Life and Death in the Psalms
There are several curious verses in the Psalms that seem to hold out no prospect of eternal life or any kind of afterlife. For example:
Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee?Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? And thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:10-12)
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? (Psalm 6:5)
Similarly, Hezekiah said, “For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” (Isa. 38:18).
Some commentators will say that these verses exhibit an “undeveloped view of the afterlife” in the Old Testament, and that believers in that age had no clear knowledge of, or hope in, the promise of eternal life. I don’t believe this is the case. The Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, contain many beautiful and memorable expressions of the believer’s hope in eternal life. Who can deny that David expected to be in the presence of God forever when he said, “In Your presence there is fullness of joy; in Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Even Psalm 30, which contains this line, “What profit is there in my death if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” ends with this line: “I will give thanks to you forever.” So, what about all this business of there being no praise of God among the dead?
The key, I think, is to notice that death is always contrasted, not to life, but to worship. As the psalmist thinks about the prospect of death the most tragic element of it in his mind is that his experience of worship and the joy of it in this life will come to an end. The psalmist valued his life for the opportunity it afforded to him to worship God, and the real tragedy of death was that his worship, so long enjoyed as the essence of life, would be silenced. These verses are not a commentary on death or the afterlife so much as they are a commentary on the real value and true essence of life in this world. To the psalmist, worship was the fabric of life, so much so that the great contrast he draws is not between death and life but between death and worship. He valued his life on earth for the worship it contained.
People value life because they don’t want to lose their most valued possessions or cease their favorite activities, whatever those things may be. The psalmist speaks this way, too, only it is clear that what he values most is the Lord, and what he most values doing is worship. So, these verses, which some call an “undeveloped view of the afterlife,” turn out to be a very developed and spiritually mature view of this life. The psalmist understands that what gives life its purpose and joy is serving the Lord.
And so, the psalmist prays for his life to be spared. He has a sanctified sense of survival because he values his calling as a worshipper of God in this world. Paul would say in Phil. 1 how it would be far better to depart this world and be with the Lord, and I don’t think the psalmist would disagree. However, what we find in the Psalms is the complimentary point that what makes this life so meaningful and valuable, worth praying for and fighting for, is the high calling of being God’s worshippers in this world.
We often pray for health and life, for ourselves and others, but these verses call us to examine our motivations. Do we value this life and wish to see it extended because of our beloved activities, possessions and people? Or do we, like the psalmist, value life for the worship it contains, and see the real tragedy of death as the end of our praise in this world?
I see something of this sanctified sense of survival in the life of our Lord, seemingly an element of His true humanity. Before His death He prayed through tears and with true human emotions, “Let this cup pass from me.” It’s not that Christ was an unwilling sacrifice; on the contrary, He was eager to fulfill His role as our savior and prayed to the Father, “Not My will, but Your will be done.” Nevertheless, as a true man He did not carelessly disregard the value of His life, nor relish the prospect of a painful death. The great wonder of His sacrifice is that He forfeited His precious life, which He valued as a true man, and willingly went to the cross for our sake.
What can we conclude? That this life is worth living, worth praying for and fighting for, because of the opportunity it affords us to serve and worship the Lord here in this world. That is a calling to be relished, and a calling that gives each day of life its real value.
What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper! You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever (Psalm 30:9-12).