The Brevity of Life, but God….
The opening lines of Psalm 49 call everyone to listen, for the psalm is dealing with something of extreme importance that everyone should pay attention to: “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.”
Verses 5 and 6 raise two critical questions that are answered in the remaining verses of the psalm: Why should I fear in times of trouble? And why shouldn’t people trust in their wealth?
The common issue behind both of these questions is the issue of human mortality, the brevity of life on earth: “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations” (verse 11). “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish” (verses 12 & 20). “Like the sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home” (verse 14). Since life is short and since death is certain, should we fear? Should we trust in our wealth?
The psalm addresses the second question first, and invests most of its verses on this question: Can I trust in my wealth? The answer to the question is a clear “No!” Wealth cannot save us from death or even make our brief life on earth worthwhile. Neither longevity of life or fulfillment of life can be manufactured by or purchased by wealth: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life; there is no price one can give to God for it” (verse 7). “When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others” (verse 10). “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (verses 16-17).
The message here is that it does us no good to trust in wealth. 13th century Persian poet Rumi sums it up well: “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.”
The psalm’s answer to the second question is shorter and more concise. Although life is short and death is certain, verse 15 sets forward a protest: “But God….” On one side of the scale we stack the gloomy reality that life is brief, that death is certain, that we can do nothing to prevent or overcome death, and that we grieve deeply the loss of our loved ones. But on the other side of the scale stands God, and God topples the scale. The gloom of death is overcome by the presence of God: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (verse 15).
We need not fear even death, for God will ransom us. We are forever safe in his care!
A story is told of a young man who came to America from England and became a naturalized citizen. He happened to travel to Cuba as civil war broke out there in 1867. He was arrested as a spy, taken before the Spanish military court and condemned to be shot. He sent word to the American consul and to the British consul, declaring his innocence and pleading for his life. The consuls went to the Spanish officers, arguing his innocence and asking for his release. They were told, “He was found guilty by our government and must die.” A detail of soldiers was lined up. The man was brought before them, and a hood was drawn over his head. But just before the troops received the command to fire, the American consul and the British consul rushed up and wrapped their countries’ flags around the young man. They said, “Fire on these flags if you dare!” But the soldiers did not dare to fire, knowing that behind those two flags were two powerful nations.
This psalm assures us that when it comes to death, believers are wrapped in something even more secure than a great nation’s flag. We are ransomed by God! We are held securely by our Savior!