Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
Sermon by Rev C Bouwman on Psalm 49:20 held on Sunday Morning 7 September 1997.
THE MOST HONOURED OF MEN, IF HE HAS NOT CHRIST, SHALL PERISH.
Ps 49:20 "A man who is in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts that perish."
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The attention of the world this past week was very much focused on London. The sudden and tragic death of "the princess of the world" drew from countless thousands and millions an outburst of grief seldom surpassed in the course of history. A woman of influence and kindness, a woman vibrant and modern, a woman freed from the stiffness of yesterday's Monarchian institution, a woman who exemplified what so many would like to experience in life: she was adored, cherished, worshiped. Her passing robs millions of a hero; more, her beauty, so marred in her death, robs millions of a vision, a dream. An idol has died. And people are at a loss.
We've heard and seen so much this past week about Princess Diana, who she was, how she is said to have suffered in her marriage to the House of Windsor, how she was devoted to her children, how she sought and presumably found new happiness with Dodi al Fayed, how she continued to reach out to the suffering in their needs. Precisely because we've heard so much about the princess, and tasted too -and possibly shared- the grief, I want to open with this morning God's word of life.
Ps 49 seems to be an appropriate place from where to gain perspective in the face of Diana's passing. The psalm tells us that all the riches, all the honour, all the power, all the popularity, all the favourable reputation one can gather for oneself on this earth ultimately help not a thing. If God does not give life, even those who are honoured the most by men shall perish like the beasts. Not honour, not beauty, not glitz, not veneration helps anything; only the grace of God in Jesus Christ gives life that lasts.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
THE MOST HONOURED OF MEN, IF HE HAS NOT CHRIST, SHALL PERISH.
1. the weakness of those honoured by men
2. the strength of those honoured by God
1. The psalm before us is made up of three parts. There is the introduction (vss 1-4), the first stanza (vss 5-12), and the second or last stanza (vss 13-20). The last verse of each stanza, vss 12 and 20, are quite similar, and yet not identical. Vs 12 reads like this:
"Nevertheless man, though in honour, does not remain;
He is like the beasts that perish."
And vs 20 reads like this:
"A man who is in honour, yet does not understand,
Is like the beasts that perish."
The two verses are very similar. Both speak of man, both of honour,
and both mention that man is like the beasts that perish. But they're not
the same. Whereas vs 12 tells us that man (though he have honour) "cannot
remain" (but is like the beasts that perish), vs 20 tells us that
man (despite his honour) "does not understand" (and so is like
the beasts that perish). In effect, there is a development from vs 12 to
vs 20; in vs 12 the psalmist did not mention the lack of understanding,
in vs 20 the psalmist feels that he must mention this lack. And as it turns
out, it is this progress between vss 12 and 20 that gives us the key to
understanding the message of Ps 49.
The Introduction is relatively straight forward. The psalmist
-whoever he is- calls upon peoples of every place and station to listen
to what he has to say. "All inhabitants of the world," be they
"high or low, rich or poor", be they Israelites or Moabites (or
Australians, we might add), are asked to lend their ear to the words of
the psalmist; to one and all he has a word of wisdom to say. He himself
inclines his own ear, listens to what the Lord God says to him, and -inspired
by the Lord- would use the vehicle of song to pass on the wisdom he has
received. That's the introduction.
In the First Stanza, the psalmist begins to pass one something of the wisdom he has received from the Lord. To do that, the psalmist tells us of the circumstances in which he finds himself. They're not such pleasant circumstances; the psalmist speaks of "days of evil". The nature of the psalmist's trouble is revealed with his reference to "iniquity at my heels". Literally, the text speaks of someone snapping at the psalmist's heels. The reason why someone would snap at your heels is because this other person wishes to exert influence over you. The word that's used here is the same word from which the name 'Jacob' comes; already at his birth Jacob grabbed hold of his brother's heel (Gen 25:26) and his whole life was characterised by his effort to get one up on Esau, to exert influence over him, take advantage of him. (Think of Jacob's attempt to weasel the birthright from Esau with the soup; think too of the deceit Jacob used to wrestle the first-born blessing for himself.) It's that notion of one using whatever devious means available to exert influence over another that the psalmist refers to in vs 5. Those are his concrete circumstances: persons are hounding the psalmist, are snapping at his heels, in an effort to gain influence over him, to force him to do what they want him to do; he should submit to their tastes, their demands.
What kind of persons were these persecutors? They're described in vs 6 as "those who trust in their wealth and boast of the multitude of their riches." These are people who have power to influence another, and the reason why they have power to influence is their money, their riches. These are the tall poppies of the time, the persons with the big houses, the persons with the thought that their descendants shall live in castles always, the persons who stamp their name upon lands and acreages so that generations after them might ever remember them (cf vs 11). These are the big men of society - the Alan Bond's and the Laurie Connell's of Australia's yesteryear; the al Fayed family overseas today. And we may add: these are the media people of our day, and the persons of influence who have a message, a philosophy, even a religion to push on the people of the world. Such persons are ruthless; they act toward the psalmist as if he's just a pawn whom they can play at will for their own enhancement.
In the face of such persons of influence, the little man quickly despairs: the big men are always snapping at my heels, always seeking to take advantage of me, ever trying to move me for their own gain, and that's not much fun.... But note, beloved: this is not the reaction of the psalmist. The psalmist -moved as he is by the Spirit of the Lord- recalls that these tall poppies are but men. And men must one day die; dust they are and to dust they shall return.
And what is death? The psalmist knows that at the death of any man, that person must face God, must pass the judgment seat of God in order to gain life eternal. But how shall man -sinner that he is- squeak past that judgment seat? With iniquity on one's hand, one cannot pass that judgment seat - unless payment be made for the debt one has run up with God through sin. But -vs 7- no man is able to pay that ransom for his brother, and no man can pay the ransom for himself either; the price God demands of those who would enter life eternal is far too high. The tall poppies of the psalmist's day may have ever so much money, and because of that money they may exercise ever so much influence over the little people of society, but -says the psalmist- all the wealth in the world will not suffice to give to God the price of life. When all is said and done, that man of prestige, of high class and fine clothing, is powerless before the judgment seat of God; all his wealth on earth and all his weight in influence are most inadequate for the moment of death. That man shall die, shall stand before the throne of God empty-handed, shall have nothing to offer as ransom for himself, shall not even be able to call upon his friends on earth for assistance…, and so shall be assigned to the Pit forever. Power, at bottom, is weak; wealth, at bottom, is broke; influence, at bottom, is empty, honour and favour in the sight of men is nothing in the sight of God; before the throne of God it helps nothing, nothing at all. Whether one be rich or poor, shrewd or simple, wise or foolish, adored or shunned, worshiped, venerated, cherished by men: it makes no difference at the moment of death; man is but man, and death is the great Equalizer of all people. "Man, though in honour, does not remain; He is like the beasts that perish" (vs 12).
That being the case, the psalmist sees no reason why he should fear.
Says he to his listeners all over the world - vs 5: "why should I
fear in times of evil, when the iniquity at my heels surrounds me?"
The question is rhetorical; the answer is that there is no reason to fear.
People have power, people exercise influence, certain persons are honoured
and even idolised, but it's all for a short time only, and then they receive
their just reward.... Feel overwhelmed by society's tall poppies? Maybe
even envious of them somehow? Not the psalmist; he's learned some divine
2. But it's not only, brothers and sisters, of the weakness of those honoured by men that the psalmist is moved to speak about. A Second Stanza follows the first, and in this second stanza the psalmist is moved by God to record the strength of those honoured by God.
All men die, yes, even the persons of influence and ability, of honour and adoration. But if all men die, so must the poor and the helpless die also, yes, even the psalmist included. All men, whether high or low, whether rich or poor, whether Israelite or Moabite (or even Australian), must one day die and so face the judgment seat of God.
Those with their foolish confidence who hounded the psalmist so: they, like sheep, are appointed for Sheol, for the Pit, death eternal. But what then of the psalmist himself? He too has insufficient to be able to give to God the price of his life, and so he too -is it not?- shall be consigned to the Pit….
But it is at this point in his song of wisdom, brothers and sisters, that the psalmist reveals his conviction of what would happen to himself. Those with foolish confidence, the tall poppies who feel that they can somehow slip past God's judgment hall into life eternal, shall find themselves in Sheol, in the Pit. But as for the psalmist: "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave" (vs 15). Others may perish eternally, but not the psalmist! O yes, the psalmist knows that a ransom is necessary; he shall not get past God's judgment seat lightly. But his secret is that God himself shall provide that needed ransom. How the psalmist knows this? He knows it because he works with the gospel God has revealed in the Old Testament tabernacle service. That tabernacle with its slaughter of goats and bulls, its countless sacrifices for sin: all of it together preached the gospel of atonement by the blood of Another. That tabernacle service as instituted by God proclaimed the good news that God would find a replacement for sinful man, a person who would give to God the price of the life of his brothers. That tabernacle service preached Jesus Christ, preached the gospel of Christ dying for the ungodly (Rom 5) so that the ungodly might go free. The psalmist has learned the Gospel of the Tabernacle, and so could be convinced that death is for him not the door to hell but rather the door to heaven; "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave," from Sheol.
So it is too that the psalmist can quote words used with the departure of Enoch. Of that pious Enoch it is written that he "walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen 5:24). The psalmist says that the same thing will happen to himself; God "will take me" - as the last line of vs 15 literally says. And the point is this: because God will ensure that there be a ransom to save the psalmist from the power of Sheol, that psalmist will be acceptable to God, acceptable so that God will take him into His heaven even as He took Enoch. The psalmist is sure: there is a place reserved for him in heaven! Yet that place is not granted to the psalmist because he could come up with payment, it's not given because he is himself so acceptable; no, he shall receive that place only because of God's great grace as displayed in the Saviour.
So the contrast, beloved, is complete. People of power -be it that their
power is rooted in money or muscle or character or family or honour or
adoration- people of power may feel that they can elbow their way into
heaven even as they are used to getting their way on earth. But there is
one way only to escape Sheol, to enter into heaven, and that is by the
grace of God in Jesus Christ. So the strong of this world end up being
weak, and the weak of this world end up having strength. What people call
power turns out to be weak on the final test, and those whom people consider
to be weak God is pleased to elevate. Behold here God's irony: the "first
shall be last, and the last shall be first."
So the wisdom which the psalmist would share with all the inhabitants of the world comes down to this:
There, beloved, is the point of vs 20, the point of the progress from the first stanza to the second. A man who has riches but does not have understanding is like the beasts that perish. Understanding of the deeper things of life is so imperative. "You fool," said Jesus of the rich man in His parable, "this night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" And Jesus added the lesson: "So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Lu 12:20f). He has no understanding of the secrets of salvation, and so perishes.
The Scriptures say it elsewhere too: weep and howl, you rich, for the
miseries that are coming upon you. You think that you can throw your weight
around when you stand before God's judgment seat, but know this: your riches
may as well have rotted, your gold and silver may as well have rusted,
for they help you nothing to escape the eternal misery that awaits you.
By your selfish conduct in this life -keeping back the wages of your labourers,
living in luxury and pleasure all your earthly days, killing the righteous
man for your own ends- by your selfish conduct in this life you have laid
up treasure for the last day, treasure in hell (cf James 5:1ff). For "man,
though in honour, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish"
(vs 12). Riches, power, influence, muscle, honour in the sight of men:
it helps you nothing if you possess no understanding. The way to
the top of the pile is not via one's own muscle, be it muscle in money
or muscle in character or muscle in the arm. The way to the top is through
faith in Jesus Christ. For one isn't at the top until one is able to pass
the judgment seat of God. As the apostle says to the Corinthians: "where
is the wise man? ...Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made
foolish the wisdom of the world?" And again: "Consider your call,
brethren; not many of you were... powerful, not many were of noble birth;
but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God whose
what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and
despised in the world... to bring to nothing the things that are, so that
no human being might boast in the presence of God" (I Cor 1:20ff;
RSV). So all that's left is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone; "let
him who boasts, boast of the Lord" (I Cor 1:31).
We've heard much of the life and death of the Princess of Wales this
past week. Let it be fixed in our minds, beloved: to adore her person,
her beauty, her glitz is an exercise in futility. All her honour, all her
wealth, all her popularity helped her nothing in her death. Let no one,
then, glamorise her or her life; she was a sinner like the rest of us -privileged,
O yes, with a leading role in public life- but a sinner nevertheless who
needed the atoning blood of Jesus Christ so very much - like the rest of
Thus says the Lord to all who live on earth: "man, though in honour, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish." Lady Diana, though in honour, did not remain; she, like every creature, perished.
Thus says the Lord to those who adore the tall poppies of the day: "a man who is in honour, yet does not understand, is [equally] like the beasts that perish." So it is imperative that men have understanding, understanding of the mysteries of salvation. That is: it is imperative that we say with Paul:
"I … count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…" (Phil 3:8f).
Thus says the Lord to the man who does have understanding, the person who has understood the words of the Ps 49, for whom Christ is everything: he abides for ever. For God graciously, freely ransoms his soul from death, takes him to Himself into the marriage feast of the Lamb. Amen