Theme: The Foolishness of Trusting Riches
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
The outline of Psalm 49 is not obscure, which means that nearly all commentators divide it into the same five parts, though they sometimes combine them under comprehensive headings. They are: 1) the introduction (which we have already touched on); 2) the foolishness of trusting riches (vv. 5-9); 3) the inescapability of death (vv. 10-12); 4) the contrast between those who trust riches and those who trust God (vv. 13-15); and 5) an appeal to all persons to be wise (vv. 16-20).
The foolishness of trusting wealth comes from the obvious truth that it cannot save a person from death (vv. 5-9). It is wisdom to remember that and the height of folly to forget it. Since we are eternal creatures, we ought to focus on how we might prepare for eternity rather than on how we might accumulate increasing wealth here and perish with it.
The French atheist and scourge of Christianity, Voltaire, was a very rich man. He was the most famous person of the European enlightenment in the sophisticated eighteenth century, and his writings, particularly his satirical attack on Christianity, Candide, were read everywhere. Yet when Voltaire came to die, it is reported that he cried to his doctor in pained desperation, “I will give you half of all I possess if you will give me six months more of life.” But, of course, it was beyond the doctor’s ability to do that, and all Voltaire’s great wealth could not slow death’s advance.
Verse 7 uses this truth to say that “no one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him.” That is, no one can save another from death with money.
Writers have pointed out that it would seem more natural that verse 7 should speak of a man redeeming his own life, rather than “the life of another.” Hence, in typical scholarly fashion, many have tried to emend the text to make it say this.3 But, as is usually the case, such scholarly changes miss the point. The psalmist speaks of redeeming the life of another, which is impossible for man, because later he is going to speak of God redeeming us. The point is that God alone can do that. We can’t.
But maybe the foolishness of those who trust their wealth is not that they think that somehow money can redeem their lives from death, but rather that they somehow think that they themselves are invincible, that they will not die (vv. 10-12). If this is the case, this is an even greater example of folly than the first absurdity. “For,” as the psalmist says, “all can see that wise men die: the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others” (v. 10). The point is that death is inevitable and that, when it comes, we must leave everything behind.
Two men met in a streetcar one day and began to talk about a millionaire whose death had been announced in that morning’s paper. “How much did he leave?” one asked the other.
“Everything he had!” replied his companion.
Years ago, when burial customs were a bit different than they are now, people used to make the same point when they said, “Shrouds have no pockets.”
This is so obvious a truth that all persons can see it: “All can see that wise men die” (v. 10). Yet although they can see it, they also fail to see it because they refuse to see it. Although they know they will die, they behave as if they will live forever.
One of the older writers, cited by Spurgeon in his remarkable work on the psalms, tells about a wealthy landowner in Massachusetts. He had spent most of his life acquiring property. It was his passion. But his extensive lands were marred by a poorer neighbor who held a small plot in the middle of his expanding domain. The poorer farmer got into financial trouble, was sued, and judgments were rendered against him, all of which meant that he would probably lose his land. The wealthy man was delighted and waited on the sidelines to buy up the land as soon as the smaller parcel should become available. But somehow the poor man met his payments, and the debt was paid off without the land being sold. When he heard of it the wealthy, greedy landowner exclaimed, “Well, my neighbor is an old man; he cannot live long, and when he is dead I will buy the lot.”
“But,” wrote this ancient writer, “the neighbor was fifty-eight, and the wealthy man was sixty!”4
Review the outline of the psalm.
Why is trusting in wealth said to be foolish?
Reflection: How do unsaved people tend to view death? Besides wealth, what other things do people use or do to avoid thinking about the inevitability of their death?
Key Point: Since we are eternal creatures, we ought to focus on how we might prepare for eternity rather than on how we might accumulate increasing wealth here and perish with it.
3For a discussion of these proposals see Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89, ed. W. Robertson Nicol (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), p. 105; Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1973), p. 183, footnote 1.4C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 378.