According to Genesis 2:17, God gave to man, created in His own image, the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and added thereto the warning, "in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." Though not exclusively, reference is certainly made here in the first place to bodily death. Yet because death by no means came upon Adam and Eve on the day of their transgression, but took place hundreds of years later, the expression, "in the day that," must be conceived in a wider sense, or the delay of death must be attributed to the entering-in of mercy (Genesis 3:15). However this may be, Genesis 2:17 places a close connection between man's death and his transgression of God's commandment, thereby attaching to death a religious and ethical significance, and on the other hand makes the life of man dependent on his obedience to God. This religious-ethical nature of life and death is not only decidedly and clearly expressed in Genesis 2, but it is the fundamental thought of the whole of Scripture and forms an essential element in the revelations of salvation. The theologians of early and more recent times, who have denied the spiritual significance of death and have separated the connection between ethical and physical life, usually endeavor to trace back their opinions to Scripture; and those passages which undoubtedly see in death a punishment for sin (Genesis 2:17; John 8:44; Romans 5:12; 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:21), they take as individual opinions, which form no part of the organism of revelation. But this endeavor shuts out the organic character of the revelation of salvation. It is true that death in Holy Scripture is often measured by the weakness and frailty of human nature (Genesis 3:19; Job 14:1,12; Psalms 39:5-6; 90:5; 103:14-15; Ecclesiastes 3:20, etc.). Death is seldom connected with the transgression of the first man either in the Old Testament or the New Testament, or mentioned as a specified punishment for sin (John 8:44; Romans 5:12; 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:21; James 1:15); for the most part it is portrayed as something natural (Genesis 5:5; 9:29; 15:15; 25:8, etc.), a long life being presented as a blessing in contrast to death in the midst of days as a disaster and a judgment (Psalms 102:23 f; Isaiah 65:20). But all this is not contrary to the idea that death is a consequence of, and a punishment for, sin. Daily, everyone who agrees with Scripture that death is held out as a punishment for sin, speaks in the same way. Death, though come into the world through sin, is nevertheless at the same time a consequence of man's physical and frail existence now; it could therefore be threatened as a punishment to man, because he was taken out of the ground and was made a living soul, of the earth earthy (Genesis 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:45,47). If he had remained obedient, he would not have returned to dust (Genesis 3:19), but have pressed forward on the path of spiritual development (1 Corinthians 15:46,51); his return to dust was possible simply because he was made from dust (see ADAM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT ). Thus, although death is in this way a consequence of sin, yet a long life is felt to be a blessing and death a disaster and a judgment, above all when man is taken away in the bloom of his youth or the strength of his years. There is nothing strange, therefore, in the manner in which Scripture speaks about death; we all express ourselves daily in the same way, though we at the same time consider it as the wages of sin. Beneath the ordinary, everyday expressions about death lies the deep consciousness that it is unnatural and contrary to our innermost being.
2. The Meaning of Death:
This is decidedly expressed in Scripture much more so even than among ourselves. For we are influenced always more or less by the Greek, Platonic idea, that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal. Such an idea is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness, and is nowhere found in the Old Testament. The whole man dies, when in death the spirit (Psalms 146:4; Ecclesiastes 12:7), or soul (Genesis 35:18; 2 Samuel 1:9; 1 Kings 17:21; Jonah 4:3), goes out of a man. Not only his body, but his soul also returns to a state of death and belongs to the nether-world; therefore the Old Testament can speak of a death of one's soul (Genesis 37:21 (Hebrew); Numbers 23:10 m; Deuteronomy 22:21; Judges 16:30; Job 36:14; Psalms 78:50), and of defilement by coming in contact with a dead body (Leviticus 19:28; 21:11; 22:4; Numbers 5:2; 6:6; 9:6; 19:10 ff; Deuteronomy 14:1; Haggai 2:13). This death of man is not annihilation, however, but a deprivation of all that makes for life on earth. The Sheol (she'ol) is in contrast with the land of the living in every respect (Job 28:13; Proverbs 15:24; Ezekiel 26:20; 32:23); it is an abode of darkness and the shadow of death (Job 10:21-22; Psalms 88:12; 143:3), a place of destruction, yea destruction itself (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Psalms 88:11; Proverbs 27:20), without any order (Job 10:22), a land of rest, of silence, of oblivion (Job 3:13,17-18; Psalms 94:17; 115:17), where God and man are no longer to be seen (Isaiah 38:11), God no longer praised or thanked (Psalms 6:5; 115:17), His perfections no more acknowledged (Psalms 88:10-13; Isaiah 38:18-19), His wonders not contemplated (Psalms 88:12), where the dead are unconscious, do no more work, take no account of anything, possess no knowledge nor wisdom, neither have any more a portion in anything that is done under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6,10). The dead ("the Shades" the Revised Version, margin; compare article DECEASE, IN NEW TESTAMENT ) are asleep (Job 26:5; Proverbs 2:18; 9:18; 21:6; Psalms 88:11; Isaiah 14:9), weakened (Isaiah 14:10) and without strength (Psalms 88:4).
3. Light in the Darkness:
The dread of death was felt much more deeply therefore by the Israelites than by ourselves. Death to them was separation from all that they loved, from God, from His service, from His law, from His people, from His land, from all the rich companionship in which they lived. But now in this darkness appears the light of the revelation of salvation from on high. The God of Israel is the living God and the fountain of all life (Deuteronomy 5:26; Joshua 3:10; Psalms 36:9). He is the Creator of heaven and earth, whose power knows no bounds and whose dominion extends over life and death (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalms 90:3). He gave life to man (Genesis 1:26; 2:7), and creates and sustains every man still (Job 32:8; 33:4; 34:14; Psalms 104:29; Ecclesiastes 12:7). He connects life with the keeping of His law and appoints death for the transgression of it (Genesis 2:17; Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 30:20; 32:47). He lives in heaven, but is present also by His spirit in Sheol (Psalms 139:7-8). Sheol and Abaddon are open to Him even as the hearts of the children of men (Job 26:6; 38:17; Proverbs 15:11). He kills and makes alive, brings down into Sheol and raises from thence again (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7). He lengthens life for those who keep His commandments (Exodus 20:12; Job 5:26), gives escape from death, can deliver when death menaces (Psalms 68:20; Isaiah 38:5; Jeremiah 15:20; Daniel 3:26), can take Enoch and Elijah to Himself without dying (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11), can restore the dead to life (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 4:34; 13:21). He can even bring death wholly to nothing and completely triumph over its power by rising from the dead (Job 14:13-15; 19:25-27; Hosea 6:2; 13:14; Isaiah 25:8; 26:19; Ezekiel 37:11-12; Daniel 12:2).
4. Spiritual Significance:
This revelation by degrees rejects the old contrast between life on earth and the disconsolate existence after death, in the dark place of Sheol, and puts another in its place. The physical contrast between life and death gradually makes way for the moral and spiritual difference between a life spent in the fear of the Lord, and a life in the service of sin. The man who serves God is alive (Genesis 2:17); life is involved in the keeping of His commandments (Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 30:20); His word is life (Deuteronomy 8:3; 32:47). Life is still for the most part understood to mean length of days (Proverbs 2:18; 3:16; 10:30; Isaiah 65:20). Nevertheless it is remarkable that Prov often mentions death and Sheol in connection with the godless (Isaiah 2:18; 5:5; 7:25; 9:18), and on the other hand only speaks of life in connection with the righteous. Wisdom, righteousness, the fear of the Lord is the way of life (Isaiah 8:22,22; 11:16; 12:6; 13:14; 14:27; 19:23). The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death (Isaiah 14:32). Blessed is he who has the Lord for his God (Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalms 1:1-2; 2:12; 32:1-2; 33:12; 34:9, etc.); he is comforted in the greatest adversity (Psalms 73:25-28; Habakkuk 3:17-19), and sees a light arise for him behind physical death (Genesis 49:18; Job 14:13-15; 16:16-21; 19:25-27; Psalms 73:23-26). The godless on the contrary, although enjoying for a time much prosperity, perish and come to an end (Psalms 1:4-6; 73:18-20; Isaiah 48:22; Malachi 4:3, etc.).
The righteous of the Old Testament truly are continually occupied with the problem that the lot of man on earth often corresponds so little to his spiritual worth, but he strengthens himself with the conviction that for the righteous it will be well, and for the wicked, ill (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13; Isaiah 3:10-11). If they do not realize it in the present, they look forward to the future and hope for the day in which God's justice will extend salvation to the righteous, and His anger will be visited on the wicked in judgment. So in the Old Testament the revelation of the new covenant is prepared wherein Christ by His appearance hath abolished death and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). See ABOLISH . This everlasting life is already here on earth presented to man by faith, and it is his portion also in the hour of death (John 3:36; 11:25-26). On the other hand, he who lives in sin and is disobedient to the Son of God, is in his living dead (Matthew 8:22; Luke 15:32; John 3:36; 8:24; Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13); he shall never see life, but shall pass by bodily death into the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).
5. Death in Non-Christian Religions and in Science:
This view of Scripture upon death goes much deeper than that which is found in other religions, but it nevertheless receives support from the unanimous witness of humanity with regard to its unnaturalness and dread. The so-called nature-peoples even feel that death is much more of an enigma than life; Tiele (Inleiding tot de goddienst-artenschap, II (1900), 202, referring to Andrew Lang, Modern Mythology, chapter xiii) says rightly, that all peoples have the conviction that man by nature is immortal, that immortality wants no proof, but that death is a mystery and must be explained. Touching complaints arise in the hearts of all men on the frailty and vanity of life, and the whole of mankind fears death as a mysterious power. Man finds comfort in death only when he hopes it will be an end to a still more miserable life. Seneca may be taken as interpreter of some philosophers when he says: Stultitia est timore morris mori ("It is stupid to die through the fear of death") and some may be able, like a Socrates or a Cato, to face death calmly and courageously; what have these few to say to the millions, who through fear of death are all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:15)? Such a mystery has death remained up to the present day. It may be said with Kassowitz, Verworm and others that the "cell" is the beginning, and the old, gray man is the natural end of an uninterrupted life-development, or with Metschnikoff, that science will one day so lengthen life that it will fade away like a rose at last and death lose all its dread; death still is no less a riddle, and one which swallows up all the strength of life. When one considers, besides, that a number of creatures, plants, trees, animals, reach a much higher age than man; that the larger half of mankind dies before or shortly after birth; that another large percentage dies in the bloom of youth or in the prime of life; that the law of the survival of the fittest is true only when the fact of the survival is taken as a proof of their fitness; that the graybeards, who, spent and decrepit, go down to the grave, form a very small number; then the enigma of death increases more and more in mysteriousness. The endeavors to bring death into connection with certain activities of the organism and to explain it by increasing weight, by growth or by fertility, have all led to shipwreck. When Weismann took refuge in the immortality of the "einzellige Protozoen," he raised a hypothesis which not only found many opponents, but which also left mortality of the "Korperplasma" an insoluble mystery (Beth, "Ueber Ursache und Zweck des Todes, Glauben und Wissen (1909), 285-304, 335-48). Thus, science certainly does not compel us to review Scripture on this point, but rather furnishes a strong proof of the mysterious majesty of death. When Pelagius, Socinus, Schleiermacher, Ritschl and a number of other theologians and philosophers separate death from its connection with sin, they are not compelled to do so by science, but are led by a defective insight into the relation between ethos and phusis. Misery and death are not absolutely always consequences and punishment of a great personal transgression (Luke 13:2; John 9:3); but that they are connected with sin, we learn from the experience of every day. Who can number the victims of mammonism, alcoholism and licentiousness? Even spiritual sins exercise their influence on corporal life; envy is a rottenness of the bones (Proverbs 14:30). This connection is taught us in a great measure by Scripture, when it placed the not yet fallen man in a Paradise, where death had not yet entered, and eternal life was not yet possessed and enjoyed; when it sends fallen man, who, however, is destined for redemption, into a world full of misery and death; and at last assigns to the wholly renewed man a new heaven and a new earth, where death, sorrow, crying or pain shall no longer exist (Revelation 21:4).
Finally, Scripture is not the book of death, but of life, of everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord. It tells us, in oft-repeated and unmistakable terms, of the dreaded reality of death, but it proclaims to us still more loudly the wonderful power of the life which is in Christ Jesus.
published in 1939 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.