Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 49 (Part 1)

Psalm 49

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-17 [1-16]); 4QPsj (vv. 6?, 9-12, 15, 17? [5?, 8-11, 14, 16?])

There is a shift in this Psalm to a Wisdom emphasis. In the prior Psalms of the Elohist Psalter, a royal theology dominated, focusing on praise of YHWH as King over the universe. In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms that we have examined thus far, the influence of Wisdom tradition has been slight; however, overall such traditions exerted a considerable influence on the Psalms, a point noted and demonstrated numerous times in these studies. Even so, very few Psalms have such a strong and overt Wisdom orientation.

Psalm 49 is a Wisdom poem in three sections, or stanzas, with an introduction (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) and a short bridge section (vv. 15-16 [14-15]) between the second and third stanzas. The particular wisdom-theme here emphasizes the folly of trusting in earthly riches, since the same fate (death and the grave) ultimately will befall all people, rich and poor alike—in which case such riches are essentially meaningless. The thematic development may be outlined as follows:

    • Section 1: The fate of those who trust in riches (vv. 6-10 [5-9])
    • Section 2: The same fate (of death and the grave) awaits for all people (vv. 11-14 [10-13])
    • Bridge—An expression of trust that God will deliver the Psalmist from death (vv. 15-16 [14-15])
    • Section 3: The foolishness of trusting in riches is emphasized (vv. 17-21 [16-20])

The highly didactic character of this Psalm, along with its relative length, would seem to cause certain problems for regular performance and preservation of the work. In detail, there are numerous difficulties in terms of the text, structure, and meter. Generally a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format is used, but there are notable irregularities which could be an indication of textual corruption.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, using the typical indicator the work as a musical composition (romz+m!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Introduction (vv. 2-5 [1-4])

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Hear this, all (you) peoples (on earth),
and give ear, all dwellers of (this) fleeting (world),
even sons of man(kind) (and) sons of a man,
as one (together)—rich and poor.”

The parallelistic opening couplet, with its traditional idiom, “Hear…give ear…” (cf. Deut 32:1; Isa 1:10), is typical of Wisdom literature, calling on people to give heed to the voice of Wisdom. As is common in such literature, the teaching is intended for all of humankind, not just the people of Israel. Parallel with <yM!u^h*-lK* (“all the peoples”) is the expression dl#j* yb@v=y), which is somewhat difficult to render into English. The rather rare noun dl#j# seems to refer to the duration of life—that is, life on earth, esp. human life—emphasizing, in a Wisdom-setting, how short and fleeting it can be. The expression means something like “dwellers in (this) fleeting (life)” or “dwellers of (this) fleeting (world)”.

Also difficult is the first line of the second couplet; literally it reads: “even sons of man, even sons of a man”, using the nearly synonymous terms <d*a* and vya!. Here, the first noun means “man(kind), humankind”, while the second “a (particular) man”. The comparison seems to be between “sons of (ordinary) men” and “sons of a (prominent) man”, parallel with the contrast between “rich and poor” in the second line.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]

“My mouth shall speak (word)s of wisdom
(the) murmur of my heart (word)s of discernment;
I will bend my ear to (an) illustration,
(and) breathe out (the) riddle on (my) harp.”

Here we clearly see that wisdom (hm*k=j*, plur. tomk=j*) is the focus of the Psalm. Parallel with the Psalmist’s mouth speaking words of wisdom is his heart murmuring things with discernment (/WbT*). The Hebrew twgj should perhaps be read as a verbal noun (infinitive), i.e., togh* instead of MT tWgh* (cf. Dahood, p. 297).

Even as the Psalmist hears the message of Wisdom, so he, being thus inspired, gives it musical expression on the harp—i.e., in the form of a musical composition (romz+m!), or Psalm. The noun lv*m* is often translated “proverb”, but more properly refers to a figurative illustration or example by which a comparison is made or a likeness is indicated. Another colorful means by which wisdom is expressed is the hd*yj!, an enigmatic saying (lit. something ‘covered over’), perhaps best summarized as a “riddle” or “puzzle”. Near Eastern and Old Testament Wisdom literature is replete with such illustrations and riddles, but here the terms are simply meant to summarize the teaching of Wisdom as a whole.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 297) in reading jT^p=a# as a reflexive (hitpael or –t– infixed stem) form of the verb jWP (“breathe, blow”). The more customary explanation is as a form of the verb jt^P* (“open”): “I will open (up the) riddle on my harp”.

Section/Stanza 1: Vv. 6-10 [5-9]

Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“For what [i.e. why] should I fear (the) days of evil,
(when the) crookedness of heel-grabbers surrounds me,
(the one)s taking refuge upon their strength,
(who) boast in (the) abundance of their riches?”

This is another 3-beat (3+3) couplet, the meter of which is obscured somewhat by the glossed translation. The verb bq^u* is denominative from the noun bq@u* (“heel”), and literally means “grab/grasp the heel”, a Semitic idiom that refers to someone acting deceitfully, a point here confirmed by the use of the noun /ou* (“crookedness”). The “days of evil” are thus characterized by people at large acting wickedly and deceitfully.

In particular, these deceitful persons are those who trust in their earthly power and wealth, as indicated in the second couplet here. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, fundamentally refers to a person “seeking protection/refuge” in someone (or something). What the wicked “take refuge” in is their worldly strength (ly]j^) and wealth (rv#u)). They rely on earthly power and riches, and trust in that, rather than in YHWH—all the more so when there is a great “abundance” of riches involved.

Verse 8 [7]

“A man (surely) cannot give ransom to ransom a brother,
cannot give to (the) Mightiest (to) wipe out his (debt).”

The reason why it is foolish to trust in earthly wealth for protection and security is that such riches are of no use in ransoming a soul that is in debt to God. The verb hd*P* refers to paying a ransom price that redeems a person out of debt (and servitude, etc). The root rpk here has a similar meaning—viz., of wiping out or erasing a debt. The allusion in this couplet is to the penalty of death (and the grave) that awaits for the wicked. No amount of earthly wealth or power can keep a person from meeting this fate.

The doubling syntax that is used here, i.e., use of a cognate infinitive with a finite verb (of the same root), is meant to intensify the action, or the negative aspect of a prohibition, etc. Here the sense is, “a man certainly cannot pay the ransom (for) a brother”; however, in my translation above I have rendered both verb forms together in a more literal fashion.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“And heavy (indeed) is (the) ransom for their soul,
when it ceases into (the) distant (future),
and would yet live (on) unto glory,
and should not see the (Pit of) Destruction!”

The pair of couplets in vv. 9-10 builds upon the statement in the previous verse, emphasizing that it is indeed a very high payment (lit. a heavy weight [i.e. amount] of silver, etc) that would be required to ransom a soul, when what is involved is reversing its ultimate fate of death—to keep it from ceasing to exist (vb ld^j*) into the distant future (<l*ou).

The only way to avoid such a fate is somehow to “live (on) unto glory [jx^n#]”, which is something that only a precious few, according to Israelite tradition, have experienced (e.g., Enoch, Elijah), but which remains a hope for the righteous, so expressed at various points in the Old Testament (including the Psalms). However, for nearly all of humankind—and certainly for the wicked—their end is death and the grave. Here the familiar idiom of seeing death occurs, with death itself vividly described under the figure of “the (pit) of destruction” (tjV*h^).

Brief mention should be made of the variant reading for v. 9 [8] in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsj. Instead of the characters ldjw the reading is apparently wljw. The MT is itself a bit obscure; I understand ld^j*w+ (“and he/it ceases”), in context, as “their soul ceases (to exist)…”. The meaning of the Qumran variant is even less clear: “his weakness/illness[?] (lasts[?]) into the distant (future)”. The occurrence of the textual variation, along with the irregular meter (3+2) of the couplet, raises the possibility that the text here is corrupt and that something may have dropped out.

Apart from this textual question in v. 9, overall the sense of these couplets is clear enough. The point being emphasized is, that all of the wealth and power in the world is unable to keep a person from ultimately experiencing death and the oblivion of the grave. This is a familiar point of emphasis in Near Eastern Wisdom-tradition and it takes center stage here in the Psalm. It will be developed in the second and third sections, which we will examine in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).

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