Psalm 49: The Prudent One

Who is the prudent one? In canon law studies, the question was always, what would the prudent man do? To be prudent, according to Webster, is to be shrewd in management of practical affairs, to be cautious, discreet, judicious, foresighted, sensible and sane. It differs from wisdom in that it deals with practical matters, being able to apply wisdom. Wisdom, according to Webster, is accumulated philosophies or scientific learning, knowledge. A prudent person has wisdom and used this wisdom in decision-making. Not all wise people are prudent. They may have difficulty applying the knowledge they have.

Psalm 49 is one of the Wisdom Psalms. It speaks against the folly of people who put their trust in riches. The word prudence appears twice in the New American Bible translation, verse 4, “My mouth shall speak wisdom, prudence shall be the utterance of my heart,” and verse 21 (verse 20 in KJV and RSV. The New American Bible is a Roman Catholic translation which follows a slightly different numbering of the verses in the Psalms), “Man, for all his splendor, if he has not prudence, resembles the beasts that perish.” In King James and the Revised Standard versions, prudence is translated as understanding in verse 4 and doesn’t appear at all in the final verse of the psalm, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” (12, 20)

I like the use of the word prudent. It sheds light on the whole psalm and clarifies its meaning. Without prudence, understanding and right use of knowledge, we are no different from the animals. The prudent one knows better than to put trust in riches of this world. All of the money in the world isn’t enough to bribe God into letting someone escape death, “Truly no man can ransom himself or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit.” (7-9)

Death, the great equalizer comes to all, rich and poor, wise and foolish, “Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.” (10) What difference then does it make whether one is wise or foolish, poor or wealthy? The wealthy and poor alike will go to Sheol, the netherworlds, for they are two sides of one coin. The wealthy believe in the power of their riches, and the poor believe in this as well, longing for that which they do not have.

The prudent one, the writer of this psalm, is the only one who will escape, “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd, straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” (14-15) Instead of God being their shepherd, Death is their shepherd, leading them to the netherworld where they will waste away, one of the few references to an afterlife in the Old Testament. Only the prudent one escapes.

The psalmist concludes with repeating verse 12, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish,” a reminder that despite all of our splendor and brilliant display of wealth and power, we are no better than the animals. It is our ability to think, reason and apply that knowledge that sets us apart from the animals. Words to the wise.

As you look about, are our times much different than the times of this psalm? Are their many who are truly prudent, or do we continue to put our trust in the things of this world?

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