“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Psalm 116.15
Do a Google search on the word “saints” and the first and dominate thing that comes up is a football team from New Orleans! Do a Bible search on the word “saints” and you will find there is no football team! It refers to God’s people, living and dead.
All Saints Day is a day in the Christian calendar set aside to give thanks for those faithful believers who have gone before us. It is a day of remembrance—a day to take time out, to thank God especially for your believing loved ones who have gone to be with the Lord.
To help us think clearly about this whole saint business, I’d like us to reflect on Psalm 116. Psalm 116 is an intensely personal thanksgiving psalm. We don’t know who wrote it. It has no superscription. It could have been written by David, or a king, or someone else. It appears to have been sung in the temple by someone who had been delivered from death. The striking thing about it is that this person survived when others did not. So without full understanding of all the “whys?” he gives thanks to the Lord for saving him. That is why he writes in verses 1 and 2 “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.”
The psalm speaks of at least three very important realities as we think about saints.
The Struggle of the Saints
The first reality of which it speaks is the struggle of the saints. You find this in verses 3-11. Verse 3 reads, “the cords of death encompassed me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.” Here death is pictured as a trapper trying to catch its prey. Death is a deadly, alien power. This echoes what the New Testament says about death. It is sometimes described as an enemy.
But verse 8 tells us that the psalmist was delivered—“for you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death.” What was he delivered from? The psalm is not very explicit, so we have to look for clues. Some have conjectured that he was delivered from sickness, though I do not find clues of that in Psalm 116. More probably, he was delivered from persecution.
In verses 10-11, we read, “I am greatly afflicted. . . all men are liars.” It seems that he was being falsely accused by his enemies. They threatened him with death. Why? Perhaps because of his faith in God. He may have been suffering for his faith.
Interestingly, Paul quotes this very Psalm in 2 Corinthians 4.13 where he describes his own persecution for his faith. He writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.” He adds, we are “persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.” Paul knew struggle, just like the psalmist.
Theologians sometimes describe the struggling church as the “church militant.” They then contrast the “church militant” with the “church triumphant.” By church militant, they do not mean the church taking up physical arms. Rather they mean that the church on earth is still involved in an intense spiritual conflict. In this struggle we must serve as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants. The battle often gets intense. They remind us that the life of the saint is not easy.
Contrast that to the “church triumphant”–the church in heaven. There, the is over as they fellowship with the risen Christ.
Do saints on earth struggle? We all know they do. We do. Saints all over the world do.
Each week, I visit a website that gives me an update on the persecuted church around the world. I visit Persecution.org of International Christian Concern (www.persecution.org). This web site gives a day by day report on what is happening all over the world. Let me give you some story headlines from the past few days.
Oct 30 Nigeria: Christians are fleeing city of Jos due to fear of Muslim attacks
Oct 30 Christians under threat as radical Islam spreads in the “new” Middle East
Oct 30 Many Christian churches attacked or bombed in Iraq since 2004
Oct 29 Baptist pastor arrested in Cuba
Oct 29 Christian pastor in Iran sits on death row, condemned to hang because he converted to Christianity from Islam.
Oct 29 Anti-Christian backlash after south Sudan’s succession. churches attacked
Oct 28 Christian woman tells of her fiancé’s death on Egypt’s bloody Sunday
Oct 27 Arsonists set fire to Christian radio station in Philippines
Oct 27 Vietnam pastor violently beaten
Oct 27 Three more Christians die inside military prisons in Eritrea for practicing their faith
Oct 26 Burmese Kachin churches attacked, villagers killed and raped
Oct 25 Christian mother in Pakistan on death row for her faith
Oct 25 Vietnamese authorities seize more Christian lands
Oct 25 Christian mother of five in Nigeria killed
Oct 25 Egypt’s Coptic Christians fear more violence
Oct 24 Egyptian military court orders imprisoned Christian activist and blogger to mental hospital
These stories are extraordinary as they tell of churches being burned, villages of Christians destroyed, and intense persecution for being a Christian. Make no mistake about it, Christians all over the world are struggling today. You are not alone.
We need to be reminded of this struggle. The psalmist has survived so far, and he is glad. But his life is not without affliction. How much like us!
The Death of the Saints
A second reality of which this psalm speaks is the death of the saints. You find this in verse 15. While the psalmist escaped death, others did not. “Precious in the site of the Lord is the death of his godly ones (or saints).” He remembers them with deep affection.
The word “precious” is striking. It does not mean something that is pleasant. Its meaning is far richer. First, it means “carefully watched over.” God is sovereign. There is no such thing as an untimely death from his perspective. He numbers our days and watches over the time when his saints are called into his presence. He is near to them even in death.
Second, it means highly valued, or costly. God does not take the death of his saints lightly. He knows the sheer ugliness and abnormality of it. He knows it is tied in some deep way to our rebellion, to the effects of sin and the curse we bear. But this sovereign God is also a suffering sovereign. He does not sit by dispassionately. He has tasted our pain when he sent his Son to this world to die on the cross and bear the sins and sorrows of the world.
There may even be a third thought here—in the sense that God rejoices when we come home. A saint’s death is precious to him because at death he receives them home.
In the light of the resurrection, we know that Christ has paid a deep price to overturn death by his resurrection. So in Christ, death is transformed from a terrible thing into a doorway that leads to life and blessing.
You see, biblically speaking, there are two ways to see death. They may seem to be at odds with each other, but they really are not.
One way Bible portrays death is as an enemy. Scripture describes it as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). We know it as a great intruder—as a thief, which takes away people that we love. We know it as a spoiler whose decay seems to spread rampant and cuts our days and plans short. It is a realm where the Devil reigns. However, for the Christian, death is a defeated enemy. Jesus robbed death of its power when he passed over from death to life. He freed those held captive by it through his resurrection.
The other way Scripture views death is as a friend. The thought may seem strange at first. It is not a friend to everyone. For some, physical death will lead to the second eternal death, which is hell. But for those who share in Christ’s victory by faith, death becomes a doorway to eternal life. At death the believer is at rest from all their labors (Rev 14.13). When we die, we go to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5.6). We leave our life of suffering and sin. For this reason Paul describes death as “gain.” (Phil. 1.20-21).
In the Medieval church, some Christians began to view a martyr’s death day as his birthday. It was the day they were born into everlasting life. For this reason, some have spoken of the Christian’s three birthdays. Our first birthday comes early in life. Our second birthday comes when we are reborn spiritually. And our third birthday is when we join the church triumphant and enter heaven.
The Resolve of the Saints
Psalm 116 speaks of a third reality as well. There is the struggle of the saints, the death of the saints, and the resolve of the saints. You see this resolve in verses 12-14 and 16-19. The psalmist asks in verse 12, “what shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” He responds with resolve—“O Lord, I am your servant. I will call upon him as long as I live.” (vs. 16). He is determined to offer sacrifices to the Lord. He reiterates his love and resolves anew to praise him. He says in verse 13, “I will lift up the cup of salvation,” (a cup of wine drunk at a festal meal, which climaxed in a thank offering).
Basically, the psalmist renews his vows to the Lord. He is not bargaining. Rather, he wants to learn from the experience and emerge from it a better, more godly, more dedicated person.
Let me tell you a secret about pastors. When we preside at a funeral or memorial service, one of our deepest hopes is that those who survive will learn from the death of a loved one. We want to be sensitive in this time of grief. But we have a desire to see people resolve to make their life count. We want to see a son, who lost his mom or dad, pick up the torch of faith and run with it. We want to see a grand child resolve to be as enamored with Jesus as his grandmother. We fear a “wasted death” when those who remain are unaffected and go on living life as normal.
If ever we needed the resolve of the saints it is now. We need fathers and mothers to be courageous and resolve to exert a godly influence in the home. This is election week. We need the saints to exert a godly influence on our nation through the ballot box. After the election, we need them to influence our land for justice and righteousness. We need them to be faithful witnesses for Christ in word and deed—to spread the aroma of Christ wherever they go. Why? Because God calls us to be saints.
How shall we think of the saints?
So how shall we think of the saints? Let this All Saint’s Day serve as a reminder. Yes, there is Biblical warrant for remembering those blessed who die in the Lord. They are part of that great cloud of witnesses in heaven. They have given us an example to follow. They are now part of the church triumphant in the presence of Christ. That is why we celebrate this day as we do.
But let’s not forget that the dominant use of the word “saint” in the New Testament is in reference to living saints, who live out their saintliness, by exerting a godly influence wherever they go.
While living in England I attended a baptism in an Anglican church. I will never forget the minister’s words to the adult who was being baptized on an All Saints Sunday. He gave this brief charge as he signed the man with the cross on his forehead. He said, “do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the Devil. And continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.”
I can think of no better charge for us today.
Prayer: Everlasting God, we thank you for those saints who have gone before us. Thank you for the way their lives have touched our lives. Thank you for the hope and comfort from your Word, that they are with you, and that we will be re-gathered together for that great marriage supper of the lamb. And thank you God for letting us live today. Like the psalmist, so far, we have escaped death. So we must be here for a purpose. We resolve, Lord Jesus, to make our remaining days count for you and your kingdom. Like the psalmist, we to renew our vows. We want to be your servants, and call upon you as long as we live. Now help us, as we reenter the battle. Sustain us in the struggle with all those living saints who live life under the cross. And help US to continue as your faithful soldiers and servants to the end of our lives. We humbly ask this in Jesus name, Amen.
Loved the story of your visit to your great grandfather’s grave and the wisdom in your statement: “…there is an alternative between pagan worship and modern forgetfulness…” Evangelicals (including Puritan-fans like myself) would be wise to embrace the Christian calendar as an incredible teaching resource…with All Saints’ being a prime example. Thank you!
Looking forward to your coming to preach here at Trinity in January.
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Who is the artist of the lovely painting at the top of your blog entry here?
This was designed by one of our students at RTS