Psalms 49 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The preceding group of Psalms contains an appeal to “all peoples” to recognise in Jehovah the Ruler of the world in virtue of His mighty deeds for Israel: this Psalm addresses “all peoples” with a theme of common interest to all humanity.
The author is a moralist. He offers teaching concerning one of those enigmas of life which perplex men and try their faith. Is not wealth after all the master-force in the world? Must not the poor tremble before its power and pay court to its splendour? Is not the lot of those who possess the means of luxurious enjoyment, however selfish, most enviable?
The Psalmist’s solution of the problem is to point out the limits to the power of wealth and to its owner’s tenure of it. All the wealth in the world cannot purchase exemption from death; and. it must all be abandoned when its owner comes to die. Quite briefly the Psalmist expresses his own faith that righteousness will be finally triumphant ( Psa 49:14), and that God will do for him what all his wealth cannot do for the rich man ( Psa 49:15).
Does he here break through the veil of darkness which rested over the world beyond for Israel of old, and declare his belief, if not in a resurrection, at least in a translation from the gloom of Sheol to a blessed state of communion with God? This question is a difficult one, but reasons will be given in the notes for thinking that the Psalmist’s view did not reach beyond the present life, though it contains the germ of the principle by which men were raised, through sore struggles of faith, to grasp the hope of eternal life. See also Introd. pp. xciii ff.
The theme of the Ps. is akin to that of Psalms 37, 73. But while those Psalms treat of the temptations to murmuring and disbelief which spring from the sight of high-handed wickedness prospering unchecked, we have here only incidental hints ( Psa 49:5 ; Psa 49:14) that the rich men who are spoken of are oppressors of the poor, or have amassed their wealth by injustice. They are not expressly condemned as tyrannous and oppressive, though no doubt they tended to become so. But they make a god of their wealth and pride themselves on their magnificence. Wrapped in a haughty self-satisfaction, they care for nothing but their own selfish pleasure. What appals the Psalmist is not so much their wickedness as their worldliness. They ignore God and yet they prosper. The Psalm reminds us of the parables of the Rich Fool (Luk 12:16 ff.) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luk 16:19 ff.). Its moral teaching is for all men and all time. Worldliness and envy are temptations which do not lose their power. Rich and poor alike constantly need to be reminded that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth.”
This Ps. is closely connected with the ‘Wisdom’ or religious philosophy of Israel, which, working side by side with Prophecy, was an important power in the education of the nation. It contains numerous parallels of thought and language to the Books of Job and Proverbs.
There is little to determine the date of the Psalm. But it may perhaps belong to the eighth century B.C., when the existence of great wealth and great poverty side by side in the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham could not fail to suggest the problem here discussed. There seems to be an allusion in Psa 49:11 to the vast estates which are condemned by Isaiah and Micah. If so, it will be somewhat earlier than Psalms 46-48. The structure of the Ps. is clearly marked. It consists of an introduction and two equal divisions, each of which is closed by a refrain.
i. A solemn invitation to listen, addressed to men of every nation, every rank, and every class, for the theme is one of universal interest (Psa 49:1-4).
ii. Why should the power of wealth be feared, though men make a god of their riches? Wealth cannot save from death: and its owner must inevitably surrender it when he dies (Psa 49:5-12).
iii. Sheol is the destination of the richest and most powerful. But the upright will be finally triumphant; and the Psalmist in fellowship with God has a hope which no wealth can purchase. There is nothing to fear in worldly magnificence, for it is doomed to a speedy end (Psa 49:13-20).
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".