Written by Paul J. Bucknell on May, 01, 2021
Living In and Out of the Bubble (Psalm 49). Learn how to overcome the fear of powerful oppressors in this day of extremes.
Learn how to overcome the fear of powerful oppressors in this day of extremes.
Some suggest that today’s economic bubble is a super-bubble, not only because there are several over-priced markets (i.e., housing, lumber) and because this is happening in conjunction with the countries of the world diving deep into on ocean of debt, hand-in-hand.
“Bubbles” describe culture/economic cycles, usually the extreme highs, that significantly affect people’s lives for good or bad. Economies affect the people, and the people affect the economies. The psalmist himself witnessed such a time when the rich got more prosperous, and the poor got poorer. We can learn much from the psalmist’s response to this wave of oppression and note his decisive insights into developing a biblical mindset and maintaining godly principles during such times. Let’s first see how he aptly describes that bubble.
Psalm 49:1-2 Life in Bubble Extremes
“1 Hear this, all peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, 2 Both low and high, rich and poor together.” (NASB used unless stated)
The psalmist highlights this bubble by contrasts: “low and high, rich and poor together.” One might wonder if he read our recent news headlines.
Well aware of the problem of extremes, he speaks from the low edge of the bubble, identifying with the low, poor, and oppressed. And so, as the rich stampede on into greater wealth and power, the poor get poorer. Today’s super-bubble is expanding beyond what most people can imagine—ready, almost beckoning, to be popped, but it might grow larger yet.
Some suggest that the social-economic engineers are strategizing ways to squeeze the middle-class out of existence. Others present plans—an increase of taxes on the rich—to lesson their accounts a bit, but interestingly, as seen in the pandemic, the rich still get richer, and the poor, poorer.
Though politicians and others in high places say they live for fairness and equality, it never ends up the way they promise, but the psalmist and general populace experience it. Some flout promising Hegelian-Marxist slogans and foster class wars, but any program built without the Lord will utterly fail the people. Haven’t we learned this lesson yet?
The psalmist addresses all the people in the world: “Hear this, all peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world” (Psalm 49:1). The world population now exceeds seven billion, much greater than at the psalmist’s time, but we can all still be mapped somewhere in this massive bubble. Are you on the upper or lower edge of the bubble? Are you concerned about how your circumstances might end up?
The psalmist will reveal his undesirable status and show us how he learned to live above his circumstances rather than merely reacting against them.
Psalm 49:3-4 Reflections from in the Bubble
“3 My mouth will speak wisdom, And the meditation of my heart will be understanding. 4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will express my riddle on the harp.
5 Why should I fear in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my foes surrounds me, 6 Even those who trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches?
The mention of wisdom and proverbs, shows how the psalmist thinks about his dire circumstances like many of us. The more complex our situation, the more time we spend thinking about it. Serious difficulties often suggest new songs like “my riddle on the harp,” if not new kinds of music to help the culture reflect on their state of affairs. He sifts through the changing events around him and carefully assesses his difficult place. Although situated inside the bubble, he chooses to step outside of it to gain as much objectivity as possible. This helps him to observe and articulate his viewpoint wisely.
Fear, not foe, stands before him as his chief opponent, ready to seize his mind and thoughts. Doesn’t fear show up at our door before our enemy? And yet, somehow, the psalmist steps back and withdraws from this fight. “Why should I fear in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my foes surrounds me?” By refusing to respond to their threat, fear quickly retreats out of sight.
Three Keywords (49:5)
This discussion on fear centers on three keywords found in verse 5, “When the iniquity of my foes surrounds me.”
The psalmist faces foes. They lack any resemblance to his friends because they seek his worst and possess a sense of deliberate opposition, going beyond indifference.
Iniquity means wickedness. Injustice, unfair dealings, underhanded tactics, using lies to get an advantage (bribes), etc., are all parts of this slanderous attack known as iniquity. Long-standing Judeo-Christian values have kept evil neatly tucked away in society’s darkest corners. Society expected judges to pronounce statements according to fact and law, not due to bribes and influence. Things have changed considerably, however. Consider how people demand a verdict that agrees with their assessment, despite the facts. Why do we pronounce a verdict before any charges or case is processed except to defy law and justice?
The psalmist felt surrounded. This meant that the enemy had gathered his resources and means to oppress and hurt him. Though he speaks as one, he represents his family, workplace, village, and worship place.
In verse 6 he surprises the reader, “Even those who trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches.” Wealth leads to the delusion of power, which turns “average” people into oppressors. Because they now hold power—the power to influence, govern, lead, destroy, they become oppressive.
The psalmist gained this comprehensive God-given perspective that enabled him to view more than what the eye can capture.
We do well by asking what particular things the psalmist sees that offer so much confidence, especially when everything else seems to be going against him? Why are people so willing to assume a verdict against someone without the facts? Would they like it if the tables were turned on them?
Psalm 49:7-11 The Eternal Contrast
7 No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him—8 For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever—9 That he should live on eternally, That he should not undergo decay.
10 For he sees that even wise men die; The stupid and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their inner thought is that their houses are forever and their dwelling places to all generations; They have called their lands after their own names.
The psalmist’s argument is short and to the point. He exposes the vulnerability of the wicked, even his opponents. He shares the special insights that give him great confidence in this world and the next, no matter what unknowns lurk about him.
This insight comes from the way God generally works with mankind regarding his sins. The psalmist doesn’t describe his opponents’ sins but instead focuses on how, no matter one’s earthly status, everyone remains accountable before God for his life.
Gospel Insight—Jesus Christ’s Death (7-8)
Redeem, ransom, and redemption, are used in verses 49:7-8 to depict man’s vulnerability before God. “No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him” (7). Humanity stands indebted before God because of his sins and guilt. Without God’s help, they (and we) have no hope to stand innocently before Him. His opponents cannot use their position or gathered wealth to help them at time’s end when they must give an account before the Lord. “For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever” (49:8).
The Old Covenant (i.e., the Law) could not provide the ransom needed to stand before God but only those who put their trust in the promised Messiah. They demonstrate their faith by following God’s Word, which displays their hope in the Messiah—Jesus Christ, who later came. The redemption came at the high cost of the life of the only Son of God—something quite unimaginable but now embedded in the history of mankind on earth.
Gospel Insight—Jesus Christ’s Resurrection (9-10)
Verse 9 contains a phrase, “did not undergo decay” quoted in the New Testament with future reference to Jesus Christ who came alive from the dead, “But He whom God raised did not undergo decay” (Acts 13:37). Money and position can’t bring eternal life but only Jesus, the risen Lord, raised from the dead.
“That he should live on eternally, That he should not undergo decay” (Psalm 49:9).
“But He whom God raised did not undergo decay” (Acts 13:37).
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 16 nicely expands this same thought, again quoted in the New Testament.
“For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Psalm 16:10).
“Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Acts 2:27).
“Therefore He also says in another Psalm, ‘You will not allow Your Holy One to undergo decay’” (Acts 13:35).
Instead of rebuking the arrogant as in Psalm 49, Psalm 16 continues praising the Great Deliver Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead overcoming death.
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever. (Ps 16:11)
The psalmist grandly presents the seeds of the Gospel’s hope through prophesying the death (i.e., ransom refers to sacrifice) and resurrection (“not undergo decay”) of Jesus the Messiah (2 Tim 1:10).
This eternal redemptive perspective exposes the ungodly’s lack of a Redeemer and the future threats they must face. The godly, in contrast, have the Good Shepherd alive from the dead coming to lead them to His eternal pastures (Psalm 23:6). The sword of truth effectively slays fear.
The following verses reveal the desperate struggle for significance—it’s all his enemies have.
Psalm 49:12-13 The Popping of the Bubble
12 But man in his pomp will not endure; He is like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the way of those who are foolish, and of those after them who approve their words. Selah.
The word “pomp” is twice used, aptly expressing how the earthly distorted bubble is ready to pop. “His pomp will not endure” but will bust.
Though the historical cycles trace wealthy schemes and times of oppression, the righteous like the psalmist might suffer. We might wish for better days, but it’s wiser to accept our situation, if unchangeable, and observe how the Lord extends our hope during these times with insights into the future.
Those who live within the world’s confines are bound by what they see, concocting and living by foolish decisions. They miss out on the brilliant hopes that lead the poor and lowly, lacking the faith to see them. If possessed, faith would enable the rich and well-positioned to live caring lives and help the poor, and like the psalmist, live above the threats of judgment.
Though made in the image of God, people often ignore their consciences, ending up being no better than the beasts. “He is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12). This same sense is carried forth in the whole of scriptures.
“But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed” (2 Peter 2:12).
“But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed” (Jude 1:10).
The psalmist reminds people of their high calling as humans to live in light of God’s Word. When man shuts out God’s perspective, his mind becomes hardened to truth and love, entrapping him in a life of oppression and complaint.
Verses 14-15 The Shepherd of Death
Without faith, people cannot see this more excellent scene of hope in God’s invisible redemptive plan. It’s not life but death that leads them. It’s like a flock of sheep being led to slaughter, following their shepherd and not knowing until the last moment when he turns around, and they see “DEATH” is his name.
“14 As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall rule over them in the morning, And their form shall be for Sheol to consume so that they have no habitation. 15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me. Selah.”
Sheol is the place of death where people await judgment, and here, the psalmist’s ungodly opponents, the high and oppressive, await an unwelcome future. They have no Redeemer because they deluded themselves by thinking their world goes on forever. The wicked might have Psalm 23 read at their funerals, but they will still perish.
This psalmist, however, confidently confides, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol” (Psalm 49:15). “He shall receive me.” His heavenly viewpoint hints of a deep inner life, meditation on God’s Word (49:1) that brims with a bright hope and dismisses the fears that seek to haunt him.
Instead of oppression, “The upright shall rule over them in the morning.” At some point, we must allow wisdom to dictate our perspectives. With the insight of faith into the future, we need not get so troubled or impatient with the injustice found on earth. We brace ourselves against these waves of injustice and perhaps, like the psalmist suffer under them, but it’s only for a brief moment. The wicked’s oppressive ways, however, are terminal and abruptly end.
A Political Perspective for Christians
It’s good for Christians to seek justice and righteousness in their given societies, but we need to be careful. Not a few get caught up believing earthly philosophies like Marxism or Socialism will resolve the horrible injustices in our world. Don’t be fooled. Once power and wealth come to those seeking justice, they become victim to its enslaving mindset and end up oppressing others (i.e., working-class). Any earthly perspective, even wearing a robe of religion, is inhibited by their narrow earthly perspectives.
The genuine solution derives not from getting rid of those in power—as others will take their place. Instead, like the psalmist, meditate on God’s Word and secure that greater picture that rings out the eternal gospel in our minds and to the lost.
Jesus said that only He who comes from heaven knows what is at stake. “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (John 3:13). May our inner hope dwell on God’s excellent redemptive plan in Christ and live beyond what this world provides.
Psalm 49:16-20 A Conclusion
16 Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, When the glory of his house is increased; 17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away; His glory will not descend after him. 18 Though while he lives he congratulates himself—And though men praise you when you do well for yourself— 19 He shall go to the generation of his fathers; They will never see the light.
20 Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.” (Psalms 49:20)
The world snatches up the wicked in a whirlwind of expectation until too late. Then they realize their feet no longer touch the ground, leaving them in a precarious position before God’s judgment throne.
The psalmist comes to a bold conclusion, clearly demonstrating that his faith enables him to dismiss those haunting fears. He has already shown the character of his hope and faith in the Redeemer’s death and resurrection—He who overcomes death. As in Psalm 1, the psalmist here uses his last words to make a final assessment of the wicked.
Even the rich will take none of his riches with him. Yes, he will boast in his investments, “but he will carry nothing away” (17). He will boast of his accomplishments, “I did well for myself,” and others will agree, but “He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they will never see the light” (20).
Once the light of life is snuffed out, it never returns, even in part. He does not say, as other psalmists, that we should not envy the wicked and wealthy but instead shouts, “You don’t want what they have!” The sudden and surprising conclusion marks out their dark end.
In verse 20, the psalmist again uses the term “pomp,” which reminds us of the vastly extended bubble, not just arising in one or two nations but all around the world. It has not yet popped, and so the arrogant are proud, believing in their way to “improve” the world. They don’t genuinely care for the people, though their espoused philosophies suggest so. Whether they follow Mao, Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot, Green Age, etc., their earthly schemes fall far short, literally killing millions of people in various countries of the world.
Any country that sheds its faith falls victim to earthly philosophies that bring oppression and death. Pol Pot led 1.5-2 million Cambodians to death while Mao (40-80 million), Stalin (5-7 million), and Hitler (17 million). There are others, but no matter where we are in that huge bubble, we still need not fear—not if we put our trust in God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The wicked take nothing with them and face God without a Redeemer. Paul, though wrongly imprisoned, wonderfully announces the psalmist’s hope.
“According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil 1:20).
Bubbles will come and go, but they will finally burst. No matter where we are thrust about in our lives, as long as we have our hope fixed on our Redeemer and the life He gives us, we need not fear.
The scriptures speak of the most severe and oppressive bubble when the Antichrist sets his plan in motion. His deceitfulness, along with extreme maltreatment, will attempt to drain boldness from the strong and create fear. And though we are not strong, we have a greater vibrant hope in a greater, bigger eternal world.
The Antichrist is the false shepherd leading to death while our Good Shepherd has gone on before us (John 10:11), sacrificing His life and raised from the dead. Now alive, Jesus Christ will soon come again for His people. Our understanding of God’s redemption plan in Jesus Christ emboldens our inner faith, enabling us to be faithful to the end—just as our Master, and so we, too, will join Him in His life eternal.
Discussion Questions on Psalm 49 and Fear
- What is a bubble? What word used twice in this Psalm well-describes this bubble? (Hint: starts with ‘p.’)
- What defines the bubble’s extremes (2)?
- Where are you located in this extreme bubble?
- How is wealth connected to power and oppression?
- What is the psalmist’s question in verse 5? What is his answer?
- Why are verses 7-9 so important to both the psalmist’s hope and the judgment of the wicked?
- Explain the meaning of “That he should not undergo decay”in Psalm 49:9. Where is it quoted in the New Testament, and of what importance is it?
- Read verse 14 carefully. What is its meaning, and why is this verse so frightening?
- How does verse 15 elaborate the psalmist’s hope? Do you think it can equally apply to us? Explain.
10. Should we strive for justice and righteousness on earth? What precautions should we take from the psalmist?
11. Why does the earthly person’s hope pop? What is their end?
Check out Paul Bucknell’s book on redemption and its study book!
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