Psalm 116 contains one of the most frequently cited verses in the entire collection of psalms when it comes to Christian reflection on death: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (v. 15). We find this verse often cited at the news of a Christian’s death, as sort of an encouragement to the grieving loved ones that what has happened to the deceased is a “precious” (almost good) thing in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, this sentiment misses the mark, for a few contextual reasons.
First, it runs contrary to the context of Psalm 116 itself. The writer of this psalm has pleaded with the Lord throughout to deliver him from death. Far from embracing death as something “precious” and therefore to be sought after and yearned for, the psalmist desperately wished to escape death. He “suffered distress and anguish” at the thought of death (v. 3) and considered the Lord “gracious” and “righteous” and “merciful” to deliver him from death. It would be odd for him at this point to reflect on death being a good thing.
Second, the idea of death as “precious” (in the sense of good and worthy) runs contrary to the tenor of Scripture as a whole, which portrays death as an enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death is nowhere celebrated in Scripture. While Christians are able to face death with hope, knowing that death will not have the final word, there is nothing positive in the biblical worldview about death.
Third, consistently in Scripture, the Christian hope in death is resurrection (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Corinthians 15:50–58). Death is never portrayed as a source of hope for the Christian. The Christian’s hope is death’s defeat. The Christian’s hope is that life will be restored at the resurrection. The Christian’s hope is that death will ultimately be swallowed up in victory when the dead are raised back to life.
What, then, does the psalmist mean when he describes the death of God’s saints as “precious”? The word translated “precious” might be translated “costly.” The Christian Standard Bible translates the word as “valuable.” The psalmist’s cry is that the death of God’s saints is costly in his eyes. The death of the Christian—every death of every Christian—is deeply costly from God’s perspective. It is costly because it has robbed this world of another Christian witness. It is costly because the enemy has claimed another victim. It is costly because it causes grief to God’s people.
In reality, Psalm 116:15 is a pro-life, rather than a pro-death, verse. With the rest of the psalm, it exalts the value and beauty of life. It is consistent with the rest of the psalm, where the psalmist pleads for deliverance from death. The lesson from this verse is that God cares deeply about every death of every saint. Mortalities are far more to him than mere numbers. And so they should be to us.
This verse, and the psalm in which it is found, should instil in us a profound appreciation for life. Life is a gift from God and should be treasured and protected accordingly. Christians should do everything they can to guard and protect the precious gift of life, knowing that no death, particularly the death of a Christian, escapes God’s notice. No death is just another number to him. No death is meaningless to the giver of life. And therefore no death should be just another number to us.
As we are assaulted day after day with statistics about infections and deaths, and as we live in a country where death abounds on every side—from abortion, to violent crime, to preventable disease, to reckless road usage—we should care. We should pray for an end to the scourge of death, in every manifestation. And, as Christians, we should be thankful for the great promise of resurrection on that day when the final enemy will be defeated and death will be no more.