Noticing their wealth is inescapable. Media outlets constantly bombard us with photos and videos of their mansions, outfits, cars, yachts, galas and vacation destinations. We can nearly observe the lives of certain celebrities and billionaires of our world in real time. And perhaps, in some small way, we envy them. But they are not to be envied but rather pitied, so long as either their trust or boast is in their wealth. Scripture does not condemn wealth; the Lord blesses some individuals with material riches. But it’s folly to trust them or boast in them. The psalmist tells us why: there is such a thing as worthless wealth. And our world is teeming with trillions of dollars of it.
Psalm 49 has a lengthy introduction (vv1-4), which means we really need to pay attention to what he has to say (or sing). It is a psalm not just for the people of Israel but for “all people” (v1). And it is written not only for the sake of the wealthy but also the poor (see v2). The lessons of this psalm are for everyone, and we need to understand the great limitations of wealth.
For one, wealth cannot ward off death. “No man can redeem the life of another, nor can he give to God a sufficient payment for him … that he should go on living and not see corruption” (vv7-9 ISV). The psalmist’s point is that no one can buy one’s way, or that of anyone else, out of dying.1 But the very thing the wealthy cannot do (redeem), God does for His people. “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave” (v15 KJV). The psalmist does not tell us how He can redeem, but a cross and an empty grave do.
Also, wealth cannot inscribe names where it matters most. “They call their lands after their own names” (v11 KJV). The wicked wealthy might have their names written on monuments, memorials and museums. But how often have you looked at a monument without any idea who that person was? In contrast, the believer’s name is written in heaven and will never be forgotten (Luk 10:20).
Clearly, wealth can only buy property here. And some affluent individuals have many properties here. But the unrighteous “shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell” (v14 ESV). In stark contrast, the righteous have a home beyond this life. The psalmist tells us that the God who dwells in heaven “will receive me” (v15). We have a heavenly home purchased for us by the blood of God’s own Son. The wicked follow their shepherd (death, v14) into the grave. The righteous will dwell with their Shepherd “in the house of the LORD forever” (Psa 23:1,6).
One of the larger lessons from the psalm that we need to learn and relearn is that wealth cannot be taken beyond the grave. The billionaire and the beggar die with the same amount of money – nothing. “When he dies he will carry nothing away” (v17). And yet, the believer, though leaving all earthly wealth behind, can send something ahead. Our Savior told us that we can use our wealth in such a way as to secure treasure in heaven (Mat 6:19-21; Mar 10:21). Indeed, this is the answer as to how to evade either trusting or boasting in wealth, and how to avoid the accumulation of wealth that can’t buy anything that really matters.
1 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: Tyndale OT Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 183.