In Psalm 116, the psalmist makes a remarkable statement. Near the end of this psalm of thanksgiving for God's deliverance from an untimely death, he says, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints." (Psalm 116:15; emphasis ours throughout)
What does he mean by this? The word translated precious can mean rare, as in "the word of the Lord was precious in those days" (I Samuel 3:1). It frequently refers to precious stones—gems that are worth a great deal because of their scarcity, and thus they elicit attention and interest from those who possess them (or wish to). It can refer to the excellence of God's lovingkindness, which is so significant that the children of men put their trust in Him (Psalm 36:7). Proverbs 12:27 says that the substance—the wealth—of a diligent man is precious, meaning that it is worth all the more to him because of the conscientious effort he has put into it.
In short, the psalmist is proclaiming that the death of a saint is precious to God because the saints are the objects of His attention, because they are rare (Matthew 22:14), and because He is putting so much effort into them at this time—far more than those with whom He is not yet working. He is investing Himself in His saints, and thus the death of each one brings with it the combined weight of all God has poured in and the choices of the individual in either responding to or rejecting Him. It is at the moment of death that the course of the saint is finished, and God can clearly see all that has become of His investment of time, attention, love, grace, instruction, and every other gift He has given (see Matthew 25:14-30).
Because of God's sovereignty and omnipotence—and because the lives and deaths of those with whom He is working are so precious to Him—we can have every confidence that the death of a true Christian will not occur until God allows it. The apostle Paul was "confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). If God has begun such a work in us, we will not die until He judges that that work is complete. That does not imply that once we are called we can just coast along and expect God to do it all for us. Rather, we are partners with God. But because of what He is, He will always carry through with what He has covenanted. We are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10), and only He can determine when the work is finished.
Along these same lines, at the end of Paul's life he was likewise confident. His death did not occur until his race was finished—or, perhaps we might say, until God was finished with him:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (II Timothy 4:6-8)
Notice that Paul could only make these summary remarks about himself. He was in no position to judge when somebody else's race was complete, or whether God was finished using another man for the accomplishment of His will. Paul did not deign to assume that he knew when God's workmanship was complete in another person. Instead, he learned the lesson of Jesus Christ's mild rebuke when the manner of Peter's death was predicted, and Peter became concerned about the end of another servant of God:
Peter, seeing [John], said to Jesus, "But Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me." (John 21:21-22)
Just as we dare not judge our Master in His handling of another one of His servants during life (Romans 14:4), so the matters relating to the death of one of His servants are in His hands alone—they are precious to Him.
Jesus' final instruction in the book of John points us in the right direction. He said simply, "You follow Me." He did not intend for our time to be stolen away in contemplations of the timing or manner of another saint's death—let alone presumptuously praying for such a thing. Instead, His positive instruction is to follow Him—imitate His example, listen to His instruction, be loyal to all that He is, and grow to the measure of the stature of His fullness and the completeness found in Him. We do not know the day of our death or anyone else's. But by focusing on our own growth in our relationship with Him, rather than obsessing about death, when our race is finished we can have the same confidence Paul had—that he had fought the good fight, kept the faith, and that there was a crown of righteousness awaiting him in the resurrection.
- David C. Grabbe