Psalm 49 - The ransom of life is costly

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To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1) Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2) both low and high,
rich and poor together.
3) My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4) I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

5) Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6) those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7) Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
8) For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
9) that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.

10) When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
11) Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
12) Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

13) Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot.
Selah
14) Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
and their form shall waste away;
Sheol shall be their home.
15) But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me.
Selah

16) Do not be afraid when some become rich,
when the wealth of their houses increases.
17) For when they die they will carry nothing away;
their wealth will not go down after them.
18) Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy
—for you are praised when you do well for yourself—
19) they will go to the company of their ancestors,
who will never again see the light.
20) Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

Proper 13, Sunday between July 31 and August 6, Year C

Feeling mortal? Well, that is who we are.

This is one of the relatively infrequent places in the Hebrew Bible which seems to speak about what happens after death.

In the Hebrew Bible texts, we hear mostly of shadows, a world beyond the grave about which little is known, except that it is not a place of life.

In modern America, more than 7 out of 10 believe in a life after death. It is belief, since dependable evidence is lacking. Yet this life we have on earth is so real. We feel in our being this spirit or soul force, and perceive flowing throughout this world and its creatures. And so we desire, we hunger for, we hope for more. Can it be that the door simply closes and the light goes out?

The voice in this psalms declares otherwise. There is an end to those who are foolhardy, who fear not and trust not the Lord.
     Their graves are their homes forever...
     They are appointed for Sheol;
     Death shall be their shepherd;
     straight to the grave they descend,
     and their form shall waste away;
     Sheol shall be their home.

There is little doubt the believer is meant to hear this as a contrast to what happens when the Lord is your shepherd. With this good shepherd, you can walk through the darkest places, the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). Whether this is a dangerous place in this life, or the shades of Sheol, the faithful prayer and proclamation is that "Thou art with me, they rod and thy staff, they comfort (protect) me."

Lands, fortunes, status - you take none of them with you into the grave. There is no price you can give the Lord or pay to anyone else to live forever. While enemies can end your life, and good medical case might extend it, God rules over the whole domain. And God has priorities which are not in sync with human desires for "more stuff." God loves those who care for the earth and for those who inhabit it. God treats no thing as nothing - God's holiness affects how God views the world. And God values her living creation as imbued with a bit of godliness. God wants us to grow closer to him, not disappear into the dust.

Those who look to the Lord have solved the riddle of life to the tune of praise. They do not fear what is to come. Rather, they hope. They already know the good life, which is life with God.

We may not know with any certainty what is to come. But we can know the One we trust. This is what allows the faithful claim that "God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for the Lord will receive me."

Credits:
Spencer Means, The Angel Gabriel awakes the dead on Resurrection Day, medieval stained glass (Paris region, c.1200), Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Used by license (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Carlyle MNurphy. Most Americans believe in heaven … and hell, 10 Nov 2015, Pew Research Center. * New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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