Psalm 49 is a ‘wisdom’ psalm: it addresses the issues of wealth and death. As we would say, “there are no pockets in shrouds”. And although the rich, as a general rule, live longer than the poor, all of us die in the end. And then what? In the next world, money counts for absolutely nothing – so to devote one’s life to material things is a dangerously short-sighted policy (Mark 8:36,37; Luke 12:13-21).
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 for ever
and not see decay. (verses 7-9)
We do not have the answer to the problem of death.
But God will redeem my life from the grave;
He will surely take me to Himself. (verse 15)
God, and God alone, can overcome the power of death.
…the ransom for a life is costly,
no payment is ever enough…
A ransom is a payment made to buy back something (like a pawned watch) or someone (like a kidnap victim). A closely related concept is the idea that one might be able to buy one’s freedom from slavery, or from the punishment due for a crime. (For example, a fine may be an alternative to a prison sentence.) In some countries, a murderer may escape the death penalty if the family of the victim agree to a payment of ‘blood money’. But under God’s law such a payment was forbidden – even if the crime was defined as ‘manslaughter’ rather than murder.
“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and there is no escape from “the curse of the law” – at least, not through our own efforts or resources (Galatians 3:10).
The ‘songs of ascents’ are generally thought to be songs of pilgrimage, or maybe songs of Israel’s return from exile (or, of course, both). This one has a strong theme of sin (verse 3), forgiveness (verse 4) – and redemption (verses 7,8). God’s people cannot redeem themselves from the mess they have got themselves into; but God can and will save them, because He loves them.
For the Jews exiled in Babylon (a form of slavery) as a consequence of their sins, the only hope of a return to their homeland was an act of God – an act of redemption. But it would not be a financial transaction.
“You were sold for nothing,
and without money you will be redeemed.”
This is reminiscent of the greater act of redemption that Jesus would perform to rescue us from the consequences of our sins – and which would also not be a financial transaction.
The brothers James and John had tried to ‘bag’ the places of greatest honour in Christ’s Kingdom – and the other disciples were angry with them. Not one of them really understood what true greatness is: that the person worthy of the greatest honour is the one who renounces all honour. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Almost as an aside, Jesus states that His own life is the ‘redemption price’ for those who will trust in Him (I Peter 1:18,19).
Salvation is not our own doing – it is the work of God (verse 11). But it has consequences for us. Holy living and ‘good works’ (verses 12,14) are the only appropriate response to what Jesus has done for us. We are not our own; we “were bought at a price.” (I Corinthians 6:19,20) He gave us nothing less than Himself – so, in return, we give ourselves to Him.