A riddle is a puzzle in the form of a question or rhyme that contains clues to its answer, which is puzzling or confusing. The Hebrew word, chidah, means “riddle” or “ambiguous saying.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says,

A derivation has been suggested from Aramaic ʾăḥad “hold fast, cover,” for the Aramaic ʾaîdâ “riddle” (cf. Dan 5:12). The îdâ is an enigmatic saying, question, or story whose meaning must be determined by the audience.

It is used seventeen times. The KJV translates it nine times as “riddle,” five times as “dark” sentences, speeches, or sayings, twice as “hard questions,” and once as “proverb.”

It is used eight times in Jud 14 of “riddles” propounded by Samson to the Philistine guests at his wedding. These were conundrums involving a contest of wits, a source of entertainment popular among Arabs today. Cf. the contest of the guardsmen in I Esd 3:4–24.

At a higher social level the îdôt in I Kgs 10:1 (II Chr 9:1) were “difficult questions” posed by the Queen of Sheba to test Solomon’s reputation for wisdom. Josephus (Antiquities 8.5.3 [143]) describes Hiram of Tyre sending Solomon “tricky problems and enigmatic sayings.”

The Psalmist in Ps 49:4 [H 5] speaks of the “riddle” of life, death, and redemption.

In Num 12:8 the “dark speeches” denote the indirect revelations ordinarily given by the Lord, in contrast to the face-to-face mode of communication granted to Moses.[1]

Numbers 12:8

With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”

God told the Israelites that he speaks with Moses plainly, not in confusing riddles, or ambiguous sayings, so that he will be understood.

Daniel 8:23

23 And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise.

Scholars agree that Daniel 8:23 is speaking of the  wicked king, Antiochus IV, who certainly was “a master of intrigue.” (Slotki, Daniel, 70)

Psalm 49:4

I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.

The Hebrew word, chidah, is used as an expression corresponding to “a proverb,” because a riddle can very much be a statement, which possess much meaning, but is used with ambiguous language.


Proverbs 30:18-19

 18 Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: 19the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.

There is a similarity to the above list. An eagle soars through sky; the way of a serpent on a rock is that it crosses the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas as it cuts through the waves. The similarity is that none of these three leaves a trail, which does not allow anyone to follow their path. This now helps us establish the similarity of number four, where the proverb was leading us, “the way of a man with a virgin.”

A man may engage in cunning ways of using insincere flattery and pleasantness, especially in order to persuade somebody to do something, to capitalize upon the friendliness of an innocent virgin. She is innocent and untested; she would not be able to discover his charms. It is nearly impossible for her to see the trail or path of a seductive man, yet he has a goal just as “the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas.” The seductive man has the objective of exploiting her for sex.

Proverbs 1:5-6

Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

Framing a riddle, which frequently comprises an ambiguous but accurate analogy, involves a powerful and deep mind and cracking such riddle calls for the facility to see how things relate to one another; accordingly, the Bible speaks of riddles as belonging to wise persons and as something, a man of understanding comprehends. This same Hebrew word, which is rendered as “riddles” many times throughout the Hebrew Old Testament, is also rendered “difficult questions,” in a different context. – 2 Chronicles 9:1

God himself inspired writers to use riddles or ambiguous sayings or words when speaking of his will and purposes. These are statements, which at first seem quite perplexing (because the answer is obscured), but after the time of the original writer, they are understood, making perfect sense.

Zechariah 3:8 Updated American Standard Version (USV)

Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the sprout.

 In the above text, Zechariah and those he spoke to, would not have known whom God was referring to when he spoke of “my servant the sprout.” They do not know that he is the offspring of the royal line of David, the Son of God, who would be born of a virgin, herself a descendant of King David.

Revelation 13:18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Notice first, we are not told the significance of the number six hundred and sixty-six. However, we are told here who will ascertain the significance of that number, the “one who has understanding.” We do know some things. We know that “man” (Gk., anthrōpos), often signifies the whole of mankind, i.e., humanity. We also know that the number six in the Bible, one less than seven (perfect) can denote imperfection. We also know that when something is mentioned three times, it is a way of intensifying what is being said. Therefore, six hundred and sixty-six (666) could be signifying gross human imperfection.

Riddles are designed to confuse and puzzle the hearer. The objective of the riddle is to obscure the significance from everyone, expect those who have understanding. The reason the King James Version rendered Hebrew term five times as “dark sentences,” is because “the Hebrew word for riddle (chidah) is from a root which means to twist, or tie a knot, and is used of any dark and intricate saying, which requires peculiar skill and insight to unravel.” (Terry 1883, 268)  While what is said is true, the reader should see the root fallacy section below in chapter 7.

A Riddle with a Reassuring Response

Throughout history, many have been jealous of or even confounded by the man who lives outside of the law. Many times, the dishonest and corrupt man will gain a position of great authority. After that, he will take advantage of; dominate the poor, and the troubled. Should we live in fear of the wicked man? This very question a component of the riddle is answered in Psalm 49,[2] a psalm of the sons of Korah. It begins,

Psalm 49:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

49 Hear this, all peoples!
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together.
My mouth will speak wisdom,
the meditation of my heart will be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will expound my riddle with the harp.

Anders and Lawson write, “The psalmist called upon all the peoples of the world, both those in low and high positions of society. He requested that they hear what his mouth would speak. This was a man who had to be heard. He conveyed words of wisdom (Heb. hokma, ‘skill in successful living’) which would give understanding (Heb. tebuna, ‘prudence, insight, discretion’). In words similar to Solomon, the psalmist declared, I will turn my ear to a proverb to teach it. Others would hear this psalm sung accompanied by the harp.”[3]

Psalm 49:5-6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the very error of my persecutors[4] surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?

Anders and Lawson write go on saying, “The psalmist was perplexed about why he should fear when evil days came—evil days caused by wicked deceivers. He knew that the success of those who trusted in their wealth and boasted of their great riches was short-lived. Although they strutted about in pride, God would bring them down in judgment.”[5]

Psalm 49:7-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Surely no man can redeem a brother,
Or give to God a ransom for him,[6]
(for the redemption of their[7] soul is costly,
and it always fails),
that he should live on forever
and not see the pit.[8]

Anders and Lawson write, “Wealth cannot redeem (Heb. pada, ‘to ransom, purchase’) the life of another and provide escape from death. Life is such a costly commodity that it may not be purchased. No payment, even from the wealthiest man, is ever enough to deliver from the certain destiny of death and decay.”[9]

Psalm 49:10-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

10 For he sees that even wise men die;
the fool and the senseless alike must perish
and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their inner wish[10] is that their houses will last forever,
their dwelling places from generation to generation,
they have called their lands after their own names.
12 Man in his pomp will not remain;
he is like the beasts that perish.[11]

Anders and Lawson write, “It is obvious to any observer of life that wise men die just like the foolish and the senseless. Death is no respecter of persons. All will leave their wealth to others when they die (Eccl. 2:19–21). Their tombs will become their new houses, even though their names are attached to large estates which remain. No matter how much money a person may have, he cannot escape death for he will not endure. He will die like the beasts that perish (Eccl. 3:19).”[12]

Psalm 49:13-15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
and those after them who accept their words. Sela[13]
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;[14]
death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning,
and their form shall be for Sheol[15] to consume, so that they have no habitation.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the hand[16] of Sheol,[17]
for he will receive me. Selah[18]!

Anders and Lawson write, “The phrase those who trust in themselves refers to the proud rich. Their fate will be like that of sheep being led to the grave. The upright will ultimately triumph over the wicked, whether in this life or in the life beyond the grave. Regarding the righteous, the psalmist knew God would redeem their lives from the grave, paying the ransom himself. This is a payment that no man could pay (vv. 7–8). Thus, the psalmist knew that God would take him to himself after death (Ps. 73:24), a fate unlike that of those who trusted in themselves.”[19]

Psalm 49:16-19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
18 For during his lifetime he kept blessing his own soul
(men praise you when you do well for yourself)
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never again see light.

Anders and Lawson write, “Because the wicked would perish in spite of their wealth (vv. 6–14), the godly must not let the prosperity of the rich captivate their hearts. Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, the psalmist warned. The rich who die would take nothing with them (cp. Eccl. 5:15). Why envy the temporal trappings of a meaningless life? After death the wealthy who trusted in their riches would never see the light of life.”[20]

Psalm 49:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

Anders and Lawson write, “Ending this psalm with dramatic bluntness, the psalmist described a person who has riches in this world yet does not understand spiritual truths about God, eternity, and redemption. Such a person is like the beasts that perish. They have fleeting riches that will soon be taken away by death. It is far better to fear God.”[21]

With these words of 49:1, we see that both the rich and the poor could benefit from what was to follow. We see in Psalm 49:3-4 that what the Psalmist expressed came about through the meditation under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. This is no mere wisdom from man. Under inspiration, he would present his riddle or perplexing problem. In Psalm 49:5, we learn the question, “Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the very error of my persecutors surrounds me”? Yes, should he give way to fear when times of trouble and difficulty come a calling because persecutors, wicked men wish to deprive him of his God given rights? These persecutors were wealthy men. These wealthy persecutors used their power to make even more profits unjustly as they took advantage of the poor. We should not fear such ones, nor envy the wealth and power that they might enjoy. The only possession that they have is their wealth. They have no friends, no loved ones, just those who obey them through fear and persecution. The only life they have is one of boasting own instead of looking to the Creator, who brought these things into existence. Their trust lays in their wealth, not the Almighty God. These wicked ones will not live forever, and their riches are but for a mere moment of time.

As the psalmist points out at 49:6-10, riches cannot save your brother from death. We could accumulate all of the wealth on the planet, and that is not enough to cover the ransom of one human life. Human imperfection and death are inevitable. Being ransomed from sin and death is beyond all humans. There is no amount of money or any technology, which will cover the price and prevent any man from suffering the penalty of death, allowing him to continue living. “Even wise men die; the fool and the senseless alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.” (49:10) The wealthy wicked one would like it to be otherwise. Thus, in compensation, they believe that they can at least keep the family name alive from generation to generation.

Since these wicked ones have used their family name, they believe they are perpetuating their memory. (49:11-14) However, they do not understand that they are but mere dust. Even though for a very brief time, their wealth and power gave them a name, it will not last forever. They may attempt to sear their family name in the minds of humans for generations to come but that will only be short lived. Even ancient names like Alexander the Great, Roman Emperor Nero and Caligula, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and more recently, Adolf Hitler, will live on in this brief time of imperfection. However, after Armageddon and the millennium, once perfect humanity is hundreds of millions of years removed from this era, who will be thinking of them? The will be no more remembered than unreasoning animals that perish.

In 49:15-20, the Psalmist contrasts his life with that of the wealthy, powerful, persecutor. Like the Psalmist, we need to focus our lives on the doing of the Fathers will (Matt. 7:21-23), and not be sidetracked. The apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. The world is passing away, and its lusts; but the one who does the will of God remains forever.” (1 John 2:15-17) If we do the will of the Father, he will rescue us from Sheol, not allowing us to suffer an everlasting death that the wicked faces. Thus, his life will be given not to Sheol but into the hands of God. When we have God, there is no reason to give into the fear of man, not envy his wealth. The only thing the wicked man will inherit from his forefathers and pass onto his offspring is death. Hence, the wicked one has only a world of darkness, not light. Therefore, the wealthy, self-seeking wicked man will live like a beast and perishes like a beast.

Review Questions

  • What is a riddle?
  • How is the word “riddle” used within Scripture?
  • Explain the riddle at Proverbs 30:18-19.
  • What is one reason God inspired some writers to pen riddles within their book?
  • What is the answer to the riddle about fearing the oppression of the wicked, wealthy unrighteous man?

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[1] Edwin Yamauchi, “616 חוּד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 267.

[2] 49:1 all peoples . . . all inhabitants. The scope of his message is geographically universal. 49:2 low and high, rich and poor. Note the chiastic order (i.e., A-B; B-A) of these descriptives. The scope of his message is also socially universal.―MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Kindle Locations 22116-22117). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[3] Anders, Max; Lawson, Steven. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Psalms: 11 (pp. 257-258). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[4] Lit supplanters

[5] Ibid., p. 258

[6] Lit his cover; Heb. kophroh

[7] their MT Syr; LXX Vg his

[8] Or grave

[9] Ibid., p. 258

[10] LXX Sy Vg, their graves

[11] Lit are destroyed

[12] Ibid., p. 258

[13] It may mean a “pause, suspension, or holding back.”

[14] Sheol occurs sixty-six times in the UASV. The Greek Septuagint renders Sheol as Hades. It has the underlying meaning of ‘a place of the dead, where they are conscious of nothing, awaiting a resurrection, for both the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Gen. 37:35; Psa. 16:10; Ac 2:31; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15) It corresponds to “Hades” in the NT. It does not involve torment and punishment.

[15] Sheol occurs sixty-six times in the UASV. The Greek Septuagint renders Sheol as Hades. It has the underlying meaning of ‘a place of the dead, where they are conscious of nothing, awaiting a resurrection, for both the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Gen. 37:35; Psa. 16:10; Ac 2:31; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15) It corresponds to “Hades” in the NT. It does not involve torment and punishment.

[16] i.e., power of

[17] Sheol occurs sixty-six times in the UASV. The Greek Septuagint renders Sheol as Hades. It has the underlying meaning of ‘a place of the dead, where they are conscious of nothing, awaiting a resurrection, for both the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Gen. 37:35; Psa. 16:10; Ac 2:31; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15) It corresponds to “Hades” in the NT. It does not involve torment and punishment.

[18] It may mean a “pause, suspension, or holding back.”

[19] Ibid., p. 258

[20] Ibid, p. 258

[21] Ibid., p. 258