Psalm 49.5-9, 13-15:
Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
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.
Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of thosed who are pleased with their lot. Selah
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.
In the past few years, I have developed a particular distaste for various theories of atonement. I am sympathetic with people’s desires to try to rationally explain and understand the atonement, but various attempts to explain the atonement do not pay much attention to the way the Scriptures actually speak about atonement, but instead, find what ultimately amounts to metaphors to explain the atonement and redemption found in the cross of Jesus Christ.
A common consequence of this need to explain the atonement is to fashion an idol that mediates between God and humanity. By idol, to be clear, I don’t mean something we necessarily worship, but some being or power other than God that we must please or appease in order for the being or power to either bless us or to not hurt us. What explains the atonement is given the power of the atonement in our minds, at least in part, to determines the fates and futures of our lives. Whatever is brought up to other than God and *His own choice to redeem* amounts to idolatry, including abstracting and hypostatizing specifically qualities of God that are necessary for God to successfully act to redeem humans.
One of the cases of idolatry in the atonement is that of punishment. Sin must be punished, so God must satisfy the need for punishment of our sins to redeem, often with the idea that this necessity comes from God’s own nature. The net effect of this is to raise up punishment as the lens through which the world is understood. The proponents of his view of atonement readily look at the “world,” that is everyone who doesn’t embrace their definition of Christianity, as disobedient, godless individuals who God will eventually judge and punish. The only way to escape the grasp of this idol is to “believe” in Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins. Amidst all of this, the concern about sin evident in this is not the actual harm that sin creates, but a concern that one adheres to the “truth” of God. In other words, there is a body of “truths” that one must adhere to, deviance from these truths is sin, and this means one is deserving of punishment. Even when this understanding of the world is mediated with talk of love and grace, underneath this is anthropology that looks at people through the lens of conformity and punishment.
A similar type of idolatry seems to be happening in Psalm 49. This psalm is a psalm that ultimately talks about the folly of trust in wealth and riches, which in my mind likely instructed Jesus about the idol of wealth. At the end of the psalm, the psalmist labels those who have wealth but no understanding as beasts that perish (Psa. 49.20). Most likely, this zoomorphic metaphor is used to describe the way people who trust in their wealth think. The psalm begins with a call to listen to the word of wisdom (Psa. 49.1-4), foregrounding the importance of human understanding and thinking in the rest of the psalm. So, in calling the ignorant wealthy as beasts, most likely he is attributing the lack of intelligence of beasts to them.
So, when we come to verses 7-9, we are most likely looking at a correction of the way those who trust in riches think. In their idolizing wealth, they have attributed to it power over their lives, a power that they think assures their well-being and greatness. In such a mindset, it may have been the temptation to think that one’s wealth could even atone for a person’s sins. After all, if sacrifice an animal for one’s sins was part of the Levitical system of atonement, so the wealthy may have been inclined to think the significance of that act is that God wants their money and wealth. In favor of this is that the psalmist uses the atonement term כָּפְרֽ (cf. כַפֵּ֥ר in Lev. 1.4, 10.17, 14.21, 29), likely indicating that the wealthy associated money with atonement. Hence, the Psalmist states forthrightly that no price can redeem a man from death and appeals (Psa 49.7-9) to the readily recognizable of the death of the wise and wealthy as evidence that wealth does not atone (Psa. 47.10-11).
What has seemed to occur among the wealth is what I would term a wealth-anthropology, a way of thinking that designates the value, significance, purpose, and well-being of humans to the wealth that they or do not possess. Wealth has become a powerful idol that they project onto God. Yet, the Psalmist entirely subverts this anthropology of the wealthy that exalts themselves at the top, calling them beasts and implying they are ignorant.
In a similar way, a punishment-anthropology can be a reflection of those who think themselves at the top of righteousness and truth. They view human life through the lens of what they deem they are superior at, at least implicitly, and thereby see human life through the lens of punishment. Granted, they accept in theory that even they could not atone for themselves, but in practicality, by thinking that atonement for punishment occurs by having the right belief, and they think they have a full handle on the truth, they believe that they have received atonement for their sins through their beliefs. Hence, they see themselves at the top of this punishment-anthropology that sees people through the lens of conformity to specific patterns of “righteousness” and “truth” that they understand with great confidence.
Yet, what does the psalmist say about atonement? God doesn’t redeem life from the punishment of sin, but the power of Sheol, the reality of death. The concern for the psalmist is the ongoing nature of life that he (and others like him) will experience because he trusts in God and does not abide by the seductive power of riches. In correcting the wealth-anthropology of the wealthy, the psalmist reminds others that it is God Himself who redeems. There is nothing that can be offered up to ransom one’s life other than the simple fact that God will receive them (Psalm 49.15). God’s willful agency to redeem from death those who He chooses to accept, and nothing else, is at the heart of the ransoming from death.
Such a word is an important word to be reminded of in modern discussions on atonement. How readily do people unwittingly lift up idols that end up doing more than just simply explaining the atonement, but subtly but powerfully forming the way we see and understand people. When one’s atonement is centered around the idea of punishment for deviance, is it any wonder that religious traditions that embrace this view are often consumed with all the “sins” and “lies” of those who do not adhere to their system of religion and piety? People’s value, significance, and value is reduced down to how they fit within the pattern about sin and falsehood that the ardent teachers of this view have constructed out of their minds, with the Scripture becoming only a loose inspiration, finding their own images and thoughts reflected in the ambiguity of the words of Scripture that should otherwise invite careful and humble reflection and meditation.
The Scriptures, both Old and New, testify to God’s power over death, not power over punishment. May we learn to increasingly distance ourselves from punishment anthropologies and discover a new anthropology that comes to fruition when we trust in God’s power over death through the cross. God chooses to restore from the power of death those who accept Christ’s cross as teaching them to become a living sacrifice themselves. God doesn’t have to satisfy some other need or power, including a hypostatized necessity to punish sin, but He has compassion on whom He chooses to simply because He chooses to have compassion.