Death is the absence or withdrawal of breath and the life force that makes movement, metabolism, and interrelation with others possible.
The Old Testament. The Nature of Death. Life and death are totally under Yahweh's sovereignty. God is the source of all life ( Psalm 36:9 ). There are no organisms anywhere who have not received their life force from him: "In his hand is the life of every creature, and the breath of all mankind" ( Job 12:10 ). The number of the days of our life is written in God's book before one of them comes to be ( Job 14:5 ; Psalm 139:16 ).
The Hebrew verb gawa [[:w"G], which means "expire, breathe one's last, " is used twenty-three times to describe death. Psalm 104:29b says, "when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust." "If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish" ( Job 34:14-15 ).
In the Bible, death is more than the cessation of all physiological processes. By divine command ( Psalm 90:3 ), the body returns to dust and the spirit goes back to God who gave it ( Gen 2:7 ; Eccl 12:7 ). Those who die are said to be gathered to their people ( Gen 25:8 ; 35:29 ; 49:33 ).
This gathering is often seen as a reference to the central repository of the family tomb where eventually everyone's bones were thrown. Abraham's people, however, were buried around Haran ( Genesis 24:4 Genesis 24:10 ). Only he and Sarah were buried in Canaan ( Gen 23:19 ; 25:9 ). Jacob is gathered to his people at death, but not buried until at least seven weeks later ( 49:33 ; Genesis 50:3 Genesis 50:10 ).
When Jacob says he is "going down" to Joseph ( Gen 37:35 ), he cannot be referring to a common burial since no one knew where Joseph's body was. Deceased Samuel told Saul he and his sons would be with him the next day ( 1 Sam 28:19 ). He could not have meant they would all be buried together the next day since Saul's headless body was buried in Jabesh Gilead some time after his death ( 1 Sam 31:9-11 ). David said of his dead son, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me" ( 2 Sam 12:23 ).
Samuel was buried in his house at Ramah ( 1 Sam 25:1 ); but in 28:13, 15, he comes up from the earth to Saul at Endor protesting that he has been disturbed. The intense emotional reaction of Saul and the medium, as well as their remarks about Samuel, indicate that they believed they had actually seen his departed spirit. Had this been some sort of demonic delusion, the narrator would certainly have been obligated to call this to the attention of his audience.
It is difficult to avoid the fact that in the Old Testament people believed a person's physical remains were interred in one place, and that part of the person capable of consciousness and personality went to another location. The gathering to one's people was an event taking place before burial at the time of death.
The Origin of Death. Unlike the ancient Mesopotamian concept, death was not originally built into human constitution. People were created for life, not for death. They had access to both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were told they would certainly die if they ate from the latter ( Gen 2:17 ). Humankind was not tricked out of eternal life as in the Adapa myth, nor was it stolen from them as in the Gilgamesh epic. They partook of the forbidden tree with full awareness of the consequences. Apparently from close observation of the plant and animal kingdom they would have been able to know what death was.
Mortality. In the Old Testament death is an unavoidable reality. From a human point of view death was just as final as spilled water ( 2 Sam 14:14 ) and a pot broken at the well ( Eccl 12:6 ). Death is so ominous and powerful it can be compared to a fortified city with gates and bars ( Psalm 9:13 ; 107:18 ).
Our days are numbered ( Gen 6:3 ; Psalm 90:10 ). They pass swiftly like the life of a flower ( Psalm 90:6 ; Isa 40:6 ). Thus the psalmist prays that we might number our days so as to live our lives carefully and wisely ( Psalm 90:12 ).
Life in the biblical world was very fragile. There was the constant fear that one might not survive until tomorrow. Death stalked on all sides ( Psalm 91:5-7 ). Pestilence, malnutrition, an accidental fall, famine, war, ambush by enemies, being denounced by an enemy to a ruler, complications in childbirth, and even minor infections could all prove fatal. Death indeed, like fire, seemed never to be satisfied ( Prov 30:16 ). It seemed as though it had cords and snares that could pull a person down to the grave ( Psalm 18:5 ).
Responses to Mortality. Israelites were not helpless pawns at the mercy of a capricious fate. They could respond to their own mortality with God-given resources. They knew God made the steps of a righteous man firm ( Psalm 37:23 ). Unlike most of the ancient Near Eastern peoples, they did not have to worry that they might bring death down on themselves by unknowingly offending some minor deity. God had written a law telling clearly what pleased him. They knew if they meditated on this law day and night, they could be like a luxuriant tree ( Psalm 1 ). Sages wrote inspired proverbs telling the people how to escape dangerous situations. They could even find emotional and spiritual release by writing laments to God.
Sometimes people seemed to respond rather pessimistically to death. Old Testament saints saw through a glass darkly. They could see mainly what happened to the physical body. Thus they could not see any productive activity beyond this life. The living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything ( Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). Men like Hezekiah could reason with God that they should go on living because no one worships God in death ( Isa 28:18-19 ).
The Preacher even extols the advantages of death ( Eccl 4:2 ; cf. Job 3:13-19 ). He is not, however, as negative in his stance as is commonly supposed. Since death is quick and inevitable, mortals should live life intensely to the fullest, enjoying every minute of everything they do ( Eccl 9:10 ). God has given them gifts of accepting their portion and finding satisfaction in their work ( Eccl 3:13 ; 5:17-18 ; 9:7 ). Since material things perish, we can best respond by orienting ourselves to the significant others God has given us ( Eccl 9:9 ).
Fatalism is never a response to mortality. A live dog is better than a dead lion ( Eccl 9:4 ). Taking one's life is never recommended. Even in the Book of Job it is never taken up as an option. The only victims of suicide in the Old Testament were men (Ahithophel and Saul) who were faced with imminent, unavoidable death anyway. These men believed they were choosing a better manner of death than their enemies would select for them ( 1 Sam 31:1-6 ; 2 Sam 17:23 ).
Victory over Death. The ancient Israelites knew they could find refuge in times of natural disaster under the wings of the Almighty ( Psalm 91:1 ). They knew the valley of the shadow of death was unavoidable, but they also knew that in the end the Shepherd would walk it with them ( Psalm 23:4 ). They knew that something about the day of death was better than the day of birth ( Eccl 7:1 ).
Even though God has set limits on human life, it is still valuable and sacred to him. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" ( Psalm 116:15 ). Murderers are to receive the sentence of capital punishment ( Gen 9:5-6 ) because we are made in the image of God. God takes no pleasure even in the death of the wicked ( Eze 18:32 ).
There is evidence that in the Old Testament death is not as final as is sometimes supposed. True there was no price even a rich man could pay to avoid it ( Psalm 49:7-8 ). Death comes like a shepherd to lead us into the grave. But the psalmist affirms in faith that God will himself pay the redemption price for release from the power of death ( Psalm 49:15 ). In Psalm 73 the singer believes that though his frail flesh and heart may fail, God will be his portion forever and receive him to glory ( Psalms 73:24 Psalms 73:26 ).
For God death is not an insurmountable obstacle. The death, indecision, barrenness, old age, and confusion of Genesis 11 actually becomes the stage on which God begins to play out his drama of redemption. Out of all this hopelessness and despair comes the life-giving blessing of Genesis 12:1-3.
Isaiah looks forward to a day when the death shroud will be removed, and death will be permanently swallowed up ( 25:7-8 ). A day will come when deadly forces that hurt and destroy will not exist in God's holy mountain ( 11:6-9 ).
The New Teastament. Figurative Meanings. The New Testament broadens the term "death" to include various figurative meanings. But the widow who lives for pleasure, says Paul, "is dead even while she lives" ( 1 Tim 5:6 ). People who are alive physically may be dead in trespasses and sins ( Eph 2:1 ). Even weak Christians may be considered dead ( Rev 3:1 ).
In a positive sense believers may be said to be "dead to sin" ( Rom 6:1 ) and crucified with Christ ( Gal 2:20 ). Even becoming a disciple requires a new radical reorientation to death and a taking up of the cross daily ( Matt 16:24 ). In the New Testament way of thinking death is necessary for life and fruitfulness ( John 12:24 ).
The Origin of Death. The New Testament enlarges our understanding of the origin of death. Death passed on all men because of one man's disobedience so that in Adam all die ( Rom 5:12-17 ; 1 Col 15:22 ). The wages of sin is death ( Rom 6:23 ). Even the mind set on the flesh is death ( Rom 8:6 ). The letter of the law kills by giving knowledge about sin ( Rom 7:7-12 ). Thus the law is considered the ministry of death ( 2 Cor 3:6-7 ).
The Second Death. The New Testament delineates a deeper, more sombre meaning to death. Death is appointed to all men, but after that comes judgment ( 2 Col 5:10 ; Heb 9:27 ). In death people do not live in a sort of nebulous twilight zone. The righteous are comforted, and the wicked are tormented ( Luke 16:22-25 ). The final destiny of death and Hades is to be cast into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death ( Rev 20:14-15 ). Jesus said that we are not to fear those who can kill the body but those who can kill both body and soul in hell ( Matt 10:28 ). The second death is a metaphorical term for eternal separation from the presence and glory of God ( 2 Thess 1:7-10 ; Rev 2:11 ; Revelation 20:6 Revelation 20:14-15 ).
Triumph over Death. While the New Testament makes the agony of death more intense and fearsome, it shows a greater triumph over it. It is not the second death but the death of Christ that occupies the center of attention. Through death he destroyed the devil, who had the power over death, and emptied death of its fear ( Heb 2:14-15 ). By dying Christ destroyed death and brought immortality to light ( 2 Tim 1:10 ). In this event we are reconciled and brought to God ( Rom 5:10 ).
Even at the beginning of Christ's ministry light shone in the valley of the shadow of death ( Matt 4:16 ). Now being himself loosed from the pains of death ( Acts 2:24 ) and crowned with glory and honor ( Heb 2:9 ), he has the keys of death and hell ( Rev 1:18 ).
Christians still die but their death is gain because they are now with Christ ( 2 Col 5:6 ; Php 1:20-21 ). Even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus ( Rom 8:38-39 ). In death Christians are given comfort, rest, and assurance ( Luke 16:22-25 ; Rev 6:9-11 ).
The dead are in Christ, asleep ( 1 Thess 4:14 ), waiting for a day when death will be completely swallowed up by life ( 2 Cor 5:4 ). Then mortality will put on immortality ( 1 Cor 15:53 ). Death, the last enemy, will itself be destroyed ( 1 Cor 15:26 ). There will be no more death or sorrow, and God will wipe all tears from all faces ( Rev 21:4 ).
Bibliography. L. R. Bailey, Sr., Biblical Perspectives on Death; A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels; O. Kaiser and E. Lohse, Death and Life; J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament; K. Rahner, On the Theology of Death; E. F. Sutcliffe, The Old Testament and Future Life; N. J. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Nether World in the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Death, Mortality'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".