Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.
Psalm 49:7-9, 15
Several years ago, my pastor announced that our church was liquidating its library and that members were free to take their pick of the inventory. After the morning service, I made my way to the library not expecting to find much beyond the run-of-the-mill “Christian living” books that overwhelm the shelves of religious bookstores. So I was surprised when I glanced a volume of the Great Books of the Western World series. It was in mint condition. I had grown up envying this famous series, so elegantly designed, as it graced my grandfather’s bookshelves, and I had often insinuated that if he was inclined to include me in his inheritance, these books would do the trick. I was shocked as, one after another, I found additional volumes of the series and was elated as I gradually realised that all 54 volumes were there, scattered throughout the literary dross. According to my latest check on Amazon, in new condition, the series costs nearly $750. I got it for free. And to think that my cynical self almost didn’t go to the library that day.
The psalmist’s words of wisdom to the rich and poor carry a strong element of irony. As in the rest of Scripture, there is no denial of the temporal and potent benefits of wealth, and its capacity to secure for us positions of influence, acclaim and shelter from the vicissitudes of life. But over all this hovers the long shadow of death, a debt for which no amount of riches suffices. Money can buy a lot of things, but it cannot purchase the one thing necessary for the enjoyment of all others, the thing most precious to us, namely ourselves. This same irony colours Jesus’s question to his followers: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37).
Now, we might be inclined to think that the problem with those who boast in riches is that they love their lives too much. While that perspective bears some truth, it can miss the point of the assurance in verse 15: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” After all, Jesus’ command to lay down our life is actually a means of Him securing it: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). He commands us not to cling too firmly to our lives in this age so that He might return them to us more secure, abundant and whole in the age to come.
It is the hope of the resurrection — received as a gift from God — that imbues the attitude of those who “trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches” (v. 6) with irony. Sucking the marrow out of this life makes sense if there is nothing beyond the grave. But God’s promise of life after death redefines our situation.
From this perspective, it becomes apparent that those who trust in wealth love their lives too little. Perhaps for fear of losing what they do have, or because of the powerful ability of wealth to mimic the blessings of God’s promises, or because of their cynicism about the future, they are too short-sighted about their ultimate investment.
As the psalmist perceives, wealth easily morphs into a counterfeit god, displacing the life-giving God as the object of our trust. And in cutting ourselves off from our source of life, we give up that for which we ultimately long in exchange for a cheap substitute. Missing the 54-volume set offered as a gift, we settle for a few pickings from the literary dross.
As C. S. Lewis famously put it in The Weight of Glory: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Whether rich or poor, may we have eyes of faith to see the truly valuable and invest our lives in Him.
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