For the redemption of his soul is priceless, and he should cease imagining forever—That he might live on eternally, that he might not undergo decay. Psalm 49:8-9 NASB
Priceless – What does a priceless work of art cost? More than you have, that’s for sure. But the question itself is nonsense. What is priceless can’t be bought! That’s the point here. The redemption (pidyôn – a payment necessary for the transfer of ownership) of nepeš (life, person—not soul) is God’s work, and God sets the price, which in this case is no price at all. The transfer of ownership to God can only be accomplished by Him.
Of course, in the context of this psalm, the sons of Korah assert that no amount of money and no degree of power can ever facilitate the transfer of ownership to God. In particular, the rich person or the powerful person must stop thinking that somehow riches and power will ensure life. No, sorry, life is in God’s hands, and He will decide when we live or die. As Jack Nicholson so aptly put it in the film, The Departed: “We all die. Live accordingly.”
We understand the message, but what about the details. Well, first we discover that redemption (pidyôn) isn’t about forgiveness of sins and getting to heaven. It’s about cost. The best example is the “redemption” of Israel from Egypt. What was the cost? The first-born of every Egyptian (and a lot of those things). In this case, the cost of living was dying.
What else do we discover? The word translated “priceless” is yāqar. It actually means “costly,” not “priceless.” Our translation has amplified the word. The cost of redeeming Israel from Egypt wasn’t “priceless.” It was very costly. In like manner, paying the cost of transferring ownership of life (person) is very costly, so much so that no man can pay for his own indefinite survival. That fact is abundantly clear. “We all die. Live accordingly.” The richest, most powerful person on earth will still be buried. To think otherwise is utter foolishness.
But what do the rich and powerful think? How are they deluded? The important noun is nēṣaḥ (victory, strength, perpetuity). Western, post-exilic views of this word understand it as “eternal,” but pre-exilic Israel didn’t have such thoughts. All life ends at the grave. The question is not how you die, but rather how did you live? If you lived imagining that you could avoid the inevitable consequences of termination, then you’ve made a huge mistake.
The last phrase of these verses is a bit more graphic than our translation. In Hebrew,
לֹא יִרְאֶה הַשָּׁחַת
Literally, “not see the pit.” Even if we’re not the rich and powerful, we don’t really like to think about seeing the pit. We know we can’t avoid it, and we know that it’s not my life to do as I please, but we’re tempted to ignore Jack’s insight: “We all die. Live accordingly.” Ecclesiastes is a good dose of biblical reality. Maybe the author commiserated with the sons of Korah.
What do we learn from these sobering verses? God redeems. The price is very, very high. We don’t have much to do with it. Once we stop pretending this won’t end, we need to focus on what does matter. So, what does? The sons of Korah tell us, “Don’t be afraid.” But first they have a few more things to say.
Topical Index: pidyôn, redemption, yāqar, costly, priceless, nēṣaḥ, perpetuity, Psalm 49:8-9