A friend of mine, Pastor Kris Capel, would often advise people who were struggling with one burden or another, “Open the Book of Psalms and read until you find something that works for you.” Many people would do so—and indeed find something that worked for them. No matter what life throws at us, there is often a psalm—or even just a psalm verse—that works for the situation.
Most readers will already be aware of the more general life situations—the highs and the lows—and how the Psalter provides helpful prayers, hymns, and poems helpful for such times. In this blog, I want to explore how the psalms speak into the experience of the death of loved ones.
My beloved father-in-law used to say, “Nobody gets out alive.” And then one day he was gone, dead too soon because of cancer. And not too long after that, my beloved mother died. And I found myself singing the words of a favorite song: “I went back home, my home was dreary, for my mother she was gone.”
Death is one of the great constants in life. But the people who belong to the Triune God are not to regard death as just another stage in the circle of life. Death is, as St. Paul wrote, “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We are to fight against death, knowing that Christ has fought against death on our behalf. In the end, death itself will be defeated. It is even more proper to say that Christ has already defeated death—its sting is lost. It is like a rattlesnake that can bite but has no venom. Death is like poison that no longer has any power. The future of God’s beloved creation has already been determined by the resurrection of Christ. We are simply in the long end game, awaiting the new creation.
But as mortal beings, we are those who know of Christ’s victory, but we have not yet been fully clothed in immortality (as Paul poetically describes our future). So when death knocks on our door, the grief and loss remain inordinately painful. And when death knocks, there’s a psalm for that.
Psalm 116: Precious in the sight of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones. (verse 15)
Psalm 90: The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.
Even then their span is only toil and trouble;
They are gone, and we fly away.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart. (verse 10)
Psalm 116:15 is a favorite verse in the Dutch Christian tradition for times of death. When a loved one dies, this verse is often spoken or read. My friend, Pastor Hans Wiersma, shared this recollection with me:
My opa on my mom’s side died 5 years before I was born. I know him mainly from stories my mom told AND from 2 photos. The first was a coat-and-tie portrait of him looking serious, wise. The second is his death photo —an old Dutch? custom of recording your loved one’s earthly image at the start of their heavenly rest. On the back of the photo it gives the date of opa’s death followed by (simply) “Ps. 116.15.”
Psalm 116:15 reads, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” At first blush, the statement may seem odd. How can the death of the faithful be precious to God!? It isn’t their deaths that are precious, however. It is the faithful themselves who are precious to God—even when they are dying. God does not use God’s people. And even more importantly, God doesn’t dispose or discard God’s people when they are old or dying. God’s people remain precious to God even unto death and beyond! In 2020, my mother had a stroke and then lingered for six months until she died. In her last hours, she was immobile and unresponsive. Psalm 116 would have us know that mom was no less precious to God in her last moments than she had been when she was the vibrant and loving mother of four small children 50 years before.
Psalm 90 is a psalm that meditates on the shortness of life. The King James Version translation of the above verse reads, “The days of our years are threescore and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore … ” Abraham Lincoln once addressed a cloud of witnesses who had gathered to dedicate a cemetery for young men slain in battle. The men had died when they were far too young, well before the assigned threescore and ten or fourscore. In an allusion to Psalm 90, Lincoln began, “Fourscore and seven years ago … ” The psalm then prays “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” The psalm becomes a prayer asking for the divine guidance to live our mortal lives in light of eternity. We cannot do it ourselves—we need grace and help to do so. And the psalm gives us words equal to the task.
But there is another psalm about death to mention here. It is a psalm for when death is not only an enemy, but a thief—one who steals a life from us too early. For when grief’s weight is so heavy that just getting out of bed in the morning seems impossible.
Psalm 44: We sink down to the dust;
Our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (verses 25-26)
Death leaves a hole in our lives. When we love someone and they love us, something grows in us. There is a bond, a relationship, a reality. And then, when our beloved dies, that thing that has grown is gone. There is a hole in our lives. The hole is the product of both the love we had for the beloved and then the (often sudden) death of the beloved. Death rips the thing that love had grown out of us and leaves a hole. At such times, sometimes what we need is a raw word of pain: “We sink down to the dust.” That is, “We die!” So, “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!”
The prominent Lutheran leader, Alvin Rogness, described his own experience with death and grief using similar language. His son Paul was killed suddenly when he was a young man, and he had just returned from Europe. Rogness described his son Paul’s death in many ways, including the image of a tree being cut down in a forest. The tree is gone, and it leaves a hole in the forest.
Out of his own grief and faith, Rogness ministered to many others who would later lose a child. One of those was Pastor Paul Roe, who was a mentor of mine. Paul’s daughter Gayle died suddenly at age 34 from a cerebral aneurysm. Rogness’s pastoral wisdom and faithful witness meant a great deal to Paul when Gayle died. About the hole Gayle’s death left in his heart, Paul said to me, “You never get over it. And you don’t want to.” As a pastor, I’ve preached at funerals for stillborn children, 26-year-olds who were killed in work accidents, and great-grandmothers who lived a century. The grief is always there. You never get over it. And you never want to.
There is a line in Psalm 90 that I skipped over. It says that when the days of our life are over, “we fly away.” Alfred Brumley borrowed those words for a victory song that so many passionately sing in the face of death: “I’ll Fly Away.” At a recent funeral for a man who was killed far too young, we sang that song. We sang it loudly, with tears welling in our eyes and hope blooming in our hearts. The tears welled because of the hole in our hearts. The hope bloomed because of Jesus Christ. Specifically, because in his death and resurrection, Christ has defeated death and opened the way to everlasting life. As so we sing: “I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.”
This blog post is an adaptation of the article, “There’s a Psalm for That: How the Psalms Speak in Daily Life,” published in Word & World, Issue 43–4, Fall 2023. A full version of the article can be found here.