In these verses we have,
I. A description of the spirit and way of worldly people, whose portion is in this life, Ps. 17:14. It is taken for granted that they have wealth, and a multitude of riches (Ps. 49:6), houses and lands of inheritance, which they call their own, Ps. 49:11. God often gives abundance of the good things of this world to bad men who live in contempt of him and rebellion against him, by which it appears that they are not the best things in themselves (for then God would give most of them to his best friends), and that they are not the best things for us, for then those would not have so much of them who, being marked for ruin, are to be ripened for it by their prosperity, Prov. 1:32. A man may have abundance of the wealth of this world and be made better by it, may thereby have his heart enlarged in love, and thankfulness, and obedience, and may do that good with it which will be fruit abounding to his account; and therefore it is not men’s having riches that denominates them worldly, but their setting their hearts upon them as the best things; and so these worldly people are here described. 1. They repose a confidence in their riches: They trust in their wealth (Ps. 49:6); they depend upon it as their portion and happiness, and expect that it will secure them from all evil and supply them with all good, and that they need nothing else, no, not God himself. Their gold is their hope (Job 31:24), and so it becomes their God. Thus our Saviour explains the difficulty of the salvation of rich people (Mark 10:24): How hard is it for those that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! See 1 Tim. 6:17. 2. They take a pride in their riches: They boast themselves in the multitude of them, as if they were sure tokens of God’s favour and certain proofs of their own ingenuity and industry (my might, and the power of my hand, have gotten me this wealth), as if they made them truly great and happy, and more really excellent than their neighbours. They boast that they have all they would have (Ps. 10:3) and can set all the world at defiance (I sit as a queen, and shall be a lady for ever); therefore they call their lands after their own names, hoping thereby to perpetuate their memory; and, if their lands do retain the names by which they called them, it is but a poor honour; but they often change their names when they change their owners. 3. They flatter themselves with an expectation of the perpetuity of their worldly possessions (Ps. 49:11): Their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever, and with this thought they please themselves. Are not all thoughts inward? Yes; but it intimates, (1.) That this thought is deeply rooted in their minds, is rolled and revolved there, and carefully lodged in the innermost recesses of their hearts. A godly man has thoughts of the world, but they are his outward thoughts; his inward thought is reserved for God and heavenly things: but a worldly man has only some floating foreign thoughts of the things of God, while his fixed thought, his inward thought, is about the world; that lies nearest his heart, and is upon the throne there. (2.) There it is industriously concealed. They cannot, for shame, say that they expect their houses to continue for ever, but inwardly they think so. If they cannot persuade themselves that they shall continue for ever, yet they are so foolish as to think their houses shall, and their dwelling-places; and suppose they should, what good will that do them when they shall be no longer theirs? But they will not; for the world passes away, and the fashion of it. All things are devoured by the teeth of time.
II. A demonstration of their folly herein. In general (Ps. 49:13), This their way is their folly. Note, The way of worldliness is a very foolish way: those that lay up their treasure on earth, and set their affections on things below, act contrary both to right reason and to their true interest. God himself pronounced him a fool who thought his goods were laid up for many years, and that they would be a portion for his soul, Luke 12:19, 20. And yet their posterity approve their sayings, agree with them in the same sentiments, say as t hey say and do as they do, and tread in the steps of their worldliness. Note, The love of the world is a disease that runs in the blood; men have it by kind, till the grace of God cures it. To prove the folly of carnal worldlings he shows,
1. That with all their wealth they cannot save the life of the dearest friend they have in the world, nor purchase a reprieve for him when he is under the arrest of death (Ps. 49:7-9): None of them can by any means redeem his brother, his brother worldling, who would give counter-security out of his own estate, if he would but be bail for him: and gladly he would, in hopes that he might do the same kindness for him another time. But their words will not be taken one for another, nor will one man’s estate be the ransom of another man’s life. God does not value it; it is of no account with him; and the true value of things is as they stand in his books. His justice will not accept it by way of commutation or equivalent. The Lord of our brother’s life is the Lord of our estate, and may take both if he please, without either difficulty to himself or wrong to us; and therefore one cannot be ransom for another. We cannot bribe death, that our brother should still live, much less that he should live for ever, in this world, nor bribe the grave, that he should not see corruption; for we must needs die, and return to the dust, and there is no discharge from that war. What folly is it to trust to that, and boast of that, which will not enable us so much as for one hour to respite the execution of the sentence of death upon a parent, a child, or friend that is to us as our own soul! It is certainly true that the redemption of the soul is precious and ceaseth for ever; that is, life, when it is going, cannot be arrested, and when it is gone it cannot be recalled, by any human art, or worldly price. But this looks further, to the eternal redemption which was to be wrought out by the Messiah, whom the Old-testament saints had an eye to as the Redeemer. Everlasting life is a jewel of too great a value to be purchased by the wealth of this world. We are not redeemed with corruptible things, such as silver and gold, 1 Pet. 1:18, 19. The learned Dr. Hammond applies the Ps. 49:8, 9 expressly to Christ: “The redemption of the soul shall be precious, shall be high-prized, it shall cost very dear; but, being once wrought, it shall cease for ever, it shall never need to be repeated, Heb. 9:25, 26; 10:12. And he (that is, the Redeemer) shall yet live for ever, and shall not see corruption; he shall rise again before he sees corruption, and then shall live for evermore,” Rev. 1:18. Christ did that for us which all the riches of the world could not do; well therefore may he be dearer to us than any worldly things. Christ did that for us which a brother, a friend, could not do for us, no, not one of the best estate or interest; and therefore those that love father or brother more than him are not worthy of him. This likewise shows the folly of worldly people, who sell their souls for that which would never buy them.
2. That with all their wealth they cannot secure themselves from the stroke of death. The worldling sees, and it vexes him to see it, that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, Ps. 49:10. Therefore he cannot but expect that it will, at length, come to his own turn; he cannot find any encouragement to hope that he himself shall continue for ever, and therefore foolishly comforts himself with this, that, though he shall not, his house shall. Some rich people are wise, they are politicians, but they cannot out-wit death, nor evade his stroke, with all their art and management; others are fools and brutish (Fortuna favet fatuis—Fools are Fortune’s favourites); these, though they do no good, yet perhaps do no great hurt in the world: but that shall not excuse them; they shall perish, and be taken away by death, as well as the wise that did mischief with their craft. Or by the wise and the foolish we may understand the godly and the wicked; the godly die, and their death is their deliverance; the wicked perish, and their death is their destruction; but, however, they leave their wealth to others. (1.) They cannot continue with it, nor will it serve to procure them a reprieve. That is a frivolous plea, though once it served a turn (Jer. 41:8), Slay us not, for we have treasures in the field. (2.) They cannot carry it away with them, but must leave it behind them. (3.) They cannot foresee who will enjoy it when they have left it; they must leave it to others, but to whom they know not, perhaps to a fool (Eccl. 2:19), perhaps to an enemy.
3. That, as their wealth will stand them in no stead in a dying hour, so neither will their honour (Ps. 49:12): Man, being in honour, abides not. We will suppose a man advanced to the highest pinnacle of preferment, as great and happy as the world can make him, man in splendour, man at his best estate, surrounded and supported with all the advantages he can desire; yet then he abides not. His honour does not continue; that is a fleeting shadow. He himself does not, he tarries not all night; this world is an inn, in which his stay is so short that he can scarcely be said to get a night’s lodging in it; so little rest is there in these things; he has but a baiting time. He is like the beasts that perish; that is, he must as certainly die as the beasts, and his death will be as final a period to his state in this world as theirs is; his dead body likewise will putrefy as theirs does; and (as Dr. Hammond observes) frequently the greatest honours and wealth, unjustly gotten by the parent, descend not to any one of his posterity (as the beasts, when they die, leave nothing behind them to their young ones, but the wide world to feed in), but fall into other hands immediately, for which he never designed to gather them.
4. That their condition on the other side of death will be very miserable. The world they dote upon will not only not save them from death, but will sink them so much the lower into hell (Ps. 49:14): Like sheep they are laid in the grave. Their prosperity did but feed them like sheep for the slaughter (Hos. 4:16), and then death comes, and shuts them up in the grave like fat sheep in a fold, to be brought forth to the day of wrath, Job 21:30. Multitudes of them, like flocks of sheep dead of some disease, are thrown into the grave, and there death shall feed on them, the second death, the worm that dies not, Job 24:20. Their own guilty consciences, like so many vultures, shall be continually preying upon them, with, Son, remember, Luke 16:25. Death insults and triumphs over them, as it is represented in the fall of the king of Babylon, at which hell from beneath is moved, Isa. 14:9-23 While a saint can ask proud Death, Where is thy sting? Death will ask the proud sinner, Where is thy wealth, thy pomp? and the more he was fattened with prosperity the more sweetly will death feed on him. And in the morning of the resurrection, when all that sleep in the dust shall awake (Dan. 12:2), the upright shall have dominion over them, shall not only be advanced to the highest dignity and honour when they are filled with everlasting shame and contempt, elevated to the highest heavens when they are sunk to the lowest hell, but they shall be assessors with Christ in passing judgment upon them, and shall applaud the justice of God in their ruin. When the rich man in hell begged that Lazarus might bring him a drop of water to cool his tongue he owned that that upright man had dominion over him, as the foolish virgins also owned the dominion of the wise, and that they lay much at their mercy, when the begged, Give us of your oil. Let this comfort us in reference to the oppressions which the upright are now often groaning under, and the dominion which the wicked have over them. The day is coming when the tables will be turned (Est. 9:1) and the upright will have the dominion. Let us now judge of things as they will appear at that day. But what will become of all the beauty of the wicked? Alas! that shall all be consumed in the grave from their dwelling; all that upon which they valued themselves, and for which others caressed and admired them, was adventitious and borrowed; it was paint and varnish, and they will rise in their own native deformity. The beauty of holiness is that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any damage to. Their beauty shall consume, the grave (or hell) being a habitation to every one of them; and what beauty can be there where there is nothing but the blackness of darkness for ever?