Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints

Today we lay to rest my mother’s body. It’s part of the process of saying goodbye.  We as a family had the opportunity to say our goodbyes to mum in those last few days and hours.  Mum is already present with Jesus, which means in the words of Scripture that she is “absent from the body.”  But there were people who could not be there in the hospital room and this will be significant for them and it marks a form of closure for family too.  We are not Gnostics, we don’t treat the body as nothing.

A few days after mum died, the wife of our former pastor back in Rochester reminded me of the words in Psalm 116:15

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

It’s a verse that seems to have caused commentators a lot of challenges.  What exacty does it mean?  The context suggests that the words are in fact primarily about life.  The Psalmist is, as is often the case, seeking the Lord’s protection, asking him to preserve life not take it. If death is precious, it is not in the sense that it is something to be actively looked for, a joyful thing.  As I’ve said before, death is an enemy. 

The word translated “precious” can also be rendered as “valued”, “costly”, “weighty”.  Some translations go with “grievous in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  The point is that death is a weighty matter and not one to be taken lightly.  God’s preference then is to see his people live.  Life is worth preserving.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live a good long life and to take steps through lifestyle choices and medical care in order to achieve that.  It is a blessing to live to see children grow up, to see grandchildren and even great grandchildren.

But it is God who chooses the day and time of our death.  We cannot resist that.  If death is precious and weighty to God, it means he does not make that decision or take that action lightly. When I come to die, it will be because it is the right thing and the right time. If I die well, demonstrating confidence in my Lord and the hope of resurrection, if it can be seen that I am at peace, then my death should be to God’s glory. It should be precious.  Incidentally, that affects my approach to preaching at funerals.  I believe the Gospel should be preached at that point because it is exactly what the congregation need to hear at that time.  However, it should not need to be laboured/engineered because the life and death of the believer should point to the Gospel.

As well as the mention of the verse by a friend, I was further reminded of it during our life group’s meditation on Song of Songs 8:6 “Place me like a seal over your heart.”  We talked about the surprising way in which the context and language of the Song pushes us towards seeing the woman speaking these words to the man and therefore of us speaking them to Christ.  We want to leave our mark on him, for him to take delight in us, for us to be precious to him and the promise of the Gospel is that this is exactly what happens.  This is another reason for thinking of death as precious to him.  Your death will be precious to him because you are precious to him.

These words in Scripture refute the secular claim that death is nothing and permit appropriate grief but not without hope.

Crucially, we apply the Psalm to and through Christ.  We are precious to God because we are in Christ and this is possible because he is the holy one (saint) who died in our place.  His death was precious to the Father, weighty, heavy, no light matter because he is the beloved, only begotten son.  That’s how seriously God treats sin and how much he loves us.  We know that our deaths are precious because God took that weighty decision.  This too is why we have sure and certain resurrection hope.

I hope you’ll forgive me a rather personal commentary today. The death of mum was and is certainly “weighty/heavy” for us. I’m sure others who have lost loved ones identify with that. We are keenly aware of her absence. But it has also been precious to us. Precious to see up close her longing to go and “breathe the air of heaven”, to be with her Lord. Precious to have been there when her Lord and Saviour took her safely home. But the Psalm tells me that as weighty, heavy, precious it is for us, more so for the Lord.

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