While the average evangelical may think of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, maybe Song of Songs or even Job, as the books of wisdom in the Bible, I believe in many respects the Psalms can also be placed in this category. Many of the psalms are, in fact, what we call ‘wisdom psalms’, which are as much a meditation as a song, and proverb as hymn. One of these is Psalm 49 (see vv. 1-4).
The crux of this wisdom psalm concerns the psalmist’s fear, particularly of his rich and treacherous opponents, in times of trouble. This is made evident by two observations. First, the psalmist begins with the question, “Why should I fear…” in verse 5. And second, he gives a parallel exhortation, which in effect answers his opening question, in verse 15, “Be not afraid…”
Now, I want to draw your attention to three truths the psalmist reflects on. First, the psalmist recognizes everybody dies (v. 10) – death is in this way the great equalizer of mankind. Of particular interest to the psalmist is to observe that proud men, even his rich opponents, will pass away. Two times he writes, “Man in his pomp…is like the beasts that perish” (vv. 12, 20). I don’t believe the psalmist is here wishing ill on his enemies, but he takes comfort in the fact that their prominence is temporary. To realize such is, in fact, wisdom; and there is, therefore, a kind of solace that the wise enjoy in light of this truth.
Second, the psalmist recognizes that none of us can take our material possessions with us beyond the grave (vv. 10-11). The fact is even the wealthiest of all must leave his wealth to another. “For when he dies,” writes the psalmist, “he will carry nothing away, his glory will not go down after him” (v. 17). Realizing this truly unmasks the aura of riches, celebrity, and power in this world, and lays quite the theological foundation for the teaching of our Lord, who told us to lay up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21).
Third, the psalmist recognizes divergent paths for the proud fool and the wise man – that is, his opponents and himself (vv. 13-15). While the path of the fools leads to Sheol, the place of the dead (see v. 19), the psalmist believes God will rescue him from Sheol’s grip – whether this refers to a temporal deliverance from death or an eternal deliverance in the afterlife is debatable. But what remains clear is the psalmist (and presumably those like him) will enjoy a protection and preservation by divine grace that his enemies will not. The blessed assurance, therefore, of the wise is God’s benevolence, while the fool has no claim to such confidence.
To a culture like ours that seeks to delay death as long as possible, that puts supreme value on money and fame, and that believes all roads lead to the same destination, Psalm 49 pulls back the wool we’ve pulled over our eyes. And to all who experience the intimidating fear of ‘the rich and powerful,’ Psalm 49 shares with us wisdom to calm our fears and to put these things in perspective.