<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Selah
14 Like sheep they are 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.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
16 Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy — for you are praised when you do well for yourself —
19 they will go to the company of their ancestors, who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
Psalm 49 takes on the tone of wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes and engages the topic of wealth in relation to death. The poet believes there is a moral order to the universe that the righteous and unrighteous, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish live within. The simple belief that those who do good will prosper and those who are evil will see their ambitions thwarted may not be observed in the daily experience of the psalmist, but death becomes the ransom that no amount of wealth can cover. We are taken into the riddle of: Why should one fear in times of trouble when powerful and presumably wealthy persecutors oppress the righteous one? For the author of the psalm there is comfort in the knowledge that the rich cannot buy their way out of Sheol and that the moral order of God’s universe remains intact.
Humans fear death and we spend an incredible amount of our wealth in the United States attempting to avoid succumbing to death. Even though Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead, many still approach their death with apprehension. To quote a Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven…But nobody wanna go now.” But even with all the advances in medical technology and the amount of money that is spent to prolong life being wealthy cannot grant immortality. The idea of being able to secure one’s life through wealth has been explored in futuristic dystopian imaginations, like the 2011 movie In Time, where the poor have their life shortened and the rich have their life extended at the expense of the poor or Jupiter Ascending (2015) where entire worlds are populated so that they can be harvested to provide extended life for the galaxy’s wealthiest clients. In many ways the moral imagination of these dystopian worlds models the economic imagination of Egypt in the Exodus and any society that viewed people as a commodity and wealth as a privilege of a small elite. If wealth were able to ensure immortality fear would drive many to acquire this ransom from death at any cost but thankfully, as I wrote when discussing Ecclesiastes 2, “mortality is the great equalizer in all its unfairness.” Yet, for the psalmist’s moral universe mortality is the great equalizer for, as they are considering it, death is the shepherd which God uses to ensure that those who are materially wealthy and politically powerful do not forever hold power over the righteous ones.
Within the worldview of the psalms the conception of heaven or hell as places that people go in the afterlife has not developed and as we saw in Psalm 6 the conception of Sheol as a place where the dead go is not a place of reward or punishment but simply a place outside of the realm of the living. When the author speaks of God ransoming their soul from Sheol it is trusting that God will not let them die at this point while their persecutors prosper, but instead that the moral order of God’s promises will ensure that their life endures but the life of the wealthy persecutors will reach its end without God’s intervention on their behalf. The God of Israel is a God who intervenes in the life of the faithful to ensure that they are not destroyed, and that God’s promises bear fruit in their lives.
This final Korahite psalm of Book II (Psalms 42-49) is an example of a reflection on situational wisdom. The psalms are more poetry than systematic theology and combine emotion with logic and faith to attempt to discern an answer to the world as the authors of these songs encounter them. Looking at the world from the perspective of one undergoing persecution by a wealthy and powerful oppressor, the psalmist can see death as God’s equalizer. Illness, weakness and impending death in psalms of lament are all brought before God as things that are being unfairly born by the righteous one. But the wisdom of the book of psalms is bringing all these pieces of situational wisdom, cries of lament, praises of joy, love songs and meditations together into a collection of psalms which address the breadth of human emotion and experience.