O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Psalm 30:3 (NRSVCE)
A couple of weeks ago I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and spoke about Hope in Death. I’ve been doing a lot of meditating on death recently, mainly in conjunction with that message, but also because of the pandemic. Fear of contracting the virus and not surviving is very real.
In my meditation, I’ve observed how prevalent death is in most all of our stories. Antagonists are trying to kill protagonists. Protagonists are trying to avoid being killed. Writers of films and television shows love to stir our emotions by allowing us to witness what had to have been the death of our favorite character and then stir them again when it’s revealed the character actually survived. In the ending of Yellowstone, one of our favorites the writers left us with the classic season cliffhanger and we’ll have to wait a year to find out if a character survived. Wendy and I binged all ten season of the British whodunnit Vera this summer (loved it!) and of course all classic mysteries are predicated on death. The shows start with a dead body.
In short, I’ve observed that death is everywhere we turn for both news and entertainment, even though I don’t really think about it that much.
Today’s psalm, once again penned by King David, tells a story. David thought he was going to die. Whether it was sickness, war wound, or a combination of both is not known. In the opening verse he cries out to God for healing because God “brought up his soul from Sheol and restored him from those who go down to the Pit.”
Human understanding and belief systems with regard to death and the afterlife have evolved over time. In Part 1 of my podcast on Time I talked about how human history is like a life cycle. Humanity itself is growing, maturing, and changing just a you and I grow, change, and mature on this life journey. The Hebrews in David’s day believed a lot like other Mesopotamian cultures. After life was a shadowy, uncertain state of existence. The underworld was known as Sheol and it was considered to be a dark pit in the deepest recesses of the Earth. For David, there really wasn’t hope of an afterlife. There was just fear of death. In escaping death, David writes this song of joyous praise for God’s deliverance.
Fast forward roughly 1,000 years from David to the time of Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the Hebrews’ beliefs had evolved but there was still vastly divergent views on what happens when we die. One school of thought (the Sudducees) believed there was no afterlife at all. The most prominent school of thought (the Pharisees) believed there was an afterlife or resurrection. Jesus certainly believed in resurrection. In the Jesus’ story He predicts His death and resurrection on multiple occasions. Before raising his friend Lazarus from the dead Jesus tells Laz’s sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will never die.” (see John 11). While in Jerusalem, the Sadducee scholars approach Jesus in an attempt to debate Him on the subject (see Matthew 22).
In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but feel the joy of David’s escape of death, but the unbridled praise is rooted in his absolute fear and hope-less despair at the prospect of dying. As I mull this over, I can’t help but think about what a game-changer Jesus was. In his letter to believers in the city of Corinth, Paul doesn’t quote from David’s fear of the Pit, but this verse from the prophet Hosea:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
I realize that one of the things that has grown and matured in me as a follower of Jesus are my thoughts and feelings about death. Though earlier in my journey I feared death a great deal, I’m no longer afraid to die. I’ve heard and read the stories of those who have gone and have been sent back. The further I get in this journey the more fully I believe that this earthly life is about me fulfilling my role in the Great Story. When my role is finished I will make my exit to that which is more real than this 19,848 days of physical existence.
I will sing with David his words from today’s psalm:
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy
Not because I escaped physical death to live another day, but because Jesus conquered death and I’ll escape this this earth-bound life for eternity.
In the meantime, it’s another day in the journey. Time to press on.