In Psalm 49, a man steps out of the pages of the Bible with a riddle in his hand, and he's desperate we hear it. In fact, he calls on us in verse 1 to listen. He says what he has to say applies to everybody. It applies to the rich and to the poor. It applies to the wise and to the ignorant. It applies to believers and to atheists. He says we need to give attention to what he has to say because his mouth will speak words of wisdom. The utterance from his heart will give understanding.
The word for wisdom in the Hebrew is hokmah. It refers to a skill. The word hokmah was used for the weavers that wove the exquisite garments that were on the high priest, Aaron. It came to stand for wisdom, which is a skill for living. If you have hokmah, if you have wisdom, you have a skill for the living of your days.
Not only does this man promise if we listen to him we will have wisdom, a skill for living, but we will also have understanding. The word for understanding has to do with insight. You see into things. The unimaginative among us see everything on the surface. They're not able to see what is behind the obvious. The unimaginative see everything the same. They're not able to see principles and patterns. This man says if we will listen to what he has to say, we will have wisdom and understanding.
He's going to give this to us not in some abstract lecture but instead he says he's going to give it to us in the form of a song. He has brought his harp with him. This song he wants to sing will be a proverb. A proverb is a small statement that contains a large truth—it's a small box that contains something precious. And this particular proverb, he tells us, will be in the form of a riddle. "With my harp I will expound my riddle."
The riddle appears twice in the song. It appears first in verse 12: "But man, despite his riches, does not endure. He's like the beasts that perish." Eight verses later, in verse twenty, he repeats it: "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish."
If I were going to state this in a form of a modern riddle, it would be something like this: How is a king like a lion? How is a dowager like the dog she has in her lap? How is the Mafia boss like a pit bull? How is a farmer like a cow?
He tells us that this riddle, while it came from God, came out of a difficult experience. He was living in an evil time, he says in verse 5, and he was surrounded by wicked people who were deceivers. Perhaps they took advantage of him in a business deal, or they lied to him. He was a man living in an evil time.
The hardships of righteousness.
We live in evil times. When you live in an evil time, a person who is righteous has a great disadvantage. In an evil time, often you find that those who are unrighteous trample on those who want to be good.
Here's a young woman. She's studying at the university. She's a Christian. She wants to be a person of integrity. She's surrounded by students who have turned cheating into a fine art. If every student were examined only on his or her own merits, it wouldn't matter much, but the professors grade on a curve. And so as a result of cheating, they get high grades. She gets her grades honestly, and she suffers the consequence.
In an evil society, here's a businessman who wants to honor God in the marketplace. But he's surrounded by people who are only concerned about the bottom line. As a result, they will lie. They will cheat. They will misrepresent their product. They will make promises that are not true. Within his own company he discovers there are people who are trying to get to the top, and it doesn't bother them if they have to step on him to get there.
In an evil society the righteous are at a disadvantage.
This man found himself in a painful experience—painful not only because he had been swindled by the unrighteous, but painful because the circumstance attacked his faith. He had put his trust in God, and God had let the unrighteous take advantage of him. These wicked people made money their god. He says, "These are the ones who trust in wealth. They're the ones who boast of their great riches."
That's good English grammar, good Hebrew grammar, bad spiritual grammar. The object of trust ought not to be wealth. The object of trust ought to be understanding God. The object of boasting and glorying ought to be the Almighty, and not riches. But these people gloried in their wealth.
And so the psalmist tells us that out of this bitter experience he had come to wisdom. And in the middle of it all, when he looked at these wicked, wealthy people, he wished they would drop dead. He says in verse 7, "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live on forever and not see decay."
What does not save.
What he is saying is, he looked at these people with their wealth and knew their money would not be able to save them from death. The image about redeeming the life of another or giving God a ransom for them goes back to the Old Testament. One of the ordinances of the law had to do with an ox that gored a neighbor. If the ox killed the neighbor, the owner of the ox had to pay a fine. If he brought the ox back home and didn't put it in a pen, just let it roam around the field, and the ox broke out again and killed another neighbor, that was a capital offense. The farmer would pay with his life. But there was a loophole. In Exodus 21:30 it says the farmer could pay a ransom and thus would not have to die.
This psalmist says that law does not apply in this case. No one can give a ransom to buy him or herself back from death. No one can pay out money to escape that consequence. Money does not save us. It's true that money talks, but ultimately when you face death, money and its talk falls on deaf ears.
Their education will not save them from death. Verse 10 says, "For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations." No, education won't save them.
One of the advantages of being wealthy is you are able to go to the finest schools, attend the greatest universities. You can get knowledge and perhaps even some wisdom along the way, but a Ph.D. will not save you from death.
What is more, their philanthropy will not save them from death. That's what the psalmist means when he says, "Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they have lands named after them."
Wealthy people give large gifts to hospitals and schools to have buildings named after them, because they hope that by philanthropy their memory will live on after they are gone. This man says philanthropy doesn't save them.
There are people who are powerful and wealthy enough to have states named after them, like Maryland or Georgia. There are others who have cities named after them, like Alexandria, Washington, and Lincoln. And some have boulevards. Some have streets. Some just an alley. Most of us settle for a small slab at the top of our grave with our name and our birth date and our death date. But no matter how big the monuments are, those who built them are gone. No, as wealthy and as powerful as they are, this man says they will die. Their money will not deliver them. Their education will not save them. Their philanthropy does not keep them from death.
And then he states the proverb for the first time. He says in verse 12, "But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish."
There is a way in which the king is like the lion, the dowager is like the dog, the Mafia chief is like the pit bull, the farmer like the cow—in that men and women and animals all die. They do not endure. Having that insight, he says, can begin to give you wisdom. It can begin to give you understanding. The recognition that nothing will save us from death changes our perspective.
In literature, there is a story told a number of different ways. It is the story of a man who opens a newspaper and discovers the date on the newspaper is six months in advance of the time he lives. He begins to read through the newspaper, and he discovers stories about events that have not yet taken place. He turns to the sports page, and there are scores of games not yet played. He turns to the financial page and discovers a report of the rise or fall of different stocks and bonds.
He realizes this can make him a wealthy man. A few large bets on an underdog team he knows will win will make him wealthy. Investments in stocks that are now low but will get high can fatten his portfolio. He is delighted.
He turns the page and comes to the obituary column and sees his picture and story. Everything changes. The knowledge of his death changes his view about his wealth.
In the monasteries of one order of Trappist monks, the monks dig a grave. Each day the monks go out and stand and look at the grave. When one of their number dies, he's put in the grave, and then a new grave is dug. They do it for perspective.
As unhealthy as that might seem to us, it's far healthier than the way we deal with death in our culture. We avoid it; we disguise it. We talk about it in euphemisms. We go to the cemetery, and the brown dirt is covered by green Astroturf. But the recognition that we will die gives us a different perspective.
How does a king resemble a lion? How does a dowager resemble a dog? How does a Mafia chief resemble a pit bull? How does a farmer resemble a cow? The answer is that both humans and animals die.
When humans are like beasts.
Well, this gives some perspective. It doesn't give much comfort. If all of us die, then the unrighteous die—but so do the righteous. The wicked die, but so do the good. The atheist dies, but so does the Christian.
He repeats the proverb again at the end of the psalm in verse 20. "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish." In the Hebrew text, verse 12 and verse 20 are identical except for one word. The word that is translated "endure" in verse 12 and the word that's translated "understanding" in verse 20 are virtually the same word except for one letter. You change the letter, you change the word. You change the word, you change the meaning. "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish."
All of us are like the beasts in that all of us are going to die. The king and dowager, Mafia chief and farmer, lion and dog, pit bull and cow—none of us endure. In that sense, we are like the beasts.
But we can be like beasts in another way. We can be like beasts if we go to death without understanding. What's the understanding he has in mind? When life is over, it's not over. When the act is finished, the play goes on. And that cuts both ways. It cuts the wicked, as he says in verse 13: "This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them."
Interesting picture. Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd." In this passage it says death is like a shepherd—a shepherd that leads a flock to the slaughterhouse, and after the flock is killed, he eats the meat. And after he eats the meat, all that's left is bones. So he pictures death as a grim shepherd. And for the wicked that is their end; death feeds on them.
That's why he says in verse 16, "Do not be overawed when a man grows rich and the splendor of his house increases; for he takes nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him."
When people die, they die naked. They do not take with them their wardrobe. They do not take with them their portfolio. They do not take with them their bank account. They do not take with them their splendor. And when a wealthy person dies, while we admired him while he lived, we do not envy him when he dies: "While he lived, he counted himself blessed—and men praise you when you prosper—he will join the generation of his fathers." (vv. l8-19)
Several years ago H. L. Hunt, who was then the third richest man in the world, died. His funeral took place in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Probably 2,000 people attended. What was interesting to me was that there was not a person in that audience who wanted to be a guest of honor at that funeral. While people envied H. L. Hunt in his life, nobody envied him in his death. He was gone. As the Psalm says, "He will not see the light of life." (v. 19)
There's an image behind that. People in ancient cultures would build large sepulchers. And when a person died, they would take the corpse, open the door of the tomb, go inside, and place the corpse on a ledge. And then they would close the door of the tomb. The corpse would be in the darkness. The only time that changed was when someone else died, and for a moment the door opened while the corpse was placed inside. But even though a shaft of light got into the tomb, those who were dead could not see it.
The righteous will rule.
The wicked, he says, go into the darkness of the tomb, but they also go into the darkness of eternity. For those who live apart from God live in eternal darkness. They live apart from the light. That's part of the understanding: that when life is over, it is not over. When the act is done, the play continues. They live in eternal darkness forever.
On the other hand, he says in verse 14, "The upright will rule over them in the morning." Verse 15: "But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself." While the wicked are going out into the night of the soul, out into an eternal darkness, the righteous rule over them in the morning. Whenever you read the biblical account, with God it is always the evening and the morning that form the day. Out of the night there comes the day. Out of the darkness there comes the light. And so for those who are righteous, ahead of them there is the light.
And he says, "God will redeem my life from the grave. He will surely take me to himself." Back in verse 8 he said there is no price a person can pay to be redeemed from death. There's no amount of money that will keep death from happening. But here, he says, for the righteous God can pay the ransom. For the righteous. God can pay the price, and God is able to deliver the righteous from death into eternal life.
When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, you are putting your trust in the God of resurrection. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he said, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is God and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you'll be saved" (Romans 10:9). What is significant about believing that Jesus rose from the dead is believing that, 1,900 years ago, Jesus came forth from the grave and was a victor over death and darkness. The promise is that what happened to him will happen to us.
To have faith in the God of resurrection is to believe that when we die, out of the darkness of the night, we go to the morning. It's to realize that God can pay the ransom, and he will take us home to be with himself. And that understanding changes everything. For the believer in Jesus Christ, for the righteous person, we do not go out into death and into darkness. Instead, we go home to God.
How is a king like a lion?
How is a king like a lion? How is a dowager like a lap dog? How is a Mafia chief like a pit bull? How is a farmer like a cow? Well, they are alike in that all of them die. But they can be alike in another way. The king, the dowager, the Mafia chief, and the farmer die without the understanding that when life is over, it's not over. And they die like the animals in the field.
If you go to Iowa and Nebraska, you often see cattle standing in the field. Those cattle are fat. They're contented. Whenever they are hungry, the farmer goes out and brings them more food. It seems to me they have no stress. There may be times when you envy those cows. It seems nice to be able to live that kind of life. But you know those cows are being fattened for the slaughter. You don't envy them, because you know their destiny.
The farmer and the cow both die. They have that in common. But if the farmer dies with no more understanding than the cow, then he's no better than the cattle in the field. That is the answer to the riddle.
To know that after death there is life, after the darkness there is day, it changes your perspective. It gives you wisdom and understanding.
John Wesley, when he was along in years, went to visit an English gentleman. He owned a large estate, and one evening Wesley sat with him by the fire, and they enjoyed their conversation. The next morning the two men, Wesley and his host, walked through the formal gardens. The gentleman said to Wesley, "You know, you could have had all of this." Wesley said, "Well, perhaps. But there is another world." That is wisdom. That is insight. How is a king like the lion? How is a dowager like her lap dog? How is a Mafia chief like a pit bull? How is a farmer like a cow? None of them endure. All of them die.
How is a king like the lion? How is a dowager like her lap dog? How is a Mafia chief like a pit bull? How is a farmer like a cow? If they live without understanding that when life is over, it's not over. The end of the act is not the end of the play. If they live without that understanding, the king, the dowager, the Mafia chief, and the farmer are no different than the animals.
But you know that as a Christian. You know that when you face death you can say to those around you who are Christians, "I'll see you in the morning." That is hope. That is wisdom. That is understanding. It changes your life. It changes your eternal destiny.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.