Hear this, all you 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…
Psalm 49 sings like the couplets of the Proverbs. Here is a wisdom psalm, reassuring the faithful that God’s way is the way of true wisdom. Human wealth and success may look like the wisest course, but the psalmist has no doubt that – finally, ultimately, eschatalogically – God’s way is the way that will endure.
The Wisdom Tradition of Israel offers an intriguing mix of literature. The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job – each gives insight into various approaches for making sense of the world. The Proverbs are generally hopeful as opposed to the cynicism of Ecclesiastes. We continue to see the variety of the Psalms: joy and lament, thanksgiving and warnings.
Psalm 49 urges a persevering faith among believers.
Why should I fear in times of trouble?
When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others...
Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot...
Do not be afraid when some become rich…
This psalmist speaks of Sheol, the shadowy place of the dead. The rich, he insists, take nothing with them to the grave and will make their home in Sheol while the psalmist and the faithful ones will be “ransomed” from Sheol and will be with God. The wealthy may be happy in this life, but rest assured, they will be stripped bare in the next life.
Of course to us Christians this hints of resurrection but we don’t really know what this poet believed about life after death. In the New Testament, the Pharisees may have come to believe there was some sort of life beyond death but the Sadducees scoffed at that notion. Belief in an afterlife was not an settled issue.
Through some of the Wisdom Literature, however, these hints stand out and keep us guessing. Job‘s famous bel canto sings like Handel or Mozart:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
after my skin has been destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
This psalm also brings to mind the wisdom sayings of Jesus. Probably the most well known version of the beatitudes is from Matthew 5, but Luke’s version in chapter 6 contrasts the blessings with the woes:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
These words are good reminders for believers in our own day when the rich and the powerful seem to rule the world, careless and thoughtless of anyone but themselves. In today’s America, the wealth gap is growing into a chasm. I find myself asking: How long, O Lord?!?!
Wisdom teaches that the world is not as it seems. No matter how things look in this life, finally, ultimately, eschatalogically God’s way is the way that will endure. Psalm 49 calls for a persevering faith among believers.
Rich Photograph – Woe Unto The Rich by Carl Purcell