The Land of the Living

“He’s no longer in the land of the living,” we say with great solemnity as we pronounce that our friend has fallen asleep on the sofa.

It’s a phrase we use fairly commonly, either to mean prosaically, “they’re dead”—which is actually uncommon because we prefer cleaner euphemisms that hide the reality entirely—or to refer to someone who is asleep.

We get that idiom of death and sleep being related from the Bible, though it plays the other way around in the Old Testament, with the dead being referred to as asleep. Like all idioms it hints at more than it shows, because only a culture with a profound ungirding belief in the resurrection of the dead would refer to the dead as sleeping.

We also get the phrase the “land of the living” from the Bible. I count 15 Old Testament occurrences of the word land (אֶ֫רֶץ) with the word living or alive (חַי). Which is not that surprising, the Authorised Version, which most of us know as the KJV, has had an incredibly large impact on the English language over the last 400 years.

Here’s the kicker, I’m not convinced the phrase “land of the living” means the same thing in Hebrew as we take it to mean in English.

Which is always a thought worth exploring. In fact, as those 15 references cross five different books of the Bible it’s possible that they don’t all use the term the same way, but we should always assume that those written later would be very aware of how the term was used in earlier parts of the Bible.

Why am I not convinced?

Hebrew has plenty of ways to say ‘alive,’ without the poetic flourish about the land added in. Which on its own we could dismiss as poetic language, especially in the Psalms, that is then picked up by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. We could, but we shouldn’t. The Bible’s authors are often poetic and use the heights of rhetoric available to them to express the heart of God in beautiful language, and every flourish has purpose and meaning. There are no spare words.

So, what does it mean? My contention is that the land of the living is the New Jerusalem, and that it is us who live in the land of the dying.

We will need to nuance this a little along the way, but the first thing that should clue us in is the use of the word land. A very common word in the Old Testament, from the first sentence onwards (literally: from the head God created the sky and the land), and a word that as the story develops seems to change meaning.

Early on in the Torah we find ‘land’ referring to all that God has made unless it is modified, for example, the ‘land of Egypt.’ Later the ‘land’ without reference is more likely to refer to Israel as originally given to the Hebrews by Yahweh, “The Land” as though it has capital letters. It’s almost a proper name.

So, we have it modified by ‘living,’ where is this place? The place of the dead in the Old Testament is never referred to as a ‘land,’ which is of course because it’s under the ground. It’s the grave, even if ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ while the part of it for the righteous dead is not specifically unpleasant, even that is a place of waiting. It seems unlikely then that the dichotomy between a place of the living and a place of the dead is what’s in mind. More than that, using a New Testament cosmology, to refer to the heavens or the intermediate state as the land of the dead is all backwards. Life is where God is.

Of all the possible lands, which is the most likely to be the one where the living are? On first glance we would think that Israel is. This is the land where people who are made alive live.

Except, that’s New Testament language for a reality that Old Testament Israel were still waiting for. A land of the living? Have we heard of such a thing?

What else do we learn:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

Isaiah 53:8

Christ is considered to be cut off out from it, this seems like stronger language than simply speaking of death. He is considered cursed (Galatians 3) by his generation because he hangs on a tree. I think it’s reasonable to see being cut out of the land of the living as being cut off from the age to come, the land of goodness and life.

We see similar language in Jeremiah 11.19, where a tree with fruit is cut off. At first glance the tree is Israel, and that will be what Jeremiah first meant, but when we read with New Testament eyes and see that the tree is Christ and think about what the tree is, we will see it differently.

We also read that it is the land where you can see Yahweh (Isaiah 38.11), which we know is not what happens on this dying world. You get to see the goodness of God (Psalm 27.13), which in the flow of the Psalm seems to be more than blessings to be enjoyed in this life.

You can be uprooted from it (Psalm 52.5), which considering Psalm 1 gives us a tree analogy as the introduction to the Psalms, suggests something different to death, but being removed from the stream of water, the law of Yahweh. In Psalm 116.8-9 it is paralleled with our souls being saved from death and is a place we can walk before Yahweh, and God is our portion in it (Psalm 142.5)—as in we come to possess the land because of God.

It seems really forced to me to assume that these are just poetic references to our current life. So far, they sound like either references to Israel, or a restored Israel in a new creation.

The other references complicate this a bit, as Job 28.13 suggests wisdom cannot be found there (which points the other way unless it’s a very veiled reference to the tree of wisdom, which is possible), and six of the seven references in Ezekiel refer to God spreading terror in the land of the living. Which, sort of rules out the restored Israel a bit.

Except, does it? I think this later group of references refer to the land of the living as the land the people of God had been given to inherit. Which is to say that they, especially considering the books they are from, are disillusioned with Israel’s inability to be a living people and speak proleptically of Israel as the land of the living. It’s what they’re supposed to be, and will be again.

Which is very much not the same thing as thinking it means ‘alive.’ And then, when we read references to Israel, we should consider the extent to which these statements are also true of the church, and particularly of the new creation and new Jerusalem to come.

The church is the outpost of the land of the living in the dying world, a little snippet of life caught in the Between, living in the Twixt, as we are a people pulled between Life and Death. We get an authentic vision of the Land of the Living, we get to walk with the Lord (with a limp) and see him (through a glass darkly), and we see the goodness of God (both near and far off).

Most importantly, we are the people that know the way there, to the land of the living, where all the tears will be shed and then cease, and when sorrow will finally end, exhausted of all its burrs. The Christ was cut off from it so that we will not be, and rose victoriously to be our guide to its narrow way.

Which is good news. And makes more sense of the world we live in—it is dying, torn between outrageous beauty and the stinking foul odour of putrefying flesh. If you’ve lived here a while you know what I mean. But this isn’t the end, there’s a land so alive that they call it the land of the living.

Let’s go there, friends.

Photo by Federico Respini on Unsplash

To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

Would you like to support my work? The best thing you can do is share this post with your friends. Why not consider also joining my Patreon to keep my writing free for everyone. You can see other ways to support me here.