This is a folk song. Maybe country. The singer starts by telling us he’s going “solve my riddle” (49:4). He’s going to let us in on one of life’s mysteries. He was probably wearing the ancient Jewish equivalent of a cowboy hat while singing it too.
The psalmist is not rich, and wants to know why he should fear the rich and powerful. After all, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit” (49:7-9). You can’t buy your way to heaven, the psalmist sings. Later on, he comes back to this theme: no matter how rich and glorious a man becomes “he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him” (49:16-17). No one can live forever, no matter how wealthy.
No amount of money and no amount of wisdom can save a person from death. Verse 12 is echoed again in the last verse as a sort of refrain for this psalm: Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (49:12). Death will be the shepherd of the one who puts confidence in himself or his riches (49:14).
We don’t get the answer to the psalmist’s riddle until verse 15, and that’s the only bright spot of the psalm: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (49:15). The rich, wise, and powerful cannot ransom themselves. The ransom of their lives is too costly (49:8). But God will ransom the psalmist’s soul from death. Only God can pay the price.
How exactly will God ransom his soul? The psalmist doesn’t say. How can our souls be ransomed with his? Again, he doesn’t say. But Jesus does: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Trusting in ourselves, our riches, our own strength, yields nothing. That sort of trust gives us death as a shepherd. Trusting in Christ gives us everything. He gives his life—the costliest of ransoms—so that you and I can be delivered from death. Trusting in him makes him as our Good Shepherd. He delivers us from death and leads us into life. Praise his name.