A few days ago, I conducted the funeral of Mr. Paul Klec, a wonderful Christian man who died at the age of 90. Paul was a veteran of World War II and a member of the church where I serve as the pastor. Paul was a member of the church since it was organized in 1929. At the funeral, I read Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”
The words of the psalmist are amazing: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” Why is the death of God’s people precious in his sight? Only someone who has a biblical understanding of death can say with confidence that the death of a believer is precious to God.
Such a view of death is not shared by many people. The author of the book of Hebrews said that Jesus took upon himself human nature and died on the cross in order to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The fear of dying, also called “necrophobia,” or “thanatophobia,” is a problem that affects many people, at times even impacting the quality of a person’s everyday life.
The reason some people fear death is because they think they are unprepared to die. Others feel regret for not accomplishing established goals and thus feel that they have lived a sad and meaningless life. Much of the fear of death comes from the fact that people do not know what awaits them on the other side of life. At the time of death people question whether there is a God and whether they are prepared to give an account of their lives when they meet their Creator.
The words of the psalmist reflect the view of someone who was not afraid to die. As another psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for [God is] with me” (Psalm 23:4).
The writer of Psalm 116 had experienced the love and faithfulness of God in his life. Because the God of the psalmist was a God of life, the end of his life was not something of small importance to God.
Most translations render the word יקר (yāqār) as “precious.” This is how the word is translated in several places in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, in 2 Samuel 12:30 the word is used to describe the precious stones in the crown of a king. In Psalm 36:8 the word is used to describe how precious is God’s hesed, God’s faithfulness. In Proverbs 3:15 the word is used to affirm that wisdom is more precious than rubies. Thus, the death of God’s faithful people, his hasidim, is very special to God, more valuable than precious stones.
A few translations translate verse 15 in a way that removes the idea that the psalmist was trying to convey to his readers. For instance, the New English Translation (NET) translates verse 15 as follows: “The LORD values the lives of his faithful followers.” This translation misses the point because the emphasis of the psalmist is not on life but on death.
The New American Bible (NAB) translates the verse as follows: “Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful.” Although this translation comes close to the idea expressed by the psalmist, the English word “costly” implies that the death of a saint is pricey.
The Tanak translates verse 15 as follows: “The death of His faithful ones is grievous in the LORD’s sight.” This translation gives the impression that the death of a believer is heinous, dreadful, or terrible to God, an idea that is the opposite of what the psalmist is saying.
The words of the psalmist teach that the death of a godly person is important to God because when a godly person dies something special happens. These words can be a source of great comfort for those who believe in God. These words teach us that death should not be a fearful experience and that God will not abandon his people in their hour of greatest need.
These words also sustain believers when they face that dark and fearful place, the valley of the shadow of death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for [God is] with me” (Psalm 23:4).
When Paul Klec died, his death notification carried a beautiful poem:
I’d like the memory of me
to be a happy one.
I’d like to leave an afterglow
of smiles when life is done.
I’d like to leave an echo
whispering softly down the ways
of happy times and laughing times
of bright and sunny days.
I’d like the tears of those who grieve,
to dry before the sun
of happy memories that I leave
when life is done.
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”
NOTE: For a comprehensive list of studies on the Book of Psalms, read my post Studies on the Book of Psalms
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Hi Dr. Mariottini,
I wonder how your interpretation fits in the Psalm’s context. The context seems to be God saving the Psalmist’s life. The interpretation that fits best with that seems to be “it’s too expensive or costly for a saint to leave the world.” Maybe that would be because saints are the salt of the earth, or God doesn’t want the world to be inhabited solely by the wicked. That’s just my impression, but I’m open to other views.
Hi Dr. Mariottini,
You said: “The words of the psalmist reflect the view of someone who was not afraid to die. As another psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for [God is] with me” (Psalm 23:4).”Really?? You must know that the term “tsalmavet” has nothing to do with death – it simply means “darkness,” as its Semitic cognates easily prove.
You are right; the word “tsalmavet” means “deep darkness” but in most places the word is associated with the idea of death. People who have deep faith in God and believe in the resurrection are not afraid to die.
The translation you propose is also possible but in what way it becomes too costly for a saint to leave the world? I believe the translation I proposed is a better understanding of the text.