BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
Memorial Day began as a day to honor and remember those who died in the Civil War. The very first soldier to die in that war was Colonel Ellsworth, a personal friend of President Lincoln. Lincoln gave his regiment the honor of being the first to cross the Potomac into Virginia and pull down the rebel flag. Ellsworth took a private with him and went up to the roof and pulled down the flag himself. As he came down the stairs he was shot by the owner of the hotel. At his funeral in the East Room of the White House, Lincoln stood by his body and exclaimed, "My boy, my boy, was it necessary that this sacrifice be made!" Little did he dream that in the next four years nearly a million more from both North and South would follow this first casualty to the grave.
As the war proceeded, Lincoln realized that there would be an enormous price to pay to fight the evil of slavery, but that price had to be paid, for when wrong is strong, right must fight, and pay the cost however high. Ever since, America has been a nation that says freedom is a value worth dying for. It is true that more people die on the highway of our land than in the battlefields defending our freedoms, but those who die on the battlefield die for a purpose. That is why there is a holiday to commemorate such deaths.
It is only purposeful death that we memorialize. That is why we also have frequent communion, for it is a remembering of a death with ultimate purpose, for it saves all who put their trust in Jesus from the final death and separation from God. It gives us eternal freedom to live and enjoy all God made us for. It is the ultimate purposeful death.
But Memorial Day is a day of remembrance of those who died for our temporal freedom, and these were also significant purposeful deaths. Over a portal of a cemetery in North Assam where many American soldiers lie, who fought in India and Berma in World War II, stands these words, "Tell them we gave our todays for their tomorrows." Today is that tomorrow that was purchased for us by their deaths. If we appreciate the freedoms and the opportunities to enjoy life in America, because of the sacrifice of others, then we can say, "Precious in the sight of Americans is the death of her soldiers." This does not mean that we are glad that they died, or that we rejoice in their death, but that we recognize the values for which they died, and, thus, see the preciousness of the purpose for which they died.
We need to keep in mind that those who fought and lived also fought for our freedoms. Most fighting men did not die. They lived to enjoy the values they fought to preserve. Thank God not all had to die, for it is their living that makes those who died, not to have died in vain. That was Lincoln's great commitment, and his words are in the marble behind the tomb of the unknown soldier. They read, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." Only the living can make sure the dead have not died in vain, and so we thank God for survivors It is great to be alive, and that is what Psalm 116 is all about. It is about being a survivor, and being alive when, except for the grace of God, the author would be dead. He was delivered from death, and this is his song of thanksgiving.
Back in 1951, when open heart surgery had been performed less than fifty times, Doris Sillimon entered a Boston hospital without much hope. Two weeks later she was so enthused about her dramatic recovery from her heart surgery that she made a vow to tell others, and encourage them as they face the same dreaded ordeal. She got her doctor to contact other heart patients, and an organization was formed called, Mended Hearts. Doris was elected president, and her wonderful idea became a visible reality. It met so great a need that Mended Hearts chapters were formed from coast to coast. Dedicated people, who had been through it, took fifteen hours of study to learn all about the heart, and what open heart surgery was all about. Then they spent hours explaining it to waiting loved ones as the surgery was being performed. They have helped thousands bear the burden. Their theme is, "It's great to be alive and help others."
This is also the theme of Psalm 116. We do not know who the author of this Psalm was, but we do know he came very near dying, but was then spared, and this Psalm is his song of praise and thanksgiving for that deliverance. He rejoices in verse 9 that he walks before the Lord in the land of the living, and he wants to pay his vows, he says twice, in the presence of all God's people. He wants his testimony to be a help to others. His message here can be summed up, "It's great to alive and to help others." The mended hearts idea goes way back to this Old Testament saint who had been through the valley, and wanted to encourage others who had to face the same journey.
That, of course, means all of us, for all of us have a terminal illness, and that is life.It is deadly to be alive in a fallen world, for it is only that which is alive that dies. For all practical purposes life is always fatal. The few exceptions where men by-pass death to go directly to heaven are not relevant to us, for that detour has long been closed. When Christ returns, the Rapture Road will be opened, which also by-passes death, but until that day all of God's people must go the regular route.
The Psalmist had to take this road also, but this song is about his joy because the original trip was rescheduled. He was about to die but, like Hezekiah, he cried out for the Lord to save him, and God did it. He had to die later, but he was so grateful for the chance to stay in the land for the living a while longer. We want to examine his testimony to learn about what a believers attitude ought to be when he faces death. The first thing we see in this song is-
I. HIS HONESTY OF EXPRESSION.
He did not pretend that death was a welcome visitor, but expressed his honest feelings that its presence made him suffer distress and anguish. The Living Bible puts it, " I was frightened and sad." That is an excellent rendering, for modern studies show that the two most common reactions to death are fear and sadness.
It is often assumed that a believer does not face death with these negative emotions, but the facts of scripture, and life's experience prove otherwise. The Psalmist makes it clear that he wept in deep depression as he faced the loss of his life. As an Old Testament saint he did not have the New Testament hope of the Christian, but his emotions are not that much, if any, different from what Christians go through as they face death.
Billy Graham, in what I consider his best book, Hope For The Troubled Heart writes, "I have faced death many times, and my reactions have not always been the same. One time I had an operation that almost ended me. I knew this could be serious, so before they wheeled me in the operating room I called two of my closest friends and gave them instructions about my wife, my family, and my ministry. Ruth had gone to be with the children, and I tried to keep the seriousness of the situation from her. Whether this was right or wrong, I don't know. At least I am living to tell the story." "I remember alternating between two feelings. First, the complete peace I had, knowing that I would be with my Lord Jesus Christ, and second, the fear of leaving my loved ones. I certainly thought I was going to die."
The Bible does not anywhere encourage us to put on a mask and deny the reality of the negative emotions that are inevitable. No one ever lived that had more faith and hope than the apostle Paul, yet he expressed the same honest emotions as did the Psalmist, when he praised God for sparing his friend Epaphroditus from death, lest he have sorrow upon sorrow. In other words, even perfect assurance that death leads a Christian directly into the presence of Christ does not eliminate the negative emotions. There are circumstances when death is a welcome release, and the Christian does not suffer these negative emotions, but in the majority of cases Christians cannot escape the reality that death is an enemy.
Peter Kreeft in, Love Is Stronger Than Death, is extremely blunt and honest in his expression of the fact. He writes, "Death is loss, loss of life. Life is good. Loss of a good is an evil. Therefore, death is an evil. Loss of a great good is a great evil. Life is a great good. Therefore, death is a great evil. Not to see this is a great blindness. Blindness is a great evil. Therefore, not to see death as a great evil is a great evil."
"Death is.........the undoing of creation. Death is the most uncreative thing there is. It literally uncreates creation, whether it is the creation of man or God, whether it is a painting destroyed by fire, or a nation destroyed by war, a soul destroyed by vice, or a body destroyed by cancer. Death is the enemy of God. It undoes the divine work, creation."
The emotions of both the Old Testament and New Testament saints support this view of death as an enemy. You usually do not become hilarious in your expression of joy at being delivered from a friend. It is obvious that death is an enemy to motivate such strong joy and gratitude when one is spared from it. Verse 15 of this Psalm does seem to contradict this conclusion, and has lead to a great deal of confusion on the issue of death. It says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."
Much of the false thinking about death can be traced back to this verse. It is usually quoted in total disregard of the context. The context is a song, not in praise of death, but in praise of God who has delivered from death. This verse cannot mean what it is usually quoted to mean-that God delights in the death of His saints. If that is what it meant, the Psalmist would be saying I am so happy I didn't die, but God would be happier if I did. God let me escape death even though He would have preferred that I died. In other words, the popular interpretation of this verse says that his being spared was God's second best choice. Life was a compromise, but death would have been God's first choice, for He delights in the death of His saints more than their being spared from death.
Something is clearly wrong with this popular interpretation, for it amounts to praising God for giving up His own will for the sake of the will of man. The Psalmist would be saying in effect, "Not thy will but mine be done." Or, "Thank God he didn't have his way." How can we interpret this verse to make sense in the context of the joy of deliverance from the jaws of death? Most commentators are of no help for they tend to deal with it in isolation as a funeral text for comfort. Alexander Maclaren, the great Baptist expositor, is one of the rare ones who seek to make it fit the context. He writes, "The meaning is that the death of God's saints is no trivial thing in God's eyes, to be lightly permitted." In other words, not trivial in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints, but, rather, it is a tremendous issue in the sight of God. If death was a light and trivial matter to God He would not bother to interfere with it, and deliver His saints from its clutches. But because it is a precious matter to God to see His saints die, He takes death very seriously.
God does not deal with us like a paper cup that is used and tossed away, but like a rare piece of China that is treated with great care. Precious in the sight of God is the breaking of His best China. When a believer dies it is no minor incident, but a major matter of concern with God. The Living Bible is one of the few places where this concept comes through. It says, "His loved ones are very precious to Him and He does not lightly let them die." This interpretation not only fits the context of this passage, but it makes sense in the other Psalms where this same idea is expressed. In Psalm 72:14 we read, "Precious is their blood in His sight." Taken out of context it makes God look sadistic by delighting in the violent death of His people. But seen in context, and interpreted properly, it shows God's great concern for the lives of His people.
Psalm 72:12-14 reads, "For He delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence He redeems their life; and precious is their blood in His sight." In other words, because their blood is precious in His sight, He does not desire to see it spilled in violence, and so He delivers from death. The point of these passages is, God is the great deliverer because He takes seriously the shedding of His saints blood and their death. The popular interpretation, out of context, makes these verses mean just the opposite-that God somehow delights in the death of His people. This concept not only contradicts the context, but the entire spirit of Biblical revelation which considers long life a blessing of God.
God takes death so seriously that He detests man's audacity in tampering with the lives of His people. David had this truth deeply engrained in him. He would not kill King Saul even when he had the perfect chance, for he was the Lord's anointed. David knew that God would not take lightly the killing of even this rebel anointed one. How we treat the lives of others is of the highest priority in the sight of God, for the death of any of His saints is a precious matter in His sight. Many have so divorced this verse from its context that they use it to teach that God in His sovereignty delights in all His children's death, because He appoints the day of their death, and it is always a good thing when they do die.
Many see this as a good Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture, but John Calvin could see that the contexts of this verse would not support any such interpretation. He saw it as a challenge to the ungodly who think they can kill God's people without judgment. He says this verse is saying to those with this false idea about God's concern, and I quote Calvin, "That God does not hold His servants in so little estimation as to expose them to death casually." Calvin goes on to say that the wicked may shed innocent blood and think it is nothing, but they will learn in judgment that death was a precious matter in the sight of God, and they will pay dearly for their shedding of that blood so precious in His sight.
We have labored this issue because it is more often abused than properly used. It is abused when it is made to say the opposite of what it means. It means death is a major issue with God and those who minimize it and say death is no big deal, contradict the mind of God. Death was a big deal to the Psalmist, and that is why he was so miserable when he thought he was going to die, and so happy when he had been delivered. To teach that death is no big deal, but a mere minor event in the life of a believer, is to make trivial that which is never trivial to God. The Psalmist made a big deal of it by his honest expression of negative feelings. He did not pretend, with a pious indifference, that it made no difference to him whether he lived or died. It made a big difference to him, and so the second point we want we to look at is--
II. HIS HOPE OF ESCAPE.
The popular misunderstanding of verse 15 could make a saint submit to death as if this spirit would be pleasing to God, since He, by that view, delights in the death of His saints. The man who wrote that verse, however, did not resign himself to death, but resisted it with all his strength, and prayed earnestly that God would help him to escape the snare that held him. You will find no support here for yielding to death as a friend. He fought it as an enemy to be defeated. He knew he would eventually have to die, but he did not assume that this was his appointed time. He was determined to win as many victories over this foe as he possibly could. His was a death-defying attitude like that of Edna St. Vincent Millay who wrote,
"Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave.
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know, but I do not approve, and I am not resigned.
Where there is life there is hope. This is the Christian perspective. David fasted and cried out to God for days for his sick child. When the child died he ceased his struggle, and looked to a hope beyond death. But until death was a reality, he fought it with all the weapons he had at his disposal. This is the kind of attitude that has enabled millions to escape what otherwise would have been certain death. Every time we can outwit this foxy foe, the more life we will have to devote to the service of God. This song of praise has been sung by millions because the Psalmist was able to escape the grim reaper for a time.
What this means for practical living is this: The Biblical attitude toward death supports any effort to improve the quality and the quantity of life on earth. Medical research is Christian in its motivation to find answers for all the diseases that destroy life.Health diets, jogging, and any other addition to ones life's style that encourages longer life is legitimate for the believer. The reverse is also true, that any habit or life style that hastens death is a collaboration with the enemy, and it is contrary to God's will for our lives. Just as an American citizen has no business promoting communism, so the Christian has no business promoting the enemy of life. Jesus came that we might have life, and not just life after death, but life abundant before death. Anything we do that encourages and strengthens the power of death to rob us of that life is inconsistent with God's purpose.
Every good commander learns from his enemy. If you expect to get good at any competitive sport you must learn from your opponent. So the Christian must learn from the enemy death. It has some powerful lessons that God wants us to learn. Even out of death God can bring forth good for those who want to learn. John Gunther and his wife Frances lost their 17 year old son to a brain tumor. John wrote of it in his well known book, Death Be Not Proud. In this book his wife sums up the value of death to her. "Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life. Nothing, not even the birth of one's child, brings one so close to life as death.....It raises all the infinite questions.....What is the meaning of life? What are the relations between things; life and death? Man, men, and God?"
"To me it means loving life more; being more aware of life, of one's fellow human beings, of the earth.....It means caring more and more about people, at home and abroad, all over the earth. It means caring about God." She learned what the Psalmist learned, and what we all need to learn from the reality of death, and that is, that it is great to be alive, and to be delivered from death. Thank God everyday you are delivered from death, for everyday is an opportunity to enjoy the freedom and abundant life Jesus died to give us. The best memorial you can give to those who have died is to enjoy what they died to preserve for you--deliverance from death.