Does Psalm 49:7 say Jesus could not ransom us?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: Does Psalm 49:7 mean Jesus couldn't have taken the punishment we deserve for our sins... that he did not ransom us?

Answer: It will be my pleasure to answer your question today — and this is an interesting one… but don’t worry: Jesus did indeed take the punishment for our sins! ... and he paid our ransom! … and although there are many reasons why Psalm 49:7 does not militate against this notion, I’ll share the four that will likely be the most useful to you in the future.

The first solution has to do with how God dispenses information throughout the ages. We call God’s information output his revelation… and revelation comes in two flavors: special (the Bible) and general (his creation). But knowing how God distributed that information through the ages is critical for your question.

God has revealed himself bit by bit throughout the ages… which is evidenced in Scripture — and here’s the thing: the Bible did not fall from heaven in a complete volume. It grew through the ages as the Jews learned about God and wrote things down. It’s easy to forget this since we have the completed volume, but the Bible is really a story that progresses through time... and concepts like Jesus paying our ransom are not fully developed until the New Testament.

But it’s not just the Bible that was progressive. God created us with a capacity to figure things out. So, not only can we collect and make sense of the Scripture God has given us, we can collectively make sense of physical phenomena. What this means is that we grow in both kinds of knowledge — knowledge of God (through reading about his interactions with his people) and knowledge of the universe (through our interactions with the physical world)… and where there is growth, there were periods of incomplete knowledge along the way.

The thing we cannot do, therefore, is to take a sampling of historical knowledge (as ransom in Psalm 49), compare it to our newer information (as ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6)… and then say that they are in contradiction. This would be like refusing to give someone a high school diploma because an age-appropriate answer he gave on 4th-grade paper contradicted a newer discovery about space! We understand that knowledge progresses… and we do not punish ourselves because of that process. In fact, we rejoice in the process of learning!

This is why we must always understand the cultural context of God’s word. For instance, the Old Testament tells us that we must sacrifice bulls and goats to cover our sins (Leviticus 4). But the New Testament tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross (how he paid our ransom) will do that job. What we have is a situation where the former circumstance informs the latter… but it does not undo the latter… and it does not cause the latter to be in contradiction with the former.

It might be helpful to think of the New Testament revelations as actual items and the Old Testament revelations as their shadows.

“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1, NIV) (See also 8:5; Colossians 2:7)

We have another example of shadows (foreshadowing) in the book of Ruth which speaks wonderfully of ransom and redemption. Boaz is a type of Christ in this Old Testament drama (a “type” is a specialized biblical symbol)… and there is any number of elements in this story that would seem to be at variance in New Testament times because of the story’s antiquity. But this book stands while the blood but sacrifice of our kinsman redeemer is played out in Jesus Christ who paid our ransom (Ruth 3:9).

What we have then are Old Testament ways of doing things that will always be 100% true and 100% part of Scripture — but where the revelation in the New Testament will trump those elements when it comes to our faith and our practice. Since this is a natural way to process information (and to progress as a people), it can never be said that the old way of doing things contradicts the newer way — even if it espouses the exact opposite… as you see Psalm 49:7 doing so with the idea of a ransom. Look at how the writer of Hebrews explains this phenomenon.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” (Hebrews 1:1–4, NIV)

The second reason that Psalm 49:7 is not in contradiction with the New Testament notion of ransom and redemption is that it is talking about being redeemed from physical death, not eternal death. (I have no suggestion here except to read the entire Psalm again.) As such, verse seven is not equivalent to the New Testament notions of ransom for purposes of testing contradiction. In logic, this is called a category error. You can’t compare dissimilar things… like apples and oranges… Psalm 49 being the apples and the New Testament’s revelation of Jesus Christ paying our ransom being the oranges.

My third reason has to do with your methodology: you haven’t made a cumulative case… and you are suffering for it. Before you challenge a piece of Scripture, you need all the data. That starts with all the relevant Scripture, but it extends to trusted commentaries. My point here is, defending Scripture is a lot of work… but therefore… so shouldn’t challenging it be. One should not just grab a verse that seems to offer a challenge and then run with that. One should consider all the data — prayerfully and carefully — and only then step forward to challenge or defend
(2 Timothy 2:14-15).

Fourth and finally, a line of poetry does not have the same epistemological weight as does a New Testament passage that is designed to teach doctrine. The Psalms are poetry… and we must think twice before developing doctrine in that kind of isolation. Now, the Bible is all God’s inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16) — and it all counts… but it all doesn’t count equally in developing or challenging doctrine. Look at Psalm 49:7.

“No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them—” (Psalm 49:7, NIV)

Now look at a few New Testament verses that are designed to teach this doctrine.

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—”
(Romans 3:21–25, NIV)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13, NIV)

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7, NIV)

“who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14, NIV)

“He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12, NIV)

As you can see, these New Testament verses are clearly about eternal redemption in Jesus Christ… and not merely about death versus life. Also, they form a battery — the beginnings of a cumulative case. Furthermore, they are not poetry. They are descriptions of advanced concepts... like ransom and redemption. As such, one verse from the Psalms — although fully God’s word and beautiful in form — does not have the power to overturn the Bible’s central theme: the redemption of the world and its people through Jesus Christ... and the beautiful image of him paying our ransom.

I pray that all this review of language use, our ransom and our redemption has helped you.

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