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Psalm 49: Who Can Ransom Man?

September 8, 2009

Psalm 49 is a stunning passage.  The theme is the foolishness in trusting in wealth and the abundance of our riches (v. 6) for an appropriate standing before God.  A surface reading of the passage may conclude that the theme is simply do not trust in earthly possession, for you will not have them after you die. That’s true and is certainly the meaning of verse 10:

For he sees that even the wise die;
the fool and the stupid alike must perish
and leave their wealth to others.

Yet, the passage looks to a more significant problem than simply our loss or preservation of possessions.  It urges the reader to see his sin problem.  The author brings to mind the wicked, who foolishly think their wealth can sufficiently pay for their wickedness before God.  The psalmist writes:

Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
and never see the pit (vs 7-9).

The costliness of the ransom is not so much in the value of the offender’s life, but the value of the offended.  It is God in whom the debt is due, as all sin ultimately is against God only (Psalm 51:4).  The psalmist hasn’t simply raised the bar of payment higher, he has made it infinitely impossible to pay for anyone.  So then, it isn’t just foolish to hope in riches and wealth, but looks as if it is impossible to have hope at all.

Psalm 49 does not leave us hopeless.  He writes, “But God will ransom my soul” (15).  The psalmist doesn’t rest in sacrifice and the Law (though they point to it), works, or wealth, but in the ransom from God.   The Christian should read this content into Romans 3:21-31:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Praise God for his work in Christ on our behalf!

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