Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm, though didactic, does not altogether belie the promise of lyric effort made in Psalm 49:4. Not only is it cast in a lyrical form, with an introduction and two strophes, ended each by a refrain (see Note, Psalm 49:12), but it rises into true poetry both of expression and feeling. Indeed, it is not as a philosophical speculation that the author propounds and discusses his theme, but as a problem of personal interest (Psalm 49:15-16); hence throughout the composition a strain of passion rather than a flow of thought.
Title.—See titles Psalms 4, 42
To the chief Musician, A Psalm for the sons of Korah. Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:(1) Hear this.—For the opening address, comp. Deuteronomy 32:1; Micah 1:2; Psalm 50:7; Isaiah 1:2.
World.—As in Psalm 17:14; properly, duration. (Comp. our expression, “the things of time.”)
Both low and high, rich and poor, together.(2) Both high and low.—The two Hebrew expressions here used, benê-âdam and benê-îsh, answer to one another much as homo and vir in Latin. The LXX. and Vulg., taking âdam in its primary sense, render “sons of the soil and sons of men.” Symmachus makes the expressions stand for men in general and men as individuals.
Shall be of understanding.—The copula supplied by the Authorised Version is unnecessary. The word rendered meditation may mean, from its etymology, “muttered thoughts,” and it is quite consistent to say, my musings speak of understanding. So LXX. and Vulgate.
I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.(4) I will incline mine ear.—The psalmist first listens, that he may himself catch the inspiration which is to reach others through his song. It was an obvious metaphor in a nation to whom God’s voice was audible, as it was to Wordsworth, for whom nature had an audible voice:
“The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lend her ear
In many a secret place,
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty, born of murmuring sound,
Shall pass into her face.”
Parable.—Heb. māshal, root idea, similitude. It is the term used of Balaam’s prophecies, and of the eloquent speeches of Job. Hence here proverb-song (Ewald), since the psalmist intends his composition for musical accompaniment.
Dark saying.—Either from a root meaning to tie, and so “a knotty point;” or to sharpen, and so a sharp, incisive saying. The LXX. and Vulgate have “problem,” “proposition.”
To open the riddle is not to solve it, but to propound it, as we say to “open a discourse.” (Comp. St. Paul’s phrase, “opening and alleging.”) The full phrase is probably found in Proverbs 31:26, “She openeth her mouth with wisdom.’”
Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?(5) Should I fear?—Here the problem is stated not in a speculative, but personal form. The poet himself feels the pressure of this riddle of life.
When the iniquity of my heels.—The Authorised Version seems to take “heels” in the sense of footsteps, as Symmachus does, and “when the evil of my course entangles me,” is good sense, but not in agreement with the context. Render rather, when iniquity dogs me at the heels, i.e., when wicked and prosperous men pursue him with malice. This is more natural than to give the word heel the derived term of supplanter; the sense, too, is the same. There is no direct reference to Genesis 3:15, though possibly the figure of the heel as a vulnerable part, and of wickedness lying like a snake in the path, may have occurred to the poet. The Syriac, however, suggests a different reading, “malice of my oppressors.”
They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;(6) They that—i.e., the rogues implied in the last verse.
None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him:(7) None of them can.—Brother is here used in the wide sense of Leviticus 19:17, Genesis 13:11 (where rendered “the one”). The sense is the same whether we make it nominative or accusative. Death is the debt which all owe, and which each must pay for himself. No wealth can buy a man off. God, in whose hand are the issues of life and death, is not to be bribed; nor, as the next verse says, even if the arrangement were possible, would any wealth be sufficient.
(For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)(8) For.—This verse is rightly placed in a parenthesis. “Soul” is the animal life, as generally, and here necessarily from the context. There is no anticipation of the Christian scheme of redemption from sin. A ransom which could buy a man from death, as one redeems a debtor or prisoner, would be beyond the means of the wealthiest, even if nature allowed such a bargain.
It ceaseth for ever.—This is obscure. It may mean, either the ransom utterly fails, or the life utterly perishes, and so cannot be ransomed. Or, as in the Prayer Book version, the verb may be taken transitively, “he lets that alone for ever.” The first of these is the simplest, and most agreeable to the context.
That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.(9) That—i.e., in order that; introducing the purpose of the imagined ransom in Psalm 49:7. Others connect it consecutively with Psalm 49:8, “He must give up for ever the hope of living for ever.”
For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.(10) For he seeth.—The clauses are wrongly divided in the Authorised Version. Translate—
“On the contrary he must see it (the grave),
Wise men must die . . .
Likewise the fool and the stupid must perish.”
The wealth of the prudent will not avail any more for indefinite prolongation of life, than that of fools.
Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names.(11) Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever.—These eleven words represent three in the Hebrew, and, as the text stands, give its sense, which is intelligible and consistent:
“They believe their houses will last for ever,
Their dwelling places from generation to generation;
They call the lands by their own names.”
The reading followed by the LXX., Chaldee, and Syriac, kibram for kirbam gives a different thought—
“Their graves are their homes,
Their dwelling places for ever.”
(Comp. “his long home,” Ecclesiastes 12:5.)
The last clause, which literally runs, they call in their names upon lands, is by some explained (see Isaiah 44:5) to mean, “they are celebrated in their lands,” which suits the text followed by the LXX.
Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.(12) Abideth not.—This verse gives the kernel and the thought of, as it also serves as a refrain to, the poem, thus vindicating the claim of a lyric tone for this didactic psalm. The reading of the LXX. and Vulg. (“without understanding” instead of “abideth not”), which brings Psalm 49:12 into exact correspondence with Psalm 49:20, is unquestionably to be adopted. The present text could not really express permanence, the Hebrew verb meaning to lodge temporarily.
The next verse, too, is hardly intelligible, unless we read here—
“Man, though in honour, without understanding,
Is like the beasts; they perish.”
This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Selah.(13) This their way—i.e., the folly mentioned in the (amended) preceding verse, and described in Psalm 49:11.
Is their folly—i.e., is a way of folly.
Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.(14) Like sheep they are laid in the grave.—Rather, like a flock for sheol they are arranged; death is their shepherd. While planning for a long life, and mapping out their estates as if for a permanent possession, they are but a flock of sheep, entirely at the disposal and under the direction of another, and this shepherd is death. Comp. Keble’s paraphrase.
“Even as a flock arrayed are they
For the dark grave; Death guides their way,
Death is their shepherd now.”
The rendering, “feed on them,” is an error. The rest of the verse as it stands is quite unintelligible. Among the many conjectured emendations, the best is (Burgess) to point the verb as the future of yārad, and render, “and the upright shall go down to the grave amongst them (i.e., amongst the ungodly) until the morning” (for the last words compare Deuteronomy 16:4), when in contrast to the wicked they shall see light (Psalm 49:20).
Adopting this emendation, a new force is lent to the next two clauses, which have puzzled modern commentators, as they did the ancient translators (LXX., “their help shall grow old in hell from their glory.”) By a slight change of points and accents, and taking mizbul as a derivative noun equivalent to zebul (so also Grätz), we get, “Their beauty (is) for corruption; sheol (is) its dwelling,” i.e., all, wise and unwise, good and bad, must descend to the under world (Psalm 49:11), so that the upright accompany the wicked thither, and it becomes the dwelling-place of their beauty, i.e., their bodies.
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah.(15) But God will.—Better, But God shall redeem my life from the hand of sheol when it seizes me. Taken by itself, this statement might only imply that when just at the point of death, the Divine favour would draw him back and rescue him. But taken with the rendering given above to the previous verse, we must see here the dim foreshadowing of a better hope, that death did not altogether break the covenant bond between Jehovah and His people, a hope to which, through the later psalms and the book of Job, we see the Hebrew mind feeling its way. (Comp. Psalm 16:10; and see Note to Psalm 6:5.)
Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased;(16, 17) After expressing his own hopes of escaping from death, or being rescued from corruption, the psalmist recurs to the question of Psalm 49:5, and completes the answer to it. He need not fear, however prosperous and wealthy his adversaries become, for they will die, and, dying, can take none of their possessions with them.
Though while he lived he blessed his soul: and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.(18) Though, while he lived. . . .—This is abundantly illustrated by our Lord’s parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:19; comp. Deuteronomy 29:19).
And men will.—Rather, and though men praise thee, &c. “Although prosperity produces self-gratulation, and procures the homage of the world as well, yet,” &c
He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.(19) They shall never.—Better, who will never again look on the light, i.e., “never live again,” implying, in contrast, a hope of a resurrection for the upright. (See Note Psalm 49:14.)