The Lie of Prosperity
There are many times in which one of the psalms seems to speak directly to us. There are psalms for the guilt-ridden and sorrowful, psalms for the proud and defiant, psalms for the joyful and psalms for the anxious. There is one psalm in particular which speaks to something so badly needed to be said in our world, one psalm that hits us “where it hurts”. Psalm 49 in the New American Standard Bible is entitled “The Folly of Trusting in Riches”, and from this psalm we will learn the badly-needed lesson of the true, pitiful potential of our money and the power it has.
“Why should I fear in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my foes surrounds me, even those who trust in their wealth, and boast in the abundance of their riches?” (Ps. 49.5-6)
The Psalmist asks in v.5 “why should I fear…”, precisely because that is what we are prone to do! We look at the rich around us, and the seeming infinite power they possess to change governments, influence those in positions of higher power than themselves, or drastically change the economic status of thousands of people with a single decision. When the likes of Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, or other hyper-wealthy individuals even flinch, everyone loses their collective cool and ponders how it will affect them. One must agree: There is only one person on Earth at any given time who is not as financially wealthy as someone else! We look around at those who possess financial power and we cater to their wishes. We emulate what they do in hopes of having what they have! Therein is the problem, and this is what Psalm 49 addresses.
Psalm 49 shows us the foolishness of being bewitched by the wealth of others. Notice that the subject at first is not the personal wealth of the writer! “Even those who boast in their wealth, and boast in the abundance of their riches.” (v.6) The psalm gets to the heart of the matter in v.7-9: “No man by any means can redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him- For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever- That he should live on eternally; that he should not undergo decay.” Our riches cannot save us from death. Our riches cannot save others from death. Nothing we possess on this earth can be given in exchange for our eternal souls. Jesus restates this fact in Mark 8.36: “For what can a man give in return for his soul?”
The problem is that our prosperity lies to us. Notice the lie that is told in v.11: “Their inner thought is that their houses are forever, and their dwelling places to all generations; They have called their lands after their own names.” We tend to believe that our wealth on this earth means that we are forever secure, confident no matter what the world can throw at us. This is foolish, v.10 notes that the wise, as well as the stupid and senseless “alike perish.” Keep in mind, one of Solomon’s greatest deductions found in Ecclesiastes is that all men die, whether they be rich or poor, wise or foolish.
What then are we to do? If our bodies eventually degrade and perish, and our wealth is of no benefit to us in preventing this from happening, what else is left? Psalm 49.15: “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for He will receive me.” It is God in which is found the only security, the only hope, and the only peace from the rat-race of trying to accumulate a higher pile of stuff than your neighbors. While we might affirm this while attending Bible classes and worship services, we need to practice this in our kitchens and living rooms! We know the old saying that “the fool and his money are soon parted” yet we refuse to recognize that all of us will part with these things when we die! “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return.” (Job 1.21a)
What shall we do, then, when others around us become rich and powerful? We know they will not carry it with them when they die, but what do we do about it before then? We act as if we belong here on this earth, and not in our heavenly home! Psalm 49 answers this question as well: “Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not descend after him. Though while he lives he congratulates himself, and though men praise you when you do well for yourself, he shall go down to the generation of this fathers; they shall never see the light.” (v. 16-19) Simply put, do not be afraid. What power do the wealthy have over your soul? Rather, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12.5)