Psalm 49:13–20; Job 17,18; Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Originally published 4/14/2015. Revised and updated 4/15/2019.

Psalm 49:14–21: When the end of life comes, the rich are no different than the poor:
Like sheep to Sheol they head—
death shepherds them.— (15a)

These words are followed by a tantalizing idea
And the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.  (15b)

It’s as if the rich and powerful, newly arrived at Sheol, wake up to find the poor and righteous are now their masters. This is the same kind of upside down image that Jesus used in so many of his parables.

Our poet is saying that given the fate of the rich at life’s end—that they cannot wealth or fame with them—we do not need to fear them while they are alive:
Do not fear when a man grows rich
when he enlarges his house’s glory.
For in his death he will not take all.
His glory won’t go down behind him. (17, 18)

We need only think of deaths of celebrities to understand the truth of these words.

The rich man is centered on his own accomplishments, basically seeing himself as the source of blessings—even though he hypocritically thanks God publicly for his wealth:
For his own self he blesses when alive
and acclaims You for giving him bounty. (19).

But in the end it doesn’t really matter. Death is the great equalizer:
He will come to the state of his fathers—
forevermore will not see the light. (20)

Or as economists are wont to put it: in the long run we’re all dead.

But the real theme here is that the rich are deluded in their riches as the poet ends this psalm in the style of the author of Ecclesiastes:
Man will not grasp things in splendor.
He is likened to beasts that are doomed. (21)

Except that this last verse applies to everyone of us, not just the wealthy: we are kidding ourselves if we think our accomplishments will accompany us to the grave. It’s far better to focus on other people, not on accumulation of riches, fame, or power.

 Job 17, 18: Job is exhausted to the point of death:
My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,
the grave is ready for me. (17:1)

His erstwhile friends are of no use:
Since you have closed their minds to understanding,
 therefore you will not let them triumph. (17: 4)

Even the “upright are appalled at this,/ and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.” (8)  But now that they have seen what has happened to Job, all their preconceived notions of God being fair are shattered and “I shall not find a sensible person among you.” (17:10)

For Job’s world has been turned upside down:
My days are past, my plans are broken off,
the desires of my heart.
They make night into day. (17:11)

But even death itself cannot provide relief:
If I look for Sheol as my house,
 if I spread my couch in darkness,…
where then is my hope?
Who will see my hope? (17:13, 15)

For to die is to lose hope. And here in his most desperate hour, Job clings to that one last hope. This is an amazingly sophisticated thought: that to die, to pray for death, is to have lost all hope. For Job: hope is the only thing that that remains. Hope is what keeps him alive.

At this lowest point, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.  He, too, is not particularly sympathetic, viewing Job’s lament as a mere “hunt for words.” (18:2) Bildad’s theology is very black and white and cannot admit subtlety. He tells Job it’s really very simple: God punishes the wicked:
Surely the light of the wicked is put out,
 and the flame of their fire does not shine. (18:5)

He then gives a long sermon about the woes that the wicked enjoy, including some of what has happened to Job:
By disease their skin is consumed,
the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs. (18:13)

Bildad asserts that whether he wants to admit or not, everything that has happened to Job is a result of his sinfulness as he ends with the flat out declaration:
Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly,
such is the place of those who do not know God. (18: 21)

There are lots of Christians out there who see the world in these same black and white terms–exactly as the Pharisees saw before them: There are consequences. You did bad things and bad things happen to you. But I think the book of Job is in the Bible to prove that it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes bad things just happen in spite of our righteousness. As with Job, we are bereft of logical explanations; only hope remains.

Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9: Intriguingly, the Moravians bridge the end of Romans to the beginning of 1 Corinthians. We have the final doxology in Romans that uses very familiar words, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,…” (16:25) that leads inevitably to the greeting to the church at Corinth.

I think this is an interesting way to remind us that Paul was a generous and gracious man, who gave others the credit, but at the center of it all is Jesus Christ himself. The last words of Romans: “ to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” stand in perfect symmetry to the first words of I Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

While Romans was about the law, the letter to Corinth opens with grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:4) Knowing what comes later in this letter, we can understand why Paul opens with these encouraging words.

As in his letter to Rome, Jesus Christ stands at the center of everything as Paul repeats once again: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:8,9) 

The lexical message is clear: Jesus Christ was at the center of Paul’s message; he is at the center of ours, as well. It is our duty to acknowledge—and live—that reality.

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