Hear this, all you peoples; listen, all who live in this world, both low and high, rich and poor alike…People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. (Psalm 49:1-2, 12-13)
The news cycle is full of stories about money. Some of those stories simply report on economic data—employment, GDP, inflation, trade deficits. Others comment on the socio-political implications—wealth inequality, poverty, hunger, debt. While still others focus on celebrity, success and fame—the latest multi-million-dollar sports contract or movie deal, what crazy things Jeff Bezos or Kanye West are up to lately.
This isn’t anything new, of course, people have always been fascinated by what the rich and famous are doing. There are magazines and tabloids dedicated exclusively to the topic. There was even a popular TV show in the 80s that invited us to step into the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” There’s something strangely attractive about seeing what you don’t have, and wanting what you can’t get.
It seems we just can’t get enough of wanting too much!
In Psalm 49 the songwriter reflects on this universal human condition. He addresses the psalm to “all you peoples…all who live in this world.” (That’s just about everyone). He describes his song as a “meditation…a proverb…a riddle,” and promises everyone that his words of wisdom will give us some kind of new “understanding” of life (vs. 3-4).
The “riddle” he wants to expound upon might be summarized this way: How is it that people can be unequal and equal at the same time? The answer is quite simple. Regardless of what happens in this life, we will all die in the end. Granted…on the surface, that’s a pretty depressing answer to the riddle!
The psalmist points out that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether you are wise, foolish or senseless (vs. 10); and it will happen whether you are fabulously wealthy or pitifully poor. “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish.”
The song echoes the somber conclusions of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Wisdom is meaningless; pleasure is meaningless; work and friendships, power and success. Even the accumulation of wealth is meaningless—according to the wealthiest man of his time—because, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). And he ought to know!
The author of Psalm 49 actually goes even further than Solomon, “This is true of those who trust in themselves,” but also of “their followers, who approve of their sayings” (vs. 13). No one is exempt!
And yet, the songwriter’s “riddle” still manages to cast a hopeful note. He asks, “Why should I fear when evil days come?” (vs. 5) Surely, there must be more of an answer to that question than, “Well, I guess everyone is going to die anyway.”
“No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—so that they should live on forever and not see decay.” (Psalm 49:7-9)
“No one,” regardless of their status in the eyes of the world, can redeem the life of another. “No payment is ever enough” to make us live forever. If the lifestyle of the rich and famous aren’t the point; if money and power and success can’t guarantee a better final outcome for us, what can? Or a better question…WHO can?
Thankfully, there is One who can redeem lives; there is One that can pay the ransom and forgive the sin; there is One who can guarantee an everlasting life—Jesus Christ…God the Son…King of the world and Savior of humanity. He promised that we can really live by believing in him…and we can continue to live even when we die (John 11:25-26). He traded his wealth and status to live in poverty and die on a cross. He did it so that we could have an eternal life right now. It was costly…it was loving…it was enough.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul celebrates the One who could…and the One who did. (Read Ephesians 1:3-11). Jesus is that One! He is the only One! He is our Living Water; he is your real life. And because of that there is still hope for all of us today. Find his life, celebrate his life, share his life. Drink deep from that well, and always stay thirsty for Him!