Commentary on Psalm 49:1-12
For many readers, the book of Psalms is a collection of songs or hymns and prayers. Fewer might be aware of the different types of psalms.
Therefore, the reader might be surprised to find that there are what are referred to as “wisdom psalms,” wise sayings accompanied by music.
Wisdom in the Psalms
Wisdom has been defined both as knowledge, experience, and good judgment and the teachings of ancient wise men.1 Wisdom literature is found throughout the ancient Near East, to include the Bible. Wise men or sages in ancient Israel wrote and preserved the wisdom material in the Hebrew Bible over a thousand-year span. Sages were mostly members of elite society, whose social position afforded them the luxury to pursue knowledge and understanding of human nature and how the universe operated. They believed that there was an orderliness to how the world operated that could be understood by observable discernment. Wisdom comes with experience and experience usually comes with time and contemplation, both of which the commoner didn’t usually enjoy. This doesn’t mean that the common man and woman were not privy to knowledge and understanding.
The three biblical books that are regarded as wisdom literature are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). However, in the deuterocanonical books that are part of the Catholic and Orthodox canons this list is expanded to include Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Yet, there are other writings throughout the Bible that share elements in structure, form, and purpose with wisdom literature, especially their poetic form, to include writings in the books of Psalms, Song of Songs, and Lamentations.
In the Psalms these include Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, and 133. Wisdom psalms share with other wisdom literature instructions on how to live wisely before God. They are often comprised of short, pithy statements. Unlike other psalms, the wisdom psalms often lack a crying out to God as the lament psalm or the hymns of praise or thanksgiving. Given their didactic function, they are usually addressed to humans rather than God.2 In Psalm 49, the use of such words as wisdom, meditation, proverb, riddle, and the wise supports its inclusion in this category.
Psalm 49:1-12 is a longer meditation or proverb (Heb. mashal) on wisdom and the limits of wealth. Addressed to the leader of the Korahites, Psalm 49 was intended to be sung. The Korahites were descendants of the levitical Korah. According to tradition, David set the sons of Korah over the service of song at the tent of meeting (1 Chronicles 6:31, 32) and the temple during the postexilic period (1 Chronicles 9:19). The Korahite singers appear in the superscriptions of a number of psalms, including Psalms 42, 44-48, and 84-85, suggesting that they were the composers. However, among the psalms attributed to them, only Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm suggesting that it was collected by or given to them to sing rather than composed by them.
Death doesn’t play favorites
The psalmist instructs the listeners to incline their ears to hear words of wisdom that express his or her innermost thoughts for their edification (Psalm 49:1-3). Thus, the psalm has a didactic function. The psalm is addressed to all the inhabitants of the world, regardless of their status in society. As if to emphasize this point, the psalmist includes the parallel phrases “low and high,” “rich and poor.” The phrase translated in English as “low and high” in Hebrew is the bene ’adam, “sons of adam” and bene ’ish, “sons of man.” Both are literally translated “sons of man.” The former is a generic term for human; the latter refers to the individual man. Thus, this is a poetic way of addressing everyone.
The psalmist relies on the instruction of those wisdom teachers who came before, as well as from their own meditations. Here the psalmist reveals the answer to the riddle that had been vexing her or him accompanied by a kinnor, Hebrew for a ten-string instrument that is often translated in English as harp (KJV and NRSV) and lyre (RSV) (Psalm 49:4). After much study and contemplation, the psalmist has come to the awareness that the wealthy eventually will die just the same as the poor. Put another way, all the wealth in the world cannot save the wealthy from the finality of death. This might not seem like news to us. However, for the psalmist who wrestled with the question of why the wealthy could persecute him or her with impunity, the realization that the one equalizer in life was death brought comfort and relief (49:5-6).
The psalmist seems to appreciate the fact that there is no price that the wealthy could pay to redeem themselves from the fate of death. The word “ransom” here (Hebrew padah) refers to the practice of paying a person’s debt to free them from the penalty of that debt. If a guilty person had the means, he could pay a ransom and receive a reduced sentence or someone else could take his place and serve the sentence. This is more evidence of the socio-economic divide that the psalmist complained of.
However, the wealthy will find that there is no ransom that they could pay God — not even their own lives — to redeem them from death (49:7-9). Wise or foolish, the wealthy their final resting place will be their tombs while others benefit from their accrued riches. The psalmist sums this up with the refrain, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish” (Psalm 49:12; see also verse 20). The wealthy can boast all they want, but all creatures eventually die. We can all learn from this lesson.
Although the Hebrew Bible records examples of women in the office of scribe, prophet, as well as singers and musicians, there is no evidence of professional female sages.
James Limburg, “The Book of Psalms,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, edited by David Noel Freedman (Doubleday: New York, 1992), 4:522–536.