BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 161 (January-March 2004): 55-71

         Copyright © 2004 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    



              POETIC ARTISTRY


                            IN PSALM 49



                                            Daniel J. Estes




expression of emotions. The Psalter evidences the full range

of feelings, from the most tender to the most turgid senti-

ments experienced by humans. One recurrent emotion in the

psalms is fear. Most frequently the object of fear is God, as His

worshipers demonstrate respect for Him, as in Psalm 115:11: "'You

who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their

shield." It is not, however, unusual for the object of fear to be hu-

man or impersonal enemies, as in Psalm 56:2-5 (English, 1-4).1

"Be gracious to me, O God, for man has trampled upon me; fighting

all day long he oppresses me. My foes have trampled upon me all

day long, for they are many who fight proudly against me. When I

am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise,

in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere

man do to me?"

Psalm 49 offers an instructive case for analyzing the expres-

sion of the emotion of fear in the Psalms. After his initial proclama-

tion addressed to all of humanity in verses 2-5, the psalmist asked

a rhetorical question in verses 6-7 that sets forth the problem:

"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?"

This question "communicates a real situation of distress; it

introduces us to the fearful perplexity of those who are helplessly



Daniel J. Estes is Associate Academic Vice President and Professor of Bible, Ce-

darville University, Cedarville, Ohio.


1 Numeration of verses is based on the Hebrew text, even when the text is quoted

in English translation.

56 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


at the mercy of the rich and powerful."2 In verses 8-16 the psalmist

probed this problem, and by this means exposed its logical and

theological flaws. His conclusion (vv. 17-21) begins with the prohi-

bition, "Do not be afraid," in verse 17, which provides a corrective        

balance to "Why should I fear?" in verse 6.

There are numerous Hebrew terms for fear,3 but the two uses

in Psalm 49 are both verbal forms of xry. The semantic range of xry

includes nuances such as "to be terrified," "to fear," "to respect,"

and "to worship." In discussing the aspects of fear encompassed by

this term, van Pelt and Kaiser state, "Terror and worship are, in

some sense, polar opposites; the former is characteristic of com-

plete anxiety while the latter suggests trust. The aspect of respect,

however, can be either a weakened sense of fear or worship. There-

fore, the concept of terror can be weakened to express respect,

which can once again be intensified to express worship. Only by

context can the particular sense of each occurrence be deter-

mined 4 Fuhs concludes, "The content of the verb is varied by con-

text-sensitive classificators in such a way as to cover the entire se-

mantic range in all its variety, from alarm in the face of everyday

threats through fear of numinous powers to fear of God."5

In Psalm 49 the psalmist focused on the aspect of xry that re-

lates to fear in the face of a threatening situation in life. "He

speaks of a fear that is a deep apprehensive anxiety about the

meaning and destiny of life, a worry in the face of the faith of the

rich in their wealth that one has failed and missed it all. That is a

fear that disorients one from the only fear that belongs to faith, the

fear of the LORD (Prov. 1:7)."6 Recent psychological analyses of

emotions have elucidated the dynamics inherent in fear. Although

caution must be exercised lest contemporary scholarship attribute

anachronistic insights to the psalmist, such research can be useful

for enhancing the interpreter's appreciation of the psalmist's sense

of fear. Berkowitz states that "fear is typically associated with a


2 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary, trans. Hilton C.

Oswald (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978), 482.

3 H. F. Fuhs, xreyA in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johan-

nes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1990), 293-95.

4 M. V. van Pelt and W. C. Kaiser, “xry,“ in New International Dictionary of Old

Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zon-

dervan, 1997), 2:528.

5 Fuhs, ”xreyA” 295.

6 James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 192.

                        Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 57


relatively predominant avoidance tendency, an urge to get away

from the perceived danger," and he contrasts this impulse with an-

ger, which "is usually linked to an urge to approach and strike at

some target."7 Similarly Izard and Youngstrom note, `Because of

the potency of fear feeling, the motivation to escape or to reduce

threat dominates all functional systems. Any emotion feeling tends

to bias perception. Intense fear feeling exercises such tight; control

over information processing that it tends to eliminate all parts of

the perceptual field that hold no promise of an escape route.” 8

As Ben-Ze'ev explains, the emotional object of fear can be a

certain situation (e.g., "I am afraid of the dark") or of a person (e.g.,

"I am afraid of this violent person") or of oneself (e.g., "I am afraid

of losing my reputation"). In each of these cases fear prompts one to

avoid the perceived threat. Fear, then, causes a person to try to flee

from a situation that threatens his or her feeling of security or

well-being.9 In Psalm. 49 the psalmist endeavored to untie the tan-

gled thoughts and feelings that fear produces by expressing, or

opening up by explanation, the riddle (hdAyHi) of the relationship be-

tween life and death.10

Psalm 49 has been examined frequently in terms of its philol-

ogy,11 theology,12 and provenance.13 What have not often been


7 Leonard Berkowitz, Cause and Consequences of Feelings (Cambridge: Cam-

bridge University Press, 2000), 190.

8 Carroll E. Izard and :Eric A. Youngstrom, "The Activation and Regulation of

Fear and Anxiety," in Perspectives on Anxiety, Panic, and Fear, ed. Debra A. Hope

(Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 12.

9 Aaron Ben Ze'ev, The Subtlety of Emotions (Cambridge: MIT, 2000), 480.

10 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word,

1983), 359.

11 Mitchell Dahood characteristically suggests new meanings of the Hebrew terms

by appealing to potential parallels in Ugaritic (Psalms 1-50, Anchor Bible [Garden

City, NY: Doubleday, 19651, 295-303).

12 Of particular theological interest to interpreters has been the possible reference

to resurrection and immortality in verse 16. See, for example, T. D. Alexander, "The

Psalms and the After Life," Irish Biblical Studies 9 (1987): 2-17; Philip S. Johnston,

"Psalm 49: A Personal Eschatology," in Eschatology in Bible and Theology, ed. Kent

E. Brower and Mark W. Elliott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 73-84; J.

Lindblom, "Die 'Eschatologie' des 49. Psalms," Horae Soederblomianae 1 (1944):

21-27; Leonard Ramaroson, "Immortality et Resurrection dans les Psaumes," Sci-

ence et Esprit 36 (1984): 287-95; and Markus Witte, "'Aber Gott wird meine Seele

erlosen'-Tod and Leben each Psalm XLIX," Vetus Testamentum 50 (2000): 540-60.

Additional bibliographic references to theological studies of Psalm 49 are listed in J.

David Pleins, "Death and Endurance: Reassessing the Literary Structure and The-

ology of Psalm 49," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 69 (1996): 246 n 6.

13 Pierre Casetti, Gibt es ein Leben vor dem Tod? Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis (Got-

58 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004          


studied, however, are the rhetorical techniques by which the

psalmist expressed and overcame his feelings of fear. "The fact that

the psalms are artistic means that they display in fuller measure

and with greater frequency the components of artistic form, in-

cluding patterns, design, unity, balance, harmony, and variation.

The psalmists were imaginative and creative; they regarded their

artistry as crucial to the meaning of its content."14 Unfortunately,         

as Miller laments, poetic analysis has only rarely been reflected in

commentaries on the Psalms.         


To date, stylistic analysis often stands by itself without engaging

other issues of interpretation. But it is also the case that interpreters

of the psalms whose attention is particularly given over to form-

critical exegesis or to theological, liturgical, and pastoral dimensions

of interpretation, have tended on the whole to ignore stylistic aspects

as features of the text's expression. No modern commentary in Eng-

lish reflects any serious concentration on matters of style. The full

hearing of the psalms will be greatly enhanced when the familiar

tendency to abstract content from form or to empty form of its content

is overcome. To know the psalms are poetic is not to forget that they

are Scripture. To read and hear them as Scripture requires that one

receive them also as poetry.15


This article seeks to remedy a deficiency in the scholarly lit-

erature by analyzing some of the salient features in the literary

artistry of Psalm 49, including the psalmist's use of repetition, in-

terlocking semantic fields, lexical exploitation, and sound play,

which are essential elements in the thematic development of the

psalm. By this means the content and the form of Psalm 49 will be

viewed as integrated components in an exquisitely crafted text 16



The Hebrew text of Psalm 49 is replete with repetitions, for the

psalmist used at least twenty-eight terms numerous times. Among

the exact repetitions are MdAxA (vv. 3, 13, 21), wyxi (vv. 3, 8, 17), dHaya

(vv. 3, 11), Myhilox< ( vv. 8, 16),  (vv. 9, 13, 21), and MlAOf (vv. 9, 12).

In addition the clause Umd;ni tOmheB;Ka lwam;ni is used to close the two major


tingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982); and Michael D. Goulder, The Psalms of the

Sons of Korah, JSOT Supplement Series 20 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1982), 181-95.

14 Allen P. Ross, "Psalms," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament,

ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 780.

15Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 17.

16 The approach taken in this article has been anticipated in part by F. de Meyer,

"The Science of Literature Method of Prof. M. Weiss in Confrontation with Form

Criticism, Exemplified on the Basis of Ps. 49," Bijdragen 41 (1979): 152-68.

                        Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49   59

sections of the psalm in verses 13 and 21.17 These repeated expres-

sions signal the focus of the psalm on the tension between posses-

sions and perpetuity as humans stand before God.

Many other instances of repetition include subtle variations

that are not always apparent in translation. For example the

psalm begins in verse 2 with a universal call, "Hear this [txzo], all

peoples," and then verse 14 picks up the demonstrative pronoun

again: "This [hz,] is the way of those who are foolish." Also in verse

2, the psalmist urged his hearers, "Give ear [UnyzixEha], all inhabitants

of the world," and then in verse 5 he acknowledged that he himself

was giving ear to wisdom: "I will incline my ear [yniz;xA] to a proverb."

By the repetition of the verbal root Nzx, he indicated that the mes-

sage he was communicating derived from proverbial wisdom, that

is, from the divine order built into the creation.

            Several times combinations of nominal, adjectival, and verbal

forms of a single root are used to reinforce a motif. This technique

is demonstrated by rwf, 'which appears as rywifA (v. 3), MrAw;fA (v. 7),

and rwifEya (v. 17). Similar examples include the following: tOmk;HA (v. 4)

and MymikAHE (v. 11); tOnUbT; (v.4) and NybiyA (v.21); bro, (v.7) and hB,r;yi  (v.17);

hD,p;yi hdopA (v. 8), NOyd;Pi (v. 9), and hD,p;yi; (v. 16); yHiyvi (v. 10) and vyyA.HaB; (v. 19);

UtUmyA (v. 11), tv,mA (v. 15), and OtOmB;  (v. 18); and (v. 11) and ls,Ke (v. 14).

            Another form of repetition occurs when a noun is combined

with different objects or pronominal suffixes, and/or with different

introductory prepositions, as in yPi (v. 4) and Mh,ypiB; (v. 14). This fea-

ture is also evidenced in these examples: MwAp;na (v. 9), ywip;na (v. 16), and

Owp;na (v. 19); Hxan,lA dOf (v. 10) and Hcane-dfa (v. 20); MyriHexEla (v. 11), Mh,yreHExa

(v. 14), and vyrAHExa (v. 18); lOxw;li ( v. 15), lOxw; tOl.bal; (v. 15), and lOxw;-dy.ami

(v. 16); yniHeq.Ayi (v. 16) and hq.ayi (v. 18); OtyBe dObK; (v. 17) and OdObK; (v. 18).

            Twice the psalmist combined repetition with negation. This

literary technique produces a particularly powerful contrast when

the psalmist's rhetorical question in verse 6, "Why should I fear

[xrAyxi]?" is answered by the prohibition in verse 17, "Do not be


17 Paul R. Raabe argues cogently that the repetition of Umd;ni: in verses 13 and 21

actually includes a significant example of deliberate ambiguity. "This is a classic

example of antanaclasis, where a word is repeated with a shift of meaning. In v. 13

the verb vmdn is paired with Nyly lb ('does not survive the night'). Therefore one takes

it as the niphal of hmd II (or III?), which sometimes is glossed ‘to be destroyed, per-

ish.’ In v. 21, a refrain with v. 13, one at first assumes the same meaning. But upon

closer examination, the reader sees that its parallel has changed to ‘without under-

standing.’ That makes the nuance ‘to be dumb, speechless,’ which is possible four the

niphal of hmd II, more appropriate. Humans in their pride and wealth are like cattle

that are slaughtered and that are speechless and stupid" ("Deliberate Ambiguity in

the Psalter," Journal of Biblical Literature 110 [1991]: 216).

60 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


afraid (xrAyTi-lxa]." In the three uses of hxr, the psalmist began with

the negative "he should not undergo (hx,r;yi xlo lit., ‘should not see’]

decay" (v. 10), then used the affirmative "he sees [hx,r;yi] that even

wise men die" (v. 11), and finally returned to the negative "they

will never see [Uxr;yi xlo] the light" (v. 20).

            The two remaining uses of repetition feature a change from the

plural to the singular. In verse 12 wealthy fools think that "their

houses [OmyTeBA] are forever," but the psalmist urged his readers not

to fear when the glory of the rich man's house [OtyBe] is increased (v.

17). By this means the author subtly signaled a diminution in the

possessions of the wealthy people who caused him to feel intimi-

dated. This parallels the argument of the psalmist that the afflu-

ence of those who are foolish, when seen from the viewpoint of wis-

dom, is in reality not nearly the threat that it appears at first. In

the same way those who suppose that their dwelling places will

continue "to all generations [rdovA rdol;]”(v. 12) are subsequently de-

picted in individual terms, as one who will "go to the generation

[rOD] of his fathers" (v. 20). The wealthy will not be able to secure

future perpetual success, and they also will have to assume their

place with their ancestors in death. Instead of enjoying perpetual

prosperity, they will be consigned to the same unenviable fate as

their predecessors.

            In Psalm 49 the extensive use of lexical repetition with a num-

ber of variations serves to reinforce the psalmist's major points of

emphasis and to introduce significant developments in his mes-

sage. It is important to note that of the twenty-eight repeated roots

in the Hebrew text in this psalm, only fifteen are reproduced in the

New American Standard Bible, which is one of the most literal

biblical translations. To appropriate fully both the psalmist's liter-

ary artistry and the message he is communicating through that

poetic medium, it is necessary to analyze the Hebrew text. As

Psalm 49 demonstrates, sound is notoriously difficult to translate,

so without recourse to the author's original language much of his

poetic brilliance and thematic content is obscured.


                                      SEMANTIC FIELDS


In addition to his extensive use of repetition in Psalm 49 the

psalmist also drew deeply from six semantic fields that manifest

significant interconnections. The largest semantic field includes

terms referring to wealth or commercial transactions, and it is rep-

resented in thirteen out of the twenty verses of the psalm. This 

concentration of references demonstrates that wealth is the key

motif of the psalm.

                      Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 61

            "Rich and poor [NOybx,v; rywifA] together" (v. 3). "Even those who trust

in their wealth [MLAyHe] and boast in the abundance of their riches

[MrAw;fA brob;]" (v. 7). "No man can by any means redeem [hD,p;yi hdopA-xlo]

his brother, or give to God a ransom [Orp;KA] for him" (v. 8). "For the

redemption [NOyd;Pi] of his soul is costly [rqaye] (v. 9a). "And leave their

wealth [MlAyHe] to others" (v. 11). "Their inner thought is that their

houses [OmyTeBA] are forever and their dwelling places [MtAnoK;w;mi] to all

generations; they have called their lands [tOmdAxE] after their own

names" (v. 12). "But man in his pomp [rqAyBi] will not endure" (v. 13).

"So that they have no habitation [Ol lbuz;.mi]"18 (v. 15). "But God will

redeem [hD,p;yi] my soul from the power of Sheol" (v. 16). "Do not be

afraid when a man becomes rich [rwifEya], when the glory of his house

is increased [OtyBe dObK; hB,r;yi]" (v. 17). "His glory [OdObK;] will not de-

scend after him" (v. 18). "'And though men praise you when you do

well [byFiyte] for yourself (v. 19).

            These references to wealth yield several principles. (1) Finan-

cial wealth is valued by humans (v. 19), and those who are wealthy

may place undue confidence in their affluence (v. 7). (2) Even

though humans are often divided along economic lines into the rich

and the poor (v. 3), with the result that the wealthy use their

power to intimidate those with modest means,19 in fact all people

are united in a common humanity (vv. 2-3). (3) The wealth that

some enjoy should not cause those who do not have it to feel fearful

(v. 17), because it is only a temporary possession that cannot sur-

vive death (vv. 11-13, 15, 18). (4) Wealth is inadequate to redeem a person

from death (vv. 8-9), for redemption is solely a divine prerogative (v. 16).

            A second prominent semantic field encompasses terms refer-

ring to wisdom, which are contrasted to terms relating to folly. In

his introductory call the psalmist took the role of the wisdom

teacher. Employing language that is familiar from its frequent us-

age in Proverbs, he wrote in verses 4-5, "My mouth will speak wis-

dom [tOmk;HA], and the meditation of my heart will be understanding

[tOnUbt;]. I will incline my ear to a proverb [lwAmA]; I will express my


18 Pierre Bordreuil argues that zebul refers to a Ugaritic deity and that the prepo-

sition Nm should be rendered as an interrogative pronoun ("Mizzebul Lo: A Propos de

Psaume 49:15," in Ascribe to the Lord, ed. Lyle Eslinger and Glen Taylor, JSOT

Supplement Series 67 [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 19881, 98). His changes to the

customary interpretation of the term seem unwarranted, because "habitation" fits

so well the psalmist's concentration of words referring to material wealth.

19 Kraus comments, "The question introduced by hml communicates a real situa-

tion of distress; it introduces us to the fearful perplexity of those who are helplessly

at the mercy of the rich and ;powerful. The singer himself has experienced this

situation" (Psalms 1-59, 482).

62 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


riddle [ytidAyHi]20 on the harp." In verse 11 the antithetical groups of

wise men (MymikAHE) and the stupid and senseless (rfabavA lysiK;) are seen

together in view of their common fate of death. The term (ls,Ke) in

verse 14 is a general description of those who are foolish in pre-

suming that their wealth can surmount the eventuality of death

(cf. vv. 11-13). It is especially significant that the final climactic

'verse of the psalm states, "Man in his pomp, yet without under-

standing [NybiyA xlo], is like the beasts that perish" (v. 21). This con-

cluding assessment brings the psalm back to the opening resolu-

tion in verse 4, in which the meditation of the psalmist's heart will

be understanding (tOnUbt;). As Pleins reasons, "The shift to yabin in

verse 21 functions to underscore the critical insight that it is wis-

dom, not wealth, that ought to command our listening and our si-

lence before God.... It is a lesson which the wise will heed and the

foolish ignore to their peril when death threatens."21

            The semantic field of wisdom and folly is clearly linked to the

themes of wealth and death.22 Those who fix their hopes on their

material wealth are foolish, because they cannot survive death

with their wealth intact. On the other hand the psalm promotes

the attitude of wisdom, which views the presence or absence of

temporal wealth in the light of mortality.

            A third group of related terms in Psalm 49 focuses on human-

ity as a single entity that transcends individual differences based

on financial status. In the opening verse the psalmist addressed all

humans in two parallel expressions: "Hear this, all peoples

[MymiifahA-lKA]; give ear, all inhabitants of the world [dl,HA ybew;yo-lKA]" (v. 2).


20 Leo G. Perdue argues that "Psalm 49 is an elaborate answer to a riddle residing

within the psalm itself, and upon which the literary structure of the psalm has been

built" by endeavoring to draw parallels to Judges 14:14 and 18 and ancient Near

Eastern hero stories" ("The Riddles of Psalm 49," Journal of Biblical Literature 93

[1974]: 533). Perdue conjectures that the riddle is found in verse 21, and its answer

is given in verse 13. A better analysis of the riddle in Psalm 49 is given by Johnston,

who explains that the riddle of the oppression of the pious by the wealthy is pre-

sented in verses 6-7, and then the remainder of the psalm answers the riddle in

terms of death and resurrection ("Psalm 49: A Personal Eschatology," 74-78).

21 Pleins, "Death and Endurance: Reassessing the Literary Structure and Theology

of Psalm 49," 26-27.

22 John Goldingay says insightfully, "Because the Psalms are concerned with life,

they [are-] concerned with death also-for there can be no satisfying understanding

of the meaning of life which has not grappled with the meaning of death. Psalm 49

approaches the question from a particular theological perspective (one not otherwise

widely represented in the Psalter), that of the Wisdom tradition in Israel.... Like

Job and Ecclesiastes, it takes up basic questions about the meaning of human life in

the context of experiences which suggest that in reality there is no meaning" (Songs

from a Strange Land, The Bible Speaks Today [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,

1978], 132-33).

                           Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 63

To make specific his point that all humans are being considered

together, he continues by calling to "both low and high, rich and

poor together [NOyb;x,v; rywifA dHaya wyxi-yneB;-MGa MdAxA yneB;-MGa]" to listen to the

wisdom that he is speaking.23 This emphasis on humanity as a sin-

gle category was reinforced when the psalmist wrote, "No man [wyxi]

can by any means redeem his brother" (v. 8), and when he reas-

sured his readers, "Do not be afraid when a man [wyxi] becomes rich"

(v. 17). Identity and value as a human, then, are constants that

encompass everyone, but wealth is a variable condition attained

only by some people, and it is of secondary significance.

In contrast to the terms that refer to humanity, the psalmist

also employed terms referring to animals. This antithesis is pre-

sented explicitly in the varied refrains in verse 13, "But man [MdAxA]

in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts [tOmheB;Ka] that per-

ish," and verse 21, "Man [MdAxA] in his pomp, yet without under-

standing, is like the beasts [tOmheB;Ka] that perish."

In both of these examples, when inherent human value is re-

placed by the measures of mere financial wealth (rqAyBi) humans are

then viewed on a subhuman level, as though they were animals.

The same assessment is implied in verse 15, where wealthy fools

are pictured as sheep (Nxco.Ka) that are appointed for Sheol, and who

will be shepherded (Mfer;yi) by death.24 This striking metaphor, per-

haps an intentional parody of Yahweh's beneficent role as shepherd

in Psalms 23:1; 78:52; and 80:2,25 suggests that those who value


23 "The poet craves a hearing from all the peoples and from all inhabitants of the

earth, rich as well as poor. This is understandable, as it is, after all, one of the uni-

versal problems of mankind which he prepares himself to answer for all men. It is

not without reason that he calls special attention to people in humble circumstances

and to people of rank, to the poor and to the rich; for these classes are at the heart of

his problem, and he has something to say to both of them" (Artur Weiser, The Psalms, Old

Testament Library, trans. Herbert Hartwell [Philadelphia: Westminster, 19621, 386).

24 "While the affluent self-reliantly and self-importantly prattle away (cf. Ps. 73:6

ff.), they are already like a large herd being driven into the underworld by death.

We could ask whether the ‘personification’ of tvm includes reminders of the divinity

mot, which has become familiar through the Ras Shamra texts. It is important that

the rich even now, in the midst of life, are being driven down into lvxw by tvm.... But

tvm is in the employ of God and executes his judgment over the wicked potentates"

(Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 483).

25 C. John Collins argues convincingly for "death will shepherd," as it is rendered

in the Jewish Publication Society of America version, New American Standard Bi-

ble, and Revised Standard Version, and against the alternative "death will feed,"

represented in the Authorized Version and the New International Version ("'Death

Will Be Their Shepherd' or `Death Will Feed on Them'? mawet yir`em in Psalm 49.15

[EVV v 141]," Bible Translator 46 [19951: 320-26). This position is also supported by

Staffan Olofsson, "Death Shall Be Their Shepherd: An Interpretation of Psalm 49.15

in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint," in The Interpretation of Scripture in

64 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


material riches above humanity will themselves be treated as ani-

mals under the rod of mortality.

            The final two semantic fields are the antithetical pair of perpe-

tuity and death. Verses 8 and 10 together form a unified thought

that is explained by the parenthesis in verse 9. In countering his

fear of those who trust in their riches, the psalmist reasoned, "No

man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom

for him ... that he should live on eternally [Hcan,lA dOf-yHiyvi] that he

should not undergo decay [tHawA.ha]."26 The explanation for the impos-

sibility of paying God off for the eternal life of another is that the

redemption of a soul is costly. He should therefore "cease trying

forever [MlAOfl;] (v. 9). In contrast to this fact wealthy fools wrongly

suppose that they can achieve at least social immortality through

their possessions. "Their inner thought is that their houses are for-

ever [MlAOfl;] and their dwelling places to all generations [drovA rdol;];

they have called their lands after their own names" (v. 12).27 Con-

trary to this strategy of securing life against death by wealth,28

however, the rich man "shall go to the generation of his fathers;

they will never [Hcane-dfa] see the light" (v. 20). He will join his afflu-

ent predecessors in the realm of death, and none of them will ever

enjoy immortality. Noting the parallel to Psalm 36:10, Dahood re-

marks, "The light of God's face in the fields of life will be denied

those who put their trust in riches and boast of financial success."29


Early Judaism and Christianity, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Sup-

plement Series 23 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 75-105.

26 Goldingay compares this to the law regulating a ransom price in cases of acci-

dental homicide in Exodus 21:30 (Songs from a Strange Land, 143). The situation

envisioned in Psalm 49, however, is different. Although in many human interac-

tions, money has influence, the wealthy "just cannot rescue from God's hands a man

who is destined for death." This may be contrasted to the observation of life in Prov-

erbs 13:8, "The ransom of a man's life is his wealth."

27 Verse 12 has been variously interpreted. Raabe suggests that the psalmist is

using an ambiguous expression that says both that the rich are deifying themselves

and that they claim to own many lands by naming them after themselves ("Deliber-

ate Ambiguity in the Psalter," 2211-22). Mark C. Smith rejects both of Raabe's ren-

derings in favor of the cultic sense of the comfort that the rich receive by summon-

ing their deceased ancestors ("The Invocation of Deceased Ancestors in Psalm

49:12c," Journal of Biblical Literature 112 [1993]: 105-7). This proposal, however, is

convincingly rejected by Johnston ("Psalm 49: A Personal Eschatology," 79-80).

Arguing from the content of the whole psalm, Pleins presents a compelling case for

his conclusion that "the inscriptions of the rich ironically give mute testimony to the

realization that while buildings and monuments may endure, their rich owners       

simply do not" ("Death and Endurance: Reassessing the Literary Structure and

Theology of Psalm 49," 26).

28 Cf. James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994),


29 Dahood, Psalms 1-50, 303.

                        Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49  65


            The semantic field of terms referring to death casts a long

shadow across Psalm 49. In addition to the cases in which death is

juxtaposed with perpetuity, other references to death occur fre-

quently in the psalm. "For he sees that even wise men die [UtUmyA];

the stupid and the senseless alike perish [Udbexyo] and leave their

wealth to others" (v. 11). "As sheep they are appointed for Sheol

[lOxw;li] death [tv,mA] shall be their shepherd; and the upright shall

rule over them in the morning, and their form shall be for Sheol to

consume [lOxw; tOl.bal;] so that they have no habitation" (v. 15). "But

God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol [lOxw;] for He will

receive me" (v. 16). "For when he dies [OtOmb;] he will carry nothing

away; his glory will not descend after him" (v. 18).

            Particularly significant are the refrains in verses 13 and 21:

"But man in his pomp will not endure (NyliyA-lBa);30 he is like the

beasts that perish" [Umd;ni] (v. 13). "Man in his pomp, yet without un-

derstanding, is like the beasts that perish    [Umd;ni]” (v. 21).

            Of all of the prominent semantic fields in Psalm 49 the words

referring to death are most interconnected with the other clusters

of related terms. In addition to linkages to perpetuity in verses 10

and 20, this field is also linked with animals in verse 21 and with

humanity in verses 13 and 21. Moreover, death and wealth are jux-

taposed explicitly in verses 11, 16, and 18.

            The frequency of the interconnections between the six seman-

tic fields suggests strongly that the psalmist is intentionally using

literary artistry to advance the message of the psalm. By this rhe-

torical means, material wealth, which is often wrongly presumed to

be an indicator of personal worth, is viewed through the sapiential

lenses of wisdom and folly. The person who receives the wisdom

and understanding taught by the psalmist realizes that humanity

is a category that transcends wealth, and that those too foolish to

recognize that fact are functioning on the subhuman level of ani-

mals.31 Wealth is a temporary possession, because it cannot sur-


30 Craigie comments, "The word ‘survive’ is more precisely ‘lodge overnight’ and is

probably used in irony: the wealthy persons of this world devoted much of life to

constructing for themselves a solid lodging place in this world, but the reality of

death was that the grave (v. 12) would be their only permanent lodging place"

(Psalms 1-50, 359-60).

31 "The purpose of the psalm was to instruct all men, including the rich, in the

path of wisdom. The psalmist did not intend to disparage the godly rich who re-

ceived their wealth as a blessing from God. The difference between man and beast

lies in the degree of ‘understanding.’ If man has no understanding of himself as

man, of his mortality, and of his God, he lives and dies `like the beasts that perish' "

(Willem A. VanGemeren, "Psalms," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5

[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991]: 372).

66 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January--March 2004


vive death to achieve perpetuity. As Mays comments, "Death is the

great equalizer. The teacher is relentless in driving this gloomy

lesson home. It is a bitter counsel to his audience, but it does de-

flate and debunk those who live by and for riches as the real and

significant clue to life and its destiny."32 By linking together these

fields of meaning the psalmist used poetic form to reinforce the

content of the psalm.


                                LEXICAL EXPLOITATION


Besides making frequent use of repetitions and interconnected se-

mantic fields, Psalm 49 also exploits the lexical potential of several

terms in unusual ways. The psalmist employed five words that are

typically attributed to the worship of Yahweh as he described the

groundless exaltation of those who are wealthy. These startling

divergent directions of meaning highlight his point that those who

equate wealth with worth have in reality engaged in a form of

idolatry, in which material possessions take the place that rightly

belongs to God alone.

            The following verses demonstrate this subtle but significant

literary strategy. "Even those who trust [MyHiF;Boha] in their wealth

and boast [UllA.hat;yi] in the abundance of their riches" (v. 7). "Do not

be afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory [dObK;] of his

house is increased; for when he dies he will carry nothing away; his

glory [OdObK;] will not descend after him" (vv. 17-18). "Though while

he lives he congratulates himself [j`rebAyi]--and though men praise

you [j~dUOyv;] when you do well for yourself' (v. 19).

            By giving to their possessions the trust, praise, honor, and

thanksgiving that the psalms elsewhere direct to Yahweh, the

wicked are in effect elevating their gold as their god. Instead of ex-

tolling the glory of Yahweh, they are striving to exalt their per-

sonal glory through the acquisition of riches. By using theologically

loaded terms such as HFaBA, llahA, dObKA, j`raBA  and hdAyA, the psalmist

drove home his point that the wicked are seeking vainly to usurp pre-   

rogatives that belong only to Yahweh.

            Just as material wealth may prompt false confidence, it may

also arouse unjustified fear.33 In light of the terms in Psalm 49 that


32 Mays, Psalms, 192-93.

33 "It, is not only the wealthy and powerful who may fail to understand; the

teacher's audience have also not understood. If they do understand, they will not

make the mistake of succumbing to the temptation to seek a solution to death in

wealth or position; they will recognize the wisdom of seeking fullness of life in the

present moment in the experience of God's presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50,360-61).

                                   Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 67


the wicked have wrongly appropriated to themselves, the psalm-

ist's use of xreyA in verses 6 and 17 takes on added significance. "Why

should I fear [xrAyxi]34 in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my

foes surrounds me" (v. 6). "Do not be afraid [xrAyTi-lxa]35 when a man

becomes rich" (v. 17).

            The proper object of fear is Yahweh (cf. 33:18-19), so to fear

humans is to shift the focus of one's respect or reverence away from

God, who alone deserves it. As stated in 56:5, the antidote to fear of

humans is trust in God. As Craigie observes, "The wisdom teacher

in Ps 49 eliminates two possible kinds of human fear: the fear of

foes in times of trial (v. 6) and the fear that the wealthy have some

kind of advantage in the face of death (v. 17). The teacher elimi-

nates those fears, without explicitly stating a more positive mes-

sage; yet the positive message is clear in the whole tradition to

which he belongs, that wisdom may be found in the fear, or rever-

ence, of the Lord."36 In other words the only thing that will answer

to fear (of humans or death) is fear (of God) itself.


                                         SOUND PLAY


Of all the rhetorical strategies in the psalm sound play is the least

apparent in translation. It is clear, however, that the nine exam-

ples of sound play in Psalm 49 are not accidental, for they manifest

conscious craftsmanship by a highly skilled and creative poet.

            In addressing all humans in verse 2 the psalmist called, "Give

ear, all inhabitants of the world [dl,HA]." This rare term in the place

of the common Cr,x,, which is typically used to speak of the earth, is


34 Erhard S. Gerstenberger notes the significance of this expression within the

Book of Psalms: "'Why should I fear?' (v. 6a) strikes the note of trust (see Pss 3:7

[RSV 6]; 23:4; 27:1; 56:5, 12 [RSV 4, 11]; 118:6), being originally a response to an

oracle of salvation (Pss 23:4; 91:5)" (Psalms: Part I with an Introduction to Cultic

Poetry, Forms of the Old Testament Literature [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988],


35 "The formula 'al tira', "do not fear!" occurs 75x throughout the OT. Typically the

reasons for such an exhortation follow either in an independent clause or in a sub-

ordinate clause introduced by ki, meaning `for' or `because' " (van Pelt and Kaiser,

XXXX," 2:531).

36 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 361. In a similar way Weiser reasons, "Thus at the root of

the psalm in a way is the social problem and question of how earthly possessions are

to be valued from the moral and religious point of view, and what man's attitude to

them should be in his everyday life. The poet searches for an attitude of mind which

will grant him the inner freedom from being subject to human beings and to earthly

things and will open his eyes to the things which alone are to be feared and which

alone are trustworthy. And he finds that attitude of mind in the vision of eternity

and of the God who has ordained man's death" (The Psalms, 385-86).

68 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


found elsewhere in the Book of Psalms only in 17:14; 39:6; and           

89:48, and it has the temporal sense of "lifetime," rather than the

notion of a physical location. In verse 9 the consonants of the root

are interchanged from dlH to ldH, where the psalmist said that the

wealthy person should "cease [ldaHA] striving forever" to give to God

a ransom for his brother.37 Subtly the psalmist was indicating that

since all humans will die, they must not measure their worth in

terms of temporal wealth.

            The term MdAxA is used three times in the psalm (vv. 3, 13, 21), in

each case linking all people in their common humanity. The

wealthy, however, try to distinguish themselves as beyond the

mortality that afflicts all people by calling "their lands [tOmdAxE] after

their own names" (v. 12). Their aspiration is dashed, because "man

[MdAxA] in his pomp will not endure" (v. 13).

            Another word, rwf (vv. 3, 7, 17), speaks of the wealthy and

their riches. Despite their prominence during their lifetimes on

earth, they will be ruled over by the upright (MyriwAy; v. 15). Of the

many Hebrew terms available to refer both to wealth and to righ-

teousness, the psalmist chose two words similar in sound. By this

means he hinted that by a slight transposition by the sovereign

God the upright (rwy) will supplant the wealthy (rwf) even though

they seem to have such different experiences in life.

            In his opening call the psalmist said in verse 5 that he would

incline his ear to a proverb (lwAmA ). Using a homonymic root, he con-

cluded in his refrains that "man in his pomp ... is like [lwam;ni] the           

beasts that perish" (vv. 13, 21). The identical consonants direct the

reader to discern the central maxim of the psalm.

            The similar sounding verbs xreyA ("to fear") and hxArA ("to see")

play prominent rules in the psalm. As the psalmist moved from the

opening propensity to fear (v. 6) to his eventual counsel against

fear (v. 17), his change in attitude was prompted by what is seen.

The wealthy person cannot give God a ransom for his brother, "that

he should not undergo [hx,r;yi xlo] decay" (v. 10). In addition, "he sees

[hx,r;yi] that even wise men die; the stupid and the senseless alike perish and

leave their wealth to others" (v. 11). Even the rich "shall go to the generation

of his fathers; they will never see [Uxr;yi xlo] the light" (v. 20).

Verse 20 in the Masoretic text has an additional example of

sound play. "You will go [xObTA] unto the generations of his fathers


37 De Meyer notes the semantic nuances of dl,H,, but he does not comment on the

additional sound play involved in the selection of the term ("The Science of Litera-

ture Method of Prof. M. Weiss in Confrontation with Form Criticism, Exemplified on

the Basis of Ps. 49," 160).

                        Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 69


[vytAObxE]." The obvious difficulty in reconciling the second person

verbal form with the third person pronominal suffix casts suspicion

on the reliability of the textual reading at this point. Nevertheless

it is interesting to note that this use of consonantal transposition is

consistent with the practice in the rest of the psalm.

            A comparable sound play can be observed in verses 15 and 18.

The upright will rule (UDr;yi) over the wealthy in the morning (v. 15).

But when the wealthy person dies, he will carry nothing away, be-

cause "his glory will not descend [dreye] after him" (v. 18). The exact

duplication of consonants draws together two inversions of the pre-

sent condition: the wealthy will not be able to maintain their es-

teemed position, and the upright will move from subordination to

superiority with respect to the wealthy.

            The final example of sound play is especially prominent be-

cause it occurs in the refrains of the psalm. Verses 13 and 21. speak

of the transitory nature of humans as "man in his pomp [rqAyBi],"

which brings to the reader's mind rqABA, a common word for cattle, as

well as rq,Bo, which is used in verse 15 to designate the time when

the upright will rule over their wealthy oppressors. Verse 13, how-

ever, describes this wealthy person as one who will not endure

(NyliyA-lBa), whereas verse 21 says that he is without understanding

(NybiyA xlo). A few Hebrew manuscripts read NyliyA in both verses, but the

Septuagint, followed by the Syriac version, reads sunh?ken in verse

13, thus harmonizing it with the reading in verse 21. The New

English Bible and the Revised Standard Version and some com-

mentators such as Kraus have rendered the refrains in verses 13

and 21 in identical language by emending NybiyA in verse 21 to match

NyliyA in verse 13.38

            Even though many psalms do use exact repetitions for re-

frains,39 it is not unusual for the psalmists to use variation in their

refrains with conscious intention. As Goldingay cautions, "Our

preference for exactly corresponding refrains and repetitions may

be culture-relative; perhaps the psalmists were more pleased by a

new twist to a familiar line. This suggests that the exegete's task

in approaching these passages is to see what the psalmists might


38 Judah Jacob Slotki retains the sound play between NyliyA and NybiyA, although he

proposes that rqAyBi be given a meaning similar to rqABA "cattle," and that NyliyA, be

viewed as being derived from Nvl, "to complain, murmur." His reading of verse 21,

which parallels the New English Bible, says, "Man is (as) cattle and does not com-

plain; he is comparable to the beasts that perish." In light of the psalmist's literary

strategies documented in this article Slotki's proposed changes are not necessary or

justified ("Psalm XLIX 13,21 (AV 12,20)," Vetus Testamentum 28 [1978]: 361-62).

39 Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part I with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, 203-4.

70 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004


be conveying by the differences as well as to note the similari-


            In this case the sound play between NyliyA (v. 13) and NybiyA (v. 21)

plays a vital role in the psalmist's thematic development. The first

refrain summarizes the content of verses 6-11, in which the arro-

gant presumption of those who trust in their wealth is subverted.

Thus man in his pomp, like the beasts that perish, will not endure

(NyliyA-lBa). The second reference follows verses 14-20, in which God

redeems and receives the upright, that is, those who possess spiri-

tual understanding. Verse 21, then, is an appropriate conclusion:

In contrast to the upright person who enjoys God's favor, "man in

his pomp, yet without understanding [NybiyA xlo], is like the beasts

that perish." The change of a single consonant 41 signals that pos-

session of the understanding taught in this psalm (cf. tOnUbT; in v. 4),

although easily overlooked by the wealthy fool, is of the utmost

eternal consequence.




This article has analyzed how the poet in Psalm 49 expressed and

overcame his emotion of fear. In particular it has focused on sev-

eral prominent rhetorical techniques-repetition, interlocking se-

mantic fields, lexical exploitation, and sound play-by which the

psalmist presented and countered his fear of wealthy oppressors.

Using a remarkable array of poetic devices, many of which are ap-

parent only in the Hebrew text, he refused to succumb to an im-

pulse to flee in the face of intimidation. He instead drew deeply on

his faith in God as he assessed the bankruptcy of material wealth

in light of the inevitability of death.

The extensive use of repeated terms, often combined with sub-

tle formal variations, highlights the key components of the psalm-

ist's theme. The interconnections between six major semantic fields

place wealth and wisdom in counterpoint, thus demonstrating that

those who trust in their riches are in fact foolish. They are in real-

ity acting as though they were animals, rather than humans, be-

cause material wealth cannot survive death to produce perpetual


40 John Goldingay, "Repetition and Variation in the Psalms," Jewish Quarterly

Review 68 (1978): 150-51.

41 The same phenomenon recurs in Psalm 59:10, 18. "The slight but not unimpor-

tant difference in the wording of the refrain . . . which should not be obliterated by a

mechanical equalization of these two verses, delicately indicates the inward freedom

which the poet has gained for himself, and which makes his soul, like a lark, soar

upward to his God with shouts of joy" (Weiser, The Psalms, 437).

                              Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 71


enjoyment. By interlocking the semantic fields, the psalmist drew

together aspects of human existence, such as wealth and death,

which when viewed separately caused him to feel intimidated. By

considering them as connected elements within the larger picture

of reality, however, the psalmist presented a compelling rationale

for faith that transcends his previous fear.

            The psalmist also used the familiar poetic device of exploiting

unusual but legitimate nuances of terms. In Psalm 49 five words

used prominently in the Old Testament for the worship of Yahweh

are employed instead for the exaltation of those who have material.

wealth. In their own minds as well as in the estimation of other

people the wealthy have taken on prerogatives that rightly belong

only to God. Because of this, the psalmist feared them, even though

the biblical texts are clear that Yahweh alone is the proper object

of fear. By this subtle but powerful poetic device, the psalmist

communicated that fear emerges when in one's thinking God has

been supplanted by an oppressor. The corrective to fear, then, must

entail the psychological reinstatement of God to His rightful place

of superiority, because then all factors leading to fear must neces-

sarily be seen as subservient to Him.

            Psalm 49 is also replete with sound plays that compel the

reader to observe the connections intended by the psalmist. These

associations of sound are almost always obscured in translation,

but in the Hebrew text they point the reader toward clearer com-

prehension of the psalmist's theme.

            In seeking to supplement the existing literature on Psalm 49,

this article has investigated four of the poetic strategies used by

the psalmist as he skillfully integrated literary form with his the-

matic development. This study has also demonstrated the impor-

tance of reading biblical texts in their original language and ac-

cording to their appropriate genre distinctives. If this poetic analy-

sis of Psalm 49 is a typical case, then there is ample fallow ground

in the study of biblical literature for interpreters who will combine

exegetical precision and artistic sensitivity in their research,

thereby enriching their understanding and appreciation of the an-

cient songs of Zion.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:

            Thanks to Melody Postle for help with proofing.