Dead Men Don’t Talk (Loud Enough)

The consensus of biblical scholars maintains that belief in a literal life-after-death for individuals developed very late in Judean religion, appearing first most definitely in Daniel 12, a text from the second century BCE. This consensus is so firm that even many conservative scholars accept it (they simply take a “progressive revelation” stance or argue that earlier texts were “ignorant” of the afterlife, despite the fact that several texts expressly deny that such an afterlife is possible). In a recent blog post, however, Evangelical writer Denny Burk contended that the consensus is wrong. Tellingly, he identifies those who concur with the consensus as “skeptics.” Burk says:

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 find it fascinating how often inerrantists employ labels like “skeptic” to vilify those who interpret the Bible differently than they do. N. T. Wright would be surprised to hear that he is a “skeptic,” I imagine. It strikes me as strange because I don’t see critical Bible scholars referring to inerrantists as “gullible scholars,” or “suckers.” Critical bible scholars approach the Bible the same way that inerrantist Christians approach the Ugaritic and Babylonian literature: as historians. Actually, I should correct that. Often times, inerrantists (like Paul Copan) approach the broader ANE literature as partisan propagandists, reading Hammurabi much as Rush Limbaugh reads Karl Marx (i.e., cursorily and tendentiously, if at all). Anyway, the reality is that many critical Bible scholars are confessing Christians who believe in the resurrection of Christ and of the dead at the end of time; they yet nevertheless recognize that Israelites and Jews didn’t always believe this and that some even denied that resurrection is possible. In fact, I came to this conclusion while I was still an inerrantist back in Bible College. I was hardly a skeptic. On the contrary, it was because of my commitment to the Bible that my studies forced me to adjust my view, recognizing that there was a development in some of Israel’s theology. So attributing the scholarly recognition that there is diversity within the Bible to “skepticism” seems to me to be a sloppy and uncharitable characterization. But whatever. Everybody needs their enemies I suppose.

But let’s get to Burk’s arguments. Burk frames his post around Psalm 115:17-18:

The dead do not praise Yahweh,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless Yahweh
from this time on and forevermore.
Praise Yahweh!

Burk contends that the consensus reading is a distortion of the Psalm. On what does he base his argument? First he appeals briefly to other Psalms and “OT texts” that are “suggestive of an afterlife.” We’ll examine those in short order, but first let’s look at his second argument:

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.

So, according to Burk, the Psalmist is not denying an afterlife; he’s just stating the obvious fact that nobody who is living can hear or see those who have “gone on” when they praise God. But is this really what the Psalmist is saying?

Note that Burk has to add his own words to the text in order to make his case. The Psalmist does not tell us what Burk tells us. The Psalmist does not say, “Their praise cannot be heard by us.” The Psalmist does not say “public” praise. The Psalmist simply says that “the dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any that go down into silence.” Burk of course would like to believe that the Psalmist is simply speaking from the vantage point of the living, but nothing like that distinction is made in the text. Rather, the texts says, “the dead do not praise Yahweh.” Perhaps Burk was wise not to mention the numerous other texts which make this same claim, because in several cases the context makes the character of the claim even clearer.

In Psalm 6:4-5, the Psalmist says:

Turn, O Yahweh, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your covenant faithfulness.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?

The context here is that the king is surrounded by enemies who want to kill him. He is afraid they are going to get him. Thus he implores the national deity Yahweh to protect him according to their covenant. What is his reasoning? If Yahweh lets him die, the king will not be able to give Yahweh praise; he will remember Yahweh no more. Clear as day. Here’s another psalm which seems to be a sequel or a conclusion to Psalm 6. We’ll pick up after the king thanks Yahweh for delivering him from his enemies:

To you, O Yahweh, I cried,
and to Yahweh I made supplication:
‘What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Yahweh, and be gracious to me!
O Yahweh, be my helper!’
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
(Psalm 30:8-12)

Here again, the king thanks Yahweh for defending his life. The result is that the king is able to go on praising Yahweh, whereas, if he had died, he could not praise the deity any longer. The answer to “Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” is “No!” In other words, “If I die I will be nothing but dust and will not be able to praise you any longer, but I want to praise you, so let me live some more.”

Interestingly, if we go back to the start of the psalm we’ll find this line (verse 3):

O Yahweh, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Does this speak of resurrection from the grave? No, it does not. Verse 1 makes this clear: “I will extol you, O Yahweh, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.”

The king’s “deliverance from Sheol” is just a poetic way to refer to the fact that his life was narrowly spared.

Let’s look at some other examples of this idea that the dead cannot praise Yahweh. Psalm 88 is a great example. In this one, the Psalmist complains that he might as well be dead. He is treated like a dead man by both his companions and his deity. He implores Yahweh to relent from his wrath. Again, identification with those in Sheol is used as a poetic expression of distress, danger, sickness, or proximity to death. But the Psalmist asks what would happen if Yahweh were really to kill him (or allow him to die):

Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your covenant faithfulness declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
(Psalm 88:10-12)

The answer to all of these questions, again, is “No.” That’s the Psalmist’s point. The “shades” (dead people) do not rise up to praise Yahweh. Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness is not declared in the grave. His wonders are not known in the darkness. His saving help is unknown in the land of forgetfulness (i.e., the land of the dead). Because of the this, the Psalmist begs Yahweh to relent. Why? So that he can praise Yahweh. If, as Burk claims, the dead really do praise Yahweh, just not within our earshot, then these petitions would make no sense. If the dead can still praise Yahweh, then there is no logic to these petitions.

Here’s one final example, although this one falls outside the scope of Burk’s Bible. The Jews and Catholics, however, will be interested:

Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades
in place of the living who give thanks?
From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased;
those who are alive and well sing the Lord’s praises. (Sir 17:27-28)

I think it’s clear how this Jewish tradition interpreted the psalmic statements. The clear statement here is that no one in Hades praises God. Why not? Because, “as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased.” Only the living are able to sing praises to God. And that’s why the Psalmist in so many other Psalms wants to stay alive: because he wants to be able to praise Yahweh some more. Thus, in Psalm 115—the only Psalm quoted by Burk—the implication is clear:

The dead do not praise Yahweh,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless Yahweh
from this time on and forevermore.
Praise Yahweh!

Those who are dead are done praising Yahweh, but the congregation will go on praising Yahweh forevermore because the congregation will always be alive. The individuals will die, and the individuals will praise Yahweh no more from the grave, but “we” (i.e., the congregation) will always be alive to praise Yahweh. This Psalm, unlike the other Psalms which deny that the dead can praise Yahweh, is addressed to Israel as a whole. Thus, it is Israel as a whole who will praise Yahweh forevermore, not the individuals who comprise it. And that is the consensus position. The only view of “immortality” they had in this period was generational immortality. Their people would live forever, and that was enough for the elders to rest in peace.

Now, let’s turn to Burk’s first argument, namely, the appeal to a handful of texts which supposedly contain, in Burk’s words, “hints and pointers . . . that are suggestive of an afterlife.” Burk appeals to Psalms 17:15; 49; 73; Ezekiel 37:12-13; and Daniel 12:2-3.

First, everybody knows that Daniel 12 speaks of individual, literal resurrection. That’s not contested and it does not count as evidence that this was the view in earlier periods. Second, Ezekiel 37:12-13 is, according to the broad consensus, metaphorical for the restoration of Israel. One hardly has to be a “skeptic” to rightly interpret this passage. See N.T. Wright’s discussion, for instance, in the much-beloved-by-conservatives The Resurrection of the Son of God, and the literature cited there. This text is not a “hint” or a “pointer” of any sort of afterlife, unless one reads the text anachronistically through the lens of Daniel 12, which is what many inerrantists do. Burk could have appealed to Isa 26, but again the context here is Israel’s exile and the talk of resurrection of the dead is a metaphor for Israel’s restoration. The passage is highly metaphorical throughout, and vv. 13-15 make clear that the subject is not individual Israelites but the nation of Israel itself which has been ruled over by the Babylonians.1 Certainly, it would later come to be read literally, after belief in resurrection arose, but this was later in the second century BCE, for at the start of the second century, Ben Sira is still denying the possibility of life after death (41:4; 17:28). The same is obviously true of Qohelet, and of Job, the latter of which I will discuss shortly.

What about the psalms to which Burk appeals? 17:15 reads thus:

“As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”

Apparently, “when I awake” is supposed to refer to the king’s resurrection. Of course, it is clear from the preceding verses that the king has not died. Once again, Yahweh has delivered the king from his enemies. Just as relevant is the fact that at the start of the Psalm (v. 3) the king asks Yahweh to visit him by night to test him. Thus “when I awake” at the end refers to his vindication. He has been tested in the “nighttime” of his trials and awakes to the vindication of his God against his enemies.

What about Psalm 49? Is this a better candidate? Not really, though it may appear so at first. Let’s look at the whole psalm:

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
9 that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.

10 When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes for ever,
their dwelling-places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot.
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
and their form shall waste away;
Sheol shall be their home.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me.

16 Do not be afraid when some become rich,
when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away;
their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy
—for you are praised when you do well for yourself—
19 they will go to the company of their ancestors,
who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

Once again, we have a text which speaks of the king being surrounded by enemies. Death is closing in on him. As we have already seen from other psalms, the language of “deliverance from Sheol” is often used metaphorically to refer to deliverance from the hand of the enemy. The king is not brought up out of Sheol after having died; rather, the king is spared from being killed in the first place. Does that paradigm fit the language here? Absolutely! The king is simply not among the foolhardy. The foolhardy go to the grave, but the king’s life is prolonged because he is faithful and wise. That’s possible. But note that verses 9-10 state clearly that there is no escaping death: it applies both to the wise and fool equally. Is the king, then, presented here as an exception to the rule? This is a possibility also. But this does not refer to resurrection from the dead, but rather to deliverance from death altogether. On this, see John Healey, “The Immortality of the King: Ugarit and the Psalms,” Or 53 (1984): 245-54. Like Enoch and Elijah, the king may be speaking here of deliverance from the experience of death altogether. See for instance Ps 21:4-5: “He [the king] asked you for life; you gave it to him—length of days forever and ever.” This may refer to the notion of the immortality of the king, or it may be hyperbolic for a long life or a lasting dynasty. Whatever the case, the fact is that Psalm 49 does not speak of a resurrection from the grave but of a deliverance from death—either in the sense that the king’s life is prolonged and he is spared from the onslaught of his enemies, or in the sense that the king does not die at all, as in Psalm 21 and with Enoch and Elijah. The other fact is that Psalm 49 makes clear that the wise and the foolish alike go to the grave. The point is not that the foolish and the rich receive a special sort of punishment, but that those who try to live in luxury in this life end up the same as everybody else: dead, with nothing to show for it.

Finally, Burk points us to Psalm 73. What does this psalm say? It tells of the rich who live in luxury and despise God. The Psalmist at first thinks that they are truly well off and he envies them, but then he went into the sanctuary and realized there that God sets a trap for the wealthy and brings them to ruin; God kills them, punishing them for their pride. At first he was envious of them, but then he realized that wealth and self-sufficiency was not the way to life. Thus:

23 Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honor.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made Yahweh GOD my refuge,
to tell of all your works.

Does this speak of resurrection from the dead? One has to stretch to find that here. Does the “afterwards” of v. 24 refer to a life after death? Or does it refer to the time after the Psalmist was guided by Yahweh’s counsel? The latter is much more clearly the case. Does verse 25a mean that the Psalmist is going to heaven? No; it’s a statement that he worships no other god. Does 25b mean that he wants to leave the earth to be with God? No; it simply means that he does not put his stock in riches but in being with Yahweh here and now, as the contrasting context makes clear. Vv. 26-28 contrasts the short life of those who despise God with the long life of the man of God who remains near to God.

I’ll include reference to one other passage, which Burk himself did not cite, but which was cited by the first commenter on his post. Job 19:25-27 is often cited as evidence that Job believed in an afterlife, despite the fact that the translation of the pivotal v. 26 is quite difficult, and despite the fact that Job elsewhere denies the possibility of resurrection on more than one occasion. Here I’ll quote from Human Faces of God to save time:

Job contrasts the fate of humans with that of trees. Unlike humans, “there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will grow up again, and that its roots will not die” (Job 14:7). Water can bring a tree back to life, says Job, but when mortal humans die, there is no coming back. “As waters evaporate from the lakebed, as a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down, never to rise again” (14:11–12). Although such a view of mortality may sound like a council of despair for us, for Job, in light of his afflictions, death is the only thing he has to look forward to. Job despairs not in the thought of eternal sleep, but only in the thought of another day among the living. His life is simply biding his time “until my release should come” (14:14). When death comes knocking at Job’s door, he will gladly answer, for only in death will calamity find him no longer (14:15–17). Indeed, Job sees in death an escape from the tormenting hand of Yahweh. “As the cloud fades and ebbs away, so those who go down to the grave do not come up. They will never return to their homes, nor will they be seen again from whence they came” (7:9–10). This fact emboldens Job to accuse Yahweh: “Therefore I will not hold my tongue; I will speak up out of the torment of my spirit; I will protest out of the bitterness of my existence” (7:11). Without restraint, Job indicts Yahweh for unjustly afflicting him. He can do this because he knows that death is near, and that then he will be beyond Yahweh’s reach: “For I shall lie down in the dust of the earth; you will seek me, but I will not be there to be found” (7:21).2

So what does Job 19:25-27 say? Well, the NRSV translates it this way:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed [naqaph],
then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

Again, the key is the translation of v. 26, and I argue that the NRSV gets it wrong. If his flesh is destroyed, then how would he then proceed to see God, “in his flesh”? But naqaph can mean “peel off, strip off, shake off” or “revolve, recur,” or “round off, trim.” Perhaps the verse should translate, “and after my skin has returned to this [body], I will see God in my flesh.” That would make much more sense of the fact that Job is seeing God “in the flesh.” Another possible translation is this: “and after my skin shall shake off this scab, I will see God in my flesh.” That also makes sense of the fact that Job is seeing God “in the flesh.” And that’s precisely the point here: Job is contending against his companions who are saying that he is at fault. Job demurs, saying that he will in fact live to be vindicated. The redeemer (i.e., vindicator) who lives will stand on the dust “at the last,” i.e., when this ordeal is all over, and Job will be vindicated against his accusers and against God. Job, unlike his wrongful accusers, will get to stand before God as he is vindicated. And, as the very next verses go on to state, Job warns that those who accuse him now will be punished with the sword when he is vindicated. This hardly speaks of a resurrection from the grave. Rather, it clearly speaks of Job’s healing, restoration, and vindication as a righteous man. In fact, this is precisely what happened.

In short, none of the texts Burk appealed to actually substantiate his claim. He claims that the consensus reading distorts Psalm 115, but we have seen that the distortion comes from the other direction. Burk had to add words to the text to make it say something other than the obvious, and he omitted reference to the numerous other wisdom texts which parallel this notion that the dead cannot praise Yahweh.

But, unlike his point that one would have to be a “skeptic” to think that some texts in the Hebrew Bible deny the possibility of a resurrection, Burk’s ultimate point is fine. Like the Psalmists, Burk wants to emphasize that we’re on this earth to praise God. Unlike the Psalmists, however, Burk follows Jesus et al. in the belief that dead men do talk, and in doing so, Burk joins the company of thousands of academic “skeptics” who believe that whenever and wherever they worship, they are lifting hole-y hands with the living dead.

  1. See the discussion in John J. Collins, Daniel (Fortress), 395, and the literature cited there. []
  2. Stark, Human Faces of God, 9. []

4 thoughts on “Dead Men Don’t Talk (Loud Enough)

  1. Interesting post. I am just curious which verses you were referring to at the beginnng that “expressly deny that such an afterlife is possible.”

    The mental gymnastic these apologists perform never cease to amaze me.

  2. Or were those verses some that Burk referenced in his blog post?

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