Ministering to Those Who Mourn, Part 1

Republished from Baptist Bulletin March/April 2017 with permission. © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.

by James Saxman

Lonely is the home without you,
Life to us is not the same,
All the world would be like heaven,
If we could have you back again. – Anonymous

And she said unto them, “Do not call me Naomi [pleasant]; call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).


The Bible has a great deal to say regarding the topics of grief and mourning. About 20 Hebrew words translated into our English Bibles are some form of the word grieve. Though the occurrences in the New Testament are less frequent than in the Old, Christians are certainly not excluded from grief. They cannot but feel sorrow and be moved by grief. In both the Old and New Testaments, God Himself is said to be susceptible to grief (Isa. 63:10 Heb. 4:15). In the Garden of Gethsemane, the “Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3) told His disciples that His soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death (Matt. 26:38).

Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us there is a time for weeping and mourning appointed under Heaven. Grief is distinguished from mourning in that grief is a feeling of mental distress, while mourning is the outward manifestation of sorrow. Mourning is the way in which an individual, in dealing with the universal experience of loss, adapts from what was to what is. The Bible identifies many situations that bring about grief and mourning: defection (1 Sam. 15:35), disobedience (Ezra 9:4–7), desolation (Joel 1:9–10), defeat (Rev. 18:11), discouragement (Ps. 42:9), disappointment (Lam. 1:4), disease (Job 2:5–8), wicked rule (Prov. 29:2), misinformation (Gen. 37:31–35), invasion (Joel 1:1–9), politics (1 Sam. 16:1), the reading of the law (Neh. 8:9), and end-time judgment (Rev. 18:1–8). As our own experiences teach us, so the Bible declares that grief and mourning come in many ways and for many occasions.

Most Old Testament uses of the terms for grief/mourning deal with the death of a loved one. Abraham went to weep and mourn for Sarah (Gen. 23:2); the sons of Israel wept for 30 days at the death of Moses (Deut. 34:8); King David led a day of lament for the death of Abner (2 Sam. 3:1ff.); Bathsheba mourned over Uriah (2 Sam. 11:26). And in a lavish display of the wealth of Egypt, Joseph ordered the people of the land to mourn 60 days in honor of his father, Jacob. This was followed by one of the most elaborate funeral processions described in Scripture as the Children of Israel moved out of Egypt to bury the patriarch in the land of Canaan. So elaborate was the spectacle that it left a lasting memory on those of other countries who, when they saw it, immediately recognized the “deep mourning of the Egyptians” (Gen. 50:1–14).

Another feature of Near Eastern (Biblical) mourning was the careful observances of prescribed ceremonies. The Israelite mourner would have been readily identified through any number of the following customs and practices of his day: rending (tearing) of the clothes (Gen. 37:29), sackcloth (2 Sam. 3:31), ashes (2 Sam. 13:9), sad-colored garments (2 Sam. 14:2), removal of ornaments (Deut. 21:23), shaving the head or plucking the beard (Job 1:20), naked and barefoot (Isa. 20:2), fasting or abstinence (2 Sam. 1:12), diminution of offering to God (Deut. 26:14), covering the head (2 Sam. 15:30), cutting the flesh (Jer. 16:6), the hiring of professional mourners (Amos 5:16), wailing women (Jer. 17), customary lamentation with friends (Judges 11:40; Job 2:11), sitting in silence (Job 2:13), the cup of consolation (Jer. 16:7–8), a designated period of time for mourning (Gen. 50:3). We see from these examples that working through the loss of an individual was a process requiring personal involvement and adherence to certain prescribed customs.

A lack of proper burial was regarded in ancient times as a great indignity. Even malefactors were to be allowed a hasty “proper burial” (Deut. 21:22–23). For a corpse to remain unburied and become food for beasts of prey was the epitome of judgment (1 Kings 13:21–22; Ps. 79:3). Ordinary graves were marked by the heaping of crude stones. In some cases, costly pillars were set up as memorials to the dead (2 Kings 23:17).

Clearly the large number of references to death, burial, grief, and mourning in Holy Writ is given to us to draw our attention to the fact that caring for the dead and dramatically taking the time to mourn the death of individuals is something that God does not overlook.

How Should We Then Mourn?

With the model of Biblical Israel set before us, we turn our attention to the present.

Loss is a common occurrence. It happens to everyone at some time or another. With loss come grief and mourning. In this experience, we are no different from those who have gone before us. Though cultural customs change from place to place and era to era, we all continue to work our way through loss as best we can.

When deprivation takes place, grief is a normal emotional response. We lose something or someone we have cherished and do not want taken from us. Not long ago I was robbed of my Taylor 810 acoustic guitar. The guitar retailed for $3,500. Added to that, it was an “early model” that I had broken in over 20 years so that it played like velvet. It was sweet. It was a part of me, and I experienced the pangs of grief and mourning in a way I had never experienced prior to that terrible day.

Now ramp it up. Death is the most extreme form of deprivation. We not only lose the person we have loved, but we sense that we are losing an important part of our own well-being. We might reason that people should be prepared for this experience, since so much of life involves loss. For example, any time we make a choice, we are giving up one alternative (loss) to take the other. When individuals lose intimate relationships, we expect them to display hurt, sorrow, and tears. As a rule, the depth of the grief a person experiences is commensurate to the intimacy of the relationship: When the man down the street dies, we demonstrate social concern and express our condolences. When our loved one dies, we cry. To express grief then is an expected reaction to the experience of deprivation. In counseling, it is good to remind those who are grieving a loss that what they are going through is quite normal.

James Saxman is pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Tacoma, Wash., and author of Memorializing the Dead/Preaching to the Living: A Resource Manual for Christian Clergy. Portions of this article were extracted from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (James Orr, gen. ed.; Eerdmans); Understanding Mourning: A Guide for Those Who Grieve (Glen W. Davidson, Augsburg Press); and Grief Counseling and Therapy (J. William Worden, Springer Publishing).

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