But man, despite his
riches, does not endure;
he is like the beasts that
perish. … But God will
redeem my life from the
grave; he will surely take
me to himself."
—Psalm 49:12, 15
There is a way in which the king is like the lion, the dowager is like the dog, the Mafia boss is like the pit bull, and the farmer like the cow: they all die. They have that in common. But if the dowager, Mafia boss, or farmer dies with no more understanding than animals, then they are no better than the beasts of the field.
To know that after death there is life, after the darkness there is day—well, it changes your perspective. That insight, the psalmist says, can give you wisdom. It can give you understanding.
In literature (and television) a story is told a number of different ways. It is the story of a man who opens a newspaper and discovers the date on the newspaper is six months in advance of the time he lives.
He begins to read through the newspaper, and he discovers stories about events that have not yet taken place. He turns to the sports page, and there are scores of games not yet played. He turns to the financial page and discovers a report of the rise or fall of different stocks and bonds.
He realizes this can make him a wealthy man. A few large bets on an underdog team that he knows will win can make him wealthy. Investments in stocks that are now low but will rise high can fatten his portfolio. He is delighted.
He turns the page, comes to the obituary column and sees his picture and story. Everything changes. The knowledge of his death changes his view about his wealth.
In the monasteries of one order of Trappist monks, the monks dig a grave. Each day the monks go out to stand and look at the grave. When one of their number dies, he's put in the grave, and then a new grave is dug. They do it for perspective.
As unhealthy as that might seem to us, it is far more healthy than the way we deal with death in our culture. We avoid it. We disguise it. We talk about it in euphemisms. We go to the cemetery, and the brown dirt is covered by green Astroturf. But the recognition that we will die gives us a different perspective.
We die naked
Acknowledging death may give perspective, but it doesn't give much comfort. The unrighteous die, but so do the righteous. The atheist dies, but so does the Christian.
One clue to comfort can be found in Psalm 49. The psalmist restates the proverb in 49:12—man, though rich, "does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish"—at the end of the psalm, at verse 20: "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish" (NIV).
In the Hebrew text, verse 12 and verse 20 are identical except for one word. The word that is translated "endure" in verse 12 and the word that is translated "understanding" in verse 20 are virtually the same word except for one letter. Changing the letter changes the word, and changing the word alters the meaning: we are also like beasts if we go to death without understanding.
What is the understanding he has in mind? When life is over, it's not over. When the act is finished, the play goes on. And that cuts both ways.
It cuts one way for the wicked. The psalmist says in verses 13–14, "This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them." Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd." But in Psalm 49, death is a shepherd—a shepherd who leads a flock to the slaughterhouse and, after the flock is killed, eats the meat. And after he eats the meat, all that is left is bones. This is clear in the personification of death in the New Revised Standard Version, where "Death will feed on them" (NIV) is translated as "Death shall be their shepherd."
Death, then, is pictured as a grim shepherd. And for the wicked that is their end: death feeds on them.
That's why the psalmist says in verse 16, "Do not be overawed when a man grows rich and the splendor of his house increases; for he takes nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him."
When people die, they die naked. They do not take with them their wardrobe. They do not take with them their portfolio. They do not take with them their bank account. They do not take with them their splendor. And when a wealthy person dies, while we admired him when he lived, we do not envy him when he dies: "While he lived, he counted himself blessed—and men praise you when you prosper—he will join the generation of his fathers" (vv. 18–19).
Several years ago, H. L. Hunt, who was then the third-richest man in the world, died. His funeral took place in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Probably 2,000 people attended. But no one in that audience wanted to be the guest of honor at that funeral. While people envied H. L. Hunt in his life, nobody envied him in his death. He was gone. As the psalm says, "He will not see the light of life" (19).
The last phrase has a story behind it. People in ancient cultures would build large sepulchers, and when a person died, they would take the corpse, open the door of the tomb, go inside, and place the body on a ledge. Then they would close the door of the tomb.
The corpse would be in the darkness. The only time that changed was when someone else died, and for a moment the door opened while the new corpse was placed inside. Even though a shaft of light got into the tomb, those who were dead could not see it.
The wicked, the psalmist says, go into the darkness of the tomb, but they also go into the darkness of eternity. Those who live apart from God live in eternal darkness. They live apart from the light. That's part of the understanding: when life is over, it is not over. When the act is done, the play continues. They live in eternal darkness forever.
On the other hand, he says in verse 14, "The upright will rule over them in the morning," and in verse 15, "But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself." While the wicked are going out into the night of the soul, out into an eternal darkness, the righteous rule over them in the morning. In the Bible, out of the night comes the day. Out of the darkness there comes the light. For those who are righteous, ahead of them there is light.
"God will redeem my life from the grave. He will surely take me to himself," the psalmist says. Back in verse 8, he said there is no price a person can pay to be redeemed from death. There's no amount of money that will keep death from happening. But for the righteous, God can pay the ransom. God is able to deliver the righteous from death into eternal life.
When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, you are putting your trust in the God of resurrection. "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is God and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved," Paul wrote to the Romans (10:9). What is significant about believing that Jesus rose from the dead is trusting that more than 1,900 years ago Jesus came forth from the grave and was a victor over death and darkness. The promise is that what happened to him will happen to us.
To have faith in the God of resurrection is to believe that when we die, out of the darkness of the night we go to the morning. It is to realize that God can pay the ransom, and he will take us home to be with himself.
And that understanding changes everything. For the believer in Jesus Christ, for the righteous person, we do not go out into death and into darkness. Instead, we go home to God.
Haddon Robinson is senior editor of PreachingToday.com and Harold Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is the author of Biblical Preaching.
This biography of Haddon Robinson includes links to all schools he has attended and ministries and boards he is associated with.
Robinson is involved in two radio ministries: Discover the Word and Our Daily Bread.
If you have RealPlayer, you can listen to some of Robinson's lectures on Culture and Ministry at Bethel Seminary.
Robinson's paper " Evangelicals Believe in Preaching" was originally part of a panel address at the Boston Theological Institute
Robinson is senior editor of Christianity Today's PreachingToday.com.
Robinson did an interview with CT's sister magazine, Leadership, on how to keep errors from creeping into Scripture application.
Robinson also contributed to the CT Classic "Sex, Marriage, and Divorce."
Robinson has authored many books, including Biblical Preaching,Biblical Sermons, What Jesus Said About Successful Living, and Decision-Making by the Book.
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