Precious Deaths: A Meditation on Deliverance in Psalm 116
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
God’s deliverance at some point means death. It is an inevitability. In the face of death we ask for deliverance, but eventually deliverance means death. The Christian doctrine of salvation is somewhat ironically undergirded by the certainty of death. We are saved from eternal death, but impending death continues to cling to us in this life. Until Christ returns, eternal life comes after death and not before. This is a very uncomfortable idea and many Christians handle it by not handling it — we ignore it.
Then something happens that brings death into the forefront so that it cannot be forgotten or ignored. When the pregnancy becomes a miscarriage. When the basic checkup shows cancer. When the depression will not “just go away”. When a car crash claims the lives of an entire family of missionaries. Death approaches and refuses to be ignored. Death presses us and dares us to trust in Christ alone. Like the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 116, we cry to God for deliverance grasping for his salvation.
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!”
It is unclear if the Psalmist faces his own death or the death of someone close to him, but his fear is evident. Death is a snare that seeks to swallow him. Sheol, the place of the grave, holds him in its grasp. Suffering ensues. But this is a Psalm of Thanksgiving, and when the Psalmist prays for deliverance, the Lord hears his voice and answers. The Psalmist shows faith that to follow God means deliverance from death. He is saved. This promise of deliverance is available to every Christian, and this psalm is written in part to teach us how to cry out to God in times of trouble.
But like all of the Bible’s promises, we must understand deliverance eschatologically. We are already delivered, but not yet fully delivered. Our best is yet to come, but our immediate future may mean increased loss and suffering. This is difficult to square with our humanity. Death is a product of the fall and there is nothing truly natural about it. Now it is a norm, but deep in our hearts we know this is not how things are supposed to be. When we ask for deliverance from trials, we may receive help immediately and obviously, but often it is not like that. Sometimes we lose a job, a child, a spouse — and when we do, it feels like we lose everything. We need a more full and final deliverance from death.
When does the Psalmist receive deliverance? Now? Or in the future? The answer is, “Yes!” The Psalmist has experienced the salvation of God from his sin and fallenness through faith in a coming Messiah, and this leads to all sorts of deliverances in this life. But the Psalmist knows that deliverance is not yet full and final. Any deliverance that we can experience in this life is a partial deliverance; it is simply a glimpse of the full deliverance that we await after death. We wait now for the death of death itself and remember that death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:26, 55).
For you have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;
Perhaps the Psalmist tells us more about one great Deliverance and less about particular deliverances. The Psalmist is thankful for deliverances in this life, but he praises God ultimately for Deliverance found in a coming Messiah. This same idea is found in Philippians 1:19–21. Paul writes of his certainty of deliverance through the work of the Spirit and the prayers of the saints. At first glance, Paul seems thankful to have not died in prison, but Paul himself will die a martyrs death nevertheless, was his deliverance for nothing? The next thing that Paul writes is profound and it is essential that every Christian grasp this: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This belief is founded in the resurrection and it transforms everything.
Paul’s ultimate joy is found in Christ alone. He thanks the Philippians for their prayers and professes his faith not simply for the many deliverances he experiences in his life, but for the one great Deliverance that Christ has won for him. It is this salvation that is eternal, and death is no longer the final destroyer it once was. To die is gain! To live is to enjoy Christ and to die is to experience the fullness of joy in Christ. Thus Paul becomes indefatigable because the worst thing that could happen to him has already happened to Christ, and death becomes a servant — an escort — into the presence of Christ and ever-augmenting joy.
The Psalmist sees this truth by faith and reminds us that because of the Gospel, the death of any and every saint is precious in the sight of the Lord. The Lord rejoices to bring us home to himself in glory. The Creator of all things finds great delight in the glorification of his saints. He is bringing about his sovereign purpose for the renewal of the world and the salvation of many. Our deaths are precious to him because he delights in us, and we will live with him forever in glory.
But for those who remain, death seems a monster who robs us of our own. Every death reiterates the utter finality of our finitude. We are dust and to dust we will return. Every death is tragic because it is an end to life, and we are made to live. Death takes our friends and family, and each time it happens it threatens to take more. Death cuts short great works for God and leaves us wondering, “What now?”. It is sad to lose an elderly grandparent, but it is gut-wrenching to lose a child. In this life, death feels so damning.
But it’s not.
Because of the resurrection, it’s not!
I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
The resurrection is an article of the Christian faith and without faith we will not hope for a resurrection. Just as we cannot fully reason from a beautiful sunset that the universe was created by the word of God, the seen from the unseen, so we cannot posit the resurrection with our minds alone. We must look to God’s word in faith. We rely on the Spirit of God giving us hope from his word and illuminating our understanding.
Resurrection doesn’t simply mean coming to life again — various ideas of reincarnation offer that. Resurrection promises a continuation of life. We live our lives here now in our bodies, we die and live with Christ in patience, and in that Day we will receive our bodies remade and glorified like the new heavens and earth where we will dwell. There is a beautiful continuity of living that stands alongside the discontinuity of death. Resurrection is not simply a starting over or an undoing of our mistakes. Resurrection is a purification (1 Corinthians 3:13–15), a refining (2 Peter 3:11–13), and a renewal (Revelation 21:5). The Psalmist captures the future work of Christ delivering our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling (Psalm 116:8; Revelation 21:4). Resurrection establishes the glorious things God has done in our lives, all of the deliverances pointing to this great Deliverance.
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!
This new life is eternal. Death is dead and sin is defeated. Joy is unveiled gradually yet in its entirety. The Psalmist can see this land of the living, and it is a place where we walk before the LORD in purity and friendship (Revelation 21:3). All of the living are there, the children once lost, the parents we have missed. All who have looked to the Lord in faith and trusted Christ for their salvation. Resurrected, we rejoice in the Lord together forever. We will pay our vows of thanksgiving, “in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:18–19). Life continues for those dead in Christ and death awaits those alive in this world, but because of the resurrection, together we join the Psalmist in singing now and forever: “Praise the LORD!”Brett Rayl
Executive Director and Team Leader for CBI Japan. cbijapan.org This is my personal account.FollowBRETT RAYL FOLLOWS