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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 49

 

 

Verse 1

1. People… inhabitants of the world—The subject is of world-wide concern, and the psalmist invites attention accordingly. It would seem by this call that the occasion of the psalm was one in which foreign nations, equally with the Hebrews, had cause to consider the brief and deceptive triumph of wickedness. חלד, (hheled,) world, here means world with reference to its duration a period of time, age. The psalmist’s call is upon all the dwellers of this age.


Verse 2

2. Low and high—The classifications of this verse are intended, by mentioning the extreme orders of society, to comprehend all the intermediate ranks also, without exception. They are specifications under the general terms “all nations,” “all inhabitants of the age.” See note on Psalms 4:2


Verse 4

4. A parable—A poem where similitude is used, and things profound and spiritual are made more clear by comparison with things objective and sensible.

Dark saying—That which lies beyond the realm of sense, particularly revelations or oracles from God. Same as “parables,” just named.

Upon the harp—That is, poetically. In this form the bards of a people, in the earlier ages, often preserved important matter; (see an instance in Numbers 21:27;) but especially prophets and inspired men commonly delivered their messages in the diction, if not in the rhythm, of poetry.


Verse 5

5. Wherefore should I fear—The psalmist strikes at once into his subject.

Days of evil—Days of calamity, persecution, and the apparent defeat of all his hopes.

Iniquity of my heels—An unfortunate, because a too literal, translation. The word, indeed, means heels, but figuratively,those that take by the heels, that is, supplanters, false friends, deceitful enemies. In Joshua 8:13, it is translated “liers in wait,” ambushed enemies. The verb is rendered supplant, Jeremiah 9:4; Genesis 27:36. The question is, Why should I fear in the day of adversity, when the iniquity of my insidious foes has encircled or circumvented me? To this question the psalmist addresses his argument.


Verses 6-9

6-9. His first argument is grounded on the insufficiency of wealth and worldly power to save life, or to bring back from the grave.

Redeem… ransom—Two strong Levitical terms for regaining what has become legally forfeitedespecially, where life had become forfeitedby paying an equivalent, or satisfaction, as in the case of the “firstborn.” Exodus 13:12-13; Exodus 34:20; Leviticus 27:27; Numbers 18:15.

Redemption of their soul is precious—That is, the redemption price of man’s life is costlytoo costly for man to pay. This applies to all men, but the psalmist is specially speaking of ungodly men, who place their whole trust in their riches. God only can redeem a soul. (See Psalms 49:15.) “Soul,” here, though it may be rendered life, has the sense, as in other places, of the ego, selfhood, or personality, equivalent to the total man. Under the law, the firstborn, mortgaged lands, captives of war, might be redeemed with money, but no man can pay to God a ransom or a satisfaction for the release of even a brother from the death penalty caused by sin.

It ceaseth for ever—The ransom price is left offabsolutely and for ever omittedor, as Ewald and others, “Is wanting for evermore.” The law makes no mention of it, and no man is so foolish as to propose or think of offering a redemption price, or satisfaction, for the release even of his body from death, “so that he should still live forever, and not see corruption,” much less for the release of his soul from guilt. God alone could provide this. This eighth verse, though parenthetically read, stands in close connexion as to sense with Psalms 49:7; Psalms 49:9-10, and might be transposed so as to read after Psalms 49:9, without parenthesis.


Verse 10

10. Wise men—A designation not only of men of learning and mental endowments, but of prudence, virtue, and piety.

Fool… brutish person— The first is one who is dull, sluggish, of obdurate will, and averse to discipline, and always classed with impious persons; the second, “brutish,” are men who are distinguished for living for appetite, being of strong passions, and savage temper and stupid minds.

Die… perish—The wise men “die,” but the “fool” and “brutish” perish. There is a wreck of their plans and hopes. They are not annihilated; the word will not bear this sense, and the whole argument contradicts it; for the subject of discourse is moral rewards, not immortality of being. No language could define more diverse characters or rewards.

Leave their wealth to others—So that herein they have only a momentary advantage, and that in things of inferior worth.


Verse 11

11. Unable to redeem themselves from death, (Psalms 49:6-8,) these worldlings bend their thoughts to schemes whereby they vainly hope to perpetuate an ideal immortality, as if they could secure a posthumous enjoyment of their earthly grandeur. The futility of this scheme is the psalmist’s second ground of argument.

Their inward thought—The thought of their inmost being, ( קרב, kereb,) the product of their profoundest faculty of reason and sensibility. The original is abrupt, but the sense is clear and pungent.

Here we have the true measurement of their moral manhood; the highest reach and deepest soundings of their soul-life, and their spirit-life.


Verse 12

12. Notwithstanding their impotence to avert, and the futility of their schemes to disguise, the utter desolations of death, they are not won to wisdom.

Abideth not—In Psalms 49:20 it reads, “understandeth not,” and which the Septuagint, followed by the Vulgate, Syriac, and Arabic, reads in this place, in order to make the two refrains correspond, but without authority, for variations in refrains are quite common.

Like the beasts— All their attempts to perpetuate their name, and thus maintain an ideal immortality, are abortive, for still they “abide not,” but, like cattle, they die. The resemblance here seems to be not merely in the common fate of mortality, as in Ecclesiastes 3:19, “As the one dieth, so dieth the other,… so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast,” but in their stupidity as to the life to come, and their not seeing that wealth cannot raise them above this condition. See on Psalms 49:20


Verse 13

13. Learning no higher wisdom by observation, their posterity eulogize the example of their fathers and perpetuate their folly.


Verse 14

14. Like sheep—The imagery is startling. Death is personified as a shepherd, to whom these sensuous worldlings are committed. He leads or drives them into sheol, the region of the dead.

Laid in the grave—Placed, or appointed there.

Death shall feed on them— “On” is not in the original. The idea is rather, “death shall feed them,” that is, as a shepherd does his sheep. So also the Septuagint, ποιμανει αυτους, feed them. The feeding also implies tending, governing. They are completely under his power and dictation. What a shepherd, and what a flock!

Upright shall have dominion—Literally, shall tread on them, as the conqueror does upon the vanquished. The idea is that of complete domination.

In the morning— בקר, (boker,) here, will not bear the figurative sense of soon, early, speedily, for the scene is laid in the invisible world. The word almost universally means “morning” literally, and so, also, here. The old commentators here found an allusion to the resurrection, and the eternal reign of the saints, and the language is perfectly suited to such an application, and to no other. There is no “morning” after “death” but at the resurrection, when the perfect and everlasting “dominion” of the saints here intended will obtain. See on Psalms 49:15, and Matthew 19:28


Verse 15

15. But God will redeem my soulSurely “God will redeem” me. The particle is one of asseveration springing from undoubting faith. The word “redeem” supposes him to be first under the power of death. Faith in the resurrection of the body here discovers itself. The author not only speaks in his own person, but for all of his class. It was the common faith.

From the power of the grave—Literally, From the hand of sheol. This does not teach that the righteous will not die, which would contradict not only the psalmist’s language here and at Psalms 49:10, but all fact and all Scripture. The antithesis lies not between dying and not dying, but between continuing and not continuing under the power of death. In the matter of dying the good and the bad are equal, but in the matter of redemption from death they are infinitely different. The victory of the righteous over the wicked does, indeed, partially appear in this life, but comes infallibly and in its fulness only after all have succumbed to death. The clear eschatological bearing of this passage cannot be avoided, and is further sustained in the next hemistich.

For he shall receive me—The verb is the same as Genesis 5:24 : “For God took him.” So here, “for he will take me.”

Keble: “He takes me home.” With the examples of Enoch and Elijah before him, and from the connexion of the argument, no other sense could apply. The verb is the same, and the form more full, in Psalms 73:24, “and afterward receive me to glory.”


Verses 16-20

16-20. The remainder of the psalm is a hortatory application, with a partial rehearsal of what has been already said.

Be not thou afraid—His argument has triumphed over doubt, and from the negative form of reasoning, and the contingent proposition, (Psalms 49:5,) “Wherefore should I fear?” the psalmist advances to the positive “be not afraid of,” or, thou shall not fear, the prosperous wicked.

For when he dieth—The particle “for,” here takes its usual causal sense, because when he dieth, or, because in his dying, not all shall he take, not all his glory shall descend after him. Clearly this shows that the eye of the writer is still on the final result of things, the rewards of the life to come. The wicked are not here supposed, as a common order, or as a certainty, to be disrobed of their wealth and power till in dying. Here only is his certain judgment. Compare Luke 16:25, “Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things,” etc.

They shall never see light—Hebrew, for ever they shall not see light. “Light,” here, is to be taken spiritually for joy, hope, prosper-ity, blessedness, as in Job 18:5; Psalms 97:11; Psalms 112:4; Isaiah 60:1. This, applying to the wicked after death, as a hopeless deprivation, has no doubtful meaning. The opposite of this is the blessedness of the righteous. On these grounds the faith and hope of the Church rest, and endure the reproach of the world and the struggle of the ages against wickedness and wicked persecutors.

Understandeth not—Is ignorant or inconsiderate of his honourable rank in creation, and the glorious end for which he was made.

Like the beasts—The similitude here is in the want of understanding, that is, spiritual wisdom. Both live lives of appetite and instinct, with no evidence of hope in a higher destiny. In Psalms 49:12 the resemblance was in their common mortality.

Perish—Is not in the original, which simply reads, “He has been like the beasts, they have been alike.”

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 49:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/psalms-49.html. 1874-1909.

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