There are certain expressions that we hear repeatedly in conversations, sermons or prayers. They may have been borrowed from Scripture, which gives them an even more familiar ring. Possibly we have become accustomed to using them ourselves, without giving much thought to their exact meaning.
An expression of that nature serves as the heading for this article. It is not at all uncommon to hear people speak of ‘The land of the living”, sometimes in conversations, but more often in their prayers. They will thank God that they are still in the land of the living, by which they evidently mean that they are thankful for their daily existence. The land of the living is often set in contrast to the realm of the dead, or the grave.
One step farther along that line of reasoning easily leads to the conclusion that our daily existence is evidence of God’s grace or favor upon us. The fact that we are alive and that all humanity still moves upon the earth is to be ascribed to God’s “common grace” which comes to all men. In spite of anything else, we can still be thankful that we are alive and have not joined the thousands who have already died.
The question is an important one, is that the meaning of the expression in Scripture, or does the Word of God give a far richer significance to it?
The Expression In Scripture.
The first passage that calls for our attention is . “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Does this simply mean that David’s life was spared, or was his deliverance far greater, an escape from the eternal destruction of hell? The well-known Dutch “berijming” has, “Ik lag gekneld in banden van den dood, daar d’angst der hel mij alien troost deed missen.” This is entirely in harmony with the verses three and four, “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech Thee, deliver my soul.” In verse seven he says, “Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.” In the confidence of his deliverance from sin and hell, David rejoices that he will walk in the land of the living, among the redeemed who possess life everlasting. It would deprive the psalm of all its rich significance to interpret “the land of the living” as referring to a mere earthly existence.
The second passage of significance is , “I cried unto Thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living.” David is fleeing from Saul and hiding in a cave, where he prays, (verses six and seven): “Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for Thou shalt deal bountifully with me.” Again the idea is that God will not forsake His servant, nor give him over to destruction, for the Lord has taken him into His covenant, counted him among His people, the righteous, who will surround him. The unchangeable Jehovah, Who keeps His covenant forever, is his refuge and his portion in the land of the living, among the saints.
In this connection is significant, “I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” The psalmist calls God “my Light and my Salvation.” Therefore he can say, “The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? And again in verse four, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in His temple.” His boldness is the boldness of faith, putting all his trust in his God. Because his heart is right before God, he will not be cast away by God nor overcome by his enemies. He will enquire in God’s temple; he will see the goodness of the Lord among God’s people, in the land of the living.
From an entirely different point of view, we have an important passage in , “I said, I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.” This is the complaint of Hezekiah when the prophet told him that he was going to die. In verse 10 he complains, “I said in the cutting off (the A. V. has ‘noontide’) of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of my years.” Superficially the idea seems to be that Hezekiah is grieved only because he must die. And we cannot help but wonder why he did not voice the same complaint a few years later when death actually did overtake him. Nevertheless, upon closer investigation we realize that the complaint of the king is much more serious than that. He was but thirty nine years old at this time, and still childless. It was like dying at noontime, for there was no successor to the throne of David, no one to bring forth David’s Son, Who would sit upon the throne forever. To have this happen to God-fearing Hezekiah was like being cut off from the people of God, destroyed from among Israel, and in that sense wiped out of the land of the living. Therefore he rejoices in verse 19, “The living, the living, he shall praise Thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known Thy truth.”
This same idea is found in , “But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered.” To be cut off from the land of the living is compared to being cut down like a tree that is hewn down and destroyed, even with the fruit thereof. Even worse, it is compared to having one’s name wiped out, so that he dies childless, is cut off from the sphere of God’s covenant, to be remembered no more forever.
This curse comes to Doeg, the Edomite, according to . “God shall likewise destroy thee forever, he shall take thee away, and pluck thee out of thy dwelling place, and root thee out of the land of the living.” Doeg, who “strengthened himself in wickedness,” is cut off from the realm of God’s covenant and destroyed forever.
All the enemies of the Lord shall perish, all those who afflict His people. This is the verdict of , “Whose graves are set in the sides of the pit, and her company is round about her grave: all of them are slain, fallen by the sword, which caused terror in the land of the living.” If we compare this with the verses 24, 25, 26, 27 and 32, we notice that each time the judgment of God is pronounced upon the uncircumcised because they afflicted the people of God they brought terror in the land of the living.
There is yet one more significant passage that may not escape our attention. That is , “He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare His generations? For He was cut off from the land of the living: for the transgressions of My people was He stricken.” This is said of the suffering servant of God, Who was led as a lamb to the slaughter. In prophetic vision, Isaiah stands at the foot of the cross staring in amazement at the man of sorrows who is smitten of God and afflicted. The prophet sees Him as one who is cut off from Israel, banished into exile from before the face of the living God. He is a leper, an outcast, an accursed of God, since He is stricken for the transgressions of that people. He suffers the agonies of hell as one who is cut off from the land of the living, because He is the Lamb for sinners slain.
That, to the best of my knowledge, covers all the passages in Scripture where this expression is found. You will have noted the following: 1. That all the passages in which this expression appears, are found in the Old Testament, none in the New. This is significant, because it shows that the expression belongs to the peculiar typical language of the old dispensation.
2. That the expression never refers to life on earth in contrast to the realm of the dead, or the grave. This would be quite inconsistent with the typical language of the Old Testament, for not the life in this world, but the life in Canaan, among the people of God is really counted. All of Scripture emphasizes that this life, apart from Christ, is nothing more than a continual death. Psalm 90 says, “We are consumed by Thy anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.” Even Paul states that he dies every day, but that his “life is hid with Christ in God.”
3. In the old dispensation, Canaan was the typical land of the living, in distinction from all the rest of the earth. That was the promised land, where God dwelt among His people in covenant fellowship. For He dwelt in the cloud that hung over the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place of the house of God, in the City of God. The ‘living’ were the true seed of Abraham, the people of God who enjoyed His fellowship. Therefore the land of the living today is still the sphere of God’s covenant, the church. The perfect realization of that land will be reached only in the heavenly Canaan, the eternal city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
4. To be cut off from the land of the living is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It means to die childless, that is, without hope. To be an outcast from God and His church. Such a person is hewn down like a tree that is destroyed with its fruit. His name is wiped out, to be remembered no more, even unto all eternity. He is accursed of God as only those are accursed who have tasted of the heavenly gifts, the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. Even in hell “Israel” shall dwell alone.
5. Thus Christ had to be cut off from the land of the living for the transgressions of His people. We begin to understand somewhat the depth of suffering and woe He experienced in order to deliver us from sin and death, to bring us to God. He was delivered over to the curse because of our transgressions, and He was raised to heavenly glory because of our justification. He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we should be the righteousness of God in Him.
6. Through the atonement of the cross we arc- brought into the Land of the living. That is the rare privilege of those whose names are written in the book of life. Nothing can ever separate them from that blessedness, since they are engraven in God’s hands. Eternity will be necessary to fully know the riches of grace that are the portion of those who dwell in that communion of life. The valley of the shadow of death will be but a passing on into the fullness of salvation. For new we know in part, but then we shall see face to face, and know as we are known.