Psalms 49

Listen to this, all you nations!
Pay attention, all you inhabitants of the world!
The rare noun חָלֶד (kheled, “world”) occurs in Ps 17:14 and perhaps also in Isa 38:11 (see the note on “world” there).

Pay attention, all you people,
Heb “even the sons of mankind, even the sons of man.” Because of the parallel line, where “rich and poor” are mentioned, some treat these expressions as polar opposites, with בְּנֵי אָדָם (beney adam) referring to the lower classes and בְּנֵי אִישׁ (beney ish) to higher classes (cf. NIV, NRSV). But usage does not support such a view. The rare phrase בְּנֵי אִישׁ (“sons of man”) appears to refer to human beings in general in its other uses (see Pss 4:2; 62:9; Lam 3:33). It is better to understand “even the sons of mankind” and “even the sons of man” as synonymous expressions (cf. NEB “all mankind, every living man”). The repetition emphasizes the need for all people to pay attention, for the psalmist’s message is relevant to everyone.

both rich and poor!
I will declare a wise saying;
Heb “my mouth will speak wisdom.” According to BDB 315 s.v. חָכְמָה the plural חָכְמוֹת (khokhmot, “wisdom”) indicates degree or emphasis here.

I will share my profound thoughts.
Heb “and the meditation of my heart [i.e., mind] is understanding.” The Hebrew term הָגוּת (hagut, “meditation”), derived from הָגָה (hagah, “to recite quietly; to meditate”), here refers to thoughts that are verbalized (see the preceding line). The plural form תְבוּנוֹת (tevunot, “understanding”) indicates degree or emphasis (see GKC 397-98 #124.e).

I will learn a song that imparts wisdom;
I will then sing my insightful song to the accompaniment of a harp.
Heb “I will turn my ear to a wise saying, I will open [i.e., “reveal; explain”] my insightful saying with a harp.” In the first line the psalmist speaks as a pupil who learns a song of wisdom from a sage. This suggests that the resulting insightful song derives from another source, perhaps God himself. Elsewhere the Hebrew word pair חִידָה/מָשָׁל (mashal/khidah) refers to a taunt song (Hab 2:6), a parable (Ezek 17:2), lessons from history (Ps 78:2), and proverbial sayings (Prov 1:6). Here it appears to refer to the insightful song that follows, which reflects on the mortality of humankind and the ultimate inability of riches to prevent the inevitable – death. Another option is that the word pair refers more specifically to the closely related proverbial sayings of vv. 12, 20 (note the use of the verb מָשָׁל, mashal, “to be like” in both verses). In this case the psalmist first hears the sayings and then explains (Heb “opens”) their significance (see vv. 5–11, 13–19).

Why should I be afraid in times of trouble,
Heb “days of trouble.” The phrase also occurs in Ps 94:13. The question is rhetorical; there is no reason to be afraid when the rich oppressors threaten the weak (see v. 17). The following verses explain why this is so.

when the sinful deeds of deceptive men threaten to overwhelm me?
The MT has, “the iniquity of my heels surrounds me.” The clause is best understood as temporal and as elaborating on the preceding phrase “times of trouble.” If the MT is retained, the genitive “of my heels” would probably indicate location (“the iniquity at my heels”); the sinful actions of the rich threaten to overtake the psalmist, as it were. It is better, however, to emend עֲקֵבַי (’aqivay, “my heels”) to either (1) עֲקֻבַּי (’aqubay, “my deceitful ones,” i.e., “those who deceive me” [from the adjective עָקֹב (’aqov), “deceitful,” see Jer 17:9]) or (2) עֹקְבַי (’oqevay, “those who deceive me” [a suffixed active participle from עָקַב, ’aqav, “betray, deceive”]). Origen’s transliteration of the Hebrew text favors the first of these options. Either of the emendations provides a much smoother transition to v. 6, because “those who trust in their wealth” would then be appositional to “those who deceive me.”

They trust
Heb “the ones who trust.” The substantival participle stands in apposition to “those who deceive me” (v. 5).
in their wealth
and boast
The imperfect verbal form emphasizes their characteristic behavior.
in their great riches.
Certainly a man cannot rescue his brother;
Heb “a brother, he surely does not ransom, a man.” The sequence אִישׁ...אָח (’akh...’ish, “a brother…a man”) is problematic, for the usual combination is אָח...אָח (“a brother…a brother”) or אִישׁ...אִישׁ (“a man…a man”). When אִישׁ and אָח are combined, the usual order is אָח...אִישׁ (“a man…a brother”), with “brother” having a third masculine singular suffix, “his brother.” This suggests that “brother” is the object of the verb and “man” the subject. (1) Perhaps the altered word order and absence of the suffix can be explained by the text’s poetic character, for ellipsis is a feature of Hebrew poetic style. (2) Another option, supported by a few medieval Hebrew mss, is to emend “brother” to the similar sounding אַךְ (’akh, “surely; but”) which occurs in v. 15 before the verb פָּדָה (padah, “ransom”). If this reading is accepted the Qal imperfect יִפְדֶּה (yifddeh, “he can [not] ransom”) would need to be emended to a Niphal (passive) form, יִפָּדֶה (yifadeh, “he can[not] be ransomed”) unless one understands the subject of the Qal verb to be indefinite (“one cannot redeem a man”). (A Niphal imperfect can be collocated with a Qal infinitive absolute. See GKC 344-45 #113.w.) No matter how one decides the textual issues, the imperfect in this case is modal, indicating potential, and the infinitive absolute emphasizes the statement.

he cannot pay God an adequate ransom price
Heb “he cannot pay to God his ransom price.” Num 35:31 may supply the legal background for the metaphorical language used here. The psalmist pictures God as having a claim on the soul of the individual. When God comes to claim the life that ultimately belongs to him, he demands a ransom price that is beyond the capability of anyone to pay. The psalmist’s point is that God has ultimate authority over life and death; all the money in the world cannot buy anyone a single day of life beyond what God has decreed.

(the ransom price for a human life
Heb “their life.” Some emend the text to “his life,” understanding the antecedent of the pronoun as “brother” in v. 7. However, the man and brother of v. 7 are representative of the human race in general, perhaps explaining why a plural pronoun appears in v. 8. Of course, the plural pronoun could refer back to “the rich” mentioned in v. 6. Another option (the one assumed in the translation) is that the suffixed mem is enclitic. In this case the “ransom price for human life” is referred to an abstract, general way.
is too high,
and people go to their final destiny),
Heb “and one ceases forever.” The translation assumes an indefinite subject which in turn is representative of the entire human race (“one,” that refers to human beings without exception). The verb חָדַל (khadal, “cease”) is understood in the sense of “come to an end; fail” (i.e., die). Another option is to translate, “and one ceases/refrains forever.” In this case the idea is that the living, convinced of the reality of human mortality, give up all hope of “buying off” God and refrain from trying to do so.

so that he might continue to live
The jussive verbal form with vav (ו) conjunctive is taken as indicating purpose/result in relation to the statement made in v. 8. (On this use of the jussive after an imperfect, see GKC 322 #109.f.) In this case v. 8 is understood as a parenthetical comment.
and not experience death.
Heb “see the Pit.” The Hebrew term שַׁחַת (shakhat, “pit”) is often used as a title for Sheol (see Pss 16:10; 30:9; 55:24; 103:4).

10  Surely
The particle כִּי (ki) is understood here as asseverative (emphatic).
one sees
The subject of the verb is probably the typical “man” mentioned in v. 7. The imperfect can be taken here as generalizing or as indicating potential (“surely he/one can see”).
that even wise people die;
The imperfect verbal forms here and in the next line draw attention to what is characteristically true. The vav (ו) consecutive with perfect in the third line carries the same force.

fools and spiritually insensitive people all pass away
Heb “together a fool and a brutish [man] perish.” The adjective בַּעַר (baar, “brutish”) refers to spiritual insensitivity, not mere lack of intelligence or reasoning ability (see Pss 73:22; 92:6; Prov 12:1; 30:2, as well as the use of the related verb in Ps 94:8).

and leave their wealth to others.
Death shows no respect for anyone. No matter how wise or foolish an individual happens to be, all pass away.

11  Their grave becomes their permanent residence,
their eternal dwelling place.
Heb “their inward part [is] their houses [are] permanent, their dwelling places for a generation and a generation.” If one follows the MT, then קֶרֶב (qerev, “inward part”) must refer to the seat of these people’s thoughts (for other examples of this use of the term, see BDB 899 s.v., though BDB prefers an emendation in this passage). In this case all three lines of v. 11 expose these people’s arrogant assumption that they will last forever, which then stands in sharp contrast to reality as summarized in v. 12. In this case one might translate the first two lines, “they think that their houses are permanent and that their dwelling places will last forever” (cf. NASB). Following the lead of several ancient versions, the present translation assumes an emendation of קִרְבָּם (qirbam, “their inward part”) to קְבָרִים (qevarim, “graves”). This assumes that the letters bet (ב) and resh (ר) were accidentally transposed in the MT. In this case the first two lines support the point made in v. 10, while the third line of v. 11 stands in contrast to v. 12. The phrase בֵּית עוֹלָם (bet olam, “permanent house”) is used of a tomb in Eccl 12:5 (as well as in Phoenician tomb inscriptions, see DNWSI 1:160 for a list of texts) and מִשְׁכָּן (mishkan, “dwelling place”) refers to a tomb in Isa 22:16. Cf. NEB, NIV, NRSV.

They name their lands after themselves,
Naming their lands after themselves is a claim of possession.

12  but, despite their wealth, people do not last,
Heb “but mankind in honor does not remain.” The construction vav (ו) + noun at the beginning of the verse can be taken as contrastive in relation to what precedes. The Hebrew term יְקָר (yeqar, “honor”) probably refers here to the wealth mentioned in the preceding context. The imperfect verbal form draws attention to what is characteristically true. Some scholars emend יָלִין (yalin, “remains”) to יָבִין (yavin, “understands”) but this is an unnecessary accommodation to the wording of v. 20.

they are like animals
Or “cattle.”
that perish.
The verb is derived from דָּמָה (damah, “cease; destroy”; BDB 198 s.v.). Another option is to derive the verb from דָּמָה (“be silent”; see HALOT 225 s.v. II דמה, which sees two homonymic roots [דָּמָה, “be silent,” and דָּמָה, “destroy”] rather than a single root) and translate, “they are like dumb beasts.” This makes particularly good sense in v. 20, where the preceding line focuses on mankind’s lack of understanding.

13  This is the destiny of fools,
Heb “this [is] their way, [there is] folly [belonging] to them.” The Hebrew term translated “this” could refer (1) back to the preceding verse[s] or (2) ahead to the subsequent statements. The translation assumes the latter, since v. 12 appears to be a refrain that concludes the psalm’s first major section and marks a structural boundary. (A similar refrain [see v. 20] concludes the second half of the psalm.) The noun דֶּרֶךְ (derekh, “way”) often refers to one’s lifestyle, but, if it relates to what follows, then here it likely refers metonymically to one’s destiny (the natural outcome of one’s lifestyle [cf. NEB, NIV, NRSV “fate”]). (See the discussion in K. Koch, TDOT 3:285.) If one prefers the more common nuance (“lifestyle”), then the term would look back to the self-confident attitude described in the earlier verses.

and of those who approve of their philosophy.
Heb “and after them, in their mouth they take delight.” The meaning of the MT is not entirely clear. “After them” is understood here as substantival, “those who come after them” or “those who follow them.” “Their mouth” is taken as a metonymy for the arrogant attitude verbalized by the rich. In the expression “take delight in,” the preposition -ב (bet) introduces the object/cause of one’s delight (see Pss 147:10; 149:4). So the idea here is that those who come after/follow the rich find the philosophy of life they verbalize and promote to be attractive and desirable.
14  They will travel to Sheol like sheep,
Heb “like sheep to Sheol they are appointed.” The verb form שַׁתּוּ (shatu) is apparently derived from שָׁתַת (shatat), which appears to be a variant of the more common שִׁית (shiyt, “to place; to set”; BDB 1060 s.v. שָׁתַת and GKC 183 Some scholars emend the text to שָׁחוּ (shakhu; from the verbal root שׁוּח [shukh, “sink down”]) and read “they descend.” The present translation assumes an emendation to שָׁטוּ (shatu; from the verbal root שׁוּט [shut, “go; wander”]), “they travel, wander.” (The letter tet [ט] and tav [ת] sound similar; a scribe transcribing from dictation could easily confuse them.) The perfect verbal form is used in a rhetorical manner to speak of their destiny as if it were already realized (the so-called perfect of certitude or prophetic perfect).

with death as their shepherd.
Heb “death will shepherd them,” that is, death itself (personified here as a shepherd) will lead them like a flock of helpless, unsuspecting sheep to Sheol, the underworld, the land of the dead.

The godly will rule
The prefixed verbal form with vav (ו) consecutive carries the same force as the perfect verbal form in v. 14a. The psalmist speaks of this coming event as if it were already accomplished.
over them when the day of vindication dawns;
Heb “will rule over them in the morning.” “Morning” here is a metaphor for a time of deliverance and vindication after the dark “night” of trouble (see Pss 30:5; 46:5; 59:16; 90:14; 143:8; Isa 17:14). In this context the psalmist confidently anticipates a day of vindication when the Lord will deliver the oppressed from the rich (see v. 15) and send the oppressors to Sheol.

Sheol will consume their bodies and they will no longer live in impressive houses.
Heb “their form [will become an object] for the consuming of Sheol, from a lofty residence, to him.” The meaning of this syntactically difficult text is uncertain. The translation assumes that צוּר (tsur, “form”; this is the Qere [marginal] reading; the Kethib has צִירָם [tsiram, “their image”]) refers to their physical form or bodies. “Sheol” is taken as the subject of “consume” (on the implied “become” before the infinitive “to consume” see GKC 349 #114.k). The preposition מִן (min) prefixed to “lofty residence” is understood as privative, “away from; so as not.” The preposition -ל (lamed) is possessive, while the third person pronominal suffix is understood as a representative singular.

15  But
Or “certainly.”
God will rescue
Or “redeem.”
my life
Or “me.” The Hebrew term נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh) with a pronominal suffix is often equivalent to a pronoun, especially in poetry (see BDB 660 s.v. נֶפֶשׁ 4.a).
from the power
Heb “hand.”
of Sheol;
Or “for.”
he will pull me to safety.
Heb “he will take me.” To improve the poetic balance of the verse, some move the words “from the power of Sheol” to the following line. The verse would then read: “But God will rescue my life; / from the power of Sheol he will certainly deliver me” (cf. NEB).
According to some, the psalmist here anticipates the resurrection (or at least an afterlife in God’s presence). But it is more likely that the psalmist here expresses his hope that God will rescue him from premature death at the hands of the rich oppressors denounced in the psalm. The psalmist is well aware that all (the wise and foolish) die (see vv. 7–12), but he is confident God will lead him safely through the present “times of trouble” (v. 5) and sweep the wicked away to their final destiny. The theme is a common one in the so-called wisdom psalms (see Pss 1, 34, 37, 112). For a fuller discussion of the psalmists’ view of the afterlife, see R. B. Chisholm, Jr., “A Theology of the Psalms,” A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, 284–88.
16  Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich
When a man becomes rich. Why would people fear such a development? The acquisition of wealth makes individuals powerful and enables them to oppress others (see vv. 5–6).

and his wealth multiplies!
Heb “when the glory of his house grows great.”

17  For he will take nothing with him when he dies;
his wealth will not follow him down into the grave.
Heb “his glory will not go down after him.”

18  He pronounces this blessing on himself while he is alive:
“May men praise you, for you have done well!”
19  But he will join his ancestors;
Verses 18–19a are one long sentence in the Hebrew text, which reads: “Though he blesses his soul in his life, [saying], ‘And let them praise you, for you do well for yourself,’ it [that is, his soul] will go to the generation of his fathers.” This has been divided into two sentences in the translation for clarity, in keeping with the tendency of contemporary English to use shorter sentences.

they will never again see the light of day.
Heb “light.” The words “of day” are supplied in the translation for clarification.

Wealthy people do not understand;
Heb “mankind in honor does not understand.” The Hebrew term יְקָר (yeqar, “honor”) probably refers here to the wealth mentioned in the preceding context. The imperfect verbal form draws attention to what is characteristically true. Some emend יָבִין (yavin, “understands”) to יָלִין (yalin, “remains”), but this is an unnecessary accommodation to the wording of v. 12.

they are like animals
Or “cattle.”
that perish.
The Hebrew verb is derived from דָּמָה (damah, “cease, destroy”; BDB 198 s.v.). Another option is to derive the verb from דָּמָה (damah, “be silent”; see HALOT 225 s.v. II דמה, which sees two homonymic roots [I דָּמַה, “be silent,” and II דָּמַה, “destroy”] rather than a single root) and translate, “they are like dumb beasts.” This makes particularly good sense here, where the preceding line focuses on mankind’s lack of understanding.

Psalm 50

Psalm 50. This psalm takes the form of a covenant lawsuit in which the Lord comes to confront his people in a formal manner (as in Isa 1:2–20). The Lord emphasizes that he places priority on obedience and genuine worship, not empty ritual.

A psalm by Asaph.

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