First Mennonite Church
July 16, 2023
Listen, All Peoples!
Text: Psalm 49:1-20
What a grim picture, right? It does not sound too encouraging! What could be the purpose of this passage in the Bible? For one, it takes wisdom to live wisely. And two, we should never lose sight of the bigger picture in life. Still yet, three, there is a reality beyond the present and material realms.
The author of Psalm 49 begins with a prophet-like shout to wake us up. “Hear this, all you people; listen, all who live in this world….” Contrary to most urgent calls found in the Bible, addressed either to Israel or to the Jesus community, the psalmist here addresses the whole world. The psalmist here is addressing me, and you sitting there, and even the one who doesn’t care to listen. He is addressing a fundamental human concern, not a concern unique to God’s redeemed people, but one concerning every breathing human being in the world. It is addressed to both those in high places and the low, the rich and the poor, the formally educated and the illiterate.
The psalmist eases the hard truths he wants to communicate by accompanying them with melody and the rhythm of the harp.
The ever-present fear humans have is at the heart of the Psalm. There is fear about the uncertainty the future holds, about our health, our loved ones, our ultimate finality, and the world around us. But the psalmist has one particular issue in mind. “Why should I fear when evil days come when wicked deceivers surround me—those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches?” The fear the psalmist is talking about is that which pertains to money: the power, danger, and deceit of those who with their wealth can inflict pain on others. Therefore, the psalmist warns the rich about the distraction of having or pursuing wealth as the ultimate goal in life and with it.
Psalm 49 identifies two audiences here: the poor who are always afraid and don’t need to be, and the rich who are not afraid and should be. The poor the psalmist speaks about and who should not fear are those who trust in God, and not necessarily anyone deprived of resources. The Psalm identifies with the poor and comforts them with the assurance that things aren’t as they seem to be.
But the psalmist is neither outrightly condemning those who have wealth, but the “wicked deceivers who trust and boast about their wealth.” Those who rely on money for their security as if it could buy life forever. It is about those who boast about what they have and also bring “evil days,” making the life of others miserably through deceit and manipulation to satisfy their greed.
In fact, the Psalmist doesn’t condemn riches in itself, but the attitudes of trusting and boasting by those who have riches. The parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 clearly illustrates the dangers of trusting and boasting over wealth. Jesus tells the parable about a very hardworking farmer. He had a bountiful harvest, which in the farmer’s eyes, guaranteed him security and a great leisurely life “to eat, drink and be merry.”
What Jesus clearly illustrates in this parable is how self-absorbing those with abundance or wealth can become. Wealth has the power to distract its victim from seeing the larger picture in life and set their eyes on themselves. The farmer in the parable only spoke about “I,” “me,” and “mine.” But God told the prosperous farmer he was going to die that night.
We have all heard it and even probably said it too, “You can’t take it with you when you die.” Intellectually, we know very well this is true. But existentially speaking, it is very difficult to live by that truth because we live in a society that teaches us to define ourselves in terms of our income, bank accounts, and possessions. During the week, we wake up early chasing after a dream, a goal, or at least to finish the task for the day.
In this land of plenty, regardless of their economic power, all Christians experience the pull toward all kinds of things. We are daily assailed by images of material wealth: the newest smartphone, the fanciest car, the most exotic destination, the life of extravagant leisure, and more. In one way or another, within ourselves, we all wrestle on how to live in this land of abundance and how to walk humbly before our God. We have to constantly fight against the forces trying to pull us into the chase after things, regardless we can afford it or not.
Oftentimes, people with the wherewithal in life cannot see beyond their present life. Therefore, even when Psalm 49 does not condemn those who possess riches, it calls them to a reality not always in their mind, that . . . .
7 No one can redeem the life of another
or give to God a ransom for them—
8 the ransom for a life is costly,
no payment is ever enough—
9 so that they should live on forever
and not see decay.
Everything has an end and life is one of the constant reminders of that reality. Our loved one dies. We know of people who are dying. (My cousin Delsie is at this time.) Thus, Psalm 49 is clear when it says, “No amount of money can fend off the great Enemy forever.” What is more, life is costly. No payment is ever enough to secure life forevermore.” And when we die, we cannot take anything with us.
It is said that before Alexander the Great died, he gave three instructions about his funeral. 1. That his doctors alone carry his casket. That would show that even the best doctors cannot prevent someone from dying. 2. That his wealth be displayed along the path as he is carried to the cemetery. That will prove that everything stays behind. And 3, that his two hands hang outside the coffin to show that he is taking nothing with him.
But the issue in this psalm is more than a wake-up call to those who trust and boast in their riches. It is also a reminder to everyone: that death is the ultimate leveler here in this world. Death takes the wise as well as the foolish, the rich as well as the poor, humans as well as animals. However, for humans, there is something beyond death: we all will have to face God. And what do we do to prepare for that? Who will give a ransom to God on our behalf?
This question the psalmist answers in verse 15.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
It is here that the psalmist makes a personal stand based on his relationship and trust in the Lord. Adonai will redeem me from the power of death. He will surely take me to himself. This is the complete opposite of what the fate of those who trust in themselves is. In verses 13 and 14: This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd.
Death leads those who rely on themselves like a shepherd does his flock. However, for the one whose trust is in the Lord, death has no power over them. And for us who can see this psalm on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, we can understand the immense significance of that claim. In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Paul, interpreting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, declares, ”For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, (1Timothy 2:5, 6).
Life is costly, eternal life, is even more. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for us. Ransom is the price paid for someone who cannot free him/herself from the power of another. In Romans, chapter five, Paul says that because all have sinned, death reigned over all. But because of Jesus, grace has been extended to all who believe.
Therefore, listen all people: Indeed, life is costly and no amount of money is enough to ransom a life. Life and life everlasting is a gift from God. We cannot purchase it; we can only receive it. When in life everything has been said and done, all that will be left to us is to face our Creator. May we be able to say with the psalmist: God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself. Amen!