Is death precious or grievous to God?

Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, has a recent post here related to the translation of Psalm 116:15. Dr. Mariottini cites some evidence in favor of the translation ‘precious’ (see below). Most English versions are quite similar to the 1611 KJV, including the exact wording of the RSV (1946), NIV (1993), NKJV (1982), and ESV (2007).

Precious in the sight of the LORD [is] the death of his saints. (KJV 1611)

Dr. Mariottini takes issue with the following translations for not expressing the idea that the psalmist was trying to convey that the death of God’s faithful people is precious to him…

The LORD values the lives of his faithful followers. (NET 2005)

Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful. (NAB 1970)

The death of His faithful ones is grievous in the LORD’s sight. (Tanakh 1973)

Here are a few other translations that also differ somewhat significantly…

How painful it is to the LORD when one of his people dies! (TEV 1976)

You are deeply concerned when one of your loyal people faces death. (CEV 1995)

The LORD pays special attention when his faithful people die. (NIrV 1995)

The LORD cares deeply when his loved ones die. (NLT 1996)

Before I can agree with Dr. Mariottini’s conclusions, I have to note that this psalm is not about the death of one of God’s faithful. It is actually a psalm of praise and thanksgiving and of making vows to the LORD for answering the psalmist’s prayers and rescuing him from death. Therefore, that death is ‘precious’ to the LORD in this context may have more to do with the value that God puts on the lives of his faithful and the subsequent patience with which he allows death to come to them. Thus, death for each of God’s people is truly a rarity and thus all the more precious to God when he finally calls them home.

So I don’t think I’m really disagreeing with Dr. Mariottini, except that I don’t find as much fault in the NET and NAB translations since they express what I believe is the underlying meaning of the psalmist’s words in this verse. The NAB translation committee defends their translation with a footnote…

Too costly in the eyes of the LORD: the meaning is that the death of God’s faithful is grievous to God, not that God is pleased with the death. Cf Psalm 72:14. In Wisdom 3:5–6 God accepts the death of the righteous as a sacrificial burnt offering.

Psalm 72:14 reads…

He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, / And their blood will be precious in his sight.

Here are some other versions…

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones. (NRSV 1989)

A precious thing in the LORD’s sight is the death of those who are loyal to him. (REB 1989)

The death of one that belongs to the LORD is precious in his sight. (NCV 1991)

Precious in the sight of the LORD / Is the death of His godly ones. (NASB 1995)

When they arrive at the gates of death, God welcomes those who love him. (Message 2002)

In the sight of the Lord, the death of his faithful ones is valued. (ISV 2008)

One final note: in no way am I saying that this verse should not apply to the death of one of God’s faithful people. I think Dr. Mariottini was completely justified — exegetically speaking — in applying this verse to the death of 90 year old Mr. Paul Klec this week. The death of God’s faithful Mr. Klec is very precious to him, and all the more so because those 90 years of faithfulness were also of great value to the LORD.

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6 Responses to “Is death precious or grievous to God?”

  1. Claude Mariottini Says:

    Bzephyr,

    Thank you for writing this post and providing additional information on Psalm 116:15. By including additional versions to your post, you added much content to my post.

    I agree with you that Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving in which the psalmist praises God for delivering him from death. It seems that the psalmist came close to death but with God’s help, he survived. However, that experience taught him that the death of faithful people is very special to God. I still argue that the emphasis of verse 15 is on death not on life.

    Thank you for this outstanding post.

    Claude Mariottini

  2. bzephyr Says:

    Dear Dr. Mariottini,

    I had the joy today of asking a friend if he was familiar with Psalm 116:15, and right away he said, “You mean the one that says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones”?

    He reminded of the observation that death in the Old Testament is not usually a good thing and is not associated with being present with God in heaven. He felt like this was also an argument for understanding this verse to mean that the death of the faithful is ‘too costly’ or that it is the preservation of life for the faithful that is still in focus because death is a precious rarity.

    Yet, just because most OT texts follow one pattern, that does not preclude this text from having its own unique voice in the Hebrew canon.

  3. Psalm 116:15 - My ‘Precioussss’ « ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ - you shall love Says:

    […] thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to […]

  4. J.Massie Says:

    death for each of God’s people is truly a rarity and thus all the more precious to God when he finally calls them home.
    Housewife here, reading this page I stumbled across looking for the Psalm. Very good reading, and I will enjoy pondering the above statement. Blessings

  5. Precious Death « ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ – you shall love Says:

    […] thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to […]

  6. >Psalm 116:15: Is Death Precious or Grievous? | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament Says:

    […] response to my post, Bzephyr, at agaphseis wrote a post, “Is death precious or grievous to God?” in which he studies Psalm 116 and how […]


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