Gracious Words in Tragic Times

Old BooksI’m often amazed at how the Lord focuses our attention on just the right passage at just the right time, even when we’re preaching through a book expositionally. For the expository preacher, deciding on a passage to preach takes very little ingenuity or thought; he simply asks “What’s the next paragraph or chapter?” Yet, it’s astounding how often “what’s next” scratches right where we itch.

Last night was one of those times. Our church family was shocked Monday by another tragedy–this time the suicide of the husband of a dear lady who attends TCBC with her two young children. Caring for the family is the first priority, of course, and God’s sufficient grace and strength in human weakness has been on display. He is being glorified in this. Along with the personal ministry, however, preparing for a particularly difficult funeral takes a lot of thought as well. What do you say in such a circumstance, especially during the eulogy (which I think is a particularly important part of the funeral service)?

Well, “next up” for our midweek Bible study was 2 Samuel 1, so that’s what I prepared to teach last night. Wow. David is lamenting the deaths of Jonathan and Saul, the latter of whom took his own life. My first thought: “Take a break from the life of David and preach something else. Anything else.” My second and prevailing thought: “The Lord has allowed us to come to this text at this time and for this circumstance; don’t try to outsmart Him; continue as planned.” That’s what I did. What is particularly remarkable about the passage is David’s loyalty to Saul, even after his death and despite his wickedness. David not only killed the Amalekite who claimed to have slain Saul, but he wrote a beautiful lamentation–a eulogy, of sorts–for Saul and Jonathan. So what did David bring up about the recently deceased King? And what did he not bring up?

Well, nothing was said about Saul’s fear before the Philistines or his death at their hands. Instead, he was described as “mighty” four times in the brief passage (v. 19, 21, 25, 27), not including the commendation of his fighting ability in verse 22 and the pictures of swiftness and strength in verse 23 . There wasn’t a word about Saul’s life-dominating and murderous jealousy. Instead, he was described as beautiful and pleasant (v. 23). Saul’s launching harsh words and a literal spear at Jonathan wasn’t brought up. Instead, their love for each other and union even in death was lauded (v. 23). David was silent about the fact that Israel languished under Saul’s weak leadership. Instead, he calls on the ladies of Israel to mourn for one whose reign was the source of bountiful blessings (v. 24). He was repeatedly and intentionally positive in his estimation of Israel’s first king and his own one-time mentor.

At first you have to wonder if David is describing the same Saul described in 1 Samuel. (Pleasant?) Of course, he is, and he’s not lying. He is, however, remembering selectively, at least when he’s remembering “out loud.” Saul’s failures were many and infamous, but why rehearse them after his death? What profit could there be in that? David demonstrated both restraint and grace. He could have rejoiced in the death of his persecutor or in his own opportunity to ascend the throne. He could have condemned Saul for shedding innocent blood. He could have declared how God had vindicated him against his foe and honored him for his refusal to touch God’s anointed. He could have berated Saul for having caused the death of Jonathan, his dear friend. Yet, there is no rejoicing or rage, no satisfaction or ambition–only genuine sorrow.

Of course, this situation was somewhat unique since David was reflecting on his king and God’s anointed. (As a lady in our church mentioned during our study, David refused to “touch God’s anointed” even after Saul’s death.) But I think there is more to David’s words than simple deference to a king. I think it gives us a peek at a godly man’s heart in a difficult situation, and what we see is both inspiring and convicting. Frankly, his positive portrayal of Saul says much more about the author than the subject. T. H. Robinson says this of David’s response to Saul’s death: “We know nothing of David which presents him in a better light” (quoted by Ronald F. Youngblood, Expositor’s Bible Commentary). That is high praise indeed when you consider that he is speaking of a valiant warrior, godly king, and the sweet pslamist of Israel.

Matthew Henry applies the passage to difficult funerals as follows:

“Charity teaches us to make the best we can of every body and to say nothing of those of whom we can say no good, especially when they are gone…Let the corrupt part of the memory be buried with the corrupt part of the man—earth to earth, ashes to ashes; let the blemish be hidden and a veil drawn over the deformity.”

He goes on to warn against being dishonest. We obviously cannot lie about a person’s actions or spiritual condition. But a generosity that highlights virtues rather than vices is commendable, whether one is speaking of the living or the dead. In other words, perhaps being gracious is sometimes as simple as saying less than you could.

Something to think about, anyway, and at just the right time. Funny how the Lord does that.

________

Addendum: I’ve preached one other funeral following a suicide. It was extremely tough. It was clear that well over half the people in attendance were offended at my taking the opportunity to present the gospel–a feeling every pastor will know sometime, and probably often. Nevertheless, the gospel went out, and God’s grace continues to be displayed two years later. The sister of the deceased began attending our church at that time with her young family. They’re continuing to grow, and yesterday she showed up with groceries and encouragement for the family now suffering as she had. It was 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 in action, and it was a joy to see. God is good, and he delights in replacing ashes with beauty. Please pray that he’ll do so for this family, and that he’ll use tomorrow’s service for His glory.

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7 Responses

  1. We will be praying for this hurting family and for you as you minister to them.

  2. Chris, you are right to carry on with the exposition at this time. The Lord knows all about our circumstances and leads our preaching for his timing, not ours.

    A few years ago, we had a young man killed in a drunken accident (he was a passenger in the car, only victim… out partying…). I was preaching through John at the time. We had just come to John 11.25 “I am the resurrection and the life”. The week before the death, the last message this young man heard, was “How God Builds Invulnerable Faith” from Jn 11.1-16, then the Sunday after the funeral, with the grieving parents and family present, I preached “Invulnerable Faith on Display” from Jn 11.17-32. For the funeral I preached “Believest Thou This?” from the same passage. And the week after the funeral I preached “The Man who Commands Death” from Jn 11.33-44.

    I will tell you that those two weeks and the Lord’s timing made a significant impression on me and our church family.

    And I have preached such difficult funerals as suicides. It is not an easy thing to do. May God give wisdom as you look for the words.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. We also will be praying.

  4. I found out 8 days ago that my uncle committed suicide. When I returned to work on Monday a co-worker with whom I am newly friends and am hoping to be able to witness to, confided in me that her father also took his own life some years ago, though she tells most people that he had a stroke. With that new tie made, I was reminded that God is sovereign and works through tragedy, even such seemingly senseless tragedy. And now I can pray for this family too.

  5. [...] Times” Update In an earlier post I mentioned that our church is dealing with the suicide of the husband of one of our members. We [...]

  6. [...] on what he learned and how he handled the funeral for someone who committed suicide. Very good. My Two Cents.Posted on 8 May, 2007Permalink | CommentsCreation Museum Witness”Most recently, a 28-year-old [...]

  7. I am a 28 year old woman in Tennessee. I love music and singing and I often get asked to sing for weddings and funerals at my church. Today was a tough one…a 19 year old committed suicide (hung himself in a prison cell). I searched the web to find some comfort and peace for me and for the family. This blog really helped me. I am going to sing Amazing Grace. I pray for God’s veil will cover this child so that Christ will overcome once again.

    Thank You.

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