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Commentary On Psalms Volume 2 by Jean Calvin

Psalm 49:5-9

5. Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil? the iniquity of my heel shall compass me about.6. They trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches.7. The brother shall not be able to redeem, [literally, shall not redeem by redeeming;] none shall give to God the price of his redemption.8. And the redemption of their soul shall be precious, and their continuance for ever.9. That he should still live for ever, and not see the grave.

5. Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil? The Psalmist now enters upon the point on which he proposed to discourse, That the people of God must not yield to despondency even in the most distressing circumstances, when their enemies may seem to have enclosed them on every side, but must rest assured that God, although he connives for a time, is awake to their condition, and only watches the best opportunity of executing his judgments. This manner of introducing the subject by interrogation is much more emphatic than if he had simply asserted his resolution to preserve his mind undisturbed in the midst of adversity. In the second clause of the verse he particularises the heaviest and most bitter of all afflictions, those which are experienced by the righteous when their enemies triumph in the unrestrained indulgence of their wickedness. When, the adverb of time, must therefore be understood -- When the iniquity of my heel shall compass me about There is a different meaning which some interpreters have attached to the words, namely, If I should fear in the days of evil, and be guilty of the excessive anxieties of the unbeliever, -- in that case, when the hour of my death came, my iniquity would compass me about. The heel they take to be the end of life. But this interpretation is to be dismissed at once as most unnatural. Nor do I see what reason others have for referring this word to the thoughts, for I believe that in no other part of Scripture can such a metaphor or similitude be found. Others, with more plausibility, have rendered the original word liers in wait, because the Hebrew verb qv, akab, signifies to deceive; and they consider the Psalmist as intimating, that he would not fear though crafty and treacherous men laid snares for him. In my opinion, there is no figure intended; and he means to say, that he would have no fear when his enemies surrounded him, and in pursuing him, trode, as it were, upon his heel. The French have a similar expression, |Poursuyvre jusques aux talons.| I agree with them, that he speaks of enemies, but it is of their wicked persecution as they press upon him in the height of their power, and with design to destroy him, keep themselves near him, and tread, so to speak, upon his very heel.

6. They trust in their wealth. We are now furnished with the reason why the suffering children of God should dismiss their apprehensions, and keep themselves from despondency, even when reduced to extremity by the violence and treachery of their enemies. Any boasted power which they possess is fleeting and evanescent. The Psalmist would convince us that the fear of man is unwarrantable; that it argues ignorance of what man is even at his best; and that it were as reasonable to startle at a shadow or a spectre. They boast themselves, he adds, in the multitude of their riches, and this is an error into which we are disposed to fall, forgetting that the condition of man in this world is fluctuating and transitory. It is not merely from the intrinsic insufficiency of wealth, honors, or pleasures, to confer true happiness, that the Psalmist proves the misery of worldly men, but from their manifest and total incapacity of forming a correct judgment of such possessions. Happiness is connected with the state of mind of that man who enjoys it, and none would call those happy who are sunk in stupidity and security, and are destitute of understanding. The Psalmist satisfactorily proves the infatuation of the wicked from the confidence which they place in their power and wealth, and their disposition to boast of them. It is a convincing sign of folly when one cannot discern what is before his eyes. Not a day passes without forcing the plain fact upon their notice, that none can redeem the life of another; so that their conduct is nothing less than insanity. Some read, A man shall not be able to redeem his brother; which amounts to the same meaning, and the text admits of this translation. The Hebrew word 'ch, ach, which I have rendered brother, is by others translated one; but I do not approve, although I would not absolutely reject, this reading. The Psalmist adds, that none can give a price to God for the ransom of another, where he adverts to the truth that men's lives are absolutely at the disposal of God, and that they never can be extended by any human arrangement one moment beyond the period which God has fixed.

He enforces the same lesson in the verse which follows, where he states that the redemption of their soul is precious, an expression not to be understood as implying merely that it is an event of rare occurrence, but that it never can take place, as 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord is said to have been precious under the priesthood of Eli, when it is evidently meant that it had ceased altogether. The Psalmist would assert that no man can hope to purchase an immortality either for himself or others in this world. I have rendered the close of verse 8, And their continuance for ever; but others, who construe the Hebrew word chdl, chadal, as a verb, meaning to cease, read, And ceaseth for ever, as if the Psalmist meant that no price was sufficiently great to answer the purpose, and that it must therefore cease for ever, as what could never obtain the end desired. I consider that which I have given to be the real meaning of the word, having had occasion already to observe upon Psalm 39:5, that it signifies the fixed term of human life. The words in verse 9, That he should still live for ever, more fully express the truth, that it is not merely impossible to redeem the life of men when they are dead, but impossible while they are yet living, to extend the term of their existence. A definite limit has been assigned to every man's life. This he cannot pass over, and the Psalmist would impress the fact upon us as one which stamps folly upon the conduct of the wicked, who will cherish their unfounded confidence even at the moment when they are upon the brink of the grave. In all this, it may strike the reader that he has not announced any thing which merits being called a dark saying, and has rather been treating a popular subject in a very plain style of language; but if he consider that David here condemns, as by a voice issuing from the awful judgment-seat of God, the stupidity of such as forget that they are men, he will not be disposed to reckon the expression inapplicable. Again, we have seen that he has opened his dark saying, it being the divine will that instruction should be delivered in a form adapted to the meanest capacity.

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