Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


"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."

This Psalm is not a prayer and is not praise. It is teaching, like the Wisdom writing of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The teacher here calls people of every race and nations to listen to his message (verse 1). It applies to rich and poor alike (verse 2). It is true "wisdom" and shows the way of "understanding" (verse 3). Our life here on earth does not last forever, and so there are three things we should realise and take seriously.

No one can avoid death

There is nothing that any of us can do for our dearest friends or loved ones, or indeed for ourselves, to prevent it when their time or our time has come to die. If we had all the money in the world "no price one can give to God" could buy off death, "that one should live on forever and never see the grave" (verses 7-9). Life and death are ultimately in the hands of God and no one else (see also 89:48).

Death comes to all

People speak of death as 'the great leveller', because we are all level or equal as we face death. Whether we are rich or poor, uneducated or highly educated, with great authority in the world or with no authority, we all must die. Verse 11 speaks of people who "had named lands after themselves" (New International Version), and we may think of great ones who have had streets or cities named after them. When they die, "their graves are their homes", and they have nothing more. In some countries like ancient Egypt powerful rulers have had buried with them riches and great quantities of food and drink along with their favourite wives and slaves - but to no purpose. In the fact that we all are "mortals" facing death, we are no different from other creatures, however great we think we are. So the refrain in verses 12 and 20 puts it, "Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish".

The difference for those who trust God

Although, until our Lord Jesus Christ breaks into human history again at his coming in glory, we all must die, yet there is a difference in the way that those who trust God face death. The psalmist, living before Christ's coming and his resurrection, was limited in the hope he had, yet he was given wise insight to pass on to others. Death takes by surprise those whose lives have been centred on themselves and their possessions. They may have become richer and richer in this life, but "when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them" (verse 17). They have thought only of their bodies and not their souls. Their bodies must go to the grave, and, as verse 14 puts it, "their form shall waste away". "Sheol" - the grave - " shall be their home".

But while no human person can ransom himself or herself or anyone else from the grave (verse 7), the psalmist can say, "God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol", and best of all, "he will receive me" (verse 15). The psalmist used the word that is used for God 'receiving' or 'taking' Enoch and Elijah to himself at the end of their lives on earth (Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:3), and it is the word used in Psalm 73:24, "You guide me with your instruction and at the end you will receive me with honour" (Good News Bible). It is like what Jesus said in answering the Sadducees who had no belief in resurrection. God had said, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", and "He is God not of the dead, but of the living" (Mark 12:26-27). That means that if we know that the Lord is our God, and that in Christ we are accepted by him, death does not have the last word. God receives us. Death is the door to life eternal in God's presence. The truth that Old Testament men and women saw only dimly is clear to us in Jesus Christ who has conquered death for us and risen from the grave. So we can conclude that we have much greater reason than the psalmist to say to ourselves, "Why should I fear in times of trouble?" (verse 5) And to others we can say, "Do not be afraid" when people seem rich and powerful in this life (verse 16). If our hand is in the hand of God, and if God's hand is on us, there is nothing in time or in eternity that we need fear.

Prayer: Lord, help us so to live our lives on earth trusting You and serving You, that, when your time for us comes, we will not be afraid to die.

For further thought and study

a. How does the New Testament add to the teaching of this Psalm about the impermanence of earthly possessions. See especially Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 12:13-21 and 16:19-31, and 1 Timothy 6:6-10 and 17.

b. The words "trust" and "boast" in verse 6 are usually used in the Old Testament of trust in God and boast in God. What things other than God are we tempted to trust in and to boast in?


  1. In this Psalm, especially in verses 8-9, 13-14 and 18, there are words in the original Hebrew that are difficult to translate. This accounts for differences in our various English translations, but the main point of what is written is quite clear.
  2. In verse 11 our translation "their graves are their homes for ever" follows some of the earliest translations from the Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible itself, with a small difference of two letters of a word, had what is put in the Authorised Version as "their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever".
  3. Our translation gives the refrain as the same in verses 12 and 20. There was a slight difference in the two verses in the Hebrew, so that the New International Bible has verse 12 as, "But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish", and verse 20 as, "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish."