Psalm 49 is very much a psalm for our times. It teaches that ‘materialism’, the worldview that places material possessions and wealth at the heart of our lives and the philosophy that arises from this that only material things exist, cannot save us, but that God’s grace can and does save. In this way, verse 20 – “mankind with his assets but without understanding, is like the animals that perish” – contrasts sharply with the position of the pslamist in verse 15: “But God will redeem me from the power of Sheol, for he will take me.” Or, as Paul put it:
But God, who is rich in mercy, beause of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!Ephesians 2 verses 4 and 5
So let’s jump into the psalm. It is a message for all peoples of the world (verse 1), and therefore by implication not limited to the chosen people of Israel. It is for all – with or without wealth or status (verse 2). The author has a message of “wisdom” and “understanding” (verse 3) to share with them, a “proverb” but also a “riddle” (verse 4). The book of Proverbs explains to us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1 verse 7), so it is logical to assume that the teaching of verse 3 is godly wisdom. The riddle may well be the fact that this wisdom does not make sense to those on the outside (1 Corinthians 1 verses 18 to 25).
What is this wisdom? That those in God’s covenant, like the author do not need to fear troubles (verse 5). Those outside the covenant care about and trust in wealth and riches (verse 6), but the reality is that these are not enough to cover their sin (verse 7) and avoid eternal death (verse 9). “The price of redeeming him is too costly”, and so “one should forever stop trying” (verse 8). In other words, no amount of riches or wealth compares to the value of your sinful soul. You cannot buy it back for yourself, and earn your way out of this predicament. This is exactly what Jesus taught:
For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?Matthew 16 verse 26
Everybody dies – and all their material possessions are divided up (verse 10), and their body returns to the dust (Genesis 3 verse 19). Once your dead, you are dead, and no earthly legacy really matters (verse 11). No wealth of any kind can protect you from the perishing (verse 12). This naturally reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables, which he tells after a man aks Jesus to compel his brother to share their inheritance:
Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.
A rich man’s land was very production. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”‘
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – whose will they be?’
That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.Luke 12 verses 15 to 21
Storing up wealth is an arrogant and foolish thing to do – it cannot save you (verse 13). People who are trusting in wealth and material possessions are heading for death (verse 14). By contrast, those who have lived a life trusting in God will receive their reward: life (verses 14 and 15). This psalm is particularly about those who put their trust in material things, but many people put their trust in all sorts of things. For the Samaritan woman, it was romantic relationships (John chapter 4). Ahaz put his trust in foreign allies (Isaiah 7), and detestable idols (2 Kings 16). I struggle not to rely on my own intellectual talents.
This centring of life around other things is sinful, a repression of the truth of who God is (Romans 1). And when all is said and done, we are all sinners (Romans 3). “The wage of sin is death” (Romans 6 verse 23 part 1) – this is what we all deserve. “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6 verse 23 part 2) – the price we could never have earned ourself (verse 8) is paid for us in Jesus’ death (Romans 3 verses 24 to 26). And so, as we put our trust in God and in the sacrificial death of his son, we know the redemption that he earned for us, and the life that that brings (verse 15).
And so, when we see other people getting rich and only find ourselves ‘just about managing’, or even getting poorer – the psalmist wants to encourage us hat we do not need to be afraid (verse 16). This is because wealth is not the true measure of a person; faith in God is. So, when we see ourselves getting richer and more comfortable – do we keep trusting in God rather than our riches?
Riches cannot save us from death, and we cannot take them with us (verse 17). They may give great comfort and status to us in life (verse 18), but they cannot fix the sinful state of our hearts (verse 19). If we trust in riches – if we trust in anything other than God – our doom is certain: eternal death (verse 20).
This psalm is a stark warning: material wealth cannot save you, only God can. So – trust in God.