Psalm 49: A Security That Riches Cannot Purchase

Psalm 49’s theme includes the futility of living for this world’s possessions, status, and fame, in light of the certainty of death. It is a “wisdom” psalm, similar in theme to Psalms 37 and 73. Rather than focusing directly on praise to God, the psalm gives instruction that—if we heed it—will ultimately result in praise to God. It gives us the understanding that we need to live rightly in light of eternity, so that one day we can present to God a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

The psalmist [of Psalm 49] is not just a poet, but also a preacher. He is preaching not just to the people of God, the Jews, but to all peoples, to all the inhabitants of the world. The social nobodies may be tempted to shrug off his message as applying only to those who are high on the social ladder, but the psalmist includes both low and high. The poor may think that a sermon in song about trusting in material possessions only applies to the rich, but the psalmist addresses rich and poor together. The poor can be just as materialistic as the rich, because materialism is a desire of the heart, not just a matter of owning things. So you can’t shrug off the psalmist’s message by thinking, “I am too poor to worry about living for possessions.” His message applies to all people in every culture.

Furthermore, the psalmist claims that he is going to speak wisdom and give us understanding (49:3). Wisdom comes from a Hebrew word meaning “skill.” It was used of the skill of the craftsmen who constructed the beautiful tabernacle (Exod. 36:1-2). It refers to the necessary skill to live in such a manner as to produce a beautiful life in God’s sight.

Proverbs 2:6 tells us, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” So the psalmist is not giving us the wisdom and understanding of a sage, who has assimilated man’s wisdom. Rather, he is passing on to us wisdom that he has gained by inclining his ear to God. The proverb that he is going to give us (49:4) is in verse 12 and repeated again with a slight variation in verse 20, “Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.”

The psalmist also says that he is going to open up (lit.) to us a riddle on the harp. The word riddle is used of Samson’s riddle of the lion and the honey (Judges 14:12-15) and of the difficult questions that the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon (1 Kings 10:1). In our psalm, the riddle seems to be the age-old question, why are evil people rich and comfortable, while the godly are often poor and oppressed? The psalmist’s answer to the riddle is that no amount of money can buy a person an escape from death and judgment. We all must stand before God, who will either condemn us because we lived for this world (49:14) or redeem and receive us because we lived wisely in light of eternity (49:15).

Some have pointed out that the psalmist’s message, on one level, does not seem all that profound. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalm 49, p. 235), for example, comments that even worldly philosophers have pointed out the shortness of human life and the vanity of putting your confidence in things. But Calvin says that the real scope of the psalm is to comfort God’s people who are exposed to suffering by teaching us to trust God to right all wrongs at the judgment. And the psalm urges us to be patient when it seems that God is not governing the world, realizing that He will rectify all wrongs in His good time.

It also seems to me that while the message of the psalm is very basic, something that every Christian knows, it is at the same time a message that we need to hear and think about often. Although I know intellectually that even when one has an abundance, life does not consist of possessions, it’s easy for me to forget this and be tempted by greed. On our recent trip, we drove by many casinos, none of which seemed to be hurting for business. Even Christians can be tempted to gamble, especially when times are tough, thinking that if we just hit the jackpot, we would be happy. Because we’re all susceptible to this (or the Bible wouldn’t warn us against it), we all need to ponder the message of Psalm 49.

Steven J Cole


Read Psalm 49. As a Christian, does it bother you to see non-Christians amass great wealth, especially when you have not?  What wisdom does this psalm provide to help us understand this occurrence?  How do the riches of the world compare to the riches you have in Christ?

Be Thou My Vision 

Posted on: April 30, 2021 - 12:00PM

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