1 Hear this, all 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 lyre.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
8 for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
9 that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.
10 For he sees that even the wise die;
the fool and the stupid alike must perish
and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they called lands by their own names.
12 Man in his pomp will not remain;
he is like the beasts that perish.
13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me. Selah
16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Psalm 49 seems to take a different tone than most other Psalms- it is much like Psalms 1 and 2 in that it is very matter of fact, the way things are, inevitabilities of a sovereign God. There is no crying out in solemn petition or an agonizing plea; he has not set his heart on upward worship, ardent praise or loving adoration.
The psalmist first declares who his message is intended for:
“Hear this, all peoples! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together (vs1, 2)”
The writer does not distinguish between wicked and righteous, or foolish and wise- but instead refers to class status. And now with his audience specified he wants to share a proverb, to solve “his” riddle:
“Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches (vs 5, 6)?”
When looking at his “riddle,” we can see why he divides his audience into class. He seems to be addressing the so-called comfort of wealth and those who fear for lack of. He does refer to the wise and foolish (vs10), but only in mention of their wealth. And the answer he gives to this riddle, the answer which seems to bring such confidence and peace to his soul, is that of death. We are all going to die. There is nothing our money, wealth, or standing can do about it. No person’s material from this world will be carried to the next, and their souls are destined for Sheol where they will be “consumed.” “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (vs15).”
This comes to us as a warning- a warning against the lure of wealth. For the rich, it is cautionary counsel to hold no stock in money, fame or power. It is “foolish confidence”- even if the world approves of such foolishness (vs13). The warnings of wealth are found throughout scripture and we are no stranger to Christ’s teachings on the subject. We often attribute these warnings to the rich and wealthy, however we must remember who the psalmist is speaking to- “low and high, rich and poor.”
There is also a great danger in the desire for wealth as we struggle with life’s challenges. If we set our eyes towards this material security we will find ourselves outside the will of our Lord. This is not to say no Christian should have money (there were many wealthy men of God throughout the Bible); but if that is not our lot and we set our gaze upon it, then we have chosen one master over the other. “No one can serve two masters, for he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matt 6:24).” As the psalmist states in his introduction, the warning against wealth is for the rich and poor alike. There is nothing we can take with us in death. We must set our eyes on Christ and “lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20).” The psalmist finds his comfort in this eternally minded truth- this is true wisdom and understanding. And “man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish (vs 20).”
This truth does not necessarily bring us the same peace and confidence the psalmist seems to write with. We know this certainty and yet we still struggle with it. However, the author of Psalm 49 does not intend to bring ease of mind nor a solution to life’s difficulties. Instead he wants to give understanding and wisdom (vs 3). Our comfort is not necessarily found in God’s answer, but is ultimately found in God himself.
“Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always;
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.”