A hard verse shouts at the reader from the final portion of a famous and poetic Psalm. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15).” Although that piece of text doesn’t sound very comforting, it is frequently used by itself at funerals to console those who have lost a loved one. But it is a strange verse to use without context, or without some sort of supplemental explanation of its meaning. A person who is uninitiated to the lovingkindness of God might find the verse to be one that casts the Lord as a type of monster. What sort of good deity, after all, finds the death of his people to be precious? Even more strange is that the verse is embedded in a psalm that praises God for saving the psalmist from certain death. The verse just seems out of place!
Some thinkers have tried to explain it in a comforting light. Most often, it will be argued that such a death is precious to the Lord because the saint has left a fallen world of suffering, and entered the blessed presence of God. Fair enough. But this doesn’t seem very satisfying, because in that explanation it is the saint’s union with God that is precious, and not his or her death as it says in the verse. Others have noted that the hebrew word from which precious is translated sometimes means costly. From this, they argue that the verse should be translated into some version of “God cares deeply when his loved ones die (Psalm 116:15 NLT).” The thought is that such a death is costly, and so God preserves the lives of his saints to avoid the painful cost. Again, this is a fair explanation, which helps the verse fit with the rest of the Psalm. While it seems better than the first explanation, it is not entirely satisfying either. The primary meaning of the hebrew word is not costly. The primary meaning is precious, weighty, prized, valuable, or even splendid! Almost all English bible translations choose “precious.” Even the Septuagint (which is the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses a word that means valuable, esteemed, honorable, precious, or, “as of great price.”
The English word precious means something that is of great value, and not to be treated carelessly. Perhaps in that verse the psalmist means both precious and costly. Maybe he means costly in the sense that a saint is valuable to God and, so, the saint’s death is costly. And maybe he also means that the death of a saint, who is characterized primarily by faith, is precious when that death occurs because the saint is exercising that faith against people who do not believe (Psalm 116:10-11 NLT). In such cases, the death of such a saint would demonstrate his or her devotion to, and trust in, God and his providence. Such a death would shout at the observer the glorious example of Christ (Luke 23:46).