Theology in 3D

Is the Believer’s Death Precious to God?

Greg Stiekes | December 1, 2017
New Testament

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.

Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.

Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.

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.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;

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.

25 responses to “Is the Believer’s Death Precious to God?”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Thanks for this, Greg. Once I chose Psalm 116:15 for a funeral sermon for someone whose death was unexpected. But I interpreted and applied it similarly to how you’re arguing. The verse can work as a funeral text, but not in the way people typically understand it. Here are some of the thoughts I shared, edited from my sermon notes….
    This OT word “precious” can be translated “rare” or “uncommon,” e.g., 1 Sam. 3:1, “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” More specifically “precious” refers to the great value of something that is rare. It can be translated “costly” or “valuable.” It’s used to refer to a precious stone in David’s crown (2 Sam. 12:30) and the costly stones used in the foundation of the Temple (1 Kgs. 15:17). Spiritually, it describes Christ as a precious cornerstone, providing us security and stability for life and for eternity (Isa. 28:16).
    We can understand how gems are precious and how Christ is precious. But what does it mean that someone’s death is precious to God? Negatively, it means that God is not complacent or apathetic about a believer’s death. Positively, that death is valuable to him in the sense that is meaningful to him; he views it with intense concern and care; it is something to which he gives special attention….
    The psalmist is saying, “God’s not going to let me die any old way. He cares greatly about my death. He has a specific plan for how I’m going to die, and this particular threat was not it. So he stepped in and delivered me from the attack I was facing.” It’s easy to say that when God spares our lives, but it applies at the time of death as well. When a Christian dies, it means that the time has come that God has deliberately and carefully and individually planned for him….
    In fact, God is so concerned about this matter of our death that he did everything that was necessary so that death would not lead to our eternal destruction. God was so devoted to freeing us from the claws of death that he put his own Son, Jesus Christ, to death as our Substitute….

  2. Matthew Mason says:

    Thank you for giving the right interpretation and application. To hope in what God said; that He holds our lives in His hands forever.

  3. Joshua Jensen says:

    I was reading from Lewis’s The Last Battle not long after reading this post and came to the battle itself, where King Tirian resolves to ‘sell his life dear’ – a perhaps parallel expression.

  4. Seth says:

    Wow! I really appreciate you going into this in greater depth. I am happy to finally understand what this verse means, taking into consideration the rest of what the Bible says. At the same time, I am so saddened to hear this verse quoted often in the Evangelical Circle whenever somebody within Christ dies. It now seems unconscionable to me to think that God would rejoice that his saints die, especially since most saints who have been noted as martyrs as well as countless others who have not been remembered by men for long, have died horribly gruesome deaths. It is translation issues and eisegetical interpretations like these which truly harm the modern body of Christ in the common person’s mind. This is just another reminder that exegesis is such an important biblical tool of study and should be used scrupulously. Quite sad to understand that history, as well as the ideas of former translators, have most likely lent to the modern interpretation we see at eulogies today…

  5. Denise says:

    I have never heard this verse at a funeral/ home going only absence from the body present with the Lord, but I have not been to many either. I believe this verse precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful saints as you said means when faithful people die they are in the Lord’s presence and the Lord is glad because they were faithful and they are with Him now and will not die. I hope I have stated this right thank you for sharing this!

  6. Betty says:

    I really liked this verse and found it especially comforting after my mother’s recent death. Yes, I know you can’t just pull a verse out of the Bible and make it mean anything YOU want it to. I really liked the reply Denise (3-18-21) wrote-it makes sense and is written simply. Sometimes in the exegesis of a verse or group of verses, the author goes down so many rabbit trails, the true meaning gets gobbled up with thoughts running all over the place. If a verse like Psalm 116:15 should not be used at a funeral, what verses should be used? I didn’t see any reference to that.

  7. Mwanza Nadziona says:

    When my husband who was a pastor died a month ago I felt like God hated us and I wondered why He allowed it to happen at the time when his ministry had just grown .. that verse in a way brought me comfort as I understood it in the way Denise explained it on March, 18th 2021. It definitely only applies to those who served God in truth and have left to join him..

  8. Rev okafor Friday says:

    Thank you so much for your homiletic explanation, however those using this at funerals may not be theologically misleading ,it all depends on their hemuletical abilities.

  9. Betty, I think you can use 1 Thessalonians 3:13-18 at a Christian funeral to encourage the brethren I their time of pain and sorrow.

  10. Betty, I think you can use 1 Thessalonians 3:13-18 at a Christian funeral to encourage the brethren in their time of pain and sorrow.

  11. Linda says:

    I think u meant 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 chapter 4 not 3

  12. Elenatina says:

    I think this has nothing to do with the saints of God. The word saint in the original is in singular and not plural.

    So it is best read as weighty, precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his Holy One.

    So I think, this verse means the death of Jesus on the cross is extremely precious and of great value to the Father. May we also esteem the death of Jesus the same way – extremely precious!

  13. Marian Elder says:

    I see God’s Word enduring to all generations. Even if the psalmist was referring to Christ’s death on the Cross, we have been made righteous by His death, burial, and resurrection.we are now called “the sons of God” and claim our inheritance as sons. Another reference to God’s care and consideration for the deaths of the saints is found in the 23rd Psalm, “yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me……..”. All of God’s Word has relevance to past, present, and future. God bless.

  14. Fane Conanf says:

    The real lesson from this is to read a verse in context and not to make it say something that the overall teaching of the passage won’t allow.

    Romans 8: 28 is another example of a verse used often out of context.
    Verse 29 makes clear that God works for the good of those who have been called according to his purpose…so that they may conformed to the image of his Son. That is our greatest good, living our lives conforming to Jesus’s image and likeness.

  15. Drickus Nel says:

    Luke 22:42
    saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.”

    Rom 14:8-9
    For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die , we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die , we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

    Phil 1:21
    For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

  16. Steve A Weeks says:

    The Psalmist does mention (soul) several times while writing about himself and his troubles. I completely agree with the use of this verse in a funeral, as well as almost any other. If you are sick, layed off, or in a disagreement, do you beg for your soul as in verse 4?

  17. Lawrence Fortune says:

    The psalmist never indicated that he was facing mortal death. That is an interpretation readers assume, because it makes more sense to them. But the psalms are ultimately about Christ. If we put the psalm in the context of Christ’s words that “anyone who loses his life will save it,” you get a more coherent understanding of the verse. It is primarily a psalm of thanksgiving, but a thanksgiving where he raises the “cup of salvation, among the people, in the courts of the house of the Lord.” Sounds precisely like the breaking of bread. There we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, but within this, Christ died to his own will, to offer himself to us. It is precious to God when we in turn die to our own will, to give ourselves to Christ. (Which, in the celebration we are called to do in response.) The psalm is a lot deeper and simpler than most people realize.

  18. Eric Shawn Savage says:

    Abba Father is LIFE. ha satan is death. Yeshua is the exact representation of Abba & He only did what He saw His Father doing-He raised the dead because He calls death the enemy not precious not good not lovely but destruction. the jews did not know there was a devil in the old covenent times so they attributed the good & the bad to God. but we know better. the devil is a murderer from the beginning.

  19. Michael Kennard says:

    The verse means exactly what it states. Most of the replies I have read on this study is looked at from the human point of view. Not from our Father’s point of view. As redeemed from the curse of death, we as being heirs and joint heirs with Christ to our Fathers promises of all that is contained in our salvation, we are the children of His Being…….He gives us life on this earth only for a while. His institution of death came as the result of our first parents……He through His leadership gives us the path of eternal life in His Kingdom because “He who knew no sin, became sin for us that we might have the righteous of God.” When Yeshua was explaining to His diciples about the hard times they would go through preaching His message of the wages of sin and the gift of eternal life,
    He also gave them comfort, ” let not your heart be troubled neither let it be afraid, for in my Father’s house are many mansions and i go to prepare a place for you, for where I am there shall you be also…….Shouldn’t we understand that He, being our Father, would want his children to be in His presence, just as we want our children in our presence? Yes , we should take as much pleasure in this life as possible, but how much more we wouild rather be in His presence. So as Paul stated, it is far greater to be with Christ and all His gifts of eternal life than to desire more pleasure in this life…….God, our Father takes pleasure when we are in our eternal home… be in the presence of the glorie’s of heaven……

  20. Cephas Van says:

    My understanding is that it grieves GOD when believers die because the living are much better than the dead for His Kingdom.

  21. Wesley Joseph says:

    Thank to all the believers or Jeshua’s foll who spended their precious time to educate each others about the psalm 116:15, this morning I have read it in a creole translation and it chocked me, they translated like ” God’sadness ” then I wondered me if it could be true ! Where’s God’s omniscient or omnipotent? That was the reason of my search on .
    My understanding of the psalm, according to David, God give great care to his saints, destruction will never overcome them. David wanted to show us how precious we are in the sight of God when we are in this earth. The secu David talked about our safety in the face of God as saints or believers. So when the ending time comes (we died) there is a clean heaven.

  22. Veronica says:

    Thank you for explaining your revelation on Ps. 116:15. Your interpretation was a beautiful way to expound on it, but I see no reason why it cannot be used at a funeral if it is preached or expounded in the right context; being careful to convey the message
    Appropriately. After all, we are preaching a message about a person who has transitioned; especially a soldier of the Lord who has given his/her life of service for the Lord. Praying and asking the Holy Spirit to lead & guide us whenever we deliver God’s Holy Word would make our Heavenly Father very pleased. You can rest assured, the Holy Spirit will deliver as He speaks through us. Be blessed!
    In His love,
    Veronica ♥️🙏

  23. Sherman Brown says:

    Perhaps the saint he refers to is Jesus – indeed His death was precious to God because it erased the penalty of sin for the world…

  24. Walking Deacon says:

    The Walking Deacon,
    I believe that Ps 116:15 is speaking of the death to sin(the world and all the lust there of)when we allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us of all unrighteousness it’s precious is the sight of God,when we die to our sinful nature and live for the Spirit,God is pleased to see his children being comforted to the image of his Son(Jesus) whom he is well pleased,love you saints💕

  25. Johnny Lopez says:

    Thank you for this , I’m a Christian and God is helping me with some spiritual attacks and honestly although I only want to honor God and never dishonor Him by disobeying Him I was contemplating ending my life, I deal with demonic attacks and I’m really fed up with it , but again God is helping me through this and He brought me to this article , I’ll die when He chooses and not when I do 😅 , praise God always. Thank you again and please pray for me , I don’t have fun going through what I go through , it’s honestly incredibly hard

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