The Fear of Death
The Psalmist begins his song by explaining to his hearers that he will reveal mysteries and truth to them. In verse five, he asks the rhetorical question “why should I fear” my impending death? He goes on to explain in the psalm that the fear of death is valid because everyone will die. Satan has introduced sin to humanity, and as a result, we are subject to death as God defines it in the Genesis account of creation. In Genesis chapter three, God states that we are dust, and we will return to the dust. Everyone fears their death to a lesser or greater extent. As humans, we do not like pondering our mortality. The apostle Paul explains that death is not what God desires for his creation. Death is an enemy; Paul explains, something that is to be combatted and overcome. John writes, “the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8).
What are the works of the devil that John describes? The ‘works’ are a temptation that leads to sin, which in turn results in death. God has expressed his will for his creation through Jesus. Scripture attests to the fact that Jesus’ mission was to reveal the heart of the father. His heart is that his creation would believe in him so that none of them would perish but that all would come to receive the gift of eternal life. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus mission by saying,
“For as much then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
So, the answer to the psalmist’s question is simple. Why should we fear death, he asks? His answer is because we will all die one day.
Everyone Dies: lower-class or higher-class, rich or poor, wise or stupid
The Psalmist describes the reality of death as a universal problem for humanity. To express this truth, the writer compares different categories of people, all of which will experience death as their end. The Psalmist says:
“Both low and high, Rich and poor together” will die. (Psalm 49:2)
“For he sees that even wise men die;
the stupid and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others.” (Psalm 49:10)
A strong theme within the Psalm is that the rich and wealthy cannot escape death. While one may use wealth to increase the quantity and quality of their earthly life, there is no escaping the inevitability of death and the ultimate reality everyone must face. There does remain the problem, however of the injustice of disproportionate wealth in which some humans will experience better quality and more extended quantity of life. The Psalmist does not seem concerned with this issue at the moment. The concern and weight of the song instead are focused on the inevitability of death for all living creatures, human and animals alike. To underline this train of thought, the writer expands his song from focusing on humanity as a whole to all living creatures. Death is not just a human problem but a problem that affects all living things. To make this point, the author reveals the similarities between humans and animals. The revelation is the fact that all living things die, humans and animals all experience death. Let’s look at how the psalmist describes both animals and humans and compare his description to the larger testimony of scripture.
Man is like the Beasts
The Psalmist explains that humans are like all animals and will not live forever. All living creatures have a beginning, a birth, and an end, a death. The fate of perishing befalls both humans and animals. The Psalmist says:
“But man (Adam) in his pomp will not endure; He is like the beasts (behemah) that perish. (Psalm 49:12)
“Man (Adam) in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts (behemah) that perish.” (Psalm 49:20)
The Hebrew word the author uses to compare to humanity is the word behemah, which is translated as beast or cattle. We will see in a moment how this word is used in other scriptures to draw a comparison between man and animals. Scripture is repetitive in its declaration that humanity and other animals are similar in at least three ways. First, both animals and humans are living creatures or animals. The Hebrew word used to describe both animals and humans is the Hebrew word nephesh. Second, all living things animals and humans alike have the breath of God within them that sustains their life. The Hebrew word used to describe the breath of life is ruach. Third, the fate of animals and humans is said to be the same. Both animals and humans are said to be created from the same material and return to the same material. The Hebrew word used to describe the makeup of God’s creatures is aphar, which is often translated as dust. Let’s examine all three of these similarities.
Living Creatures (nephesh)
The first two chapters of Genesis describe the creation of both animals and humans. He same word is used in the Hebrew to describe both animals and humans as living creatures. The Hebrew word nephesh has often been mistranslated, and this similarity can become hidden depending on the translator’s choices. The word nephesh at times has been translated as a living creature when applied to animals and translated as soul when applied to humans. Translating the same word this way has led to confusion that man has an immaterial soul and animals do not. Translational choices such as these have led to the doctrine of the immortal soul. See the following two texts as examples, when translated as ‘life’ and ‘living being’ the word is correctly applied to both animals and humans. The correct translation of nephesh is any living creature that has the breath of life within it. This is why the Bible latter describes a nephesh as dead because it no longer has the breath of life God has given to sustain the animal’s existence. If a translator is going to use the word soul for humans and living creature for animals, they need to be able to justify why they made that decision to translate the same word differently.
“And to every beast of the earth and every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life (nephesh), I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so.”
“Then the Lord God formed man of dust (aphar) from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (nephesh)
The Hebrew word applies to both animals and humans and is used first to describe all living animals before it is applied to the creation of humanity. The psalmist draws out this similarity that is also confirmed by other Biblical texts, animals and humans are similar in life and death.
With the Breath of Life – (ruach)
A living animal, or nephesh, is alive as long as it has the breath of life within it. The Hebrew word ruach is translated into several English words such as breath, wind and spirit. When the ruach leaves an animal or a human, they can no longer live. This idea is portrayed over and over again in the Bible. Below are just two examples from the narrative of the Flood where animals and humans are said to have died together as a result of losing their ruach.
“Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath (ruach) of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish.” (Genesis 6:7)
“All flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle (behemah) and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind (Adam)” (Genesis 7:21)
The idea that a person or living thing dies when it breathes its last breath continues into the New Testament as well. Both Jesus and Stephen express that they are trusting God with their breath when they die. Both men proclaim, “Father into your hands; I entrust my spirit or breath.” The apostle Paul says that it is by the spirit or breath of God that Jesus is raised from the dead. He also says that the same breath or spirit will be what gives life to our dead bodies when we are resurrected. Both animals and humans are dependent upon God for life. Without this breath, they cease to exist and return to the dust.
Both Man and Animals Die and Return to Dust
The tenor of the Psalm is that all animals will die and return to the dust from which they were made. The Genesis narrative tells the story of creation from the dust, Hebrew aphar, and death as a return to the dust. Humanity was created with the potential for immortality as a gift from God represented by the continual access to the Tree of Life. However, because they were banished from the Garden and access to the Tree of Life, immortality is no longer within reach. God clearly defines death in the third chapter of Genesis. Likewise, the wisest man to live, King Solomon wrote about the final fate of both man and beast alike. Solomon says that everything dies when they no longer possess the ruach of God. As a result, they return to the dust, aphar, from which they were formed.
“By the sweat of your face, you will eat bread, till you return to the ground because from it you were taken; for you are dust (aphar), And to dust (aphar) you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
“For the fate of the sons of men (Adam) and the fate of beasts (behemah) is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath (ruach), and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity (behemah). All go to the same place. All came from the dust (aphar) and all return to the dust (aphar)” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
Just like the psalmist, these texts affirm that both man and animals are made from the same material substances. God formed man from the earth, and he became a person of the earth. Likewise, animals are also formed from the same material and death is a return to a lifeless state. The psalmist describes this state of being with several different descriptive words, all of which describe the cessation of life, not the continuation of life.
Sheol/The Grave Means Complete Destruction
How does the Psalmist describe death and the grave? First, he states that no man can redeem his own life from the grave and that any attempt to do so would be meaningless. The attempt to live forever is foolishness along with the idea that anyone can live forever according to the psalmist. As the writer has described all animals and humans die and undergo decay. Consider the following verses of the Psalm:
8 For the redemption of his life (nephesh) is costly, and he should cease trying forever
9 That he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay.
10 For he sees that even wise men die the stupid and the senseless alike perish
And leave their wealth to others.
14 As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd;
And their form shall be for Sheol to consume, so that they have no habitation.
The Hebrew word Sheol means the grave. It is the destiny of all people. The Old Testament describes that even the most beloved of God, King David, went to Sheol, the grave when he died. The words death and Sheol are often used together because death is the cause that results in one going to Sheol, the grave. The Psalmist uses powerful words to describe what happens in Sheol. In Sheol you; die, stop living, undergo decay, perish, and your form or body is consumed. Even with a description of Sheol such as this, some propose that Sheol is an underworld in which disembodied spirits or souls’ dwell. What the Psalmist describes is the physical death of a person and their decomposition, not the death of a body and the continued existence of a disembodied soul in an underworld.
So, when the disciple Peter describes Jesus death, he says that David prophesied that his nephesh would not be abandoned to Sheol, the grave, and he would not undergo decay. In contrast, Paul describes David, who died, and he is in his grave undergoing decay.
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay.” (Acts 13:36)
“He (David) looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay.” (Acts 2:31)
For David, death meant going to the grave and decaying. Christ, on the other hand, was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit and did not experience decay. Had God abandoned him to Hades, the grave, the text implies that he would have undergone decomposition. These texts align with the psalmist’s description of the grave and what happens there when a person or animal dies.
Joining Your Fathers in Death
The writer of the Psalm describes death in several different ways. Up to verse nineteen, the writer has used words such as perish, death, decay, and consume to describe the process of dying. He says that the place that this happens to both man and beast alike is called Sheol. Nobody can escape this fate. You cannot buy your way out of death. Nobody lives forever. Applying these statements rationally to our human experience these assertions all seem to be validated by the fact that we have never met someone that has lived forever or avoided the ageing process. As humans, we all experience the loss of life around us. We see the inevitable pattern of new life in birth, the ageing process through life, and the ultimate end of the death of both animal and humans. The writer goes on to describe death as the process of joining those that have died before us that are now in the grave. The Psalmist says:
“He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they will never see the light.” (Ps 49:19)
The statement ‘He shall go to the generation of his fathers’ is a way of saying someone will join those that have already died and are in their graves. This type of phrasing is used in several instances in the Bible. The most consistent terminology that is used is the word ‘sleep’ to describe death. In the Old Testament, this description is used of Moses in Deut. 31:16, Job describes death as sleep in Job 14:10-14 and King David wrote about it in Psalms 13:1-6. In the New Testament, this theme continues. Jesus describes Lazarus death as sleep in John 11:11-14, Luke describes Stephens death as sleep in Acts 7:59-60, and Paul describes the saints that have already died as sleeping in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15. These are just a few of the many texts where death is described this way.
The idea of being gathered to your forefathers or the generations of people that have died before you are also described similarly in other Biblical texts. The context of these scriptures reveals that the writers are talking about their physical death. The book of Judges says:
“all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:10)
What is described is an entire generation of people that have died or ‘gathered to their fathers’, and the next generation has grown up to take their place. In Luke’s second letter Acts, Paul gives a sermon, and in the sermon, he uses similar language. Paul says:
“for David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay.” (Acts 13:36).
Here Paul explicitly states that David underwent decay. Paul does not separate David’s body that underwent decay from his personhood or soul. For Paul, David is his body. Here we see the metaphor of sleep paired with the idea of joining one’s forefathers and the process of both described as death and decay. The Psalmist and Luke the physician through the words of Paul, both describe death as the cessation of life and the decay of the body.
The Hope of Resurrection
The most important truth within the psalm is that we are not left without hope. The truth is that we all fear our own deaths. The Psalmist has proclaimed that everyone dies; there is no escaping death. Expanding on this truth, he says that humankind is like the beasts and other animals that God created. Humans and animals are living creatures that require breath and are dependent upon God for the gift of life. We do not have immortality but instead are mortal and subject to death. The psalmist says that all go to the grave, a place of decay and decomposition of matter. In this way, we all join those that have died before us.
But we are not left without hope and confidence in God. The Psalmist encourages the hearer in verse sixteen by saying “Do not be afraid”. We might ask in response, why shouldn’t we be afraid?
The Psalmist has already answered in the previous verse, “God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me.” The hope of the song is for redemption from the grave not escape from it. The psalmist has already stated in the following verses
“No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him
For the redemption of his soul (nephesh) is costly, and he should cease trying forever.”
Again, we might ask, is this the consensus of scripture? The prophet Hosea speaks of redemption from the grave in the same manner. Death is described as powerful; it holds with it a sting. It is something humanity needs redemption from and must be overcome as an enemy.
“Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14)
The apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth explains that death is an enemy that has been victorious over humanity. He tells the church in his letter that there is no hope without the resurrection. There is no disembodied intermediate state where people go between death and resurrection. Without the resurrection we are foolish and the most to be pitied he says. If there is no resurrection, those that have died are in their sins and have perished forever, says Paul. But we have hope in the resurrection, and it has been validated through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Paul describes this resurrection of God’s people in the future saying:
“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable,
and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written,
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;
but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The hope of the Christian faith should be placed firmly in the return of Jesus, our Lord and the future bodily resurrection from the dead. The Psalmist gives us a sobering reminder that we are created and contingent beings. Contemplating our death is not something that we like to do as humans. Instead, we tell stories of heroes to fantasise about our ability to overcome death. In the modern world, we push death to the margins of our society, so we do not have to think about it. Psalm 49 helps bring us back to reality; it reminds us of our most common and basic fear, the fear of death. Fortunately, the song does not leave us in fear but looks forward to the hope of the resurrection.