1 Listen to me, all you peoples, all who in the whole world dwell. 2 Low and high, both rich and needy, hear the message I will tell.
3 I will speak with understanding; wisdom from the heart I’ll preach. 4 I will listen to a proverb; secrets with the harp I’ll teach.
5 Why should I fear days of evil, when the wicked hem me in— 6 Those who boast of their possessions? By their trust in wealth they sin.
7 There is no one who is able to redeem a soul from death; None can pay to God the ransom to prolong another’s breath.
8 To redeem a life is costly— none sufficient price can pay 9 So that one should live immortal, free for ever from decay.
10 For we all can see life ending; wise and foolish, all will die. They must leave their wealth to others; none can death’s demand defy.
11 So for endless generations in their tombs they will remain, Though they owned, while they were living, lands to which they gave their name.
12 Man despite his wealth is mortal; like the beasts, he fades away. 13 Thus the self-assured will perish, though renowned for what they say.
14 Death will feed upon their bodies; just like sheep they meet their fate. In the grave their forms will perish, far from where they lived in state.
But the upright ones will rule them, once the morning light has shone. 15 From the grave God will redeem me; he will take me for his own.
16 Do not quake before a rich man, though his fortune grows immense, And his outward state increases— 17 for he will take nothing hence.
He will soon descend with nothing of the splendour he possessed, 18 Though in life he prospered greatly and they told him he was blessed.
19 He will go to join his fathers— never see the light of day. 20 Those with wealth and no discernment are like beasts that pass away.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland sing this to the stunning tune Ebeneezer here – the tune we normally associate it with Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.
“There are no pockets in shrouds” was my mother’s tart response whenever anyone referred to the philanthropy of Edward Colston. As a Bristolian, she was speaking in the context of a debate that has rumbled on for a century or more and is now heightened to the point where change becomes fact. The Colston Hall, a large theatre and concert complex, will be renamed in 2020. Edward Colston’s wealth was founded on the slave trade and as the Psalmist points out “ …who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.”. The writer finds a puzzle, a riddle, in the fact that while slaves can, in certain circumstances, be ransomed yet no one has immunity from death.
As a poem there are 3 parts: an introduction in vv 1-4; reflection that death comes to all in vv 5-12; confidence in divine ransom in vv 13-20. There are points for and against regarding 13 and 20 as a “chorus”, but I found I was automatically humming the tune “Abbot’s Leigh” as I read the metrical psalm. Ideas of rhythm and musicality have differed over 2,000 years.
We read Psalm 49 as Christians – we can’t help but do it – but acknowledge that our understanding of death and resurrection was not that of the Old Testament writers. The psalmist may be hoping for protection from premature death. Yet when we get to verse 15 “… God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” we can’t help but wonder how much insight of a life beyond death this writer had glimpsed. In the final part of the Psalm there is a differentiation between those with religious understanding and the impious rich. Here is not “poor little rich girl” but a positive direction from which to view an increase in wealth “there are no pockets in shroud”.
Lord, may we be clear in our thanks to those who give generously from perhaps not very deep, but understanding, pockets. Help us to understand that wealth is not evil but we should “Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then give all you can.” * Amen
*John Wesley Sermon on the use of money
The Rev’d Ruth Browning is a retired minister and member of Thornbury URC in Gloucestershire.