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Wisdom Literature and Death

February 25, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Acts 9–11 and Psalm 49.

The Psalms contain a remarkable breadth of material. They range from Messianic and Zionic songs to hymns of ovation and from laments to songs of Ascent. And they include, as here in Psalm 49, wisdom literature not so different from that which we find in Proverbs or Job or Ecclesiastes. Life is brief, these sons of Korah remind us, and when we come to the end of it, we can take nothing with us. No accumulated wealth, no pomp or prosperity, can pass death’s forbidding gates.

It is especially striking that this comes as part of the Psalmists’ answer to the question of how to respond to the apparent victories of cheaters and evildoers in the world around them. The very point that so perplexed the author of Ecclesiastes—that righteous and unrighteous men alike die when all is said and done—is here a point of comfort to the Psalmists. It is as if the same reality, understood differently, carries with it an entirely different meaning. And so it is. We have here one of the keys to understanding the way that the Scriptures teach us to think about the world in which we live. It is not only that the righteous and the unrighteous both die, coming sometimes without any judgment in this life to the end of their days and so passing away in seeming injustice. It is also that the injustice that they perpetrate does not and cannot endure forever; it will come to an end in the finality with which death greets all our doings.

Whether that end is a cause for despair or for hope comes down to a matter of wisdom. The fool looks and says, “The wicked prosper—I shall join them!” The seemingly wise person looks and says, “The wicked prosper—let us all despair!” The truly wise person looks and says, “The wicked prosper—but not forever!”

There are two notes that are all the more noteworthy in Psalm 49 for the way it otherwise fits into the context of ancient Israelite wisdom literature, and both relate to this same theme of coming death. In verses 7–9, and again in verse 15, there are words that cannot but make the attentive Christian reader think of things beyond the Old Testament’s vision of death. Verses 7–9 remind us:

Truly no man can ransom another,
    or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
    and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
    and never see the pit.

This, as I have noted, was a cause for hope for these songwriters, strange though that seems at first blush. But it also speaks to the reality we all face in a way that seemes aimed directly at the hope we see in some of the Prophets and brought fully to light in the New Testament. Someone did ransom men and gave to God the price of his life, paid fully the ransom that did suffice so we might live on forever and never see the pit. No man indeed could do this. But God himself could, and did. And the Psalmists seems to have seen this coming (verse 15):

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
    for he will receive me. Selah.

This is exactly what has happened to us all. God has ransomed our souls from the power of death, and he is the one who will receive us.