Is the Believer’s Death Precious to God?
I’m speaking primarily to fellow pastors and teachers. In our sermons and lessons, we tend to recycle biblical phrases, aphorisms, interpretations, and sometimes even clichés that we have heard others use. Rather than say something original from our own study, we insert into our delivery homiletical phraseology we have picked up over the years from the sermons of others. This mimicry is not always a bad thing. In fact, for those of us who speak often, the ability to borrow popular expressions or sermonic ideas from time to time is part of our stock-in-trade. However, we do not always take the time to investigate for ourselves the truth of what we are repeating. And this lack of diligence can lead to our recycling a wrong interpretation unwittingly.
For example, years ago when preaching a message of comfort at a funeral service, I threw in a reference to Psalm 116:15a, which reads,
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
I recited the verse on that occasion because I had heard other pastors use it at funerals and because it speaks of God’s concern for the death of his chosen ones. However, it was not until sometime later while I was preparing a sermon on all of Psalm 116 that my exegesis led me to take a closer look at this text.
Why would the death of God’s people be “precious” to him? Does God rejoice when they die? If so, perhaps it is because God is glad for their sakes. For his people do not actually die, but they enter into his presence, and this meeting is indeed “precious.” On the other hand, however, if God welcomes the deaths of his people (McCann, 1996), doesn’t this deprecate in some way the joyful fellowship and fulness of life that the Bible says they should already experience as they “walk” with God? I realize that this fellowship is finally consistent and complete when we are with the Lord, and that is an experience that none of us can even fathom. Nevertheless, if the end of life is the precious part of our walk with God, why doesn’t God take more of us home to be with him earlier then he does? Why does Paul say that he will honor Christ just as well in his living as in his dying, even though his personal preference would be to depart and meet the Lord (Phil 1:20–24)? Why does David rejoice that God will not abandon him to Sheol and corruption, but will make him know life, fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore through his living and walking with God (Psalm 16:11)?
C. Leupold (1961) says that the verse is a reference to the watchful care of God during the deaths of his people, and J. M. Boice (1998) writes that God comforts them in their deaths. In fact, Psalm 116:15 is one of the texts that gave the martyrs of the early church great comfort when they faced their trials and sometimes torturous deaths in meeting the Lord. Augustine notes that while the world looked upon these faithful believers and “jeered at them as worthless,” God himself regarded their martyrdoms as “precious” in his eyes (Sermon 286.3).
Augustine also surmised much about the connection between the blood of the martyrs and the blood of Christ. God considers the deaths who die in the Lord “precious” because his Son died to redeem them and to bring them into his presence (Tractates on the Gospel of John 47.2.2; Sermons 275.3; 276.4; 318.1; 329.1). Likewise, C. H. Spurgeon, in his famous Treasury of David, says that there is an implicit as well as an explicit understanding of the phrase. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death for his saints,” because Jesus died for them; and, therefore, “Precious is the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
Despite these wonderful reflections, however, we must come back to the psalm itself in order to interpret the meaning of the text in its context. When we do so, we discover that the statement about the death of God’s people being precious to him seems completely out of place. Psalm 116 is a celebration of the fact, not that God comforted the psalmist in death, but that he delivered him from death.
I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;
9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living (Ps 116:1–9).
Here, the psalmist has recently faced some life-threatening situation that is not known to us. He was, it appears, even near death (v. 3). But he cried for mercy (vv. 1, 4) and God answered and delivered him (vv. 6–8). Now he will walk before the Lord in the land of the living (v. 8). Not only that, but later the psalmist also says that he will entered the house of the Lord to offer the public thank offering as a testimony of God’s goodness to him in saving his life from death.
What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people (Ps 116:12–14).
It is in this context that we come to verse 15 and the translation, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Why would the psalmist suddenly speak of the death of the saints being precious to God when he has been celebrating the life of the saints that God has sustained?
Furthermore, when we look at the larger theology of the Psalms, it is always this same sustaining grace from God shown in preserving alive the souls of his people for which God is celebrated and for which his blessings are evident. David was looking for the goodness of the Lord “in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). In fact, David even argues with God that if God were to let him die it would reflect badly on God.
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? (Ps 30:9)
In the same vein the author of Psalm 88 argues for his life,
10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Ps 88:10–12)
There is also a verse that is remarkably parallel to our phrase in Ps 116:16. In Ps 72:14, Solomon writes, “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.” The word “blood” is often used in the Hebrew language as code for “death” (e.g., Ezek 3:18). In this context, Solomon rejoices in the fact that God delivers the needy, the poor, and the weak, preserving them (Ps 72:12–13). The fact, then, that their “blood” or death is “precious” does not mean that they die, but that they live.
How, then, do we explain Ps 116:15 in the context of the entire psalm? The answer appears to be the way the word “precious” has been traditionally mistranslated. The word is yāqārhas the idea not only of something that is precious, but also something that is rare (McCann, 1996), prized, or highly valued (Ross, 2016). If we translated the verse with the ability to work with this wider semantic range, the psalmist appears to be saying that because God preserves the lives of his people, their untimely deaths are rare. In fact, A. P. Ross (2016) summarizes the entire psalm in this way: “Because the death of his saints is precious in his sight, the Lord is faithful to deliver them from suffering and premature death by his grace and compassion so that they might acknowledge his goodness in the presence of all the saints.” Similarly, J. Goldingay (2008) writes, “The implication is that Yhwh would therefore not let their death come about; and that is what the worshiper has proved.” L. C. Allen (1983) explains, “The psalmist has learned by experience how reluctant Yahweh is to allow the premature death of those who are united to him in the covenant relationship, and how quickly he rushes to avert such a tragedy” (see also D. Kidner, 1973; F.-L. Hossfield and E. Zenger, 2011).
Does this interpretation mean, then, that we are unwise to cite this verse in a funeral sermon, given the fact that the believer whose life we eulogize in the service did, in fact, die? Not necessarily (although, because Psalm 116 addresses the situation of an untimely death, the verse may not be as fitting for the service of those dear saints who have lived out their natural lives). We must also consider in our interpretation of this verse the prepositional phrase, “in the eyes of the Lord.” This phrase indicates the watchful eye of God on his children during the time of their deaths or near-deaths. Even if the use of the phrase in the context of the Psalms 116 and 72 means that God actually preserves their lives, it still reminds us that God is our loving, sovereign Shepherd who cares greatly whether his people live or die. As F. Delitzsch (1867) explains, “The death of his saints is no trifling matter with God; he does not lightly suffer it to come about; he does not suffer his own to be torn away from him by death” (see also W. A. VanGemeren, 1991).
So, although the believer’s transition into the presence of the Lord in death is certainly a precious event of inestimable worth to the believer and, by God’s grace, to the Lord himself, it does not appear that this particular verse, Ps 116:15 is referring to that event. Nevertheless, Ps 116:15 does remind us that our lives are under the loving and watchful care of our God. There is nothing that can end our lives without his knowledge our outside his governing control. And in that knowledge we can certainly rest.