It is a passage quoted at nearly every funeral, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It sounds beautiful and poetic. It seems to suggest that death, in spite of how it feels, is not really such a bad thing. But is any death really “precious” in God’s sight? What does that mean? Let’s re-examine this passage a bit.
How It’s Used
I am sure I’ve quoted this passage several times in funeral ceremonies. And I’m sure I will quote it many more times, but I will never again quote it without explaining the context and the meaning. I had always taken this passage to mean something like, “God is pleased when his saints die and come home to him.” Or perhaps, “In God’s sight, the death of his saints is really a good thing and not a bad thing.”
Is that really what we want to be telling people who are grieving, that God thinks this is a good thing? That God is happy about their loved one’s death? I suppose it might be easier to accept that interpretation if we are talking about someone who lived a long life, but what about a 35-year-old mother of three? Is her death really a good thing in God’s sight?
Psalm 116 is not a long Psalm. And it’s not hard to understand the overall meaning. Go read it. I’ll wait.
Ok, now that you’ve read it, you can probably see the whole Psalm is praising God for a life preserved. It’s about being saved from death, not about death being a good thing.
The psalmist wrote about an occasion on which he almost died, saying, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish” (vs. 3). Sheol is the realm of the dead. The psalmist is saying he was in the grip of death.
The psalmist cried out to the Lord, “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” (vs. 4). When the Bible (especially the Old Testament) talks about the “soul,” it is simply talking about a person’s life in the most natural sense. A person’s “soul” is simply his being, his existence, his life. So, the psalmist cried out for God to save him from dying.
Then, in exuberant praise, the psalmist declares that the Lord did save him (vs. 6). And the Lord saved him because the Lord is gracious, righteous, and merciful (vs. 5). Now the psalmist’s soul can rest because he has been saved from death (vs. 7). He is no longer anxious or afraid as he was before.
Verses 8 and 9 are the most telling: “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.” Read that last line one more time, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The psalmist did not die as he thought he might, that’s the whole point of the psalm.
The psalmist continues in his praise to God for saving his life, wondering what sort of gift he should give to God to show his gratitude. He promises he will be faithful to the Lord, paying his vows and offering sacrifices of thanksgiving. All this praise because God kept him from dying.
The Meaning of “Precious”
So we are left wondering, why would a person say his own death would be “precious” in God’s sight in the context of saying how horrible death is and how thankful he is to have been saved from it?
Perhaps we need to look deeper into this word translated “precious.” It simply means something is expensive, rare, or costly. It does not mean something is loved or adored. The word means the thing in question isn’t something to be ambivalent about or taken lightly.
Which, of course, is precisely what the psalmist is saying: God doesn’t take the death of his saints lightly. God values his saints and their death is a costly thing in his sight. Which is why, in the case of this particular psalm, God preserved the life of his saint.
Applying the Psalm
After understanding the context of the psalm, a person might think twice before reading it at a funeral. But then again, it is an incredibly appropriate passage to read at the funeral of a Christian (as long as its meaning is explained).
The death of any of God’s people is not something he takes lightly. In God’s sight, the death of a ninety-year-old is just as “costly” as the death of a twenty-year-old. Human beings somehow think the death of a twenty-year-old is somehow more costly, but God doesn’t seem to think so. He takes all death seriously. He takes death so seriously that he sent his son to earth to defeat death.
As Christians, our confident expectation is that God will save us all from death. Because of the atoning blood of Jesus, we are God’s saints and all of his saints will once again “walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Our hope is in the Resurrection. Like Lazarus, Jesus may not save us from dying, but he will most certainly save us from staying dead. We will be raised never to die again.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in him, though that person dies, he will live again (John 11:25). We no longer fear death, because death has been, is being, and will be defeated (see 1 Corinthians 15). We no longer fear death, because we will be saved from it. We will be saved because, “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5).
I Love You and God Loves You,