Is God Pleased about the Death of His Saints?

Gravestone

There’s a certain verse that gets quoted at just about every Christian funeral. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. I usually hear it in the King James Version, which goes like this:

Precious in the sight of the Lord
Is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15, KJV)

What are we to make of this? Does God enjoy seeing his followers die?

First, there is some truth to the idea that for the believer, “to die is gain,” as Paul said in Philippians 1:21. However, we have to remember that Paul said this as one half of a paradoxical statement.

On the one hand, death would be to his gain—it would mean going to be with Jesus. But on the other hand, he knew God still had work for him to do here on earth. “I don’t know which I prefer:” Paul said, “I feel torn between the two” (Philippians 1:22–23, NET). So we shouldn’t take his statement out of context to say that death is always better than life for the believer.

Furthermore, the larger context of Scripture paints death as the great enemy of God (1 Corinthians 15:26). Certainly, God can redeem death and bring good out of it—God can redeem anything. But that does not mean he is actually pleased with death of any kind, let alone the death of his faithful followers.

But let’s go back to Psalm 116. If we look at the psalm as a whole, we’ll have some context to understand verse 15. As soon as we begin reading, we see that it is a psalm of praise to Yahweh. But what is the reason for this praise? The psalmist praises God, not because God will reward him after death, but because God rescued him from death:

The ropes of death encircled me,
and the distresses of Sheol found me.
I found trouble and grief.
Then I called on the name of Yahweh:
“O Yahweh, please save my life!”
Gracious is Yahweh and righteous,
and our God is merciful.
Yahweh watches over the simple.
I was brought low, but he gave me victory.
Return, O my soul, to your repose,
for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have rescued me from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I will walk before Yahweh
in the land of the living. (Psalm 116:3–9, LEB)

God’s deliverance from death is the theme of this psalm. The idea that it teaches God’s pleasure in death makes no sense. And it shouldn’t make sense, because that isn’t what verse 15 means.

Our confusion comes from translating the Hebrew word yāqār as “precious.” It’s an accurate translation, but precious has multiple meanings. In modern usage, precious tends to mean “cherished” or “enjoyable.” If we assume that meaning, we’ll think God cherishes or enjoys the death of his followers.

But the primary meaning of precious (and of yāqār) is “costly.” With this definition in mind, we can see that the verse actually teaches the opposite of its popular interpretation. The death of God’s followers is costly to him because he values their lives.

The Lexham English Bible’s literal translation makes this clear:

Costly in Yahweh’s view is
the death of his faithful ones. (Psalm 116:15, LEB)

The NET Bible’s paraphrase also conveys this well:

The Lord values
the lives of his faithful followers. (Psalm 116:15, NET)

So is God pleased about the death of his saints? Absolutely not! He values life, not death.