"Now Consider This, You Who Forget God" (Psalms 49-50) July 20-22
In its note on Psalms 49-53, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible says: "This cluster of psalms presents a striking contrast [from the previous grouping] that brings the Psalter's call for godliness into sharp focus. On the one hand, we meet two psalms that face each other: (1) as God's summons to his people to come before him and hear his verdict concerning their lives (Ps 50), and (2) as a penitent's humble prayer for forgiveness and cleansing (Ps 51). On the other hand, these are bracketed by two psalms (49; 52) that denounce those who trust in their wealth (49:6; 52:7) and make their 'boast' either in that wealth (49:6) or in the 'evil' practices by which they obtained it (52:1). These descriptions of the ungodly are found nowhere else in the Psalter. In the first of these framing psalms, such people are characterized as 'foolish' and 'senseless' (49:10). So it is appropriate that this four-psalm segment of the Psalter has appended to it in climax [Psalm 53] a somewhat revised repetition of Ps 14 with its denunciation of the fools whose thoughts and ways are God-less. Placed immediately after Ps 46-48, these five psalms serve as a stern reminder that only those who put their trust in the Lord have reason to celebrate the security of 'the city of our God' (48:1, 8...)."
In the first psalm of this new cluster, Psalm 49, itself the last in the sequence of Korahite psalms beginning Book II of the Psalter, the psalmist declares that he has a message of universal importance: "Give ear, all inhabitants of the world." He aims to resolve the "dark saying" (verse 4) or perplexing "riddle" of life (see NIV) concerning the apparent blessing of godless people who care more about money and possessions than about God (compare Job 21; Psalm 73).
Such people often pursue wealth at the expense of others. The psalmist asks himself, "Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity at my heels [i.e., those who trip me up] surrounds me? Those who trust in their wealth..." (Psalm 49:5-6). The psalmist realizes that these people are not as blessed as they think. "Wealth cannot buy escape from death—not even one's family 'redeemer' can accomplish it" (Zondervan, note on verses 7-9).
The psalmist poignantly remarks, "For the redemption of their souls is costly" (verses 8-9). That is, it was more than a mere man could pay. This insight had prophetic significance. For God would actually pay the costly price in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to make it possible for all people to have eternal life (John 3:16).
Just as anyone can, materially driven people can see, as Psalm 49:10 states, that all people, even the wise, die and leave their wealth to others (compare Ecclesiastes 7:2; 9:5; 2:18, 21). So those focused on money and possessions seek solace in what they leave behind—in establishing a legacy, leaving an inheritance, naming their estates and territories after themselves—all in a vain attempt to immortalize at least some aspect of themselves (verse 11).
But this pursuit is pointless in the face of the gaping mouth of death—into which people who think like this nevertheless go helplessly as sheep (verse 14). This metaphor of death (Hebrew muwt) as a monster feeding on people like sheep helps to verify the historical setting of the writing of the psalms, as it has also been found in Canaanite literature—one document warning people to not approach Mot (Death) "or he will put you like a lamb into his mouth" (see Zondervan, note on verse 14). This was therefore imagery familiar to Israelite culture.
Dominion will ultimately go to the righteous (same verse). Indeed, the psalmist is confident that God will redeem him from the power of the grave and receive him (verse 15). This does not refer merely to God's general protection of His people throughout their physical lives—for the focus, as verse 9 makes clear, is on living eternally. Verse 15, then, is a prophecy of the resurrection, wherein the righteous will inherit from God the rule and possession of all things.
In the similar refrains of verses 12 and 20, those who live in pursuit of riches are described as perishing like beasts. Since all human beings die just as animals and all, unlike animals, are destined to be resurrected, what does this mean? It must reflect the fact that the godless, like animals, die without genuine feeling of hope. They have no confident assurance of eternity with God in the same way the psalmist has. Those whom God has not called in this age do not know His plans for their future—that they will be resurrected and given an opportunity to repent and change. And those whom God has called and given His Spirit but then reject His way and pursue selfishness do know their future—that they will utterly perish.
Psalm 49 makes the sobering point that when a rich man dies "he shall carry nothing away" (verse 17)—that is, nothing of earthly value. No money, no glory, no praise and no honor will descend with Him into the grave. The apostle Paul spoke similarly in 1 Timothy 6:6-10 when he warned us against the danger of materialism: "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
Psalm 50 is the first of 12 psalms in the Psalter attributed to Asaph, one of David's music leaders (see 1 Chronicles 23:2-5)—with only this one occurring in Book II and the other 11 in Book III. It seems most likely that Asaph composed these. However, as noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalms 42-45, it could also be that David wrote these, or just this first one, for Asaph to perform (or one composed the music and the other the lyrics). Yet this particular psalm "may have been separated from the other psalms of Asaph (73-83) in order to be paired with Ps 51 in the cluster of Ps 49-53" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 50 title)—the idea being that Psalm 50 is a divine calling to account followed by a repentant response in Psalm 51 (where the sacrifices God desires are reiterated).
In Psalm 50 God delivers a summons and declares that He is the supreme Judge. Where the NKJV speaks of God calling the earth and the heavens in verses 1 and 4, the NIV properly renders this as God summoning them—or their inhabitants—into His presence for the purpose of judgment. Note verse 4: "He summons the heavens above and the earth, that he may judge his people" (NIV). In verse 1, the summoning of the earth from the rising to the setting of the sun simply means that His summons reaches around the entire world.
Verses 2-3 speak of God shining forth from Zion, "the perfection of beauty," and the coming of God with fire and storm. This would seem to tie the psalm back to Psalms 46-48, which describe God's coming in great power to put down His enemies and His ascension to the throne in Zion in its lofty beauty to rule over all the earth (compare also Isaiah 29:6). At that time, He will gather His saints (see Psalm 50:5; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 56:8) and will institute righteous judgment (Psalm 50:6; Daniel 2:20; 4:34-35; Psalm 75). He will then instruct Israel in the ways of righteousness and warn of the consequences of hypocrisy (Psalm 50:7-23).
Yet just as in Psalm 48, there is likely a measure of duality all these verses. For God shining forth out of Zion could relate to the proclamation of His truth and call to repentance through His Church in this age as well as the law and judgment going forth from Zion in the Kingdom. The gathering of saints for judgment (Psalm 50:4-6) may relate to God's judgment beginning with the Church today (see 1 Peter 4:17)—not in the sense of final sentencing but of an evaluation process through their lives. Alternatively, it may refer to the Church being gathered for the work of delivering God's judgments to the world—especially to physical Israel (see Psalm 50:7).
Yet if the mention of God's saints having made a covenant with Him by sacrifice (verse 5) is related to the discussion of sacrifice in verses 7-15, it is possible that the same people are intended. That is, it could be that the saints or holy ones bound to God in covenant refers to the faithful of Israel—in ancient times meaning those who persisted in God's covenant and today referring to the elect remnant of Israel according to grace, God's Church.
Getting into the meat of the psalm's message starting in verse 7, note that God is the one speaking—and He has something to say against His people. It is a rebuke. Not for their sacrifices per se, as God has commanded these and they are certainly to offer them (verse 8). The problem is that the people had lost the perspective of why God had set up the sacrificial system in the first place. God didn't need their sacrifices (verses 9-13). They were not doing Him a favor by giving them. All the animals already belong to Him (verses 10-11).
In verse 12, God says, "If I were hungry, I would not tell you." This is figurative, as God does not get hungry. The stress should be on the word "you." He is saying that He does not need to go to them to be provided for. What physical things could they possibly give Him since He already owns everything? "For the world is mine," He declares, "and all its fullness."
Indeed, the whole point of the sacrificial system was to show the people how much they needed God—His forgiveness and spiritual help—not the other way around. It also afforded them an opportunity for obedience and character development.
And this God did want. The offerings of the heart—these were and are the true offerings that God desires as a prelude to any physical offerings, as was noted earlier in the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 40. God wants a relationship with His people, wherein they live before Him in humility and obedience and He blesses and provides for them (50:14-15). As God says in Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (see also Matthew 9:13; 12:7). We will see this reiterated in the next psalm.
These words are as important to us as they were to the ancient Israelites. We do not offer burnt offerings today, but we do give offerings—of money and service. Yet these things, as important and required as they are, can become a wrong focus in a number of ways. We may start to think that we are upholding the Church or work of God with our tithes and efforts and develop a wrong sort of pride over that. We must never make the mistake of thinking that God needs what we have or is dependent on what we do. The reason He instructs us to give is to benefit us, to help train us for even greater service. Another pitfall is to get so wrapped up in the ritual aspects of prayer, Bible study, Sabbath services, Holy Day observance, etc., that we neglect to consider our utter dependence on God, to humbly repent of our sins or to serve the well being of others. Indeed, even serving others can fall into this category too if it does not flow from a genuine heart of love but, rather, from a desire to appear spiritual (compare 1 Corinthians 13:3).
This brings us to verse 16 of Psalm 50. Some commit to God's laws with their mouths but then turn around and flagrantly violate them as a matter of course (verses 16-20). This is not talking about the wicked of the world in general—but of those who profess to have a relationship with God.
God in His mercy does not immediately destroy such people. But sadly, they tend to take from this that He must be okay with what they're doing (verse 21). In their drift from God they basically forget what He's all about (verse 22). Yet God says He's going to set them straight on the matter (verse 21)—and warns them of dire consequences if they will not consider His words and, by implication, repent (verse 22). Of course, they must desire to change. What power can release a person from sin who doesn't want to be released? Who can help a person who doesn't understand he needs help? "So are the paths of all who forget God; and the hope of the hypocrite shall perish, whose confidence shall be cut off" (Job 8:13).
Those who remember God and glorify Him will see His salvation (verse 23). The NRSV translates this verse as: "Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God." Herein is assurance offered to those who serve God with a proper attitude—and hope offered to those who have drifted from Him. They can repent. God wants to save them. That's the reason He warns them. And He shows them the way to repent in the next psalm—along with a restatement of the kind of sacrifices He is truly looking for.