Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,

(Psalm 49:5)

This psalm is all about having the right type of fear. It’s a psalm that many of us can relate to under the current economic and political scene. Yet, fear in this psalm is more than mere worry, it is fear that one has when they face a life threatening situation. This fear is the opposite of the fear found in Proverbs 1:7. To better place this fear into context note the beginning of the psalm:

Hear this, all peoples!
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.

(Psalm 49:1-4)

The riddle here is the difference between life and death. The psalmist expresses that his heart shall have understanding and his mouth will speak wisdom. Which only can come from a proper fear placed in God. Additionally, it must be noted that this proclamation is a call to all people everywhere. This call is nearly identical to Micah’s prophetic warning: “Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it” (Micah 1:1). The psalm is a warning to every person on the earth. Fear is the result one has when they focus on what the psalmist calls the riddle. Daniel J. Estes rightly comments, “That is a fear that disorients one from the only fear that belongs to faith.”  You see, there are only two types of fear.  A disorienting fear distracts us from God; while a reverential fear allows God to guide our every step.

Just as the psalmist asks what value wealth has, he continues positing that the rich cannot buy their entrance into heaven and even they see “that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psalm 49:10). Notice the contrast concerning wealth: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly … But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah” (Psalm 49:7-8a, 15). The psalmist is referring to those who have misplaced their fear in God for that which surrounds them. They believe their wealth will protect them. However, wealth will not protect them; for the psalmist notes:

This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.

(Psalm 49:13-14)

The way of the righteous is diametrically opposed to the unrighteous. It is not having wealth which is the problem; placing your trust in it is. Furthermore, the contrast does not stop with mere words, but a powerful illustration accompanies it. A shepherd, but not one as found in Psalm 23. A shepherd which leads his sheep into sheol. Once again the question presents itself, asking the listener to consider which type of fear directs their life: a guided, reverential fear; or one focused on wealth and false security? Having stated all of this, the psalmist concludes reassuring us that wealth itself is not the problem; only trusting wealth is.

Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never again see light.

(Psalm 49:16-19)

Wealth cannot go with us into our eternal state. The only thing that we can pass on form generation to generation is our faith. Whether that is faith in riches, that is “the path who have foolish confidence” (v.13), or faith in God. Grace cannot be passed on from generation to generation (it is not hereditary); yet, leaving a model founded in a proper fear of God can be lived. Remember, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Similarly:

Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

(Psalm 49:20)


1. Daniel J. Estes, “Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 161 (2004), 56.