21 Nov 2019

Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death: A Misunderstood & Misused Text (Ps 116.15)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Christian hope, Culture, Easter, Exegesis, Gnosticism, Heaven, Ministry, Psalms

Sometimes after the death of a loved one, a well meaning brother or sister will say “how precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

These words are intended to be comforting. There is no malice when such has been said. The intention is good.

But it is frequently not comforting. It is even sometimes understood that death was a good or desirable thing. Now in scripture “death” is more than the moment our heart stops beating. The end of terrible pain can be a moment of grace. But in the Bible, the pain, the suffering, the decay of life is all part of the working of death in God’s good creation. It can indeed be a moment of mercy when terrible suffering ceases.

Our attempts at comforting the bereaved is not wrongheaded but a failure to understand the Psalm and death … which does not say the death of God’s people is a good thing in the sight of God and warms God’s heart.

In Psalm 116.15 we have an example of the power of tradition in English Bible translation. Psalm 116 is from first verse to last a declaration of praise from deliverance from death not a thanksgiving welcoming it. So, the Psalmist declares Yahweh heard his/her cry

O Yahweh, I pray, save my life … you delivered me from death” (vv. 1, 4, 8)

When I was brought low, he [Yahweh] saved me” (v. 6)

For you have delivered me from death” (v. 8, TNIV)

In response to God’s deliverance from death, the psalmist will offer praises and lift of the cup of salvation as in a toast to Yahweh for the bounty of life bestowed (v.12).

what shall I return to Yahweh
for all his bounty to me?

The word that is traditionally translated as “precious” in the KJV tradition and those influenced by it (including the NIV here) does not mean desirable. Had the psalmist’s death been “desirable” to Yahweh, God would not have rescued him from certain death. Had it been desirable the psalmist would not have been desperately crying to the Lord to rescue him/her from that death.

Sometimes it really does pay to check with other modern, contemporary English, translations of the Bible, especially those outside the King James family tree. Here are a few translations that capture what Psalm 116.15 actually means. I will emphasize the word …

How PAINFUL it is to the LORD
when one of his people dies!
” (Good News Translation)

The death of the devout
costs Yahweh dear
.” (Jerusalem Bible)

Costly in Yahweh’s sight
is the death of his faithful
” (New Jerusalem Bible)

The death of His faithful ones
is grievious in the LORD’s sight
” (TANAKH: New Jewish Translation of the Hebrew Bible)

The death of the LORD’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes
” (Common English Bible)

The death of the Psalmist, of any of God’s faithful people, is not in fact desirable to God. It is painful. It is costly. It is expensive in his sight.

There is a parallel to our text in Psalm 72. The king, as Yahweh’s vice regent, takes special care of the poor and needy. Note the words in v.14 but I will begin in v.12

he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he
” (GNT)

It is our life that is valuable to God, not our death.

In fact the Bible teaches that God hates death. Jesus came to destroy death and banish it from God’s good creation. Paul states, in fact, death is the enemy that will be destroyed (1 Cor 15.26, 54-55) and John said death would be cast into hell itself (Rev 20.14). The Resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, as the first fruit of all the human race, is God’s resounding no to death.

If you want to know what God thinks of the death of those whom he loves then look at Jesus weeping uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11.38-44).

Psalm 116.15 is the victim of well meaning believers, especially ministers, lifting a text out of its context (and ignoring that context) and the unfortunate retention of a translation fossil in the word “precious.”

Psalm 116 is the celebration of life that has been rescued from the clutches of the satanic power of death. It tells us, as we see in Jesus, that the death of those whom God created is painful and costly the Creator. God sheds tears over death. God hates the pain, the suffering, the decay. God delivers us from any and all death.

Psalm 116 is part of the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118) used in the Passover liturgy. Jesus sang Psalm 116 on the night he was betrayed. After having told the Story of salvation in the Passover and singing this hymn with the disciples (the Hallel were sung as a unit like a medley today) it may not be to difficult to understand the prayer Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus did not want to die anymore than the Psalmist did. In the death of the Son of Man – the representative of all humans – we finally see just how costly to the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

And God refused to let death keep the Son of Man … and thus all of us.

How I look forward to the resurrection on that day when death is banished to hell.

Psalm 116 remains a comforting text, even more so. First, God has promised to deliver creation from the shackles of death. Second, God shares our pain and grief when our – and God’s – loved one succumbs to the power of death. I am thankful to know my Creator does not find our deaths desirable but comes alongside and sheds tears with us.

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