Life in the Place of the Dead

Welcome to our 24th “Boost from the Bible,” as we delve into the depths of God’s Word to find sustenance during this strange, COVID time. Let us begin!

Today’s Boost from the Bible will focus on the first half of Psalm 103, written by David:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all His benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him;
12 as far as the east is from the west, so far He removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.

Now, in this virus time, let’s start looking at this psalm with its most obvious parallel: verse four. In that verse we read about the Lord God, who “redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” We humans have often declared a bad day a day “in the pits,” where we feel pitiful and we feel like we are buried in a pit of depression, fear, or worry. Notice that David does not say “you who SAY you are in a pit,” or “you who just FEEL like you are in a pit.” David acknowledges that you really ARE in a pit. Of course, “Pit” in this verse is capitalized, because “Pit” refers to a place in the Old Testament where people went when they died – to a pit named “Sheol.” Let me share with you a definition of Sheol: it’s a place of “deep gloom: there is no light, no remembrance, and no praise of God – in fact, no sound at all. [Sheol’s] occupants are weak, trembling souls who can never hope to escape from its gates” on their own.

You see, Sheol, for much of Old Testament history, was the place of the dead; that there might be a resurrection, after death, into heaven had not been revealed by God to God’s people at that time – not yet. Not only was Sheol a physical place, many of the people of God in the Old Testament would cry to God for help specifically because, though they were still alive, they FELT like they were in the dread silence and weakness of Sheol already. For instance, in Psalm 88 we read, “May my prayer come to You [O God]; turn Your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death…I am like one without strength.”

We have been dealing with this virus in America for what seems like a very long time. Understandably, a very large amount of “mental fatigue” has set in; the initial enthusiasm for tackling this virus by isolating ourselves in our homes has worn thin or disappeared entirely. We simply are tired of doing what we have been forced to do by the onset of COVID. And what is a good spiritual response to THIS phase of our current struggle? I think we can find a response in the rest of this section of the 103rd Psalm.

First of all, God restates what God consists of – what God is, and always has been, all about. God wants us to remember, in the tough times, all God has done for us over the many days, weeks, months and years. So we read in verse two, “Do not forget all God’s benefits” for us. We should not get caught up in the doubts of God in which we ask of Him “What have you done for me lately?” Then, in verse four we read that God “redeems your life from the Pit” and that God is the One who “crowns you with steadfast love.” Now we know from our relationships and deep friendships with other humans – close family and friends – that the best kind of love and mercy is the kind of love and mercy that is “steadfast,” unchangeable – and steadfastness is what God has in spades! One example of God’s steadfast love is found in the very next verse. God says God is One “who satisfies you with good as long as you live.” Now that’s a long time, right?!

After reminding us of a common description of God – “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” – God goes into depth when it comes to just how forgiving and how merciful God really is, and I quote: “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Now we should not just glide right by that verse, as we often do; just think to yourself, am I a sinner? How often have I not done God’s will every single day – doing what I wanted to do rather than what God wanted me to do? And, if we HAVE sinned so much, has God taken away the good things and good people that we have relied upon these past six months, or not? I’ll wager God has done for you what God has done for me – treated me so much more kindly, lovingly and mercifully than I ever deserved! How comfortable we often are in our COVID confinement! We are certainly better off – just considering our ability to talk to each other online – than people were in past plagues!

That’s wonderful to realize, but God is just warming up! Next we read, in verses eleven and twelve of Psalm 103, this: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.” That’s quite a distance! Now that’s an expansive love!

This passage reminds me of one of my favorite Christian song hymns. It is not in my Lutheran tradition; I heard it first on a Christian album. It’s called “The Love of God,” by Frederick Lehman. It talks in the most inspiring way about how BIG, HOW LARGE, AND HOW EXPANSIVE GOD’S LOVE IS IN YOUR LIFE AND MINE. It goes like this: 

The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled, and pardoned from his sin.

  • Refrain:
    Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
    It shall forevermore endure— the saints’ and angels’ song.
  • Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
    Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade;
    To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
    Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.
    • Refrain:
      Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
      It shall forevermore endure— the saints’ and angels’ song.

Now, obviously, I just love those words! Yes, envision a long scroll that goes across the whole sky. Now imagine that every cornstalk is a quill, and every person in the whole world is writing with such a stalk, using ink, writing about the love of God on that scroll – why, they would run out of scroll to write on! We would “drain the ocean dry” in our attempt!

You know, when Jesus interrupted His disciples’ argument about who would be greatest in the Kingdom of God, Jesus placed a child in their midst and said that the disciples must be as humble as a child while they’re in the kingdom. It may seem counter-intuitive to tell you this, but for me, and for what I read in Scripture, the key to getting through this mess at this stage is to humble ourselves and realize that “God’s got this!”…to humble ourselves like children humble themselves when they realize just how strong and capable their father or mother is! – that their mother and father’s love is MUCH deeper than they had EVER before comprehended or understood!

So let’s think about God and God’s love that way. Let’s realize that, as J.B. Philips once wrote, “Your God is TOO small,” and ENLARGE God’s presence in our lives, because the REAL God has already got this thing. I believe that thought is captured by David in the 103rd psalm in that last verse that I recited, verse 13: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him” (for those who have such high regard for God).

My friends, it is exactly when we feel so disconnected, fatigued and weary that we are to turn, as a Child of God, to our Creator…and turn to the mightiness, the expansiveness, the humongous-ness, the gargantuan-ness, the goodness and the greatness of God’s love for you and for me, mighty in spiritual power, and mighty in love. Amen!

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