Do dead people praise God?

Do dead people praise God? The Psalmist says that they don’t. Read for yourself the last two verses from Psalm 115:

The dead do not praise the LORD,
Nor do any who go down into silence;
But as for us, we will bless the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
Praise the LORD!

I wonder how many of you readers are shocked to learn that Holy Scripture says the “dead do not praise the Lord.” For those of us grew up in evangelical churches that teach about saints praising God in the afterlife, this text can come across as quite a jolt.

To be sure, skeptics take these lines to indicate that the Psalmist has no eschatology. They would say that this text is clear evidence that Old Testament saints had no notion of heaven or of the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. OT saints simply believed that when a person dies, that’s it. When your heart stops beating and you stop breathing, that’s the end of you. All that remains is the decay of your mortal coil.

I think, however, that such a reading is a profound distortion of the text. For starters, there are hints and pointers in the Psalms and other OT texts that are suggestive of an afterlife (Psalms 17:15; 49; 73; Ezekiel 37:12–13; Daniel 12:2-3). But perhaps even more important than that is the fact that the skeptical reading entirely misses the point of the Psalmist. The Psalmist is not contrasting life with afterlife. He is contrasting live bodies with dead ones, and he is viewing the matter from the perspective of one resides in the present fallen world.

The Psalmist is saying that as long as he has breath in his lungs, he will praise the Lord publicly. When the breath goes out of his lungs, his public praise in this fallen world ceases, and at least one living testimony to the greatness of God is silenced.

The challenge to readers is this. Would the world’s worship decibel be diminished at all if you weren’t here? Is your life so marked by unbroken worship of the living Christ that your testimony would be missed if you were to die? Do you praise God in a way that would enable you to pray as the Psalmist prays: “Lord let me live so that the volume of your praise might not be diminished in this fallen world!”

The Psalmist’s assumption is that embodied life means continual worship of Almighty God. Can we say the same about our lives?

17 Responses to Do dead people praise God?

  1. rach June 22, 2009 at 12:12 am #

    Amen!

  2. rach June 22, 2009 at 12:13 am #

    let each of us pray that it can be said of !

  3. rach June 22, 2009 at 12:14 am #

    me!

  4. John Holmberg June 22, 2009 at 12:44 am #

    Good application at the end, bad exegesis and biblical theology at the beginning. Didn’t you say once that you believed in “progressive revelation,” emphasis on the word “progressive”?

    Maybe the psalmist was a Trinitarian. Maybe he worshipped Jesus Christ. Maybe he had a pre-mil eschatology. Maybe he was a Calvinist.

  5. Jason June 22, 2009 at 6:45 am #

    Is the term ‘skeptic’ too strong here? The term ‘skeptic’ seems to indicate that a denial of a personal resurrection in the OT disqualifies one from being a Christian. Is it not possible that a person can hold that the OT authors did not have a full blown eschatology that included a doctrine of personal (bodily) resurrection while still claiming that Jesus was resurrected bodily and we as believers will also be? Is it central to the Christian faith that the OT teach the same eschatological view of resurrection that the NT claims? Or, can one hold to the orthodox teachings of the Church and even the particular views of the SBC while arguing that the OT does not teach personal resurrection?

  6. Don Johnson June 22, 2009 at 7:42 am #

    We are to “sanctify/hallow the name of God” and one way to do this is to praise God. And the dead say nothing, only the alive can speak. However, when one enters eternal life, they enter it right then and there, not later.

  7. Matthew Staton June 22, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    The Psalmist is not contrasting life with afterlife. He is contrasting live bodies with dead ones, and he is viewing the matter from the perspective of one resides in the present fallen world.

    Good point.

    The challenge to readers is this. Would the world’s worship decibel be diminished at all if you weren’t here?

    Good challenge.

  8. Peter G. June 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm #

    Thanks for this, Denny. I worked through Psalm 6 this year which carries the same logic: “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (vv. 4-5).

    This logic stopped me dead (pun most likely intended) for the reason you gave. And it caused me to ask a lot of questions about how I fit this in with the NT view of the afterlife. All that to say that I’m most convinced that your analysis is the right one.

    Thanks for the help in thinking this through.

  9. Darius T June 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm #

    John, how do you handle Psalm 110:1? “The Lord says to my Lord…”

    Seems the Psalmist did have Jesus in view…

  10. John Holmberg June 22, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    Darius,

    “lord” (adonay) is a term used of multiple referents (human beings and divine ones). We can look at this through a christological lens and say it was Jesus, but to claim the psalmist had Jesus in view is naive at best, brother. Also, in some texts we may be able to claim that a messianic figure is in view, but to claim it’s the historical Jesus Christ of Nazareth is absurd because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t born for hundreds of years.

    I would like to ask you, if the psalmist and OT authors had Jesus in view, then why didn’t anybody recognize Jesus when he came?

  11. Ben June 23, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    I’m a bit confused by the exegetical point being made here.

    First of all, it is not generally disputed that Jewish thought broke into factions at some point between the sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection, so they were sad, you see), and the pharisees. If I remember correctly, the book of Daniel is what caused the debate between the groups. Both groups, by the way, believed the book of Daniel to be scripture, but differed in their interpretation. I might have some of my details wrong, but my point is that there was a stream of Jewish thought that denied “life after death”. On what Biblical basis can we say our Biblical authors did or did not subscribe to one camp or the other? Does it even matter in this passage?

    Second, what is the problem with saying that there is no praising of God in death? What is wrong with saying that when we are dead, we are dead, and that’s the end of it? Being a Christian, of course, I believe we are brought back to life, but I have no theological or Biblical problem with people literally being no more except in the mind of God, who will resurrect them. In this case, I would even say that it is better exegesis. In other words, creaturely life is embodied life, though I do not expect such a view to be popular on this blog.

    I could go further in discussing the Biblical concept of “afterlife”, which differs from that of my evangelical upbringing, but it has all been said before.

    On a positive note, the challenge is a good one.

  12. Darius T June 23, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    John, Jesus HIMSELF said that David had Jesus in mind (or more specifically, the Jewish Messiah). See Matthew 22:41-46.

    “I would like to ask you, if the psalmist and OT authors had Jesus in view, then why didn’t anybody recognize Jesus when he came?”

    Well, plenty of people recognized Him as the Messiah. Simeon, Anna, His disciples, John the Baptist, just to name a few. The Pharisees and large numbers of Jews didn’t recognize Him because they hadn’t interpreted Scripture correctly and because their hearts were hard.

    Did the OT authors or David have in mind a historical man named Jesus born in such and such a year? Probably not. But most of them did definitely have the Messiah in mind all the same.

  13. John Holmberg June 25, 2009 at 12:32 am #

    Darius,

    There are all kinds of hermeneutical issues in what we are discussing. For instance, “David” in the psalter is often a generic term for a king, the superscriptions in the Psalms are redactions, more psalms are ascribed to David via the superscriptions than is actually the case. Oftentimes authors, be they NT authors or intertestamental ones, speak of the psalms generically like David wrote the whole thing, which he did not. This is not inaccurate of them to say this since we often do the same thing.

    Also, in light of Christ’s first advent we can read the OT scriptures through a different lens, one that interprets it christologically (or christotelically, which is the terminology I prefer). So “David” may have had a messianic figure in mind originally, or he may have just had a historical king and successor in mind. However, in light of Christ’s coming there is a sensus plenior (“fuller meaning”) in the text that allows us to interpret it christologically.

    As far as “plenty of people” recognizing Jesus, I was speaking more in mass terms. If the OT is so obvious about a messianic figure as Denny claims, so that they even had the same theological categories that we possess, and if Jesus encapsulates all of all of those attributes, then identifying him as that one Messianic figure would have been easy and obvious. However, the NT tells us that mystery was built in, and they didn’t recognize him. Even the NT tells us (I forget the reference) that the OT authors at times didn’t know what they spoke about.

    As far as your last paragraph, we’re in complete agreement. That was my main point in my previous point. In my opinion, I think we need to distinguish between a Messianic figure that is prophesied and the historical Jesus of Nazareth to prevent naivete. Often, a “Messiah” in the OT is not even divine. This is deep stuff, and I’m not very qualified to discuss it, but I appreciate your words.

    In fact Darius, over the past year of interacting on this blog, I have detected more and more candor and less and less fundamentalism and dogmatism in you. It appears you are growing, friend, and I appreciate that and want to encourage you to keep it up.

  14. Darius T June 25, 2009 at 10:09 am #

    “In fact Darius, over the past year of interacting on this blog, I have detected more and more candor and less and less fundamentalism and dogmatism in you. It appears you are growing, friend, and I appreciate that and want to encourage you to keep it up.”

    Funny, I was going to say the same thing about you (though sometimes you still resort to calling Denny names 🙂 ). Take care.

  15. Matthew Staton June 25, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    “…I have detected more and more candor and less and less fundamentalism and dogmatism…”

    Actually, I think this comment could apply to Denny’s blog in general. I think one thing that helped was when he started requiring full names.

    Denny – I could wish you would have more posts like this. An improvement, in my humble opinion, would be just saying what you think the passage means. Not every act of exegesis needs to be warfare against liberals, skeptics, democrats and devil worshippers 😉 Sometimes, so I think, Bible study should be a quiet pastoral exercise meant to tune ones heart in response to God. But I don’t want to toss a fly into my own bottle of ointment here.

    In my opinion there is an improved tone here and I appreciate it. This blog is from a different tribe than my own but I appreciate being able to read and see the perspectives discussed here.

  16. James Garbarino June 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    “All that remains is the decay of your mortal coil.” Watch your poetic references. The mortal coil refers to this present world and its turmoils, not the body of flesh. We leave the mortal coil; it remains until the New Jerusalem.

  17. barley February 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Psalm 6:5 clearly states, For in death there is no remembrance of me, in the grave who shall give thee thanks? The dead are dead until they are raised up again. I Thessalonians 4 makes it clear that when Jesus Christ returns, the dead in Christ shall rise first. There is no reason to raise the dead if they are not dead. What a shame it would be if a believer could not remember who God is. There is no remembrance of God in death. There is no praise to God in the grave because death makes it impossible. What a wierd situation indeed if you were somehow alive in heaven with God after you die, but could not remember who God is? The dead are dead till they are raised from the dead.

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