Psalm 49 -

Why the Wicked Prosper

For the director of music.

Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.

1Hear this, all you peoples;

listen, all who live in this world,

2Both low and high, rich and poor alike:

3My mouth will speak words of wisdom;

the utterance from my heart

will give understanding.

4I will turn my ear to a proverb;

with the harp I will expound my riddle:

5Why should I fear when evil days come,

when wicked deceivers surround me—

6Those who trust in their wealth

and boast of their great riches?

7No man can redeem the life of another

or give to God a ransom for him—

8The ransom for a life is costly,

no payment is ever enough—

9That he should live on forever

and not see decay.

10For all can see that wise men die;

the foolish and the senseless alike

perish and leave their wealth to others.

11Their tombs will remain their houses forever,

their dwellings for endless generations,

though they had named lands after themselves.

12But man, despite his riches, does not endure;

he is like the beasts that perish.

13This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,

and of their followers,

who approve their sayings. Selah

14Like sheep they are destined for the grave,

and death will feed on them.

The upright will rule over them in the morning;

their forms will decay in the grave,

far from their princely mansions.

15But God will redeem my life from the grave;

He will surely take me to Himself. Selah

16Do not be overawed when a man grows rich,

when the splendor of his house increases;

17For he will take nothing with him when he dies,

his splendor will not descend with him.

18Though while he lived

he counted himself blessed—

and men praise you when you prosper—

19He will join the generation of his fathers,

who will never see the light of life.

20A man who has riches without understanding

is like the beasts that perish.

This psalm gives an answer to those, who throughout the ages, have struggled with the question (as did Jeremiah): "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" (Jer. 12:1). To answer this, the psalm teaches us of the worthlessness of riches, when considered in the eternal scheme of things. The psalmist introduces this psalm by addressing his much-needed lesson to no less than all the people in the world: "Hear this, all you peoples; listen, all who live in this world, both low and high, rich and poor alike" (vs. 1). Indeed, this subject is one of universal interest. The poor need to hear it, because they are ever faulting God for prospering the wicked. The rich need to hear it, because they are ever resting in their riches, thinking they don’t need God. With this message the psalmist delivers, "the low will be encouraged, the high will be warned, the rich will be sobered, the poor consoled, there will be a useful lesson for each if they are willing to learn it" [Spurgeon, 369].

What the psalmist has to say is worth heeding: "My mouth will speak words of wisdom; the utterance from my heart will give understanding" (vs. 3). Though this assertion of the psalmist may sound arrogant, he is not so much boasting in himself, as declaring confidence in the inspiration by the Spirit of God, who is speaking through him. "Inspired and therefore lifted beyond himself, the prophet is not praising his own attainments, but extolling the divine Spirit which spoke in Him. He knew that the Spirit of truth and wisdom spoke through him" [Spurgeon, 369]. Indeed, all who have been saved by the Spirit of God have words of wisdom to speak to others, and we should strive to make use of this wisdom. The simple gospel message, spoken from the heart, contains more wisdom than the writings of any number of Greek philosophers.

The Psalmist speaks (or rather sings) his words of wisdom: "I will turn my ear to a proverb; with the harp I will expound my riddle: Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me—those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches?" (vss. 4-6). The Psalmist calls this his "riddle", and it is a riddle to most people that the Psalmist defiantly does not have fear when wicked and wealthy deceivers surround him.

The Psalmist spends the rest of the psalm answering the riddle of his fearlessness in the face of danger from "those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches." First, he points out that, in the eternal scheme of things, riches are worthless: "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live on forever and not see decay" (vss. 7-9). The Psalmist effectively turns the tables on the rich man here, because he points out that it is the ungodly rich man who must fear, not the godly poor man. The rich man can do a lot, can do, in fact, great and wonderful things with wealth, but he cannot on his own do the most important thing: redeem a life. Riches are worthless and hold no weight when compared to the tremendous weight of our sins against God. "Death laughs at bags of gold" [Plumer, 540]. Our ransom must be of greater value than stones stored in a safe, and it was. As Peter tells us: "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (I Pet. 1:18-19).

The Psalmist strengthens his argument by pointing out the obvious, that death comes to all men: "For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves" (vss. 10-11). Neither riches nor wisdom can help one escape the grave. "Death who visits the university, does not spare the tavern" [Spurgeon, 371]. Death is the great leveller. The rich and poor alike will cross death’s threshold naked and empty-handed. Moreover, any worldly fame and renown is left at death’s door. Even those who "had named lands after themselves" have no advantage over the anonymous beggar.

In fact, the ungodly man, no matter how rich in this world, will find himself no better off than even beasts in the next world: "But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings" (vss. 12-13). Aye, and if it be known, death for a man who trust in his riches is worse than death for a beast, for the soulless beast will cease to exist, but the "rich" man will live on in torment. And sadly, the rich man does not die like this alone. This is the fate "of their followers", as well—those who "approve their sayings." "Those who follow them in descent follow them in folly, quote their worldly maxims, and accept their mad career as the most prudent mode of life. Why do they not see by their fathers’ failure, their father’s folly? No, the race transmits its weakness. Grace is not hereditary, but sordid worldliness goes from generation to generation. The race of fools never dies out. No need of missionaries to teach men to be earthworms, they crawl naturally to the dust" [Spurgeon, 372]. "At the call of Folly, what multitudes are always ready to assemble! But Wisdom, eternal and essential Wisdom, crieth without; she lifteth up her voice in the streets, and who is at leisure to attend her heavenly lectures?" [Horne, Plumer, 545].

Now at last, the Psalmist contrasts the fate of the upright man in death to that of the ungodly man: "Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave; He will surely take me to Himself" (vss. 14-15). We have here illustrated Old Testament saving faith. The Old Testament believer did not have the privilege of knowing Jesus Christ. But he could believe that through the rituals and sacrifices that foreshadowed the saving work of Christ, God would redeem him. The Old Testament believer says: "But God will redeem my life from the grave; He will surely take me to Himself" (vs. 15). He had faith that God would bring him to the "princely mansions" reserved for those who trust in God.

The Psalmist, to reenforce what he has said, concludes by summarizing: "Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him. Though while he lived he counted himself blessed—and men praise you when you prosper—he will join the generation of his fathers, who will never see the light of life. A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish" (vss. 16-20). It is quite amazing that, though these words were written thousands of years ago, they still apply to the letter today. I mean, do we not tend to "be overawed when a man grows rich"? Does not the rich man "count himself blessed" by virtue of having riches? ("How foolish is it to account thyself a better man than another, only because thy dunghill is a little bigger than his!" [Hopkins, in Spurgeon, 382].) Do not men "praise you when you prosper"? And so, it also has not changed that "a man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish." You who are rich, be not like beasts. Seek the knowledge that comes through redemption. Cling to your redeemer, Jesus Christ.

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