Saturday, May 4, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 49

The key word for Psalm 49 is reality. The psalmist is presenting the facts of life and death to his listeners. He calls on all the people of the world to hear him, whether they are high or low, rich or poor. They need to know and understand the wisdom he is sharing with them, the meditation that comes from his heart. He will sing to them a song that explains an old proverb, a riddle, that has troubled humanity for centuries. Where does he get his wisdom? What is supplying his meditation? The psalmist doesn't say, but we know that the psalms are the inspired and inerrant Word of God. God Himself is the Author of Scripture. 

Next, the psalmist asks a question: “Why should I fear in times of trouble...?” When evil surrounds him, when he is persecuted by people who trust in their wealth and boast about their riches, why should he fear? He is confident in something more than riches and wealth. He knows that there is something beyond troubles and persecution. 

There is more to life than wealth, the psalmist insists. “Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God.” Those who rely on their riches find that money fails them in the end. It cannot purchase life. No one can buy himself. No one can escape death. The grave will claim everyone eventually. Riches cannot prevent that. God is in control. 

Everyone dies, the psalmist reminds us again. Both the wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor. That is reality. Their wealth passes on to others, and they go to the grave. The psalmist paints a rather bleak picture of this death. “Their graves are their homes forever...” They are like sheep “appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.” This is a dark image. Eternal nothingness perhaps? Non-being? Mere bodily decay? Is the psalmist suggesting that this is the fate of all people who die? 

We know that the Jews did not have a fully-developed doctrine of the afterlife. Looking back as Christians, we understand that Heaven was not yet open to those who died. After Adam and Eve's sin, the gates of Heaven were closed to humankind. Souls of the dead waited in a kind of limbo until their Savior would appear to open Heaven and lead them into the presence of God. In the Bible, God reveals various truths bit by bit as human beings are ready to hear and understand them. Understanding of the afterlife grew over the centuries as God revealed more and more to the Jews, helping them grasp their current situation and cultivate hope for the future. 

The psalmist does, however, exhibit some hope for life after death. He says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the psalmist seems to catch a glimpse of what will happen when Jesus Christ dies and rises again for us. God will indeed ransom our souls from the dark places and will receive us into His arms. Jesus will make that possible. Did the psalmist completely understand the depths of this verse? Probably not. But he had a firm trust in God, in His love, and in His desire and ability to save His people. 

The psalmist continues with some good, practical advice: do not be afraid of the rich, even when their wealth increases. Why not? “For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.” Wealth and power end at death. They are fleeting, temporary. They fail. They turn to dust. Those who have such things on earth think they are happy. They are praised and flattered by others. But it will not last. Even the rich will die, the psalmist says once again. They will follow their ancestors into death, and their wealth and power will mean nothing to them. Their pride will end. They will perish. 

What are we as Christians to learn from this psalm? Reality. Riches and wealth are fleeting. We cannot use them to buy eternal life. They will never save us from death. Only God can do that. Only in God will we live forever. All the things of the earth will pass away. He will remain and we with Him if we place our faith in Him and live that faith in love. Reality. 

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