monument of themselves to posterity. But what the Psalmist seems chiefly to insist upon is, that they are wholly bent upon earthly renown.

12 And man shall not abide in honor Having exposed the vain and delusory nature of the fancies entertained by the ungodly, he next shows that however fondly they may cherish them, they must experience the same fate with the beasts of the field. It is true that there is a great difference, so far as the soul is concerned, between man and the brute creation; but the Psalmist speaks of things as they appear in this world, and in this respect he was warranted to say of the ungodly that they die as the beasts. His subject does not lead him to speak of the world to come. He is reasoning with the children of this world, who have no respect to another, and no idea of a farther happiness than that which they enjoy here. He accordingly ridicules their folly in conceiving of themselves as privileged with exemption from the ordinary lot of humanity, and warns them that death will soon be near to humble their presumptuous thoughts, and put them on a level with the meanest of the lower creatures. This I prefer to the more ingenious interpretation which some would put upon the words, that they reduced themselves to the level of beasts by not recognising the true dignity of their nature, which consists in the possession of a never-dying soul. The Psalmist’s great aim is to show the vanity of the boasting of the wicked, from the nearness of death, which must join them in one common fate with the beasts of the field. The last word in the verse gives the reason why the ungodly may be compared to the beasts — they perish It matters little whether or not we consider the relative אשר, asher, as understood, and read, that perish




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