Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 49 (Part 2)

Psalm 49, continued

As noted in last week’s study, this Psalm (following the introduction in vv. 2-5 [1-4]) can be divided into three sections or stanzas:

    • 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])

We continue this week with sections 2  and 3, which develop the basic message and Wisdom-themes from the first section.

Section/Stanza 2: Vv. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11 [10]

“For one sees wise men, (that even) they die,
(then) gaze (at the) fool and brute, (how) they perish,
and leave off their strength for (those) coming after.”

This section begins with an irregular tricolon that is also difficult textually. There is some question, for example, as to the subject of the first two lines. I have translated them in accordance with Wisdom-tradition, as referring to what any person (including the reader/hearer) can observe. However, it is possible to read the line with God (YHWH) as the subject:

“For He looks (at) the wise (and) they die,
He gazes (at) fool and brute (and) they perish”

In my view, the parallelism here is not synonymous, but synthetic, building upon the statement in the first line: viz., if one sees that even the wise die, then realize all the more how the fool perishes! The foolish (lit. thick/dullish) person (lys!K=) is paired with the “brutish” (ru^B^) person, together forming a contrastive parallel with “wise men” (<ym!k*j&); however, for a different understanding of rub here, cf. Dahood, p. 298.

I tentatively follow Dahood in his reading of djy in the second line as an imperfect verbal form (cp. in Prov 27:17) of a (separate) root hd*j* (III), meaning “look (at), gaze”. This forms a suitable parallel with the verb ha*r* in the first line. According to this line of interpretation, there is something of an imperatival or jussive force to the verb here (“look [then]…”).

The main point of the verse is that all people—wise and foolish alike—die, and end up leaving all their wealth and power behind on earth, to be used by others (“[those] coming after”).

Verse 12 [11]

“Burial-plots (are) their houses into (the) distant (future),
their dwelling-places for cycle and cycle (to come),
(though) they called their names over their lands.”

A similar point is being made in v. 12 [11], particularly with regard to those who are wealthy on earth. They invoke their name over their property, indicating that the land belongs to them, but, in the end, only their grave truly belongs to them as their home. With a number of commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 479), I follow the Greek versions in reading <yr!b*q= (“burial-sites, graves”) for MT <B*r=q! (“within them”), which makes relatively little sense in context. Unfortunately, the Qumran manuscript (4QPsc), which might have confirmed this reading, is broken at this point.

Verse 13 [12]

“Indeed, man does not (even) stay the night in a (house of) splendor,
(but) being like (the) beasts, (just) ceases (to exist).”

The same point from the previous verse is made even more forcefully here with this contrastive couplet. The initial w-conjunction should be understood in the sense of “indeed,…”. The noun rq^y+ (“value, [something] valuable, splendor, honor”) here refers specifically to a splendid house, as indicated by the references cited by Dahood (p. 299), where he notes particularly the funerary context of the expression. As in life, the person’s wealth in death (i.e., a splendid funerary monument) is of little worth, since he/she simply “ceases” (vb hm*D* II) to exist on earth, just like all other animals.

The Qumran MS 4QPsc, along with the LXX, reads /yby (“discern, understand”) instead of /yly (“spend the night”), perhaps under the influence of the similar wording in v. 21 [20] (cf. below), where the verb /yB! is used.

Verse 14 [13]

This is the path of (the) foolishness (that waits) for them,
and what follows for th(ose) who delight in their mouth!”

The “path” (Er#D#) those are walking, who foolishly trust in worldly riches, and what waits for them at the end of their life (rj^a^, “[what] follows, [what] comes after”), is simply death and the grave. The final phrase, “(those) who delight in their mouth”, plays on the root meaning of ls#K#, as that which is “thick, fat, plump”, alluding to the richness and good food that is available for those who have wealth, and thus making a clear connection between riches and folly. The trust in riches includes living a life full of comfort and enjoyment of good food, etc.

Bridge: Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like a flock (of sheep) they are set for She’ol,
Death will give them pasture;
they go down straight in (his throat) like cattle,
their form being consumed—
She’ol (is the) exalted place for them.
Yet (the) Mightiest will ransom my soul,
from the hand of She’ol He will take me!”

These lines are most difficult, and may well be corrupt at one or more points. The fragmentary nature of the two Qumran manuscripts offers relatively little help, and reconstructions are inherently problematic. For lack of any better solution, I have generally followed the MT. The reading reflected by the translation above yields a fairly clear pair of couplets for v. 15 [14], followed by a single summarizing line, and then climaxing with the couplet in v. 16 [15].

The imagery seems to be that of herd animals (cf. verse 13[12]b), sheep and cattle, being led down into the realm of Death (She’ol). In this regard, Death functions like a shepherd, guiding them to pasture in his realm. The second couplet uses more graphic images, playing on the traditional idea of Death as a being with a ravenous appetite (and a massive mouth/throat) who devours all things. Like cattle descending along the hillside down into the valley, so people go down into the ‘throat’ of She’ol, where they are consumed.

It is just here that the text is most problematic. With Dahood (p. 300), I tentatively read <yr!v*m@B= for MT <yr!v*y+ <B*. It would then be read in an adverbial sense, something like “go down with smoothness (into his throat)” (cp. <yr!v*ym@l= in Song 7:10[9]). Along with this, rqbl would be read rq*b*l= (“like a calf, like cattle”) instead of MT rq#B)l^ (“at the morning”). The short line that follows (assuming nothing has dropped out) is perhaps even more obscure: “their form being consumed[?]”.

The remainder of vv. 15-16, fortunately, is rather more clear. Sheol is is declared to the “exalted place” (lWbz+m!) for human beings, obviously using a bit of grim irony; it is the only ‘house of splendor’ that is left for the wealthy after they are dead. In spite of all this, the Psalmist expresses the hope that YHWH will “ransom” (vb hd*P*) his soul from this fate, snatching him “from the hand” (dY~m!) of Death. In context, this suggests a belief that the soul of the righteous will meet a different fate from all other human beings: while other people simply cease to exist (their bodies being in the grave), the righteous will be taken by God to dwell with Him in a blessed heavenly afterlife.

Section/Stanza 3: Vv. 17-21 [16-20]

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“You should not fear when a man grows rich,
when the weight of his house increases;
for he shall not take (anything) in his death,
all his weight shall not go down after him.”

The final section returns to a calmer proverbial tone with these couplets, restating the same basic message. Dahood (p. 302), gives a slightly different reading for the first line, reading ar@T@ (from ha*r*, “look, see”) rather than ar*yT! (from ary, “fear, be afraid”). The result is at least as appropriate in context: “You should not look (with envy)…”. The “weight” (dobK*) of a person’s property and possessions refers to both its value and its splendor (as well as the honor it provides within society).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“For he blessed his (own) soul in his life,
and (though) they throw you (praise) when you bring good to yourself,
he shall come unto (the) circle of his fathers,
to (the) end, (where) they shall not see light.”

The apparent blessings and honor accorded to the wealthy person, both by society and in his own estimation, are contrasted with the fate of death and the grave. In the end, such a person simply dwells in the darkness of the grave, along with his ancestors (“[the] circle [roD] of his fathers”)—the idea of a family/community burial site is thus implied.

Verse 21 [20]

“Man (is) in (his house of) splendor and does not discern (this),
(but) is like (the) beasts (who) cease (to exist).”

This closing couplet resembles that in v. 13 [12] (above), repeating the idea of man residing in a “(house of) splendor” (rq*y+). In the earlier couplet, the emphasis was on the fact that human beings ultimately have no such splendid house—the only dwelling that truly belongs to them is the grave. In that context, the verb /yl! (/Wl) was used, meaning “spend the night”, though the LXX and at least one Qumran MS had /yB! (“discern, understand”) just as here in v. 21. If the distinction in the MT is correct, however, then there is some wordplay involved, playing on the similarity of sound (and rhythm) between /yl! and /yB!.

The point of emphasis here at the close of the section is different: human beings, during their lifetimes, do indeed dwell in many “splendid houses”, but all the while, in their riches, they are foolish and do not understand the truth of the matter. Death will render all of their wealth to be of little value, compared to the fate of their soul. Only for the righteous, those who, in their wisdom, are faithful and devoted to YHWH (and His Instruction), is there any hope that the soul will live on in a real “house of splendor”. The hope of the righteous was expressed in the bridge verses 15-16 (cf. above)—that YHWH will rescue them out of the grasp of death, to dwell together with Him in a blessed afterlife.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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