Psalm 49

Submitted by admin on Mon, 2006-09-18 17:17.

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The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of the Hebrew expression.

Psalm 49 is attributed to the sons of Korah, probably meaning the descendants of the Levite who rebelled against the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:1-3; 26:10, 11)

The message of this psalm is for all peoples (nations, LXX), all who reside on the habitable land. Therefore, the psalmist called upon them to pay attention (to “hear” or to “give ear”) to his words.

The “sons of man” or “earthlings” evidently evidently designate commoners. In this case the Hebrew word for “man” is ’adhám, but in the next phrase (“sons of man”) it is ’ish, apparently meaning persons of higher station. In the Septuagint, the first expression is a form of gegenés (an earthborn one or commoner), and this is followed by huioí tón anthrópon (“sons of men”). Whether of low or high station, rich or poor, all are to listen.

The psalmist intended to make expressions that reflected wisdom. They would be insightful words stemming from the meditation of his heart or his thoughtful reflection. (See Psalm 1 regarding the Hebrew word for “meditate.”)

He would incline his ear to a proverb (“parable,” LXX). The context suggests that the “proverb” on which he would focus is the perplexing problem involving the apparent prosperity of those who are corrupt. A number of translations do use a rendering that is less restrictive than the usual significance of the Hebrew mashál. “I will turn my attention to a theme.” (Tanakh) “I will turn my attention to a problem.” (NAB) “I have in mind a mystery.” (CEV) To the accompaniment of a harp, he would then “open up” (probably meaning “provide an answer to”) his riddle or perplexing problem.

The psalmist raised the question, “Why should I fear in days of evil?” These “days of evil” may denote times of distress on account of being subjected to suffering by wealthy oppressors. This is suggested by his mention of being surrounded by the iniquity of his supplanters or being faced with the lawlessness of those intent on depriving him of what rightfully belonged to him. These corrupt men used their position and power to profit at the expense of the poor, afflicted, or defenseless ones.

The psalmist described them as men who trusted in their riches, boasting about their great wealth. Apparently their confidence was based on the power they derived from their riches, enabling them to gain their unworthy objectives through bribery and other corrupt means. According to the Septuagint, they trusted “in their strength.”

Stressing the folly of relying on riches, the psalmist called attention to the nonexistent power of wealth in the area where it really counts. A man, regardless of his high station and great wealth, cannot redeem or rescue his brother (or even himself or any other person) from death. He cannot pay to God a ransom price to keep him from dying. The Septuagint reads, “A brother does not redeem. Will a man redeem?” The obvious answer is, No.

The redemption price for their soul or life is too costly, and it (the redemption price) or the individual ceases to be for the limitless time to come. Translations vary in the way they render the words as referring either to the redemption price or the person. “The price of life is too high; and so one ceases to be, forever.” (Tanakh) “Too high the price to redeem a life; one would never have enough to stay alive forever and never see the pit.” (NAB) “You can never pay God enough to stay alive forever and safe from death.” (CEV) “The ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” (NIV) “For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice.” (NRSV) “For the redemption of their soul is costly, and must be let alone for ever.” (ERV) “For the redemption of their soul is costly, and must be given up for ever.” (Darby) In the Septuagint, the thought is that a man would be unable to give to God “the price for the redemption of his soul.”

The greatest accumulation of riches would still not be enough to keep a person alive, preventing a descent into the pit. There was no way to escape seeing the pit or going to the place where the dead find themselves. According to the Septuagint, endless laboring and living to the end would not prevent a person from experiencing corruption or decay.

The psalmist noted that one can see the wise die, sharing the same fate as the senseless one and the stupid one (persons not using good judgment and failing to live in a manner that promotes their own well-being and that of others). All must leave behind for others whatever wealth they may have acquired during their lifetime.

In verse 11(12), the opening word in the Masoretic Text is the plural of the noun qérev, meaning “inward part” or “midst.” This term has commonly been rendered “inward thoughts.” If this is the correct meaning, the verse may be understood as follows: Within themselves, those who have acquired riches desire that their “houses” or properties remain for limitless time to come, passing from one generation to the next. Because of having their names attached to their holdings, they would entertain the belief that this would result in perpetuating their names.

The Septuagint reads táphoi (the plural of táphos, meaning “grave” or “tomb”), suggesting that the Hebrew word in the translator’s text was the plural of qéver (“grave”). Numerous translations have chosen this meaning and have rendered the verse accordingly. “Their grave is their eternal home, the dwelling-place for all generations of those once famous on earth.” (Tanakh) “The grave will be their home forever and ever, although they once had land of their own.” (CEV) “Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves.” (NIV) The Septuagint reads, “And their tombs [will be] their houses eternally, their dwellings from generation to generation. They have called their names upon their lands.”

A man, an earthling, despite being honored, cannot abide but will perish like unreasoning beasts. According to the Septuagint, such a man, “being in honor, does not understand.” One of the Dead Sea Psalms scrolls supports this rendering. After the initial “and” in the Septuagint, verse 12(13) is the same as the concluding verse. The only difference in the Masoretic Text is “abide” in verse 12(13); the concluding verse, like the Septuagint, says “understand.”

The “way” of the senseless ones may relate to their foolish reasoning. Their attempts to perpetuate their names are bound to fail. They are no better off than unreasoning animals that are slaughtered for food. According to the Septuagint, “this their way is a stumbling block to them,” possibly meaning that it causes them to fall to their ruin. They do not abandon their foolish thinking.

A number of translations represent the Hebrew text as meaning the fate of fools, morally corrupt persons, and as introducing what would happen to them (as set forth in the next verse). In the Contemporary English Version, the significance is explicit, “Here is what happens to fools and to those who trust the words of fools:...”

A literal reading of the second part of this verse (13[14]) is, “And after them, they are pleased with their mouth.” This could mean that persons who would be living after these ungodly ones had died would agree with their words. On account of the obscurity of the Masoretic Text (the Septuagint reading being similar), translators have variously rendered this verse. “This is the way of them that are foolish, and of those who after them approve their sayings.” (Margolis) “This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.” (NIV) “Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot.” (NRSV) “Such is the fate of those who are self-confident, the end of those pleased with their own talk.” (Tanakh) “This is the destiny of those who trust in folly, the end of those so pleased with their wealth.” (NAB)

In view of the contrast with the upright, evidently those “like sheep” would be persons who adopt the ways of wealthy oppressors. Like sheep that are led and have no other choice but to follow, the morally corrupt are appointed for Sheol, the realm of the dead, with death being their shepherd. “In the morning,” possibly meaning when the darkness of affliction has passed, the upright would have dominion over the oppressors who would be powerless in the realm of the dead. There, in Sheol, the “forms” of the oppressors would waste away, progressively decomposing. Instead of an impressive residence, Sheol would be their home.

The psalmist (probably speaking for all the upright) expressed the confidence that God would redeem his soul or life from the “hand” or “power of Sheol.” In view of the context, this could mean that he would be delivered from the oppressors who would have brought about his premature death. Instead, God would receive him as one under his care and protection.

With God as his helper, the upright person had no reason to fear the one who became wealthy by resorting to corrupt, oppressive means. The psalmist therefore included the encouragement not to be afraid when seeing one becoming rich and the glory of his house increasing.

Regardless of how great the wealth and the splendor of his house may come to be, the wealthy oppressor, at his death, cannot carry anything with him. His glory or splendor will not follow him in his descent into the realm of the dead.

During his lifetime, the wealthy oppressor “blessed” or congratulated himself (“his soul”) for the power and riches that had come into his possession. Others praised him for having done well for himself. According to the Septuagint, “He will thank you when you do good to him.”

Riches and the power derived from possessing them are temporary. The wealthy one would go to the generation of his fathers, joining them in the realm of the dead. At death, he would cease to see the light of day or life.

A man, evidently an earthling whose focus is only on acquiring riches, does not understand that he is like unreasoning beasts and perishes as they do.

Note: The expression “selah” appears at the end of verses 13(14) and 15(16). There is uncertainty about the significance of this term. The Septuagint rendering diápsalma is thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”