No one can by any means redeem another or give God a ransom for him— Psalm 49:7 NASB
By any means – We looked at this verse some time ago. On the surface, it completely overturns the penal theory of atonement, a theory that was articulated by Reformation theology and is typical of evangelical thinking today. “Jesus paid it all” is a pedestrian vocalization of the idea. But here, in this psalm, such an idea is simply denied. No one can redeem another or provide ransom for someone else. How does Reformation theology get around this problem? The answer is: Jesus is God! Therefore, this rule doesn’t apply. As long as the Trinity stays comfortably in place, equivocation is possible. The sons of Korah are right about human efforts to redeem but wrong about divine intervention.
But what if “Jesus” isn’t God? What if Yeshua is the human, Jewish Messiah? And even more importantly, what if the context of this psalm isn’t about eternal theological doctrines?
Let’s start with an attempt to read the psalm in its own context. We must note that the sons of Korah are contrasting the arrogance of power and wealth with the impossibility of assuaging God’s judgment. Basically, no amount of money and no aggrandizement of power will exempt you from God’s point of view. Money and power don’t matter one iota when it comes to God. But, of course, we all knew that, didn’t we? What the sons of Korah point out is not what we know but how we behave. We might vocalize the truth that money and power don’t matter when it comes to God’s evaluation, but we often act as if they did. How? By blindly believing that our wealth and our power make us different than others when it comes to God’s assessment. We live by different rules, right? It’s so obvious. “Just look at my bank account, my cars, my houses, my position in society. Why, I couldn’t be bound by all those rules for the plebs. I am special, and my success proves it!” The song of the sons of Korah deflates such hypocrisy and idolatry in one fell swoop. God doesn’t care!
The second issue with this verse is the real meaning of “redeem” and “ransom.” David Lambert demonstrates that until the Babylonian captivity, redemption was not a biblical idea, at least not in the way we think of it today. Let’s look at pādâ (“to ransom, rescue, deliver”), translated here as “redeem.” TWOT notes: “The basic meaning of the Hebrew root is to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute.” Of course, there are numerous examples of this in the Tanakh. Coker’s article in TWOT makes two critically important points for our investigation:
The Psalms often speak of God’s deliverance or redemption of life from some danger (Ps 26:11; 31:5; 34:22 [H 23]; 44:26 [H 27]; 71:23), or from the hand of human oppression (Ps 55:18 [H 19]; 69:18 [H 19]; cf. also Job 6:23). The greatest danger or adversary that man faces is Death, Sheol, the Pit. The Psalmist gives poignant expression to man’s inadequacy in Ps 49:8–9, but concludes that God’s redemptive power is not limited (v. 16). The resurrection is God’s ultimate redemption of man.
Interestingly enough, only once is pādâ used with reference to redemption from sin (Ps 130:7–8). This remained for the completed revelation of the new covenant.
According to Coker (and many, many others), there is an unbroken line between pādâ and the apostolic use of exagorázō (Greek: cf. Gal. 3:13). The ubiquity of the Christian claim that the line is unbroken appears in statements like this one from Büschel: “God, of course, pays the price himself in Christ, meeting the law’s claim and thus giving true freedom through justification by faith (Gal. 3:24–25).” However, it’s important to notice that this Greek term is not found in the LXX. Apparently, the rabbis didn’t think pādâ was the same as exagorázō. Lambert demonstrates that “redemption” in the Tanakh is a social-political phenomenon, exhibited in behavioral terms. It is not about an internal condition of the “soul,” reflected in the removal of personal guilt and the restitution of an inward, spiritual relationship. Pādâ is visibly communal.
The other term in this verse is kōper (“ransom”). Note the comment by Harris: “ . . it has been supposed that the Hebrew word means ‘to cover over sin’ and thus pacify the deity, making an atonement (so BDB). It has been suggested that the OT ritual symbolized a covering over of sin until it was dealt with in fact by the atonement of Christ. There is, however, very little evidence for this view.”  Why is there little evidence? Perhaps because “ransom” wasn’t viewed as symbolic covering. “Ransom” was a real, public, observable action. Its application to the human condition amounted to expressing in practical and ritual behavior a change in relationship. It did not depend on the internal consciousness of the subject. Ransom is a kind of financial action. In Leviticus, this idea is applied to the process of removing the consequences of a violation by transferring the inevitable suffering to an animal. It does not requires confession; only the recognition that a cultic rule has been broken.
For our investigation we discover that the sons of Korah recognize that wealth and power cannot be substituted for public reconciliation or societal restitution. The rules that apply to the poor are just as valid for the rich and powerful. God is no respecter of persons. For the sons of Korah, this lesson is deeply engrained in tribal consciousness. What matters in the end is submission to God’s choice and cooperation with His effort. The rest is ultimately swallowed up and gone.
Topical Index: redeem, pādâ, ransom, kōper, Psalm 49:7