What Did He Say?
"What did he say?" You've asked that before. You couldn't believe your ears heard what they did. On this All Saints' Day we hear God saying something about the death of saints so amazing, so revealing, so comforting that we should be startled.
What more amazing thing could the Lord have said than, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints"? Since when is death precious? Death is horrible; death is ugly; it's every bit as wretched and scary as it's portrayed on Halloween. You've seen what death does to people, haven't you? It leaves them shriveled, cold, heavy. And I'm not just talking about the "bad" deaths from disease, accidents, or tragedies. I'm talking about the so called "good" ones. When people depart this life full of years, death is still ugly. It's putrid, not precious. If you don't agree, why are words like morgue, autopsy, embalming, coffin, and hearse ominous to us?
But if death were really precious, wouldn't we celebrate it? Wouldn't we gather together to remember it? Wouldn't we pass a death down to our children even as we pass down other precious things? But we don't. We celebrate birthdays, not deathdays. Rather than passing the deaths of saints down as precious, most of us do everything we can to forget them, and our world only encourages us. "You got to get on with your life." "That's in the past." "Life is for the living." Anyone who thinks any death is precious is looked at as nuts. Call God crazy then because He is the one who says the death of His saints is precious in His sight. But as crazy as this may sound to us it dovetails with the other things God says.
In Ecc. 7, God says, "The day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth." God would certainly seem to advocate deathday parties rather than "birthday parties". And while our world makes much more of the birthday of Jesus, God emphasizes His deathday. It's the day He is glorified; it's the day He begins to reign publicly albeit from a cross. It's the day His church preaches the most about because she preaches Christ crucified. The church has taken on God's attitude toward the death of His saints. Her heroes, her saints, her martyrs are all remembered not on their birthday but on their deathday. This is opposite the world. The world celebrates the birthdays of King, Washington, Lincoln. You could say that this is because of the violent way some of them died, but nearly all the heroes of the church died violently and some more horribly than by an assassin's bullet. They were burned alive, sawn in two, torn to bits by beasts, and beheaded.
Yet these deathdays are not just remembered but celebrated, and do you know where? Where did they have a festive meal and even the Lord's Supper? At church? In homes? At rented halls? No, at and even on the grave of the person whose death they were celebrating! That's too much. Some people can't stand to eat at funeral homes; some can't even eat after funerals. But precious moments are usually celebrated by food, right? You go out for an anniversary; you eat at weddings; you have a special dinner on birthdays. If the death of those in Christ is precious to God, then it's understandable that God's people would celebrate with food.
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints," is not just an amazing statement, it's a revealing one. Evidently the death of those in Christ doesn't look the same to God as it does to us. If all God saw was the blood, sweat, and tears of death that we see, I'm sure death would not be precious in His sight either. But it is precious, so He must see something we don't. Yes, He sees what Scripture shows us but we forget. God sees in the death of Christians beautiful angels winging the soul to heaven. Now that's a 'precious moment' worthy of a knickknack. God doesn't see our dead in Christ snatched from a life of joy but from a vale of tears. God doesn't see them taken to some nameless, faceless oblivion of blinding light. Heed Victor Hugo's advice: "Have a care of the manner in which you turn towards the dead. Think not of that which perishes. Gaze steadily. You will perceive the living light of your well-beloved dead in the depths of heaven" (Bishop Myriel, Les Miserables). God doesn't see your loved ones in Christ "lost" to you in death but in the words of a 4th century church father He sees them as "gone on a journey and will return with the King" (Chrysostom, NPNF, XII, 276).
The death of saints is "precious" to God. The Hebrew is rich with meaning. It's basic sense is "heavy." The death of His saints is a weighty matter for God. It's not something that God lets happen easily or carelessly as it often appears. Luther, referring to the murder of Able by Cain says the fact that God says the death of His saints is precious means "that when people are slain in this manner, this does not mean that they are no concern to God" (LW, 1, 253). God doesn't reach down and snuff lives like we do candles. The fact they die in an apparent haphazard way as if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if luck, fortune, or chance had a hand in it is not true. The death of His saints is a weighty matter. Using human concepts, we could say that it is not an easy thing for God to decide who dies when and how. All of history isn't prerecorded by God on a computer and He just hits Enter. No the death of His saints is heavy on the heart of God; it's weighed in all sorts of balances before it ever happens.
The Hebrew word for "precious" has not only the idea of "heavy" but also the idea of "value." The death of those in Christ, big and small, important, and unimportant, those remembered by all and those known but to God, is valuable to Him. God never comes away from a death shaking His head, as I have, saying, "That was pointless." A death may indeed seem pointless to our limited understanding. But God declares the death of His saints is always valuable to Him. God declares concerning every Christian's death what Lincoln declared about the dead at Gettysburg. "Resolved that these who lie hear shall not have died in vain." Don't look to your heart or head to find meaning in a death. Look to God's declaration that the death of every saint is valuable to Him. It's achieving some good to the glory of His name and to the salvation of His people.
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" is an amazing statement, a revealing statement, and a comforting statement. Already in the 4th century The Apostolic Constitutions directed this Psalm verse be sung at Christian funerals. They recognized these were comforting words. And although I started out by saying that death wasn't precious to us, this verse really goes where our hearts are at death. While death might not be precious to us, our dead ones in Christ are. That's why Christians called the place where they put their dead a casket. A casket was originally a place for putting precious things. Ironically, the modern funeral industry has gotten away from that term believing it a gloomy reminder of death. They use the word coffin instead which is just a basket for putting any old thing. Our dead in Christ are precious to us. We cherish them in caskets, mark their graves, and even beautify them. Here lies something precious to us. Here lies something that God is not done with. Something still valuable to Him.
Your dead are precious to you and they are precious to your Lord. A 19th century translation says this. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His favorites." Yes, that idea is there in Hebrew. When we gather around the dead in Christ, we're gathering around God's favorites. The ones He sought to spare from the evil to come. The ones that were so valuable to Him that He could not wait for them to be with Him. Ones that were the apple of His eye; ones that He had engraved on the palms of His hands. Ones that not only was He dying to see but died to save.
Think about that. What you give for something precious to you is always less precious to you. Think of what the Lord gave up so that He might call precious the death of His saints. Think of what sacrifices God made so that He might treasurer our dead in Christ. In Isaiah 43, we read that God gave up Egypt and other nations for the sake of Israel who was "precious in His sight." But God didn't give up nations for the sake of people, He gave up His only beloved Son. God didn't have nations suffer and die for people, but His Son. God didn't shed the blood of nations but the blood of His Son so all could die in Christ as precious.
Our dead in Christ are more precious in the sight of God than even His only Son. You know how parents worry about "playing favorites" with one of their kids? Well God said, "Nuts to that," pointed at Jesus and said, "He's not My favorite; all the fallen children of men are." Any death in Christ is more precious to our heavenly Father than even that of His only Son. Remember, He turned away in wrath and disgust at the Sinner hanging on the cross just so He could turn with grace and mercy toward the death of His saints. Now if the death of His saints is so precious that He forsook His only Son in death, then so must be the product of it. The product of the death of a saint is a saint in heaven. Revelation shows you the saints in heaven doted over. All of their needs are more than fulfilled. All of their sorrows more than removed. God Himself bends down and doesn't just wipe tears off their cheeks. No, He bends down and wipes tears out of their eyes. Tears don't get a chance to well up in their eyes let alone run down the cheeks of the saints in heaven. Revelation shows us the saints in heaven are individuals precious to God.
That is the thought behind the custom of reading aloud once a year the names of those in a church who have died. It showed that the dead in Christ were still alive and remembered. To paraphrase the Statler Brothers, it showed they were more than just a name on a tombstone. And they were precious not only to the Lord of heaven but to His people on earth. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Day, 20201101, Psalm 116:15