PSALM 49 Title: An Intimation of Immorality part 2
by John Lowe
5 Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?
6 They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;
Immediately you wonder who is asking the question. Is it the psalmist? Or is this question asked by the self-confident rich? But perhaps it is asked by the righteous who suffer unjustly or by a poor man. I was a poor boy, and I confess that I have always looked at the rich with a bit of suspicion. I question their motives. Why does God permit some people to become so rich? What is going to happen to them? Why do they seem not to have the same trouble as other men? The question is, “Why does God permit them to get by with so much? Why doesn’t God do something about it?” The answer, I believe, will be found in the rest of the psalm.
The question the psalmist has been struggling with is now stated in graphic terms. He speaks here like a teacher would speak to his students. He sees them in awe of the “wealth” and strongly attracted by the pleasures and extravagances in which these material-minded men engage. “Why do you permit yourselves to be duped by these men?” the psalmist asks. “Why are you envious of carousing wine drinkers, men whose happiness rests upon them accumulating possessions, and who “boast” about how much money they have in the bank?” This is no small problem, because he describes being surrounded (compass me about) by such people—i.e., the violent and injurious schemes and practices of his ungodly and malicious enemies.
The psalmist’s question, “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil” refers to either (1) “days of sin,” when inequity of all sorts abounds, which is in many ways grievous and distressing to every good man. Or, (2) “days of misery”; in times of great distress and calamity, either public or private, when wicked men flourish, and good men are oppressed and persecuted. The question becomes more meaningful when he adds “When the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?—The Amplified Bible may provide a better translation: “When the iniquity of those who would supplant unseat; displace me surrounds me on every side.” These are the deceivers, who dogged his “heels” and made his life difficult.
The word translated “heels” can just as readily be rendered “footsteps.” The picture is that of a man being trailed by the injustice of his wealthy neighbors, dogged by those who are wickedly planning to get the better of him. The psalmist sees this as a real problem. Often wealthy people are eager to take advantage of others and scheme accordingly. The world has its con men on the lookout for a sucker—the weaker and more defenseless the better. A better translation may be “my supplanters” (Genesis 27:36), or “my oppressors”; I am surrounded by the evils my oppressors inflict.
The answer to the question asked in verse 5 is given in verse 6, where the psalmist declares the futility of placing confidence in “wealth, and . . . the multitude of their riches.” Jesus had a great deal to say about “the deceitfulness of riches.”
Men put their hope and “trust” in their money. The psalmist intends to show that this is a foolish thing to do. Money can buy a castle, but not a mansion in the sky; it can buy pleasure, but not peace; it can purchase service, but not salvation; it can buy men (the rich man cynically says that every man has his price), but it cannot buy God. God is not impressed by the size of a man’s bank balance.
They that trust in wealth.—Men are very foolish to take airs on themselves, because they are rich. After all, money cannot do much for its owners. It will not enable a man to redeem either his brother (v. 7) or himself from untimely or sudden death. “A million of money for a moment of time!” cried Queen Elizabeth on her deathbed. Paul had this to say to young Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17, NIV).
Note that the words “trust” (meaning, “to confide in’) and “boast” in verse 6 occur elsewhere only with reference to God. So here they must be used in sarcasm to show that people worship their possessions as if they were gods.
7 None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him:
8 (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)
9 That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.
These men who fascinate you so much, are wealthy. They can buy whatever they want, but they cannot buy their way out of the solemn experience of death, nor can they avoid standing before the great Judge who will sentence them to eternal punishment in the place prepared for the devil and his angels. Wealthy men, who are accustomed to ransoming themselves out of punishment, cannot rescue themselves from the common lot of all men who reject Jesus. And his money cannot “redeem his brother,” nor enable the rich man to “live for ever.” Nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own Son could redeem the soul and give eternal life: “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:17-21, NIV).
Anyone who dies without having accepted Christ as their Savior, is left with a tomb for a house. He will never know when others see his fancy grave or hear his name connected with some property he owned or other possessions. A common image of the ancient people was of death (personified) devouring the living (Job to 18:13; 24:19). In some cultures the perception of death was that of a ravenous monster always on the prowl.
Since a rich man can never bribe God, there is no reason for people like us to be afraid of him. He is not eternal; only God is eternal. Nor can being a believer exempt you from dying.
10 For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.
11 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.
12 Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.
13 This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Selah.
Highly intelligent professors who teach in our great universities and “fools” are alike in this respect: both will eventually “die” and go to their graves, which will remain their abodes until they decay and turn to dust. “Their names,” though, will live on, for the buildings and companies which they leave to others continue to be called by their names. But they themselves pass away, and their “wealth” passes into other hands. Even the richest man becomes poor at death, because you can’t take anything with you. Moreover, because of their wealth such men are honored by others during their lifetime. Yet if they lack moral discernment, and they use their wealth to browbeat others, they are no better than dumb animals and are doomed to the same fate as all other unbelievers. This is particularly the case with those who lack moral discernment and therefore make wrong decisions, and yet take delight in silver and gold. But it is also the case with those whom, regardless of whether or not they possess it, consider material wealth as something essential to their happiness. Since worldly wealth produces spiritual blindness it is a very perilous thing. It can have a deadly effect upon the person who owns it. He tends to confuse truth with error and time with eternity.
The inescapable truth is that man with all his honor must “perish.” In that respect he is like the “beasts.” In other respects, of course, man is quite different from the animals. For example, though man’s body goes to the grave, his spirit and soul do not perish. And his body will be raised from the grave, either for eternal judgment or for eternal blessing. Man has endless being while the animals do not.
When we come to verse 13, we are beginning to see that the writer uses the word “death” in two ways. He groups together all the various types of people he has mentioned so far as those who are pleased with their portion. By that he refers to that secularist view of life which declares that you should enjoy your days on earth as if there were no meaning in life. The rich man, may invest in the stock market, but God gives us this life so that we can invest in eternity
There is no doubt that successful worldly people are shrewd. They have to be to get where they do in this life. But their cleverness is only “for their generation.” It comes to an end at the grave. The masses of mankind, however, are so spiritually blind that they take up the worldly “sayings” of the wealthy and mouth them as though they were able to make a man rich toward God. The psalmist says, “Their posterity approve their sayings,” referring to those who are pleased with their own talk.