Psalm 49

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.

(Psalm 49:1-3 ESV)

It’s rare to find a psalm full of proverbs, but Psalm 49 is a notable exception.  Usually classified as a “wisdom psalm,” this song offers an unflattering but realistic perspective on human life and death.  Twice, in verses 12 and 20, the psalmist reminds us that man without understanding is “like the beasts that perish.”  For those who trust in the vanity of riches, the text paints a sadly bleak outlook.  But Psalm 49 doesn’t leave the believer without hope; instead, the writer confidently asserts, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol [the grave], for he will receive me” (v. 15).  So “why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?”  The Christian rests in the comfort that, regardless of his earthly standing, God is his ultimate Judge and Protector.

90, “Hear This, All Ye People, Hear”

A single setting of Psalm 49 is included in the blue Psalter Hymnal, but it is split up between two different selections.  The first nine verses are taken up in number 90, “Hear This, All Ye People, Hear.”  A quick comparison between the KJV and the ESV shows that the text of this setting closely matches the older KJV, but has a few slight differences with the ESV.  Nevertheless, the words are Biblically sound and easy to understand (with the possible exception of “lyric strain” in v. 2).

The tune, FISK, has a suitably haunting melody line.  Though the frequent melismas (single syllables held over multiple notes) could confuse unfamiliar singers, the tune should be easy to learn.  If your congregation can’t reach that high F in the second line (and who would blame them?), you can easily drop the key to E-flat instead.

91, “Dust to Dust, the Mortal Dies”

Continuing the remaining eleven verses of Psalm 49, this selection is Scripturally sound, just like number 90.  Again, there are a few minor differences between the ESV and this setting, but these are apparently just the result of alternate translations from the Hebrew.  For instance, the second half of the first stanza contains the idea that “within their heart they say/That their houses are for aye.”  This same idea appears in the King James Version, but in the ESV this passage is rendered instead as “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations.”  A few little discrepancies like these exist, but none harm the central theme of the psalm.  And while the phrases at the very beginning and end of this selection—“Dust to dust” and “Highly gifted, strong, and free”—are not found in the original text, they provide a very fitting envelope to the song.

The only challenge to the tune, WATCHMAN, is to find the right tempo.  Play too slowly, and the musical lines become shapeless and boring; play too quickly, on the other hand, and you’re left with a spunky little jig that doesn’t fit the weighty subject matter of the psalm at all.  I’ve found that a tempo of 60 bpm to the dotted-half-note seems to flow well.

While these two songs are more philosophical than worshipful, their message is often a much-needed reminder for us.  Psalm 49 comes to my mind day after day as I see the world’s constant accumulation of wealth.  It is all too easy to forget that though “within their heart they say/That their houses are for aye,” before long all the world’s beauty will, indeed, turn to dust.  But then, like the psalmist in vv. 14-17, I am also reminded of the Christian’s eternal, imperishable comfort in our God and Savior.

Crowned with honor though he be,
Highly gifted, strong and free,
If he be not truly wise,
Man is like the beast that dies.


3 Responses to “Psalm 49”

  1. 1 Reita Julien March 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

    I was thinking of you on Sun. AM when our congregation was singing Blue Psalter # 105, Psalm 65. Wish you could have heard them. WOW!

    • 2 Michael Kearney March 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      Thanks! I would have loved to. I’ve always particularly liked the settings of Psalm 65, especially when we sing “Praise Waits for Thee in Zion.” The Dordt music department had an excellent rendition of “Forth from Thy Courts” on their “Be Thou Exalted, Lord” album. Have you heard it?


  1. 1 Lord’s Day 5: By Ourselves or by Another « URC Psalmody Trackback on January 30, 2013 at 7:00 am

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