Psalm 49 describes the fate of the wealthy. Wisdom literature in general has a great deal to say about the folly of relying on one’s personal wealth. Despite this, it seems like contemporary American culture (especially conservative evangelicalism) ignores the biblical associate of wealth and folly. I am tempted to inset a Donald Trump joke here, since there are far too many Christians who are fooled into thinking his wealth means he knows something about running a country (or worse, his wealth means he is blessed by God). If anything, American politics should demonstrate the truth of Psalm 49, reliance on personal wealth and power is folly.
The wealthy are described as cheating the worshiper. To “cheat” or “deceive” is the noun עָקֵב, the root behind the name Jacob. The basic meaning is “heel,” Jacob was the second of the twins born to Rebekah and was given the name “heel grasper” since he was born grabbing the heel of his brother. To “raise one’s heel against” another person is a threatening sign, Ps 40:10 uses this phrase to describe a betrayer, Jesus quotes that Psalm in John 13:18 to describe Judas.
These wealthy people trust in their riches (49:6). Rather than trusting in God, the rich are confident that they can weather any economic problems which come along. Remember Y2K? Some people stocked up on food and water “just in case.” If the worst possible things happened on that date, they could have “boasted” in their own preparedness, they survived because they earned it and deserved to survive.
The fate of the wealthy is the same for the poor, they will both die (49:7-12). Wealth cannot ransom a person from the grave. This line (v.7) begins with a rare interjection which is not in the NIV and is usually translated “alas!” The word (אָח) is a cry of pain, almost like a guttural scoffing noise. The syntax here is significant (infinitive absolute with an imperfect cognate, the same sort of construction in the famous “you will surely die,” Gen 2:17). The ESV uses “truly” to get at the meaning here, the point is the certainty of this not happening: “he most certainly cannot buy his way out of Sheol!”
People who boast in their wealth have foolish confidence (49:12-13). It is not wrong to have wealth, nor does this psalmist praise poverty. The problem is that people who have wealth place their confidence in the wealth, often to their shame. Wealth can disappear in an instant. Their confidence is described as “foolish” (כֶּסֶל). They are relying on something which is unreliable. Imagine if you had an uncle tell you that he was going to help you pay off all your debts because his new business was just about to make a huge profit. He is only waiting for his Nigerian contact to wire him millions….most of us would understand that this is relying on something which is foolish. Perhaps one of the reasons they have such high confidence in their wealth is that they have an entourage of people telling them what they want to hear! There are people following behind approving of their boats, giving more confidence to the wealthy person.
Wealth does not follow a person to the grave (49:16-17). The idea that one leaves their wealth behind when the die common in most cultures, “you can’t take it with you when you go.” This is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible as well (Ps 39:6; Job 27:16, 17; Eccl 2:18, 21, 26; Jer 17:11; cf. Luke 12:20). The wealthy used to name territory after themselves, but after they have died they will live in a bit forever without any hope of returning to the land they once claimed. All of the honor the wealthy expect will not continue after death. The ESV translates יְקָר as “pomp,” probably because the word is used to describe precious stones on a number of occasions (Jer 20:5; Ezek 22:25, Job 28:10). The word appears four times in Esther to describe the honor given to Mordecai when the king honors him. The wealthy expect to be treated with a higher level of honor simply because they are wealthy.
In summary, the writer of the psalm paints a realistic picture of the “rich and famous” foolishly relying on their wealth instead of the God who gave it to them in the first place. The riddle might be, “how can rich people be that stupid?” But before we quickly condemn the celebrities for being foolish, we need to recall that “wealth” is a matter of perspective. Everyone in our church is wealthy compared to the rest of the world – that we have shelter—multi-room homes with indoor plumbing and usually multiple toilets, heat and air conditioning, reliable electricity, cable TV, phone service, internet, etc.
While it is easy to condemn “those rich people,” it is quite easy for us to rely on our own wealth rather than look to the God who is the real source of our blessings.