Death of a Princess
July 7, 1996
Some years ago an artist painted a picture showing a mountain of skulls. At first glance all the skulls seem to be the same, but when you look closely you notice some writing on each skull. One said, “doctor,” another “teacher,” another “secretary,” another “technician,” another “salesman,” and still others were labeled “foreman,” “driver,” “captain,” “lawyer,” and “judge.” There were hundreds of skulls in the painting, each one representing a different occupation.
The artist seemed to be saying that death is the great leveler. No matter what your position in this life may be, you will eventually die. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief-they all die sooner or later. In one sense, this is certainly true. You will eventually die. No one escapes death forever no matter how much we may try or how hard we exercise or how carefully we avoid catastrophe. The Grim Reaper knocks on every door sooner or later.
Yet there is another side to the truth. While death comes eventually to all men, death does not erase all the distinctions between men. From the standpoint of the Christian faith, it is at death that the real differences among men become apparent. I speak not of the artificial differences of money, power, fame, and worldly achievement. Those truly will all perish with the grave. “They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”
When we die, the truth about our lives will be plain for all to see. You will know the truth about me and I will know the truth about you. Nothing will hidden, all will be made plain. Every hypocrisy will be exposed and every unnoticed good deed will be shouted from the housetops.
Not Many Deathbed Scenes
It may interest you to know that the Bible does not record many deathbed scenes. The Old Testament generally tells us that so-and-so lived so many years and then he died. We generally don’t know when or where or how death took place, so in most cases we don’t know about any last words that may have been spoken. We don’t know if they gave a 30-second (or 3-minute) summation before their death.
In the New Testament we have even less information. We are not told how most of the chief characters—including the great apostle Paul—died. That’s understandable since the gospel is a message about life. The writers weren’t interested in telling how people died. We know how Jesus died, and Judas, and Stephen, and one or two others, but that’s about it. The New Testament says very little about death and a great deal about life.
If the Bible is true, then all of us will exist forever somewhere.
In light of that it is fascinating to consider that an entire chapter of Genesis is taken up with the report of Sarah’s death and burial. To be more precise, Genesis 23 tells how Abraham purchased a cave as a burial place for his wife Sarah. The report of his death is recorded in verses 1-2 while the remainder of the chapter (18 verses) tell how Abraham haggled with Ephron the Hittite to buy the cave of Machpelah. Upon reading this chapter, one has the almost irresistible urge to say “So what?” Why go into so much detail about the purchase of a burial cave? Why should we care how much Abraham paid?
The answer is, this is important because it teaches us great truth about the biblical view of death and the promises of God. As we approach this text, let’s begin with a brief survey of the biblical teaching regarding death.
I. Three Facts About Death
A. We will all die someday.
This is a fundamental truth that few of us like to face. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed unto man once to die” (King James Version). Ponder that word “appointed.” It means “destined” or “ordained.” All of us have many appointments we keep every week. We have places to go, things to do, people to see. If you are like me, your days are filled with one meeting or phone call after another. Sometimes we may be late for an appointment or we may miss it altogether. Sometimes we even forget we have an appointment. Things like that happen in a fallen world.
But there is one appointment you will never miss—your appointment with death. Let me ask you a trivia question. Can you name the one city in America with more dead residents than livings residents? It’s Forest Park, our neighbor to the south. Why are there so many dead people there? Because over a hundred years ago that area represented the far western suburbs of Chicago. Not very many people lived there so it seemed like a good place for a cemetery. In the intervening years Chicago has pushed far beyond Forest Park, but what do you see as you drive along Madison Street or Roosevelt Road or Cermak Road. Thousands and thousands of graves, with more being added all the time.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the old joke that goes, Why do they build fences around cemeteries? Answer: Because people are just dying to get in.
We laugh nervously because we know it’s true. Sooner or later we’ll all spend time in the graveyard.
B. Death is the end of this life, but not the end of your personal existence.
Everyone will live forever somewhere. Do you remember the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? When the rich man died, he went to hell while Lazarus went to Abraham’s side (a symbol for heaven).
Some people think that when we die, that’s it. We simply vanish into the empty nothingness of the universe. But if the Bible is true, then all of us will exist forever somewhere. Death is the end of this life, not the end of our existence.
C. The real differences among people are seen at the moment of death.
As a pastor my job requires me to officiate at many funerals each year. Most are for members of the church, but occasionally I will preside at the funeral of someone I hardly know, or perhaps have never met at all. Not long ago I spoke at the funeral for a man who died in a bar. He was only 53 or 54 years old. He evidently had a massive heart attack and died very quickly. As I looked at his body in the casket, I was amazed at how good he looked. Although the undertakers do the best job they can, most of the time dead people look stiff and cold to me. This man looked as if he had just laid down for a brief nap. As I looked at him I thought, “I hope I look that good when I’m 54 years old.” Then my second thought was, “I hope I’m still alive then.”
His funeral was basically a sad affair, with members of his family offering personal comments about his life. Many years ago he had made a profession of faith, but nothing had come of it. No one could say with certainty about the state of his heart when he died. Did he go to heaven? Only the Lord knows the answer.
For the Christian, along with sorrow comes an enormous amount of joy.
Years ago I received a phone call at 10:30 P.M.. Someone had died. Would I please call the family? Before I could pick up the phone, the mother called me. Her son had taken drugs and had died earlier that evening at St. Francis Hospital. As I got dressed to go to the home, I wondered what I would say. When I got there everyone was milling around in a state of confusion. At length the mother took me aside and through her tears she asked me the inevitable question, the question I had known was coming … “Why? Why did God let this happen to my son?”
As I recall, the young man had been a bouncer at a topless nightclub. At the funeral, I preached the gospel to row upon row of rough-looking people who seemed frightened to be in the same room with their dead friend. Afterwards the reception area was blue with cigarette smoke as if everyone lit up at the same time to calm their collective nerves.
But then I think of many other funerals I have done across the years. Without fail, whenever the time comes to bury a Christian, along with the sorrow comes an enormous amount of joy. There is triumph as the people of God rehearse the promise of God even as they lay their loved to rest.
There is a difference. It is the difference Jesus Christ makes. Nowhere is that difference more clearly seen than at the moment of death.
II. Why Abraham Purchased a Field
With that as background we turn to this fascinating story in Genesis 23. It’s begins with an account of Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief: “Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her” (vv. 1-2). We are told only two things here but they are significant. First, Sarah was 127 years old when she died, which means that she had lived approximately 37 years after Isaac was born. Second, Abraham wept when Sarah died. I appreciate this fact because it is sometimes suggested that Christians should not weep at the death of a loved one.
Some years ago I remember sharing with a friend the story of my father’s death. Even though he had died 15 years earlier, retelling the story brought tears to my eyes once again. My friend seemed embarrassed by that and proceeded to share that he had not wept at all when his father died. Family circumstances obviously differ, and each of us mourns in our own way, but the message my friend seemed to convey that day was, “Real men don’t cry.”
I don’t believe that for a minute. Abraham wept at the death of his wife, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. You and I should weep when our loved ones die.
A Slice of Ancient Life
What happens next might be called a little slice of ancient life.
Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, ‘‘I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” The Hittites replied to Abraham,‘‘Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.” Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, ‘‘If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you” (vv. 3-9).
This story tells us that after 42 years in Canaan, Abraham still don’t own any part of the Promised Land. He calls himself an “alien and a stranger” because after all those years that’s how he felt. Most Americans take things like home ownership for granted. Either we own a home or hope to someday. Not Abraham. He is an old man now, having lived through so many crisis situations. He had left prosperity in Ur of the Chaldees for an unknown future. Forty-two years later what does he have that he can call his own? The clothes on his back and not much else. He doesn’t even own a burial plot. That’s why he’s got to haggle with the Hittites. Hebrews 11:9 reminds us that “by faith he made his home in the promise land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” If there were any skeptics around when Sarah died, I’m sure they could be heard laughing in the distance. Ever since Ur Abraham had followed his God, and what had it gotten him? Not even a place to bury his wife. So now he bargains with the Hittites.
Burial Plans Matter
At first the Hittites offered to give Abraham their choicest cave as a gift since he was “a mighty prince.” But Abraham refused, partly because he understood that in Middle Eastern terms, the offer might simply have been expected hospitality with the proper response being, “Oh no, let me pay for it.” More than that, Abraham wanted a plot of land he owned so that he could lay Sarah to rest in peace and dignity.
I stop at this point to make the observation that burial plans ought to matter to the people of God. This is more than just sentiment to Abraham. Burying his wife was also a statement of his faith that someday his descendants would possess the land. God had promised it and though the fulfillment lay in the distant future, Abraham is fully convinced that God would keep his word.
Have you considered where you will be buried? Have you drawn up a will? Do you loved ones know of your wishes? Have you thought about what you want said or sung at your funeral service? These questions are important and ought to be discussed openly.
Let Make a Deal
The next few verses describe the negotiations between Ephron, leader of the Hittites and Abraham the man of God:
Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. ‘‘No, my lord,” he said. ‘‘Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.” Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, ‘‘Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.” Ephron answered Abraham, ‘‘Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead.” Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants. So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field—was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site” (vv. 10-20).
If you have ever been to the Holy Land and done any shopping, you understand exactly what is happening here. In an ever-so-polite way, Abraham and Ephron are haggling over the price of the land. When Ephron offers to give it to him, he doesn’t really mean it. It’s like a TV evangelist who says, “Send me $100 and I’ll give you this book.” Well, if you send the $100, he’s not really “giving” you anything. You bought your “gift.” If you doubt that, try not sending him the money and see what happens. I’ll guarantee that you won’t get a free book in the mail.
Lock, Stock and Barrel
But we also see here the principle of cultural adaptation. Abraham is living in a pagan culture. If he is going to do business, he must respect their practices. Now that doesn’t mean he can compromise his values, but it does mean that wherever possible, he will become “Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks,” and a Hittite to the Hittites. So he not only bows down, he also enters into this game of negotiations. He had to do it so that Ephron would know that he respected him.
Something else is happening here at a deeper level. The writer of Genesis wants to stress that Abraham bought the land legally. It was his—lock, stock and barrel. The last few verses feed almost like a deed of purchase—giving the exact location of the cave (in Machpelah neaer Mamre), the agreed-upon price (400 shekels of silver), the precise dimensions of the property (the cave, the field, and the trees in the field), and the witnesses (all the Hittites who watched this transaction. Only then does Abraham bury Sarah. Even then there is a final statement of location, this time mentioning Hebron and Canaan, and a final statement that the Hittites had deeded the land to Abraham as a burial site.
Living by faith and taking care of business are not mutually exclusive.
One commentator makes the useful point that we Christians could learn something from the people of thee world about how to do business. Too often we are sloppy about details when we ought to very precise. We think a handshake is enough. Or we say, “Let’s not worry about the fine print.” But it’s the fine print that gets us in trouble. Living by faith and taking care of business are not mutually exclusive. If “the devil is in the details,” then the course of wisdom would be not to sign anything until we’ve checked and re-checked the details and run the devil out of there.
III. How Death Can Be a Testimony
Having said all that, one still wonders why so much space is taken up with the story of this transaction. Why was this so important to Abraham and later to Moses who wrote Genesis 400 years later?
The answer is that Sarah lived and died in faith. Although she left Ur at Abraham’s side, she never possessed the promised land. She—like Abraham—was still a “stranger” and an “alien” at the moment of her death. What will happen now?
Sarah lived and died in faith.
Warren Wiersbe answers that question:
When Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah for a tomb, he was making a statement of faith to all who were there. He did not take Sarah back to their former home in Ur but buried her in the land God had given him and his descendants. He did not ignore the body but gave it a proper burial in view of the promise resurrection. (Be Obedient, p. 131)
In fact, by the time you get to the end of Genesis, Abraham’s tomb is very full. Sarah is buried there, along with Abraham, Isaac, Rebakah, and Leah. Then Jacob’s body was brought back from Egypt and buried there as well. Why? Certainly it was because the members of the family wanted to be together in death as in life. But more than that, Abraham and his descendants were proclaiming their faith that someday God would give them the land he had promised.
The Work Goes On
Think of it this way. When you die, the only piece of property you will own will be a plot in a cemetery. Everything else will belong to someone else. You get a box and a piece of dirt. That’s it. The rest is divided up.
It has been well said that God buries his workers but his work goes on. We who believe come on stage for awhile then we shuffle off to be replaced by someone else. But the drama of God’s redemption goes on and on and on.
Death does not exhaust the promises of God! That’s why Paul could say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Years ago I heard Stanley Collins, then director of the Forest Home Conference Center in California, tell a story from his days with the British Army in World War II. One day he and another soldier came upon an unexploded land mine. Later that night he nearly passed out when he walked into the barracks and found his buddy resting his head on the same mine. Then he discovered that his buddy had removed the firing pin, rendering the land mine harmless. What had been an instrument of destruction had become a pillow for a weary soldier.
Even so, Jesus has taken the sting out of death and given us victory over the grave. Abraham’s tomb is still full to this day but Jesus’ tomb has been empty for 2000 years.
Abraham and Us
In many ways we stand exactly where Abraham stood 4000 years ago. The people of God still die one by one. I still do funerals every year for people I know and love. Like Abraham, we too have not received the fulfillment of everything God has promised for us. And the point of Genesis 23 is still true today. We die, but the promises of God live on after us.
For all the wonderful things that we have experienced at the hand of the Lord, we still must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Our hope is this. That He who has seen us this far will not abandon us when we need him most. He will be with us when we must cross the dark Jordan. He will personally escort to the mansions of eternal light.
Cheer up, child of God. Smile through your tears. Death is the worst that can happen to us. The best is yet to come.