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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Death

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DEATH

I. In the OT. 1. The Heb. term mâweth and our corresponding word ‘death’ alike spring from primitive roots belonging to the very beginnings of speech. One of man’s first needs was a word to denote that stark fact of experience the final cessation of life to which he and the whole animated creation, and the very trees and plants, were all subject. It is, of course, in this ordinary sense of the term as denoting a physical fact that the expressions ‘death’ and ‘die’ are mostly used in the Scriptures.

2. The Scriptures have nothing directly to say as to the place of death in the economy of nature. St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:12 ff. as to the connexion between sin and death must be explained in harmony with this fact; and, for that matter, in harmony also with his own words in Romans 6:23 , where death, the ‘wages of sin,’ cannot be simply physical death. The Creation narratives are silent on this point, yet in Genesis 2:17 man is expected to know what it is to die. We are not to look for exact information on matters such as this from writings of this kind. If the belief enshrined in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3:1-24 regarded death in the ordinary sense as the penalty of Adam and Eve’s transgression, they at any rate did not die ‘in the day’ of their transgression; v. 22 suggests that even then, could he but also eat of ‘the tree of life,’ man might escape mortality. All we can say is that in the dawn of human history man appears as one already familiar with the correlative mysteries of life and death.

3. From the contemplation of the act of dying it is an easy step to the thought of death as a state or condition. This is a distinct stage towards believing in existence of some kind beyond the grave. And to the vast mass of mankind to say ‘he is dead’ has never meant ‘he is non-existent.’

4. Divergent beliefs as to what the state of death is show themselves in the OT. ( a ) In numerous instances death is represented as a condition of considerable activity and consciousness . The dead are regarded as ‘knowing ones,’ able to impart information and counsel to the living. Note, the term translated ‘wizards’ in EV [Note: English Version.] in Leviticus 19:31 ; Leviticus 20:6 , Isaiah 8:19 ; Isaiah 19:3 really denotes departed spirits who are sought unto or inquired of ‘on behalf of the living.’ A vivid instance of this belief is furnished in the story of the Witch of En-dor ( 1 Samuel 28:1-25 ). So also in Isaiah 14:9-10 , where we have a graphic description of the commotion caused in Sheol by the arrival of the king of Babylon, a description with which we may compare the dream of ‘false Clarence’ in Shakespeare’s Rich. III ., i. 4. The reference to the dead under the term ‘gods’ ( elôhim ), as in 1 Samuel 28:13 , is noticeable. Whether in all this we have a relic of ancient Semitic ancestor-worship (as e.g. Charles maintains in his Jowett Lectures on Eschatology ) or no, it seems to represent very primitive beliefs which survived in one form and another, even after the stern Jahwistic prohibition of necromancy was promulgated. They may also have affected the treatment of the dead, just as even yet there are usages in existence amongst us in regard to behaviour towards the dead which are probably traceable to very primitive pre-Christian ideas and beliefs.

( b ) Jahwism might well forbid resort to necromancers with their weird appeals to the dead for guidance and information, for in its view the state of death was one of unconsciousness, forgetfulness, and silence (see Psalms 88:12 ; Psalms 94:17 ; Psalms 115:17 etc.). The present world is emphatically ‘the land of the living’ ( Psalms 27:13 ; Psalms 116:9 etc.). Those that are in Sheol have no communion with Jahweh; see the Song of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:1-22 , and elsewhere. Sheol appears inviting to a soul in distress because it is a realm of unconscious rest ( Job 3:17 ff.); and there is nothing to be known or to be done there ( Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). It is true that here and there glimpses of a different prospect for the individual soul show themselves ( e.g. Job 19:25 ff. and probably Psalms 16:10 f.); but the foregoing was evidently the prevalent view in a period when the individual was altogether subservient to the nation, and the religious concerns of the latter were rigorously limited to the present life.

( c ) Other ideas of death as not terminating man’s existence and interests were, however, reached in later prophetic teaching, mainly through the thought of the worth of the individual, the significance of his conscious union with God, and of the covenant relations established by God with His people ( Jeremiah 31:1-40 ; cf. Ezekiel 18:1-32 ). ‘Thou wilt not leave us in the dust.’

5. Death as standing in penal relation to man’s sin and unrighteousness is frequently insisted on. That this is something more than natural death is clear from such an antithesis as we have in Deuteronomy 30:15 ; Deuteronomy 30:19 (‘life and good: death and evil’), and this set in strict relation to conduct. Cf. the burden of Ezekiel 18:1-32 , ‘the soul that sinneth it shall die,’ with the correlative promise of life: similarly Proverbs 15:10 . All this points to some experience in the man himself and to conditions outlasting the present life. On the other hand, the thought of dying ‘the death of the righteous’ ( Numbers 23:10 ) as a desirable thing looks in the same direction. And why has the righteous ‘hope in his death’ ( Proverbs 14:32 )?

6. As minor matters, OT poetical uses of references to death may be merely pointed out. ‘Chambers of death,’ Proverbs 7:27 ; ‘gates,’ Psalms 9:13 (= state); ‘bitterness of death,’ 1 Samuel 15:32 , Ecclesiastes 7:26 ; ‘terrors,’ Psalms 55:4 ; ‘sorrows,’ Psalms 116:3 (= man’s natural dread); ‘shadow of death,’ Job, Ps., the Prophets, passim (= any experience of horror and gloom, as well as with reference to death itself); ‘the sleep of death,’ Psalms 13:3 (to be distinguished from later Christian usage); ‘snares of death,’ Prov. passim , etc. (= things leading to destruction); the phrase ‘to death,’ as ‘vexed unto death,’ Judges 13:7 ; ‘sick,’ 2 Kings 20:1 (= to an extreme degree).

II. In the Apocrypha. The value of the Apocrypha in connexion with the study of Scriptural teaching and usage here is not to be overlooked. Notice e.g. Wisdom chs. 1 5, with its treatment of the attitude of the ungodly towards death (‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die’), of the problem of the early, untimely death of the good, and of immortality in relation to the ungodly and the righteous; Sirach , in which no clear conception of immortality appears, the best that can be said, to alleviate sorrow for the dead, being that ‘the dead is at rest’ ( Sir 38:23 ): in which also the fear of death is spoken of as besetting all ranks of men (40), and we are told who they are to whom death comes as a dread foe, and again who may welcome death as a friend (41).

III. In the NT

1. The teaching of Jesus .

( a ). It is noticeable that our Lord has nothing to say directly concerning death as a physical phenomenon . He offers no explanation touching those matters in the experience of death which have always excited the curiosity of men, and in this respect His attitude is in strong contrast with that found in Rabbinical writings. He makes no use of the conception of ‘the angel of death,’ so characteristic of the latter, and traceable perhaps in language such as that of 1 Corinthians 15:26 , Hebrews 2:14 , and Revelation 20:13-14 .

( b ) No stress is laid on death as an evil in itself . In the few stories which we have in the Gospels of His raising the dead to life, the raising is never represented as a deliverance and a good for the person brought back. Compassion for the sorrows of those bereaved is the prime motive: in the case of Lazarus, it is expressly added that the restoration was ‘for the glory of God’ ( John 11:4 ; John 11:40 ). Still, those aspects of death which make the living and active shrink from it are incidentally recognized. Jesus in Rabbinic phrase speaks of tasting death ( Mark 9:1 ||) and of seeing death ( John 8:51-52 ): and the feeling underlying such expressions is the very antithesis of that attaching to ‘seeing life’ and ‘seeing many days.’ Death is to common human feeling an unwelcome, though inevitable, draught. This gives point also to our Lord’s promise that the believer shall never die ( John 11:26 ). At the same time, there is no reference in His teaching to natural death as the solemn end of life’s experiences and opportunities, unless an exception be found in the saying about working ‘while it is day’ ( John 9:4 ): but contrast with this as to tone a passage like Ecclesiastes 9:10 .

( c ) Jesus speaks of death as a sleep ( Mark 5:39 , John 11:11-13 ); but the same euphemistic use is found in OT and in extra-Biblical writers. It did not of itself necessarily lessen the terrors of death (see Psalms 13:3 ); but we owe it to Christ and the Christian faith mainly that such a representation of death has come to mitigate its bitterness, such a use as is also found elsewhere in NT ( e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff.). This conception of death is, of course, to be limited to its relation to the activities and interests of this world. It is a falling asleep after life’s day and ‘we sleep to wake’: but there is nothing here to shed light on such questions as to whether that sleep is a prolonged period of unconsciousness or no.

( d ) Natural death is lost sight of in the much larger and more solemn conception of the condition of man resulting from sin , which in the Fourth Gospel is particularly described as ‘death’ (see John 5:24 ; John 6:50 ; John 8:21 ; John 8:24 ). The exemption and deliverance promised in John 11:25 f. relate to this spiritual death, and by that deliverance natural death is shorn of its real terrors. This condition, resulting from sin and separation from God, may he regarded as incipient here and tending to a manifest consummation hereafter, with physical death intervening as a moment of transition and deriving a solemn significance from its association with the course and state of sin (see Beyschlag, NT Theol ., Eng. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ii. p. 56 f.). The corresponding language of 1 Ep. of John is not to be overlooked ( 1 John 3:14 ) as exemplifying Johannine phraseology. The conception, however, is not found exclusively in the Johannine writings. Note the saying in Luke 9:60 as bearing on this point. In Matthew 7:13 f. ‘destruction’ is the antithesis of ‘life’ (and cf. Matthew 5:29 f., Matthew 18:11 , Mark 8:35 , John 3:16 etc.); but the conception of ‘perishing’ covers the deep experience of spiritual death, the loss of all that really makes the man.

(The phrase ‘die the death’ in EV [Note: English Version.] , in Mark 7:10 and parallel, may be noticed as being not a literal translation of the Greek, but a mid-English emphatic expression,’ now archaic.)

2. The rest of the NT . We may notice the following points: ( a ) The Pauline doctrine that natural death is the primitive consequence of sin , already referred to, is to be explained as the common Jewish interpretation of the OT account of the Fall, and finds no direct support in the Gospels. The feeling that ‘the sting of death is sin’ is, however, widely existent in NT. ( b ) The use of the term ‘death’ as denoting a certain spiritual state in which men may live and he still destitute of all that is worth calling ‘life,’ is quite common ( Ephesians 2:1 ; Ephesians 2:5 ; Ephesians 5:14 , Colossians 2:13 , 1 Timothy 5:6 , James 1:15 , Judges 1:12 , Revelation 3:1 ). ( c ) A mystical and figurative use of the notion of death as denoting the change from a sinful to a new life is noticeable. The believer, the man spiritually alive, is also ‘dead to sin’ ( Romans 6:2 , 1 Peter 2:24 ), is ‘dead with Christ’ ( Romans 6:8 , Colossians 2:20 etc.). ( d ) The expression ‘ eternal death ’ is found nowhere in NT, common as its use is in religious and theological language. It is the correlative, easily suggested by the expression ‘eternal life’ which is so conspicuous a topic of NT teaching, and it serves loosely as an equivalent for the antitheses to ‘life’ or ‘eternal life’ that actually occur, such as ‘destruction’ ( Matthew 7:13 ), ‘the eternal fire’ ( Matthew 18:8 ), ‘eternal punishment’ ( Matthew 25:46 ). Cf. also ‘the second death’ in Revelation 21:8 . If we substitute for ‘eternal’ some other rendering such as ‘of the ages’ or ‘æonian,’ it but serves to remind us of the profound difficulties attaching to the predication of eternity in relation to the subject of man’s destiny or doom.

J. S. Clemens.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Death'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/d/death.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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