A warning to the rich — Psalm 49

Psalms of the Sons of Korah

This is a song in two halves, and both halves say the same thing, the second half building on the first.

A cartoon showing a rich man putting money into a poor man's hat only for the coins to fall through holes in the poor man's hat into the rich man's top hat.

The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

Psalms 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87 and 88 are attributed to the Sons of Korah. Korah, was a cousin of Moses and Arron who led a revolt against Moses: Korah died in the rebellion. His three sons were named as singers in the Tabernacle and their offspring in the Temple. The sons of Korah who wrote these psalms are descended from Korah’s sons, not necessarily the sons themselves.

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

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 for ever
    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 for ever,
    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 ESV UK

Three psalms, 47, 49 and 85 have the same Hebrew title, given here in English as, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.” They also have the same structure, The subjects are introduced and then developed in the same order.

The theme: (vv. 1-4)

The opening four verses say that the psalm is for everyone, though the rich and poor will be given a separate message as the psalm develops. It also comes under Wisdom literature; wisdom, meditation, understanding, proverb and riddle are terms that appear mostly in the book of Proverbs. The Wisdom books, Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes explore both the complexity and simplicity of living wisely. They give a lesson about what it means to live a Godly life.

The pivot: (vv. 14-15)

These two verses form a pivot between the two halves of the psalm. They act in a similar way to to the introduction,setting the theme for what is to come. The psalm has set up the two groups, the poor and the rich and it has qualified the second group to be the pompous, the rich who are arrogant. The pompous rich will perish, cease to exist, but the poor, with whom the psalmist identifies, will be ransomed and received by God.

The poor: (vv. 5-6, 15)

The poor are fearful because of the rich, but they have no need to be.They aught not to fear the troubles brought on by the sins of the rich and powerful.

The rich: (vv. 7-9, 16-17)

The rich don’t appear to be afraid but ought to be. No amount of wealth can ransom them from death.

Man in his pomp: (vv. 10-13, 18- 20)

A third group, besides the rich and the poor is identified, man in his pomp. It literally means people who are held in honour, are esteemed. The sort of people that other people look up to are identified in both vv. 12 and 20 as like dying animals.Their position is not to be looked up to. They will come to an end and will not be ransomed and received by God.

It would be easy to identify with the poor here. The psalm is written from the point of view of the poor, the psalmist says, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,” but it is not a song about the benefits of poverty, probably because there are no benefits, this psalm is a warning to the rich and a warning about holding up the rich and famous as people to be emulated.

This is poetry, and it is also Wisdom literature, it is not supposed to be interpreted literally, which is why I have kept away any discussion of eternal life or eternal punishment, that does not come into this psalm. This is an answer to the question about fairness: Why do the poor suffer because of the sins of the rich whilst the rich get held up as people to be emulated, and God’s answer that the benefits of being rich will not last beyond death, but the poor will be received by God.

< Psalm 48 | Psalm 49 | Psalm 50 >
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