Psalm 49 is a wisdom song with many similarities to both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature is primarily found in the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, although proverbs and “wise sayings” appear in virtually every book of the Hebrew Bible.

hebrew-textIt is somewhat remarkable that wisdom routinely warns about the dangers of wealth (the theme of this Psalm).  It is not that wealth in and of itself is wrong or evil, but that the person who is wealthy tends to be corrupted by that wealth, relying on their own resources rather than on the God who gave them their wealth in the first place.  Since Solomon is the source for much of the wisdom thinking in ancient Israel, he is the perfect example of a man who was deluded by his own wealth.

The writer invites all people to hear his wisdom.  He uses four words here which describe this type of literature.

Wisdom (חָכְמָה, ḥākmâ). This is the common word for wisdom and can have the sense of technical skill or “applied knowledge.” It is not enough to know how to do something (intellectual knowledge).  To be wise, a person must apply that knowledge in some useful way.

Understanding (תְּבוּנָה, tebunah).  Like wisdom, this noun can have the sense of skill of cleverness, often in the context of being quick to understand something.  It is used of the craftsmen who worked on the Tabernacle (Exod 31:3, 35:31, 36:1). This understanding is the result of meditating in one’s inmost being, dwelling deeply on a subject until one has an understanding of it.  The verb הָגוּת is only found here in the Hebrew Bible, but may be related to “sighing” or ‘rumbling.”

A proverb (מָשָל, māšāl). While Christians tend to think of a proverb as a short saying, the Hebrew word is used for a wide variety of types of literature, including parables. The point of a proverb is to cause someone to think or ponder the saying or story.  The writer invites is to “incline an ear” to the proverb, a phrase which is akin to “let the one who has ears, hear.”

A riddle (חִידָה, ḥîdâ).  This word sometimes appears in parallel to a proverb / parable, Ezek 17:2, for example.  It is used for riddles in the modern sense (Judg 14:12-19, Samson’s riddle), but also for ‘hard question” (1 Kings 10:1, the queen of Sheba’s tests of Solomon’s wisdom).  In fact, solving “riddles” is one of the qualifications of a wise man (Dan 8:23, describing Daniel’s abilities).  The word is related to the verb “to lock up,” so it is appropriate that the writer says he will be “opening the door” on a riddle, that is to say, solving the riddle.

Wisdom in Psalm 49 is for all people. The writer claims to teach a universal principle of life which applies to all people at all times, not just the covenant people of Israel. This universal aspect of wisdom literature is why many Christians (and non-Christians) consider Proverbs their favorite book of the Old Testament.