A Riddle with a Comforting Answer
THROUGHOUT human history, many people have been perplexed at seeing the prosperity of lawless men. Often unprincipled persons gain a position of great authority and then exploit and oppress the poor and afflicted. But should we fear corrupt men? This question is a basic element of the riddle that is answered in Psalm 49, written by a Levite of the “sons of Korah.”
The opening statement reads: “Hear this, all you peoples. Give ear, all you inhabitants of the system of things, you sons of humankind as well as you sons of man, you rich one and you poor one together.” (Ps. 49:1) With these words, the psalmist calls upon all to pay attention—the “sons of humankind,” the ‘earthlings of lower station in life,’ as also the “sons of man,” those of higher station. Yes, all, both rich and poor, could benefit from what would be set forth.
The psalmist continues: “My own mouth will speak things of wisdom, and the meditation of my heart will be of things of understanding. To a proverbial utterance I shall incline my ear; on a harp I shall open up my riddle.” (Ps. 49:3, 4) What the psalmist was about to express originated from meditation under the guidance of God’s spirit. It was not mere human wisdom, for the psalmist spoke of himself as ‘inclining his own ear to a proverbial utterance,’ an utterance from a divine source. On receiving this inspired expression, he would present his riddle or perplexing problem, doing so to the accompaniment of a harp.
Then comes the puzzling question: “Why should I be afraid in the days of evil, when the very error of my supplanters surrounds me?” (Ps. 49:5) Yes, should he give way to dread when days of suffering come to him on account of oppressive supplanters, men who would deprive him of his God-given rights? As the following Ps 49 verses 6-10 indicate, these “supplanters” were wealthy individuals. While such ones may use their position to make unjust gain at the expense of others, we should not yield to panicky fear, nor should we become envious of the prosperity that self-seeking men might enjoy. All they have is their material wealth. They boast about what they own and, instead of looking to the Creator for protection and security, trust in unstable material riches. The psalmist goes on to show clearly why we should not fear or envy any of such men. They will not live to time indefinite, nor is their wealth a lasting possession. He writes:
“Those who are trusting in their means of maintenance, and who keep boasting about the abundance of their riches, not one of them can by any means redeem even a brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; (and the redemption price of their soul is so precious that it has ceased to time indefinite) that he should still live forever and not see the pit. For he sees that even the wise ones die, together the stupid one and the unreasoning one perish, and they must leave to others their means of maintenance.”—Ps. 49:6-10.
As the psalmist pointed out, riches are of no value in saving a brother from death. The world’s combined wealth would not provide a ransom price of sufficient value even for one human life. There is no way to hold off death. As far as humans are concerned, such a ransom price is beyond their reach. No one can pay a particular sum that would save a person from going down into the pit of death and enable him to continue living. The wise, the stupid and the unreasoning—all must die. Whatever possessions may have been acquired during a lifetime must be left behind for others to enjoy.
Of course, the wealthy oppressors want this to be otherwise. At least, they desire to keep their memory alive for generations to come. But can they succeed? Note the psalmist’s answer:
“Their inward wish is that their houses may be to time indefinite, their tabernacles to generation after generation. They have called their landed estates by their names. And yet earthling man, though in honor, cannot keep lodging; he is indeed comparable with the beasts that have been destroyed. This is the way of those who have stupidity, and of those coming after them who take pleasure in their very mouthings. . . . Like sheep they have been appointed to Sheol itself; death itself will shepherd them; and the upright ones will have them in subjection in the morning, and their forms are due to wear away; Sheol rather than a lofty abode is for each one.”—Ps. 49:11-14.
Consider what the psalmist is saying. Inside themselves, the wealthy who have accumulated riches by devious means hope that their property might last for endless years to come, being handed down from generation to generation. Since they have called their holdings by their own names, they think to perpetuate their memory. Yet they fail to see that they are mere earthlings, made of dust. Though they may be held in honor on account of their riches, self-seeking men cannot reside on the earth indefinitely. All attempts to keep their names alive are doomed to failure. They are no better off than unreasoning animals that perish.
Despite their wealth, lawless men come to an end that is no different from that of animals killed for food or to prevent their depredations. There is nothing in their life that elevates such men above the brute creation, for their life totally ignores the Creator, the eternal God. Hence, it is stupidity on their part to imagine that they can perpetuate their names. Those who adopt the philosophy or “mouthings” of self-seeking men are likewise stupid and will come to the same inglorious end. They must go down into Sheol, being shepherded, or led there, by death.
But what of those who put their trust in Jehovah? These faithful servants of God will gain the upper hand “in the morning.” This will be at the start of the new day after their deliverance from affliction and oppression.
Then, while righteous persons are enjoying divine favor, the wicked, though they had enjoyed wealth and power, will molder in the dust. Thus their ‘forms will wear away.’ Instead of enjoying a palatial dwelling place, they will rot in the depths of Sheol.
The “upright ones,” the remnant of Kingdom heirs and the “great crowd,” will survive the war at Har–Magedon and experience the promised deliverance, whereas the lawless ones will have been destroyed. During the millennial reign of Christ all the dead in Sheol will have a resurrection.
Contrasting his lot with that of unprincipled men, the Levite psalmist continues:
“However, God himself will redeem my soul from the hand of Sheol, for he will receive me. . . . Do not be afraid because some man gains riches, because the glory of his house increases, for at his death he cannot take along anything at all; his glory will not go down along with him himself. For during his lifetime he kept blessing his own soul; (and people will laud you because you do well for yourself,) his soul finally comes only as far as the generation of his forefathers. Nevermore will they see the light. Earthling man, although in honor, who does not understand, is indeed comparable with the beasts that have been destroyed.”—Ps. 49:15-20.
Like the psalmist, we rightly make the doing of the divine will the center of our lives. With full trust in his God, this Levite could rest assured that Jehovah would redeem him from Sheol, not allowing him to experience a premature death. Thus he would be received, not by Sheol, but by his rescuer, Jehovah. When we have Jehovah as our God, there is no reason to be fearful of a wicked man nor to envy him. His wealth may increase, and his home and other possessions may become more luxurious. During his lifetime he may have congratulated himself on the position and wealth that he had been able to procure. Also, people generally may have praised him for having done well for himself materially, and they may have deferred to him.
In the final analysis, though, he attains nothing more than did his forefathers, namely, death. Thus he has only a world of darkness, not light. So, regardless of how greatly honored he may be in this system of things, the earthling who does not understand or appreciate spiritual things and makes no room for the Creator in his life is like a beast that has no capacity to worship the Creator. Thus the wealthy, self-seeking man lives like a beast and perishes like a beast.
The answer to the perplexing problem about fearing the oppression by the wicked should certainly help us to see what should continue to come first in our lives. Nothing of a material nature has any permanence. If we want an abiding future, we need to put our trust in the eternal God who can restore even the dead to life.