Death


We are taking the teaching of the book of Proverbs not by chapter but by subject. As we said, while there may be in certain cases some principle of organization that explains why one proverb dealing with one subject should sit next to another dealing with a quite different subject, most of the time it is by no means apparent why one proverb follows another as it does. The proverbs seem to be arranged in a jumble. There is no particular order to them or organization around a theme and so there is no need for us to consider the various themes in the book in any particular order. And so it seemed to me right that following last Lord’s Day evening’s service, which was Vic Pol’s funeral service, we should take up what Proverbs has to teach us about death.

In 1 Tim. 4:8, the Apostle Paul wrote these famous words:

“…train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

Another way to describe the teaching of the book of Proverbs is that it amounts to training in godliness. Wisdom and godliness are very similar ideas in the Bible and godliness as a way of life is very similar to that life of wisdom or that morally and spiritually skillful life described in detail in the book of Proverbs. There is no question – there never has been – that Proverbs teaches that wisdom “holds promise for the present life,” but there has long been a question as to whether Proverbs also teaches that it holds promise “for the life to come.”

As you are no doubt well aware, the Old Testament does not teach about the life to come with anything like the explicit detail that we are given in the New Testament. There is nowhere in the Old Testament anything quite like the Lord’s dying remark to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” or like the remarks of the Apostle that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” or that “death is better by far,” or that death amounts to going “home.” There is nothing like the Lord’s never-to-be-forgotten words that he is going ahead of us to prepare a place for us so that where he is we may be also. There are intimations of resurrection in the Old Testament but nothing like the explicit teaching about rising from the dead on the last day that we find illustrated in the ministry of the Lord Jesus in the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, or the raising of Lazarus, or, supremely, in the Lord’s own resurrection or that we find taught in such memorable passages as 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

Consequently there have been a number of scholars, both Bible-believing and not, who have argued that the Hebrews of the ancient epoch had no doctrine of the afterlife and that the view of death, of the intermediate state, of the resurrection, and of heaven that all Christians share today was an innovation of Second Temple Judaism and of the New Testament.

But there was always a strongly argued dissent to that conclusion. Many scholars pointed out that there are at least some statements in the Old Testament that only a mind determined to deny the obvious could conclude did not refer to life after death. For example, in the great Psalm 73, a psalm all about the obvious fact that God’s justice cannot be clearly seen in the outcome of wicked lives and righteous lives if their fortunes in this world are all that are taken into account – the wicked often prosper and the righteous sometimes suffer greatly – we read not only that the psalmist’s doubts were put to rest when he remembered “the end” of the wicked,” but when he also remembered that the blessing of righteousness likewise cannot be measured only by what it brings in this life.

“I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast before you. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.”

So when the psalmist goes on to say,

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever

it takes a perverse prejudice to deny that he is talking about the world to come and the reward that the righteous will receive after death. What else would he mean? How else would the existential problem he was facing – the problem of the prosperity of the wicked – be resolved if it is not resolved in the next life. The psalmist certainly doesn’t mean that the solution of the problem is that the righteous will prosper in this life after all and the wicked will not prosper after all. That isn’t true and everyone knows it isn’t true. He knew it wasn’t true! It was precisely the fact that such is not always the case that prompted his doubts in the first place. The problem was not resolved by realizing that he had made a mistake in thinking that the wicked prosper in this life. The psalm doesn’t say that. The problem was resolved by his recognition that the wicked’s prosperity here on earth will be forgotten as soon as they face the music of God’s justice in the world to come. And in like manner the struggles of the righteous will be quickly  forgotten when they begin to enjoy the blessings of the Promised Land.

What is more, as through the ANE scholarship of the last century and a half it has become clear that all ANE cultures had a doctrine of the afterlife, it has become more and more difficult to think that the Hebrews, virtually alone among ancient peoples, did not. There is something inevitable, inescapably human about belief in a world and life to come. It is found among every people of every culture. Why would the Hebrews be any different? Indeed, would they not have had a supremely clear view of the life and world to come?

All of that leads us to Proverbs 10:2:

“Ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but righteousness delivers from death.”

In what sense does righteousness deliver a man or woman from death? The rabbis wrestled with this problem and in the Talmud we read that they concluded that this means that the righteous are delivered from evil death, violent death, unjust death. That is, everyone is going to die, the righteous and the wicked alike. We know that. But the righteous are much more likely to die in their beds and not suffer violent death. But, of course, that isn’t necessarily true either. It’s not even widely true. A great many evil men have died in their beds and many godly and righteous people have died young, or in car accidents caused by a drunk driver, or have perished in war or in famine or have died as martyrs suffering death precisely because of their righteousness. The Lord Jesus’ perfect righteousness did not spare him an evil and violent death! It is patronizing to believe that the Hebrews wouldn’t have realized this; that they didn’t know very well that righteousness did not necessarily protect a person from an evil death and that wickedness did not guarantee an evil death. It usually does not in fact, as any observer of human life then or now can easily see. Indeed the book of Ecclesiastes is all about the problem created for faith by the fact that in many ways in this life the wicked and the righteous fare the same. To argue that the OT teaches only retribution and reward in this life, one commentator points out, is to make the sages seem incredibly naïve. [Longman, 87] And we know they were the furthest thing from naïve; they were the keenest observers of human life. Indeed, there are a number of proverbs that teach us that the wicked often prosper and the innocent often suffer. Think of Prov. 13:23:

“The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

Remember, Proverbs is about the issue of things, the result of our conduct, the end of the matter. This is a book about outcomes. We’ve seen this already. The wise man judges that a few minutes of physical pleasure in sexual sin is hardly to be compared to the shame and the ruin that will ensue upon the discovery of the sin. Well, in a book about outcomes, “righteousness delivers from death” seems very clearly to refer to the fact that there is a death for the righteous that is different from the death of the wicked; there is a kind of death that amounts to deliverance from death precisely because it ushers the righteous into another condition of life so much happier and better. Is that not the obvious meaning of the words? People knew then as we know now that everyone must die, even the righteous. But they also knew that death was different for the righteous than for the wicked. The fact of the matter is that the problem created for faith by the fact that the wicked often prosper in this world and the righteous often suffer is often raised in the Bible and again and again the answer to this dilemma is said to be faith in God, which is simply a way of saying that this will all eventually be sorted out and the justice of God’s ways made evident to everyone.

We could say all of this equally about a statement such as that in 23:17-18:

“Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”

Or equally of this statement in 23:13-14:

“Don’t withhold discipline from young people. If you strike them with a rod, they will not die. If you strike him with a rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”

Surely that is a confession of life after death and of reward in the world to come for faithfulness to God in the present life. How else can that be read, found as it is in a collection of discerning observations of human life and in a book whose purpose is to teach the righteous to commit all their ways to the Lord? This is all the more the case when we realize that “life” in Proverbs, as generally in the Bible, is hardly merely clinical life, a beating heart. Life is usually in Proverbs a condition of existence, not bare existence. So professor Bruce Waltke concludes, [cf. Waltke, i, 104-105]

“In sum, “life” in the majority of Proverbs texts refers to abundant life in fellowship with God, a living relationship that is never envisioned as ending in clinical death in contrast to the wicked’s eternal death… As Jesus said, ‘He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the living, not the dead (Matt. 22:32).’”

And once we are ready to read Proverbs in this sensible way, we find that again and again we are reminded that the present confusion of life – the fact that that in this life we cannot see the clear connection between wickedness, righteousness, and their respective outcomes – will be resolved by the ultimate issue of things. So, for example, we read in 24:13-14:

“My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”

Surely we are right to read that in terms of the life to come. We read in 24:19-20

“Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, for the evil man has no future; the lamp of the wicked will be put out.”

It is only sensible to assume that the proverb is intended to teach us that judgment awaits the wicked in the next life because everyone knows he doesn’t necessarily suffer that judgment here.

We read in 11:31:

“If the righteous is repaid on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner”

Surely the implication is that the righteous is not always repaid in this life nor is the sinner. Biblical writers thought a great deal about the fact that God’s providence did not always leave the moral equation clear in this life. If it were only here in this life that the righteous prosper, well then perhaps there isn’t enough reason after all to go to the trouble, and it requires great trouble, to live righteously. That logic is faced squarely in the OT and always denied precisely because faith knows that the Lord will put things right in the end. Hugh Hefner has contributed to the blighting of a great many lives, but he seems happy enough as he gets older; he still has crowds of people wanting to see him and be with him at his mansion; he can still surround himself with a bevy of beautiful young women; and he still enjoys the pleasures money can buy. How has he been repaid for his sin? And how is the convert from Islam who is disowned by his or her family or murdered upon the discovery of his or her faith in Christ, how are such people repaid for their righteousness? Very often only in the next world.

To be sure, there is a great deal of death for the wicked already in this life – as there has been in the life of Hugh Hefner, so addicted to pornography that ordinary pleasures are beyond him as is true love – and Proverbs does not hesitate to say so; just as there are many benefits to wisdom that are enjoyed in this life. Some of the time sin does pay a wage immediately and some of the time righteousness leads directly to reward, but that is hardly always the case. In fact it is simply not the case that modern people fear to disobey God because of the consequences they will face in this life. Medicine has made sexually transmitted diseases less fearful, modern forms of contraception have made promiscuity much less likely to produce a pregnancy, and the widespread acceptance of promiscuity and pornography have considerably lessened the stigma of getting caught. Ask President Clinton if you don’t think so. Observation of life has not convinced multitudes of modern people that if they sin against God they will suffer for it. Proverbs is too full of honest dealing and worldly wisdom to leave its readers thinking that somehow the wicked will never prosper and the righteous always will. If there is no resolution after death, the moral universe of Proverbs collapses.

It is hard to be poor in this world, no matter if one is righteous; it is hard to be the victim of an oppressor and even the wise can suffer that fate. If righteousness has its reward only in this life, the righteous among the poor and the weak would rightly wonder where their reward is. How can it be true, as we read in 11:21 that “an evil person will not go unpunished” when people in this life have always and still today literally get away with murder? There was a murder on the campus of Covenant Theological Seminary some years ago; the victim was a 50 year old single woman, a student at the seminary. Her killer has never been brought to justice and, in all likelihood, never will be in this life. On this Sunday for the Persecuted Church ask Christians who have suffered terribly for their loyalty to Christ and who may well continue to suffer until the end of their short lives what they would think if they were to learn that it is only in this world that the righteous receive their reward. Of course there is a next world; the biblical logic is unassailable: there must be reward in the hereafter and judgment in the world to come, else there will be many cases in which righteousness will not be rewarded and sin not punished and God will have been proved to be unjust and unfaithful to his word. The logic of that statement is one the Bible faces again and again. It is preposterous to image that Proverbs does not grasp the obvious point: if death is the end, period, then wickedness and righteousness do not have different outcomes!

But death is not the end for the wicked or the righteous and that makes death the end of only some things, by no means all things. And so it is, as we read in 14:32:

“The wicked is overthrown through his evildoing, but the righteous finds refuge in his death.” The NIV reads “…even in death the righteous find a refuge.”

The contrast, as everywhere else in the Bible, is between final ruin and final refuge. [Kidner, 56]

Now, I want to conclude this evening by thinking with you about what that means: “The righteous finds refuge in his death.” For most people most of the time death is not a refuge. It is a fearful enemy and, no matter what their supposed theology or philosophy of life, they do not want to die. Roman Caesars were supposed to become gods upon their deaths, but Vespasion’s last joke on his deathbed was, “How depressing! I think I’m turning into a god.” He would much rather have stayed a human being; death was no refuge for him. [Cited in Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 263] Winston Churchill didn’t believe in life after death. His view was that in dying “we simply go out like candles.” No refuge in that. If that is one’s view or if one is unsure, death can be no refuge.

Now, to be sure, there are many unbelieving people who come at last to think of death as a refuge. They are dying of some painful disease and life has become abject misery for them. They want release and death is that release. Or so they think. But is it? In the Bible death is only transition to another dimension of human existence; death is never extinction! What if that life on the other side is worse, not better? Why would we deny that? People are making choices all the time thinking to make things better for themselves and in fact they make them worse! What is truer to human life than the reality of people thinking things are going to get better when in fact they will get worse? What if after death they wish for nothing so much as to return to the pain of that dying life that made them so foolishly wish for death, unaware of into what kind of existence death would bring them. Remember the Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the reversal of fortunes into which death brought each of those two men, one now in heaven and one now in hell. Or think of the Lord’s many statements about being cast into outer darkness or being refused entrance into the wedding banquet on the great day. It is all very well to entertain the sentimental notion that it will be better for everyone in the next life, but there is precious little reason to believe that. There are certainly many anticipations of heaven in this life but are there not just as many anticipations of hell? In a universe ruled by the living God who made this world to be what it is, why would anyone conclude so glibly that things cannot be worse in the world to come? The Bible is the source of the most rigorously and relentlessly logical thinking about life and death to be found anywhere in the world. It holds out the hope of heaven, but it does so with hell in the background. That is what the Bible and Proverbs means when it speaks of the wicked being “cut off” in death: not extinguished but judged; made to face the consequences of their life choices which they never fully faced before; made to experience the true outcome of unbelief in and disobedience to God. If God is just, there is a hell; it is as simple as that. And the standard of judgment will be God’s standard, not ours; that should be obvious as well. Is there anything clearer about human life than that we cannot trust human beings to erect a fair and righteous standard against which to judge their own behavior? People may not like this and may wish it weren’t so, but in a moral universe like ours there is something inevitable about all of this.

But for us who are Christians, if death is our refuge, then it is something wonderful; a refuge is a good thing, not a bad thing. Death is something to await for with anticipation; it is something to welcome when it comes. In his old age John Newton described himself cheerfully as “packed and sealed and waiting for the post.” And Bonhoeffer who was staring cruel and unjust death in the face could write that death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom.

“Why are we so afraid when we think about death?” Bonhoeffer once asked his congregation. … Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. … How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

“That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up – that is for young and old alike to think about. [Metaxas, 486, 531]

Do you remember John Donne’s wonderful poem?

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st thou does overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

And on it goes until the last two lines:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Christina Rossetti has a lovely poem on the death of a child, such a death as has touched a number of us in this sanctuary this evening and is among the cruelest experiences of life for those so bereaved.

They scarcely waked before they slept,
They scarcely wept before they laughed;
They drank indeed death’s bitter draught,
But all its bitterest dregs were kept
And drained by mothers while they wept.

From heaven the speechless infants speak:
Weep not (they say), our mothers dear,
For swords nor sorrows come not here.
Now we are strong who were so weak,
And all is ours we could not seek.

We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
Here morning knows not evening hours,
All’s rainbow here without the showers.

And softer than our mother’s breast,
And closer than our mother’s arm,
Is here the love that keeps us warm
And broods above our happy nest.
Dear mothers, come: for heaven is best.

Is that not our faith? Is that not what our Savior taught us to think of what death does for those who are in him? “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” So he spoke to one who was about to die. Is this not the meaning of the Lord’s resurrection itself, which was the pattern for our own eventual resurrection: the beginning of a new and perfect life perfectly designed for eternity and for life with God? And is that not what Proverbs means when it refers to death as the refuge of the righteous?

Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his famous poem, describes death as a putting out to sea:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson wasn’t an evangelical Christian and that isn’t the Bible’s view; the Christian conception of death is not a putting out to sea. Death is not for us a setting out upon some uncharted ocean. [Lloyd Jones, Second Peter, 50] Far better is Charles Wesley:

Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.

Death is not putting out to sea but coming into port! There is much that is mysterious about death and Paradise to be sure. So many questions for which we have no answers. What is life like for a soul without a body? How do we relate to Christ and to one another in heaven before the resurrection? But of this we can be absolutely sure, Vic Pol is wondering why on earth he ever, to any degree, clung to life on earth when death has proved such a wonderful refuge for him.

I do not doubt that the whole matter of death and heaven has been made wonderfully clearer for us since the ministry of the Lord Jesus and especially since his resurrection. But that hope and conviction about death – about its being a refuge for us – was as surely the hope and conviction of believing men and women in the ancient epoch as it is for us. And so the proverbs that address this hope and strengthen this conviction.

“The wicked is overthrown through his evildoing, but the righteous finds refuge in his death.”

We conclude with this from Victor Hugo.

Let us learn like a bird for a moment to take
Sweet rest on a branch that is ready to break;
She feels the branch tremble, yet gaily she sings,
What is it to her? She has wings, she has wings!

You and I should live as those who have wings and in this dying world as those who will never die. Let the world say of us, “They have wings; that’s why they live as they do. That’s why they don’t tremble when the branch begins to shake.” This too is part and parcel of “wisdom,” of that skillful living, that living well that is the theme of Proverbs. To live with this view of death is what wise people do. And it makes a huge difference to live out from under the shadow of death, to live in the expectation and anticipation of what death is going to usher us into; what kind of life and what sort of people will be there to welcome us on the other side. If you don’t have a living view of death as a refuge, everything will change at least somewhat for you and many things will change a great deal. The world will be a different place to you; temptations will pull harder than they really should. Your joys will be less and your sorrows will be more, and the Lord Jesus Christ will not be so much of a presence in your life. Our Savior’s conquest of death, his transformation of death into our great friend hurrying us along to the world of everlasting joy, should loom over our lives as nothing else. We should be a happy people, confident people, a grateful people, a people who are determined to make the very most of this very short time throughout all eternity in which we are given to live by faith before we join the great company that lives by sight.