Psalm 49 — The Way of the Rich Fool

49 Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:

2 Both low and high, rich and poor, together.

3 My mouth shall speak of wisdom; and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.

4 I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.

5 Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?

6 They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;

7 None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him:

8 (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)

9 That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.

10 For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.

11 Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names.

12 Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.

13 This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Selah.

14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.

15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah.

16 Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased;

17 For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him.

18 Though while he lived he blessed his soul: and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.

19 He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.

20 Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.

Death, as it relates to money, is not the most common topic for sermons, today. Jesus, according to Luke, made this a prime topic, however. The prevailing belief at the time of Jesus was that the rich were blessed by God, and because of their wealth, they held some advantage in death. In preaching that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, Jesus turned the prevailing belief upside down. His source material, abundantly captured in the Gospel of Luke, was certainly principled in Psalm 49.

A wisdom psalm, in the spirit of Job and proverbs, Psalm 49 is addressed to all mankind, not to God as are most other psalms. The subject of this psalm is death and money. The message it conveys is, “Wealth does not have the answer to the riddle of death.” The poet is the protagonist, who is troubled by the prosperity of those who trust in wealth for their salvation. The antagonist is the wicked, rich fool who boasts of his prosperity as blessing from God. Despite the doom and gloom of the psalm, it serves as an encouragement for those who fear the Lord.

Psalm 49 is structured with: I. (vv. 1–4) An introduction; II. (vv. 5–12) A statement of wealth’s failure to appease death; III. (vv. 13–20) A statement of the way of the fool leading to Sheol. Death is viewed as shepherd with an insatiable appetite for lamb chops. Redemption from this horrid plight is too costly for man to facilitate, but with God, redemption is possible. As in the opening psalms, the reader is invited to view two ways: the way of man, and the way of God.

There are no new terms from previous psalms in this title (Title). For the choir director suggests the author has given his poetry over to the lead musician to set it to music. The choir director is one of the sons of Korah. Psalm 49 closes out our first collection of Korah’s Psalms (42–49). Korah was the music director for all Israel during the time of Moses. His rebellion against Moses’ leadership cost him his life, but his sons lived on for generations to serve as the worship team for the nation of God’s chosen people.

In this introduction, the poet issued a universal call for attention (v. 1). Hear this is the call of a herald. It is in the pattern of a prophet (Mic 1:2) who will follow with, “Thus says the Lord.” All peoples means all inhabitants of the earth. The audience is universal.

The call to wisdom went out to all socio-economic classifications of people (v. 2). Both low and high reminds us of caste systems that naturally evolve because of our sin nature. Regardless of your position in life, this message is for you. Even when caste systems are not formalized, they exist because of economic status: rich and poor together. There is wisdom to be gleaned here regardless of one’s position in life.

A promise for a wise utterance warranted their attention (v. 3). My mouth will speak wisdom might be stated, “You gotta hear this!” The meditation of my heart will be understanding suggests the poet has been careful to weigh out the wisdom he seeks to proclaim. It is tested and true. Verse three is a teaser, almost advertising, for the reader to press on with the rest of the psalm.

The poet has heard a proverb and now will sing it (v. 4). I will incline my ear to a proverb points to the fact that wisdom has been captured by sages throughout history. All truth is God’s truth, and it has been seen and heard since the time of Adam. A proverb is a short utterance that is packed with wisdom for living. I will express my riddle on the harp enhances the challenge before us. Psalm 49 is not just proverbial wisdom, but the content is very challenging for the reader. Wisdom poetry, set to music, is meant to be learned by heart. The extensive introduction has convinced us that what we are about to read is of the utmost importance.

The first section (vv. 5–12) opened with a question about the reason for fear because of the enemies’ prosperity (v. 5). Why should I fear in the days of adversity? Here is a clue to our setting. The poet positions himself as righteous, yet oppressed. Fear is his prevailing emotion. Days of trouble cause us to wonder about what we may have missed. Why(?) demands a reason for the source of threat. When the iniquity of my foes surrounds me further informs our setting. The poet identified the antagonists. They are sinners who have oppressed the poet in some manner.

The enemies’ were described as self-reliant and proud (v. 6). Even those who trust in their wealth is set in contrast to the poet, who trusts in the Lord. Money is the answer to all things for carnal man. Trouble in life is eased with money. Money is his savior. And boast in the abundance of their riches is predictive of the parable of the rich farmer, told by Jesus in Luke 12:13–21. The boast is oppressive to the poor because he has no salvation from wealth. Trust is in the heart, and boast is from the mouth. To know a man’s heart, one must only listen to the words of the man’s mouth. There, his treasure trust is revealed.

The issue of a soul’s redemption was introduced (v. 7). No man can by any means redeem his brother is a statement intended to silence the boast of the rich. To redeem his brother suggests someone is enslaved to something. “No man can by any means” presents a helpless situation. No amount of money can accomplish this task. Trusting in wealth is deemed futile. Or give God a ransom for him suggests man is in dire trouble. Sin has enslaved man, and God is the only rescuer. God cannot be bought, nor bribed.

The futility of man redeeming another man was established (v. 8). For the redemption of his soul is costly reminds us that we have not been redeemed with silver nor gold. Something more precious is required. Our redemption cost the Son of God his life, for it is His precious blood that made an atonement for sins. He is our substitute. And he should cease trying forever warrants the perennial futility of works-based salvation attempts. Religion, man’s way of appeasing the wrath of God, will forever fail. Man cannot work his way into God’s righteousness. Righteousness must be imputed by Christ to us.

The end goal objective was identified as eternal life (v. 9). That he should live on eternally points to our ultimate end. The great mystery is what happens to us after death. It is appointed for a man once to die and then the judgment. In the judgment man’s eternity is declared to him. Eternal life is the desire of every man that he should not undergo decay. The body perishes, but the soul lives on forever. In the resurrection, the body and the soul are reunited for the eternal state…some to life and some to judgment, hell, and the lake of fire.

Death separates all men from life and from all accumulated wealth (v. 10). For he sees that even wise men die warns us that men are ever learning but not coming to the knowledge of the truth of death. The challenge is that if you are so smart, then beat death. The stupid and senseless alike perish demonstrates that intelligence is not the savior, either. The wise and the stupid alike leave their wealth to others. The rich young ruler was mindful of the law of God. He was sensitive to the issue of life after death, but when Jesus confronted him, he trusted in his wealth rather than the Savior (Luke 18:18–30). He missed the point that eternal life comes at the cost of forsaking our trust in this world. Trust Christ, not wealth.

Wicked man names his property after himself and lives with the expectation it will last forever (v. 11). The inner thought is, that their houses are forever reveals a self-delusion. Man, daily labors to avoid conversations about death. He makes light of death while he has health. And their dwelling places to all generations exposes man’s preoccupation while on the earth. He is making a home for himself here. He somehow expects to live on through his progeny. They have called their lands after their own names furthers the delusion.

Man does not know that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps. 24:1). Man was worried about the legacy of his name at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11). His fear is that his name will be forgotten as if it mattered that he was remembered. The tombs of rich dead men may be of some interest to archaeologists, but not worth the time for the rest of the living. Man labors in vain for an enduring reputation. Simply put, man is forgotten, regardless of his efforts to the contrary.

Wisdom contradicted wicked man in declaring an end to his prideful ambitions and predicting his demise (v. 12). But man in his pomp will not endure is a judgment. It summarizes our first section. Man strives to make a name for himself, so to live on forever; but He is like the beasts that perish. Nameless, forgotten, replaced is the beast of the field. Man is no different. God will not share His glory with another. Man labors in vain in wanting to become somebody. He is soon forgotten.

The second section opened with a further description of the words and wisdom of the rich fool (v. 13). This is the way of those who are foolish usually begins by saying there is no God (Ps 14:1). The atheist is a philosopher. He thinks and he speaks of humankind. He thinks more highly of man than he ought. Man listens and affirms. And of those after them who approve their words as the blind lead the blind into the ditch. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. Salvation is revealed from God through His Word and so is reprobation.

Roles from this world were reversed as death and Sheol prevail upon the wicked (v. 14). As sheep they are appointed for Sheol warns the wicked of their destiny. This is the doctrine of reprobation. God has prepared vessels of wrath for destruction (Rom 9:22).

Sheol is the Hebrew concept of the afterlife. It is a joyless place of dark existence, without God. It lacks the horrible nature of hell, but it was for Jesus to come and complete the picture of eternal death. Death shall be their shepherd is a sharp contrast to Jesus, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10; Rev 7:17). And the upright shall rule over them in the morning is also a contrast. Morning is when justice reveals truth by way of mercy. The upright are vindicated, and we shall reign with Him (Rev 5:10; 22:5). And their form shall be for Sheol to consume is a horrid metaphor. Death, the shepherd, hungers for sheep; and they are devoured by him. So that they have no habitation is another contrast. In this life, the righteous are sometimes homeless. Home is a safe haven. It is the place we rest in. Eternal death is everlasting homelessness. There is no place for rest in hell.

The righteous poet made a positive statement of his own redemption from Sheol (v. 15). But God will redeem my soul is salvation. Man could not redeem man’s soul (v. 7), but with God this too becomes possible. Death reigned from the power of Sheol. Death was defeated at the cross, and it has been rendered powerless over the redeemed ones. For He will receive me is the hope of heaven.

A summary close began with a reminder not to fear the rich (v. 16). Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich is the summation of vv. 5–9. The rich have no advantage. When the glory of his house is increased is a summation of vv. 10–12. Whatever legacy is left by the rich man, it has no power in the face of death.

Death was viewed as the great equalizer (v. 17). For when he dies he will carry nothing away means life is a zero sum game. The tombs of Pharaoh, laden with silver and gold, have repeatedly revealed the futility of the rich to remove wealth from this world. Job, Solomon, and Paul teach us the same principle, “For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either (1 Tim 6:7).” His glory will not descend after him means that man is stripped of everything in death. His soul is utterly naked. Death renders man’s life futile, vain, and meaningless.

Accolades in this world were deemed meaningless (v. 18). Though while he lives he congratulates himself is pure narcissism. Man approves of himself because of his insatiable self-love. And though men praise you when you do well for yourself suggests man has an accomplice in his penchant for self-interest. The applause and approval of others is part of the scheme of man.

Our calendars are filled with awards banquets. In our self-reliance, man demonstrates his prowess in competition. The race is to the swift. The fight is to the strong. Achievement is our ticket to heaven, except that God’s assessment is not man’s assessment of man’s situation. Man easily misjudges the way of salvation. He is deceived by the chief competitor.

Eternal death and darkness were considered the inheritance of those who gained the whole world but lost their own souls (v. 19). He shall go to the generation of his fathers is another way of saying, “you are going to die.” Here the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) contributes to our understanding. The rich man died and went to hell. Shocking! Again, this is a reversal of understanding. The poor beggar, Lazarus, is in Abraham’s bosom. The focus of Jesus’ story is on the torment and unchangeable nature of hell. The rich man missed salvation, trusting in his wealth instead of trusting in God. Of the thirteen references to hell in the New Testament, twelve of them are from Jesus’ preaching. They shall never see the light is the eternal plight of those tormented in outer darkness.

A repeated refrain declared the wicked to be lacking understanding in their death as beasts (v. 20). The key difference here and in v. 12 is man’s lack of understanding. Man in his pomp, yet without understanding shows the reader what is missing in unregenerate man. Pride goes before destruction like the beasts that perish. Understanding salvation is a matter of life and death. Life and death are eternal and warrant our utmost attention: Hear this! Give ear!

In conclusion, we have learned that man is in trouble. He is enslaved to sin, and he is desperately in need of redemption. Only God can provide so great a salvation, redeeming us with the precious blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Death is the great equalizer.

Those in Christ do not fear the presumed advantage of the rich because they have been given understanding in this matter of the soul’s eternity. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding in the matter of money and death. No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Luke 16:13). Trust Christ, not wealth, and live forever!

David Norczyk

Bakersfield, California

July 7, 2021

Some random theologian out West somewhere, Christian writer, preacher