The message of this wisdom psalm is very simple and straightforward: everyone will die. Everyone will die. And the richest people in the world cannot buy their way out of death and the grave. In this life, the rich may live in splendour and luxury in princely mansions; and they can do whatever they like, because they have so much money; countries might be named after them and in their honour. However, the richest people in the world cannot buy their way out of death and the grave. So, everyone will die. That’s the message of this psalm. However, whereas the wicked who do not believe will perish, the good news is that the Lord will deliver his people from death and the grave so that they will live with him forever.
That’s the message of this psalm, which can be divided into three parts. In verses 1 to 4, the psalmist is calling on people everywhere to listen to him. In verses 5 to 12 he’s telling people everywhere that no one can buy their way out of death. And in verses 13 to 20 he contrasts the fate of the wicked with the fate of the upright. So, let’s study it together.
Verses 1 to 4
And so, in verses 1 to 4 he calls on people everywhere to listen to his message. ‘Hear this’ and ‘listen’, he says in verse 1. And he’s addressing ‘all you peoples’ and ‘all who live in this world’. So, this is a psalm for everyone; and everyone is to pay attention to this message. Whether you’re high or low — up there or down there — and whether you’re rich or poor, whatever your status in life: listen to the psalmist who announces in verse 3 that he’s going to speak words of wisdom and words that will give understanding. He says in verse 4 that he will turn his ear to a proverb. And so, this is not something he has thought up himself, but this is something which he himself has heard and received from the Lord, because true wisdom, of course, is from above; it’s from God and he makes it know to us. So, God has instructed the psalmist; and now the psalmist is going to instruct us.
Verses 5 to 12
The second part of the psalm begins with the psalmist saying:
Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me….
Who or what are these wicked deceivers? Well, he goes on to explain that they are those who trust in their wealth and who boast in their great riches. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wealth in itself; and it’s not a sin to have great riches. However, the psalmist is referring to wealthy unbelievers, who, instead of boasting in the Lord, boast in their wealth; and instead of relying on the Lord, rely on their great riches for peace and security. The psalmist is referring to those people who think they’re above trouble, because they have so much money; and whatever problems arise, whatever troubles happen, they take it for granted that they can buy their way out of it. And since the psalmist refers to them as ‘wicked deceivers’, then no doubt they’re willing to pay a bribe to get their own way in court; and they can use all their wealth and might in business to crush their opponents and to get their own way.
And when this kind of thing is happening in the world, the Lord’s people might become anxious and afraid and they might fret over the state of the world. ‘What will become of us?’ they wonder. But the psalmist says: Why should I fear? Why worry? Why fret about this? Don’t fret about this, because while these wealthy, wicked deceivers may get away it in this life, nevertheless no man or woman can redeem the life of another; and no one can give a ransom to God. He means no one is able to buy their way out of death and the grave. The ransom for life is costly, he says. No payment is ever enough. What can you give to God in order to save your soul from death and the grave and from eternal death? Well, there’s nothing anyone can give to God in order to buy everlasting life from him. No amount of money is enough. How do we know that’s the case? Because everyone dies.
‘For all can see’, the psalmist says in verse 10: all can see that wise men die as do foolish men and senseless men. The rich man also dies and instead of being able to give his money in exchange for his life, he has to leave his wealth to someone else. Instead of living forever in their mansions, they will go to live like everyone else in a tomb or a grave. While they were alive, lands were named after them in honour of them. And though their name might live on after them, they themselves will not live on, because everyone dies and they’ll end up the same as everyone else, because their home for endless generations will be a tomb.
Look now at verse 12. Despite his riches, this wealthy, wicked deceiver will perish just like the beasts that perish. In this life, his life was very different from the life of an animal, because he lived in a mansion and could do what he liked, whereas the beast lived in a field and was put to work by its master. But the man’s end is no different from the end of an animal, because man and beast will both die.
Verses 13 to 20
So, everyone will die. Everyone will die. It doesn’t matter how much a person has in this life; in the end, that person will die just like everyone else. There’s no amount of money we can give in exchange for our life.
Everyone will die; but the psalmist is thinking especially of the wealthy, wicked deceivers who do not trust in the Lord. So, he says in verse 13 that this is the fate of those who trust in themselves. And this is the fate of their followers, who approve of the things they say. And so, instead of fretting over them, we need to remember that they’re like sheep. In what way are they like sheep? They’re like sheep in the sense that they’re destined to die, just as every newborn lamb is destined to die. And death will feed on them. He means that death will consume them. And their forms — or what’s left of them — will decay in the grave, which is far away from their princely mansions.
So, look at verse 16: Don’t be overawed when a man grows rich and when the splendour of his house increases. Don’t be overawed, but remember that he will take nothing with him when he dies. All his wealth and the splendour of his life will be of no use to him in the life to come. In this life, he may have ascended higher than everyone else; but the day will come when he will descend with everyone else to the grave. In this life, he counted himself blessed. And other people praised him because of the way he prospered so much in this life. But the day will come when this successful, prosperous unbeliever will join the generation of his fathers, all his dead ancestors, who will never see the light of day again, because they’re surrounded by darkness in the grave. A man or woman who has riches but who does not have understanding is just like the beasts in the field, because both man and beast will perish.
So, that’s the fate of the wealthy, wicked deceiver. In fact, that’s the fate of all those who do not trust in the Lord. They will die and will perish forever. That’s the fate of those who do not believe. But the psalmist also tells us about the fate of the upright who are mentioned in verse 14. The upright are those who belong to the Lord by faith and who therefore do what is right. And the psalmist tells us in verse 14 that whereas the wealthy wicked deceiver and their followers are like sheep in that they’re destined for the grave and death will consume them, the upright will rule over them in the morning.
And when the psalmist refers to ‘the morning’, he’s referring to a new day when the current state of affairs is over and a new age has dawned. He’s referring to the life to come. And the New Testament makes clear for us that in the life to come, the wicked will be sent away from the presence of the Lord to be punished forever for their sin and unbelief, whereas God’s people — all who are righteous by faith in Christ — will reign with Christ over the new heavens and earth.
So, the wicked will perish and the upright will rule over them. And then, in verse 15, the psalmist says that God will redeem his life from the grave. You’ll perhaps remember that in the Old Testament, certain crimes deserved the death penalty. However, for some capital crimes, it was possible to pay a ransom in order to redeem your life. So, you paid the ransom price; and you were spared from death and allowed to live. Well, as we read in verse 7, no one can give a ransom to God to keep themselves from the grave forever. Everyone will die. However, God is prepared to pay the ransom price for his people in order to deliver them from the grave. So, they will die like everyone else, but they will not remain in the grave.
So, look at what the psalmist says in the rest of verse 15:
God will surely take me to himself.
The word translated ‘take’ was used in Genesis 5 to refer to the way God took Enoch. Do you remember? In that long list of names of men who lived and who died, there’s the name Enoch:
Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
In other words, instead of dying like everyone else, Enoch went directly into the presence of the Lord. And the same word was used to describe how the Lord was going to take Elijah away, so that he would enter the presence of the Lord. And therefore the psalmist is expressing his hope that he will be brought into the presence of the Lord. Yes, he’ll die, like everyone else. But God will pay the ransom price so that he will be delivered from the grave and will be brought into the presence of the Lord in the world to come.
So, everyone will die, but God will deliver his people from the grave so that they will not perish like the wicked, but will have eternal life in his presence.
And years after this psalm was written, the Lord Jesus announced to his disciples that he did not come to be served, but to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many. The Lord Jesus gave up his life on the cross as the ransom price, which he paid on behalf of his people, in order to deliver his people from death and the grave so that they might live with God forever and forever in glory.
You’re going to die, because everyone dies. But by believing in Christ the Saviour, you will not perish in the grave, because Christ the Saviour gave up his life to pay for your sins and to rescue you from death and the grave. Instead of perishing forever — which is what you deserve, because you’re a sinner who sins against God continually — instead of perishing forever, you will live in the presence of God forever. And so, hear this and listen: Everyone dies. But God will redeem his people from the grave to live with him forever.