Psalms For Life
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Psalm 49

Escaping money’s cold embrace

When the rich and powerful do as they please to get what they want, we’re tempted to see money and power as the be-all and end-all. But idolizing anything apart from God is as foolish as it is false.

To the music director. A descendants of Korah psalm.

Listen to this, all you people!
Pay attention, everyone on earth
high and low, rich and poor!
For my words distill wisdom
and my thoughts run deep.
I’ve tuned my ear to the use of proverbs
explaining life’s riddles to the lilt of the lyre.

Why should I fear when I’m in trouble
hemmed in by oppressors
who rely on their riches
and brag about their wealth?
No one has enough money to escape death
to pay God to exempt him.
The cost of ransom is far beyond our means—
so don’t even think of it.
The whole idea of living on forever
indefinitely dodging death, is preposterous.

10 Anyone can see that wise people die
the foolish and ignorant all pass away
and leave their fortunes to others.
11 Even those who name countries after themselves
end up with the grave as their final residence
the cemetery their permanent address.
12 The prestige of mortals doesn’t last—
they die just like animals.

13 This is how fools end up
even those whose every word we hold onto.
14 They’re herded off to the grave like sheep
with the Grim Reaper as shepherd.
And the next morning—
as their bodies decompose in the grave
far from their big, beautiful mansions—
you’ll find the godly ruling in their place.

15 As for me, God will redeem my life
and take me in his arms.
16 Don’t be rattled by those who get rich
and build themselves massive homes.
17 For when they die
they take nothing with them—
they leave all their prestige behind.
18 Though they congratulate themselves in life
and everyone else applauds their success
19 they’re laid out beside their ancestors
never to see the light of day again.
20 One thing the rich and famous just don’t get
is that they die just like animals.

Most people view wealth as tangible proof that the rich have the inside track on life. And most rich people believe that lie themselves. So we hang on their words, honor and defer to them, as they think we should. And when they oppress the poor, we stand back. This terrifies the poor, who see the rich as invincible.

The psalmist seeks to correct our distortions about money and what it can buy. Most of the rich don’t deserve the honor we give them. Many are so foolishly obsessed with themselves they’re closed to correction and fail to see that death is the one reckoning they can’t buy their way out of. But their prestige has a short shelf-life, since their lives are as tenuous as everyone else’s. In fact, as tenuous as those of animals.

The psalmist believes God will reverse the power differential, that the egotistical rich will be shoved not just out of the limelight, but permanently offstage, leaving the godly poor standing in their place. He’s confident God will bring him back from the brink of destruction while death strips the rich of their honor, laying their bodies out like animal carcasses.

Help me see wealth and its prestige with clarity, as you see them, Lord. And even when those with wealth and power oppress me, help me to rely on you. Keep me from foolishly thinking my security lies anywhere else. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on these words:

As for me, God will redeem my life and take me in his arms.

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.