7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
There is more to say about this word swallow. The word translated ‘destroy’ in the first half of the line is the same word as ‘swallow’ in the second half. And while it sounds odd to say God would swallow the shroud, it makes perfect sense to say he will destroy death.
This word swallow brings some interesting images to bear on the message of the text. Pharaoh’s dream has the thin heads of grain ‘swallowing’ the fat ones. When the Egyptian priests mimic the trick of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake, “Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” In the song of Moses, when the people sing of the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, they declare: “You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them.” And in this phrase we begin to hear the link between swallowing and destroying.
The earth opens up to ‘swallow’ the followers of Korah’s rebellion, and a careful look at the text reveals that they were ‘swallowed’ not just by dirt, but by the realm of the dead:
“32The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (Numbers 16:32-33)
So when the prophet declares that God “will swallow up death” it begs the question – is death itself being taken down into the realm of death, or is death being taken into the realm of life? Is death itself being engulfed in the life of God?
We know death as an enemy. We experience it not merely as the cessation of biological processes, but as a power that pursues and steals and destroys. My cousin battled a brain cancer. His surgery involved three teams of doctors and nearly 24 hours to dislodge the tentacles woven around his spinal column and into his brain. When he recovered from that surgery, he was given a reprieve. He seemed free for a while. But then the symptoms returned – and the treatments – until his speech and thought began to be disrupted. It was as if death stalked him.
I had a friend in seminary who persuaded me to join him in his running at the local track. One day he confided that he didn’t run for fun; he was afraid to die. Death in the form of heart disease stalked his family.
Death stalks all of us. It is too scary a thought, so we push it out of our consciousness or flippantly resign to it. But we know it is there waiting to claim us. Those who live among barrel bombs and refugees know its presence. Perhaps the prevalence of zombie shows reflect our fear that death stalks us. We fear what’s in our foods or in our carpets or radiating through our walls. We fear cancers and strangers. We fear our fears.
But to us, the fearful, comes this remarkable promise that a feast is coming and God will swallow up death. A kind or reverse sinkhole. Instead of our being sucked down into the realm of the dead, the realm of the dead is sucked up into the realm of heaven, into the realm of grace and life, into the world of dry bones made alive and the hopeless filled with hope, into the realm of the lost found and the forsaken embraced. Into the world of sins forgiven and bodies raised to life. Into the realm of water turned to wine and tears to joy. Into the world of resurrection.
We are invited to live this promise. To live as those who know that what is lost will be found, what is given will be gained, what is laid down will be taken up. Even death is to be engulfed in life.
We are not stalked by death; we are sought by him who is the resurrection and the life.