For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 49 and its interpreters. Psalm 49 exhorts people not to fear, and presumably the object that they are not to fear is the rich, for the Psalm goes on to stress that the rich will die. The Psalm point out that, notwithstanding all of their wealth, rich people cannot ransom their own lives. The rich may try to gain a sense of immortality by naming their property after themselves, but honor does not last. But, whereas the rich perish, God will redeem the Psalmist from the hand of Sheol and will receive him.
I have four items:
1. Some Jewish interpreters, such as the Midrash on the Psalms and the Targum on the Psalms, have related Psalm 49 to Korah. Psalm 49 is a Psalm for the sons of Korah, and the idea is that the Korahites are reflecting back on the incident in which God sunk their wealthy ancestor Korah and his company into the earth when they rebelled against Moses, while preserving the sons of Korah from death. Psalm 49 contrasts going to Sheol with being delivered from it, after all, and some Jewish interpreters see parallels between that and the incident of Korah and his offspring.
2. Psalm 49:2 initially puzzled me. The verse reads (in the KJV): “Both low and high, rich and poor, together.” The Hebrew phrase that is translated as “low” is bene adam, “sons of man”. And the word translated as “high” is bene ish, “sons of man”. “Adam” often means humanity, which encompasses males and females, whereas “ish” refers specifically to males. But why would Psalm 49:2 say that both generic humanity and also males should listen to the Psalm? That makes little sense.
The explanation that I most often encountered was that the sons of Adam were the common people, whereas the sons of man were the nobility, or the elites. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said that nobles can trace their pedigree to a specific man of renown, whereas the only significant pedigree commoners have is the first man, Adam. At least commoners are descended from Adam, who was significant in his own right! E.W. Bullinger cites other passages in which “adam” and “ish” appear together (Psalm 62:9; Isaiah 2:9; 5:15; 31:8), and English translations agree that a distinction is being made between people of low-birth and people of high-birth.
It’s interesting, though, to see how some interpreters have tried to handle Psalm 49:2. Augustine says that the “sons of Adam” are those who live for this life, whereas the “sons of ish” pertain to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. The Midrash on the Psalms actually reverses this, relating the “sons of Adam” to God’s people Israel, and the “sons of ish” to the descendants of Noah, the rest of humanity. Its argument is that “adam” is used for Abraham in Joshua 14:15 (when, actually, that is arba, not “Abraham”), and that Noah is called an “ish” in Genesis 6:9. Theodore of Mopsuestia, however, says that the “sons of Adam” and the “sons of ish” are the same thing, and that Psalm 49:2 uses “sons of Adam” to humble people with their status as earth-born human beings.
3. Psalm 49:8 says (in the KJV): “(For the redemption of their soul [is] precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)”. Jimmy Swaggart interprets this to mean that people cannot be saved after they die, that now is the only day of redemption, for the opportunity for salvation ceases forever after one dies. But there are other interpretations of this verse. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler say in the Jewish Study Bible that the idea in v 8 is that “even the great wealth of the rich cannot be used by them to attain eternal life from God.” The implication may be that “it ceaseth for ever” means that life comes to a permanent end at death. Daniel Estes, in an article he wrote for Bibliotheca Sacra (which is published by Dallas Theological Seminary), says that Psalm 49 is telling people that they should cease trying forever to ransom their lives. In these latter two interpretations, death is unavoidable.
4. Death may be unavoidable, but does Psalm 49 offer the hope of an afterlife? This is debated, even within modern scholarly circles. Psalm 49:15 says (in the KJV): “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah.” Patrick Miller in the HarperCollins Study Bible refers to Genesis 5:24 and II Kings 2:3, 5, which concern the translation of a righteous individual (Enoch and Elijah, respectively). When the Psalmist was affirming that God would receive him, did he envision being taken up into heaven, as Enoch and Elijah were? Is the point of Psalm 49 that the rich would die, whereas God would grant eternal life to those who trust in him?
The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary answers in the negative, and it cites Psalm 18:16-17 to show that God receiving a person relates to God saving his life in the here-and-now, not an afterlife, the implication being that God is rescuing a person from a near-death experience. Sigmund Mowinckel sums up this interpretation quite well on page 139 of the second volume of The Psalms in Israel’s Worship: “all, even the wealthy must die, and…in deadly peril the ungodly rich has not the same assurance that the pious believer has, namely that God frees him from the threatening grip of Hades and lets him live the normal life to its end”.
Does Psalm 49 mean what The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary and Mowinckel say it means: that the rich die prematurely, whereas the pious live their lives to a ripe old age? I don’t see any indication of death being premature in Psalm 49, for the point appears to be that the rich die, and that they are foolish for not coming to grips with this reality. If everyone dies, though, then what advantage do the pious have, since they die, too? I can understand why some interpreters see an afterlife in v 15. At the same time, so many Psalms do depict deliverance of the pious from a near death experience, while asserting that God will cut off the lives of the wicked. I’m not surprised, therefore, that some interpreters read Psalm 49 in light of that particular perspective.