Psalm 49:16-20

16. Be not thou afraid when one shall be made rich, when the glory of his house shall be increased; 17. For when he dieth he shall not carry all away: his glory shall not descend after him: 18. For he will bless his soul in his lifetime, and they shall praise thee when thou doest well to thyself.1 19. He shall come but to the age of his fathers, and will not see the light even for ever. 20. Man is in honour, and will not understand: he is like the beasts: they shall perish.


16. Be not thou afraid. The Psalmist repeats, in the form of an exhortation, the same sentiment which he had formerly expressed, that the children of God have no reason to dread the wealth and power of their enemies, or to envy their evanescent prosperity; and as the best preservative against despondency, he would have them to direct their eyes habitually to the end of life. The effect of such a contemplation will be at once to check any impatience we might be apt to feel under our short-lived miseries, and to raise our minds in holy contempt above the boasted but delusory grandeur of the wicked. That this may not impose upon our minds, the prophet recalls us to the consideration of the subject of death -- that event which is immediately at hand, and which no sooner arrives than it strips them of their false glory, and consigns them to the tomb. So much is implied in the words, He shall not carry away all these things when he dieth.2 Be their lives ever so illustrious in the eyes of their fellow-creatures, this glory is necessarily bounded by the present world. The same truth is further asserted in the succeeding clause of the verse, His glory shall not descend after him. Infatuated men may strain every nerve, as if in defiance of the very laws of nature, to perpetuate their glory after death, but they never can escape the corruption and nakedness of the tomb; for, in the language of the poet Juvenal, -

"Mots sola fatetur Quantula sint hominum corpuscula," --

"It is death which forces us to confess how worthless the bodies of men are."

18. For he will bless his soul in his lifetime. Various meanings have been attached to this verse. Some read, He ought to have blessed his soul during his life. Others apply the first clause of the verse to the wicked, while they refer the second to believers, who are in the habit of praising God for all his benefits. Others understand the whole verse as descriptive of believers, but without sufficient ground. There can be little doubt that the reference is to the children of the world. In the first part of the verse it is said that they bless their own soul3 so long as they live on earth, by which is meant, that they indulge and pamper themselves with earthly pleasures, giving way to the excesses of brutish intemperance, like the rich man, of whom Christ spoke in the parable, who said,

"Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry," -- (Luke 12:19)

or that they seek their happiness entirely from this world, without cherishing a desire for the life that is to come. Some translate the Hebrew verb, he will do good, and read thus, He will do good to his own soul in his lifetime. But I conceive the phrase to be synonymous in its import with that which is employed by Moses,

"And it come to pass, that he bless himself in his heart;"
(Deuteronomy 29:19,)

that is, flatter himself as if he might despise God with impunity. The inspired penman here represents the stupidity of such as please themselves with a fallacious dream of happiness. In the latter part of the verse the person is changed, and the votary of pleasure is apostrophised;4 the prophet insinuating, by the words he uses, that the preposterous pride with which the wicked are inflamed is in part the consequence of the delusive applause of the world, which pronounces them to be happy, and echoes their praises even when they gratify their most unlicensed passions.

19. He shall come to the age of his fathers. He proceeds to show how false are the flatteries by which the wicked deceive themselves, and are deceived by others. Be they ever so intoxicated with the praises of the world, or with their own vain imaginations, yet they cannot live beyond the age of their fathers; and, granting their life to be extended to the longest term, it can never stretch into eternity. Others understand the expression as synonymous with their being gathered to the tomb along with their fathers who have gone before them; as in Scripture death is usually called "The way of all the earth." The Psalmist, a little above, had spoken of their being gathered together in the grave as sheep in a fold. According to this view, the meaning of the passage is, that having never aspired after heaven, but having been sunk in the low grovelling pursuits of this world, they would come at last to the same fate with their fathers. When it is added, They shall not see the light even for ever, we are to understand their consignment to everlasting darkness.5 In my opinion, both clauses of the verse combine to express the same truth, That however they may flatter and deceive themselves, they cannot prolong their life beyond the common term of mortality. As either interpretation, however, agrees with the general scope of the psalm, the reader may choose for himself. Should the latter be adopted, the words in the close of the verse are to be considered as asserting that the ungodly can only enjoy the light of life for a short period, as they have no hope of another existence beyond the grave. We are taught by the Psalmist, in the words which have been under our consideration, to beware of flattering ourselves in the possessions of this world, and to be principally anxious for the attainment of that happiness which is reserved for us in heaven. We are also warned not to allow ourselves to be carried away by the erring influence of worldly applause. Even heathen authors have taught us the same lesson. Thus the poet Persius says, --

"Non si quid turbida Roma
Elevet, accedas, examenve improbum in illa
Castiges trutina: nec te quaesiveris extra," --

"If Rome, a city full of commotions, exalt or despise any thing, beware of being satisfied with its weight or balance; that is to say, of stopping at its judgment; and do not look to what others say of you, but enter into thyself, and examine what thou art."6 But the disposition to be deceived by flattery is one so strongly marked in our nature, as to require that we should attend to the weightier admonition of one who was inspired.

20. Man is in honor, and will not understand.7 Here the prophet, that he may not be understood as having represented the present life, which in itself is a singular blessing of God, as wholly contemptible, corrects himself as it were, or qualifies his former statements by a single word, importing that those whom he reprehends have reduced themselves to the level of the beasts that perish, by senselessly devouring the blessings which God has bestowed, and thus divesting themselves of that honor which God had put upon them. It is against the abuse of this world that the prophet has been directing his censures. They are aimed at those who riot in the bounties of God without any recognition of God himself, and who devote themselves in an infatuated manner to the passing glory of this world, instead of rising from it to the contemplation of the things which are above.

1 French and Skinner read, "Yea, though men praise thee when thou indulgest thyself;" and they explain men to mean "parasites and flatterers," and "indulgest thyself" as meaning, "indulgest thyself in unrestrained luxury."

2 "Heb. 'take of all;' that is, ought of all that he hath. 'For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.'" -- Ainsworth.

3 That is, themselves. -- See note, p. 252.

4 "There is here a change," says Walford, "from the oblique to the direct form of speech, by which the writer turns himself to the rich man, who prospers in the world, and says to him, Though you now count yourself happy, and meet with applause from persons of a character resembling your own, yet you shall go to the abode of your fathers, who will never behold the light." He reads the 19th verse, "Thou shalt go to the abode of thy fathers, who will never behold the light."

5 Horsley reads, "To all eternity they shall not see light;" "that light," says he, "which emphatically deserves the name -- that light, of which created light is but a faint image; the light of God's glory. He shall have no share in the beatific vision."

6 This is the translation which is given of these lines in the French version.

7 This verse is precisely the same as the 12th, with the exception of one word. Instead of Nylyalb, bal-yalin, will not lodge, in the 12th verse, we have here Nyby alw, velo yabin, and will not understand. But the Septuagint and Syriac versions read in the 12th verse as here, "understands not." Houbigant thinks that this is the true reading of the 12th verse. "The very repetition," says he, "proves that it is to be so read. Besides, as the Psalmist immediately subjoins, They are like brute creatures, it is sufficiently evident that the reason why men are said to be like the beasts is, because they do not understand, and not because they do not continue in honor, since honor does not belong to the brute creation."


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