“The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the Lord; ‘O Lord, I implore you, deliver my soul!’ Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; Yes, our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me. … For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. … Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:3-6, 8, 15 NKJV).
As I visited a family suffering from the death of a newborn child, I wrestled once again with this passage, especially with the oft-quoted verse, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
What does that mean? Is death something that brings pleasure to God, that he treasures and values as we would a precious jewel?
One might make an argument that such is exactly the case. If death unites a holy one with God, his creator and savior, bringing them into intimate eternal fellowship, then certainly that is an event of value and joy to both parties. Yet I am not convinced that this is the primary application of the verse.
The Psalm in its entirety is a prayer of thanksgiving from one who has been delivered from death. It does not focus upon a departed soul whom God has somehow claimed for his own. Rather it is about a survivor, one who was spared from death. Life is celebrated as the treasured thing in the psalm, not death.
When we say a thing is precious we may mean one of several things. It may be desirable to acquire as were the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 13:44-46). It may be cute or lovable as “my precious child.” But one primary meaning is to be of rare value, not to be squandered or wasted.
That which is precious in one’s sight is held close and spent carefully. Is this not the sense of the Psalm? The psalmist was near death, but God delivered him to live again. He did not squander his death needlessly, for the death of the righteous is a precious thing to be held and cherished.
Here we have a reverse meaning. In effect, it is life which becomes of great value. Death, as the end of life, is to be avoided because that life itself has significance to God.
A couple of applications may be made. One, God does not lightly take our loved ones because, as some have said, “He needed them more than we do.” God uses humans to assist him during their life on earth. If we are to be of service to him in Heaven, after death, that is not clearly stated in Scripture. Angels are his ministering servants (Hebrews 1:14). We as brothers and sisters of Jesus are God’s children (Hebrews 2:11, 17; Romans 8:16-17). God is the life-giver and preserver, not the life-taker (Psalm 116:6). Let us not make the mistake of attributing death to his casual whim.
The other application is simply to underscore the value of each individual human life. God loves all humans. God hears the prayers of the suffering and often brings healing and deliverance. When he does not, it is not that he is callous to our loss, but that other overriding purposes are involved. The needs and the desires of the billions of people alive on this earth will often conflict; all cannot be granted always. Yet when our desires are rejected in favor of something more vital, we can be assured that it is not because God does not care about us. We are precious to him.