August 1st 2020 – Psalm 49

"To the choirmaster. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.

49 Hear this, all peoples!
    Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
    rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
    I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.

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?
Truly no man can ransom another,
    or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
    and can never suffice,
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

In the introduction to the Psalm the Psalmist calls on all the earth to listen to him. This bears witness to the universality of the problem: the awful tension between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' exists all over the world, and is relevant for nations and individuals alike. He has something to say to both - not that he is claiming superior wisdom for himself, for he indicates in 4 that he has received revelation from God. He has learned first to hear, and this is the only one who can have anything to say to his fellows that is worth listening to. It is clear that his word has come out of much heart searching, and the very travail of his soul has been the crucible in which he has heard God speaking to him. The problem is stated in the first main stanza (5-12), in which the Psalmist contrasts the arrogant security of the prosperous godless with the end that awaits them. There are twin problems mentioned: fear of oppression by wealth, and envy of the wealthy. This is very contemporary. Social inequality is a constant factor in human experience, as witness the tension between management and labour in industry today and the chronic discontentment expressed by the 'have-nots' when they contemplate how much more others have than they. This is a sensitive and spiky subject, to be sure; but though the message of the Psalm seems to be advocating a quiet submission to the situation, in the knowledge that there is an 'afterwards' (cf 14), - a kind of 'pie in the sky when you die' doctrine which radicals have always disputed and resented - it has to be insisted that not only does biblical faith not disagree with the desire for improved conditions for workers but also that this is not really the point the Psalm is making. What it is about is the bitterness and envy that this kind of situation can awaken in men's hearts. And this, alas, can continue, and often does continue, long after the battle for fair conditions is won. The politics of envy can be a soul-destroying and terrible thing. It is this spirit that bedevils our country today. More of this in the next Note.