Psalm 49 is a Psalm of wisdom, a parable and riddle (vv. 3-4). Like other wisdom Psalms, it addresses the question of the prosperity of the wicked – the ancient Israelite version of the problem of evil (vv. 5-6).
Being wise when you see the wicked prosper means seeing the end, which is to say, knowing death. The wicked may prosper but they die and leave riches to others (v. 10); they won’t carry anything to the grave, and their glory will slip to Sheol after them (vv. 17-18). They may call their lands by their names, earning eternal fame, but they can’t enjoy it because they are forever in their tomb (v. 11). Death shepherds them down to the pit (v. 14), and their beauty fades in the dwelling of the dead (v. 15). They perish like beasts because they have no understanding (vv. 12, 21).
How does that help? We might feel some Schadenfreude seeing them die in their ignorance, but “the wise die also” (v. 10). This seems no more than the sardonic wisdom of the cynic: “Yeah, you’re prospering now, but you’ll die. I’ll die too, but at least I know that it’s coming.” Or worse: “You’re enjoying life now, but we’ll meet again on equal terms – in the grave!”
Acknowledging the universality of death is wisdom, according to Psalm 49, not to mention Ecclesiastes. But there’s another thread in the riddle, so brief that one can almost miss it: “God shall ransom my soul; from the grasp of death he will take me” (v. 16). The wisdom of death can’t stand alone. It requires the wisdom of resurrection for its completion.