“The dead do not praise Yahweh,
nor do any who go down in silence.
But we will bless Yahweh from now unto eternity—
(Psalm 115:17-18 )
I think that as Christians, we must be careful to redefine the words “living” and “dead” in a way that more clearly demonstrates reality. You may say, excuse me, but isn’t it pretty obvious? You know, if there is a pulse that normally indicates living and if there is no pulse you generally conclude that a person is dead. And I would have to say, that is generally true—but only from a worldly perspective. When our Lord went to heal Jairus’ daughter, for example, what did Jesus tell the mourners when he entered into the house? Indeed, he told them that the girl was not dead but was sleeping (Mark 5:39 ). Do understand that the people of Jesus’ day did understand death—that is why they laughed at him for making such a statement. They understood that by all physical measures, this girl had died.
At the same time, I am not suggesting some kind of theology about a “soul-sleep” that when you die, your soul goes to sleep only to arouse when Gabriel blows his trumpet and our Lord returns. The language of “sleeping” was a common idiom to speak of one who has died. Thus, when Paul talks about those believers who have fallen asleep in faith (1 Corinthians 15:20, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15), he is talking about actual death—the body goes into the ground and the soul goes to be with God—nothing more and nothing less. Yet, in the passage about Jairus’ daughter, he clearly is not using the language of “sleeping” in this way, if he did, it would make his statement nonsensical. Why would our Lord say, “why are you weeping? She is not dead—she is dead.” It makes no sense to think of things this way. Hence, our Lord must be trying to get us to understand that life and death rely on more than a heartbeat and air in the lungs.
With this in mind, we often speak of people in terms of being spiritually dead. Until we are born again through faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we do not have any genuine life within us (Ephesians 2:1-10 ). Though we may walk and talk within this world, we are walking dead—zombies if you will, living and acting upon our instincts and lusts—chasing after sin. It is Christ that gives us life and no other, and apart from Christ there is only death. Note the language that Jesus uses in Matthew 22:32, that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. God is a living God, who dwells in and with his people—He gives life—so how can one who is dead be indwelt by the Living God? It cannot happen!
So how do we put all of these pieces together? First of all, we must remember that we are not just flesh and blood and that we are not just spirit, but we are both—they cannot be understood apart from each other. Both are essential to defining who we are. In birth, our bodies are given life; in regeneration, our spirits are given life. In addition, the soul of the believer will never see death (Revelation 2:11). The souls of unbelievers will find themselves dying a second time, not just physically, but spiritually in eternal judgment. While the bodies of believers do die and are placed in the ground to rot, because of the covenantal promise of resurrection given by Christ, the body of the believer is still united with Christ, held by him until the time of the resurrection. The bodies of unbelievers will be resurrected as well, but only to judgment in the eternal pit of fire. Thus, when our Lord talks about those like Jairus’ daughter, he is reminding us that this child genuinely is alive even though the heart has ceased to beat—alive in Christ and kept by God the Father.
So how does this effect the interpretation of these verses? If you read this psalm only in terms of physical life or death, it makes little sense. Don’t the saints who have passed ahead of us praise God still? Indeed they do and are! Thus, how can the psalmist say that the dead do not praise God unless the psalmist is speaking of those without faith—those who are spiritually dead, though they still walk and talk within this world? And indeed, it is those who are spiritually dead who go down in silence to the grave—they go into judgment without praise on their lips, only humiliation over their sin. But we who are believers—born again through the blood of Jesus Christ—will praise God with our lips and with our lives, and our praise will not stop at the grave, but will go on from now until the ends of eternity.
Glory to God, and praise and love
Be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heaven.