Theme: The Path of Wisdom
In this week’s lessons we learn about the foolishness of trusting in riches, and instead are told to trust in God, who alone is able to redeem our souls.
Scripture: Psalm 49:1-20
Because the Bible is a book of progressive revelation, it is often the case that a New Testament passage can be read as a commentary on part of the Old Testament. But sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes an Old Testament passage is a commentary on something in the New Testament.
Psalm 49 is like that. It is a commentary on Jesus’ story about the rich fool, recorded in Luke 12:13-21. The story concerns a rich landowner whose ground produced such an abundant crop that he said to himself, “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’”
Jesus said, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm about the emptiness of riches. We have not read anything quite like it up to this point in our studies. In fact, the opening verses (vv. 1-4) sound more like Proverbs or another “wisdom” section of the Old Testament than a psalm.
It begins, like the book of Proverbs itself, with a call to wise men everywhere. It is for “all who live in this world, both low and high, rich and poor alike.” All are included, ourselves as well as others. Christians in our day sometimes think they are above such appeals. But this is never the case—we all need to attend to the Bible’s wisdom—and it is certainly not the case in this area. Most of us in the west, even when we are very active in Christian work, are materialistic. That is, we think in terms of the things we see rather than spiritual realities we cannot see, and we are inclined to trust wealth or what we can accomplish with it. Not many years ago, the well-known Christian psychiatrist and writer John White wrote a book titled The Golden Cow in which he faithfully exposed the blatant materialism of the twentieth-century western church.1 Trust in riches is a persistent and universal problem.
What the psalmist proposes is words of wisdom given to him by God. In the Hebrew text, the words “wisdom” and “understanding” are both plural (“wisdoms” and “understandings”), which has the effect of heightening the importance and value of what he has to say. Lest we miss the point, verse 4 says, “I will turn my ear to a proverb.” That is, the psalmist will listen to what God has to say on the subject. More than one commentator has pointed out that the one who would teach others must first be taught himself. The preacher who would speak in God’s name must begin by listening.
The psalmist calls what he is about to expound a “riddle.” It is what we might call “the mystery of life, death and prosperity” or the lack of it. This is the theme. But it is a sophisticated treatment in that it enlarges on this basic theme to include the oppression that wealth frequently makes possible and encourages, and deals with the fear the poor often have of those who have money. It tells the listener not only to be aware that death is the great leveler, but also not to fear wealthy persons.
J. J. Stewart Perowne, one of the excellent older commentators, handles the psalm’s theme well:
It is no mere commonplace on the shortness of life and the uncertainty of riches. It is no philosophical dissertation, which bids us bear up bravely in our perils and sufferings, telling us that virtue is its own reward. It goes at once to the root of the matter. It shows us not only the vanity of riches, but the end of those who ‘boast in their riches.’ It comforts the righteous in their oppression and affliction, not merely by the assurance that they shall finally triumph over the wicked, but by the more glorious hope of life everlasting with God…. It is this doctrine specially enunciated, which gives the Psalm its distinctive character, and which leads the Psalmist himself to claim for it so attentive a hearing.2
On what New Testament story is Psalm 49 a commentary, and how does this psalm speak to it?
How is Psalm 49 like a proverb?
What is the theme of the psalm?
Application: We can sometimes be quick to give other people our advice, and not listen to what the person is actually trying to say. If that is often true of you, prayerfully make it a goal to be a better listener in your relationships.
1John White, The Golden Cow: Materialism in the Twentieth-Century Church (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1979).
2J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 395. Original edition 1878-1879.