Reading Time: 12 minutes

When a child dies

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Samuel 12:13-25

A little girl noticed some gray hair on her mother’s head and asked, “Why are some of your hairs white?” Her mother replied, “Every time you do something wrong, one of my hairs turns white.” The little girl thought about her answer for a moment and then asked, “Mom, how come all of grandma’s hairs are white?”

A teacher was teaching her class about the circulation of blood and said, “If I stood on my head, the blood would run into it and I would turn red in the face.” “Yes,” the class said. “Then why is it that while I am standing in the ordinary position, the blood doesn’t run into my feet?” A little boy in the back of the room shouted, “‘Cause your feet ain’t empty.”

The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Christian school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of applies. A teacher made a note: “Take only one—God is watching.” Further along the lunch line was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note: “Take all you want—God is watching the apples.”

Despite the challenge they can be, children are our greatest joy and privilege. Our church loves children, making Vacation Bible School (which starts Monday) one of our favorite weeks of the year.

We love our children, and we assume that God does also. So the issue we must face today is the hardest question parents ask: why do children die? What do we do when we lose a child? Where is God then? How are we to trust a God who allows or even causes such a tragedy?

We’ll discuss David’s child first, then look at what Scripture says about our children and their heavenly Father today.

Why did David’s child die?

Remember the tragic, adulterous sin of David and Bathsheba. Now the Lord, speaking through his prophet Nathan, tells David that the child of their sexual union will die.

David will not die, even though the sin was his—”The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die” (v. 13).

Why? Because David confessed his sin in repentance (cf. Psalm 51:3-4, 10). And God forgave him for it, a gift David celebrated for the rest of his life (cf. Psalm 32:1-2).

But what of the innocent child of their sinful union?

I’d like to be able to tell you that their baby’s death was a simple coincidence, that the Lord had nothing to do with it. But the text won’t allow me to teach this interpretation.

The Lord knows that their unborn child is a boy, though there were no sonograms to discover this fact. And he knows that the child will soon die. Note that Nathan does not say God will kill the child, but that it will die as a consequence of David’s sin. Perhaps the child was born with a terminal condition which the Lord would not heal. Perhaps the Lord’s role was more direct and causal. Either way, clearly God could have prevented the death of this innocent baby, but he did not.

Why? Why did David’s son die? Here is the data supplied by our text.

David’s sin was larger than he knew: “by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt” (v. 14). Apparently his “private” sin would be private no longer. And the pagan enemies of the Lord and his people would be able to show contempt for Jehovah God.

If this God permits his king to commit such atrocity, he’s no different from Molech, the god to whom the Canaanites offered child sacrifices, or Baal and Ashtoreth, worshiped with adulterous sexual sin. One of the abiding tragedies of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal is the way it has made America look in the eyes of the Muslim world. So it was with David and his sin.

The Lord could simply punish David with death, and so vindicate his righteousness before the watching world. But David has responded to his sin with confession and repentance, and the God of grace has promised to forgive every sin we confess to him.

So the Lord cannot kill David for his sin, but must redeem his righteousness before the world. The death of the child of David’s sin will do just that—it will show the watching world that Israel’s Lord is indeed a God of righteousness—that sins have consequences with him. And I would imagine that David considered the death of his son a worse consequence than his own death, by far. I would. So would you.

What does God think of children?

So, is the text saying that the Lord permitted or even caused the death of David’s son in order to redeem his own name among the nations? Before we finalize our answer, let’s ask a second question: what does God think of children? How does his word view them?

The great miracle of the Incarnation is not that God would enter the world he made. As Creator, he had every right to visit his creation. The great miracle was that he would do so as a baby. Rather than appear among us in his heavenly status, the Lord Jesus chose to become a fetus, then a newborn, helpless infant. The hands that held the stars were sheltered in a mother’s arms. Christmas tells us what God thinks of children.

Jesus made clear his feelings on the subject in two separate incidents.

The first was his response to his disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). He knew they needed to see the answer more than hear it, so “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'” (vs. 2-3). The “greatest” in God’s kingdom is the one who is most like a child.

Later some mothers brought their children to Jesus, seeking his blessing (a typical custom with a visiting, famous rabbi). His disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (Matthew 19:13), so Jesus rebuked them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (v. 14).

Why does God allow children to die?

Why, then, does this God allow our children to die?

The Bible explains why God allows death itself in these simple words: “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). In the Garden of Eden there was no disease or death. But now God permits physical death so we can step from our earthly bodies into heavenly ones. As much as we despise death, can you imagine living forever in your fallen, diseased, sin-plagued body?

This biblical concept makes sense to us when the one who dies is elderly, having lived a full earthly life. Or when his death is the direct result of his own decisions, as when a person chooses to drink and drive, and dies in an accident. But why does God allow death for children? They are innocent of any wrongdoing, and have not yet lived long enough to justify their homegoing.

If the only text we had in Scripture on our question was the passage before us, we might conclude that children die for the sins of their parents. I’ll admit that this text troubles me more than any other in Scripture. I understand that God had to redeem his name among the nations. But I don’t understand why he had to use an innocent baby to do it. I wish he’d found another way. I don’t like what this text says, or understand it.

But I am glad to say quickly that this is the only place in God’s Word where such a tragic event occurs. And that its circumstances are unrepeatable today. There can be no king of the Jews today, the leader of God’s only people, a man whose sins could bring disrepute on the Kingdom of God across the pagan world. This event cannot happen again.

Note that the text nowhere states that God deals with other children as he did with David’s son. This text is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Here we judge the difficult in light of the clear. And the Bible clearly states, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4; cf. 2 Kings 14:6). For our sins, not those of anyone else. Today children die from diseases which are part of this fallen world. Or they die in tragic accidents which occur in this fallen world. Or as victims of tragically misused free will, a common occurrence in this fallen world. But not because God ends their lives.

And when a child dies, it is clear that he or she is with the Father in heaven.

The Bible does teach that we inherit Adam’s fallen nature, so that we all possess an inherent tendency toward sin (Romans 5:19).

So then, if a child dies before reaching an age when he or she can understand the gospel and respond to it by faith, what happens? To claim that inherited original sin places a child outside the possibility of eternal life is to reject Jesus’ clear affirmation of the children brought to him.

Our Lord made children his best example of faith and the Kingdom of God. It is clear that a child who has not yet rejected the gospel will not be judged by God as though he has. Instead, he will be with his Father in heaven.

Even as the Father is with those who lose such a precious child. In heaven there is no such thing as “time,” so it will be only a moment for children before they see their parents again. They know nothing of the pain, the separation, the sorrow we feel. They know only the joy of paradise with God. As will we, with them, for eternity.

Conclusion

So, what are we to do when a child dies? David chose to trust God with his son. We have wrestled with the most difficult sentence in the life of David. Let’s close by claiming the most hopeful sentence he uttered. Speaking of his deceased newborn son, the king said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (v. 23). David knew that his son was safe with God. He knew that he would see him again one day. He knew he could trust his child into his Father’s arms, and himself as well.

David chose to serve God, to continue life in the call and will of his Lord.

He had spent seven days fasting for his son, praying that his life would be spared. He spent the evenings in prayer outside the palace, lying prostrate on the ground. But when his son was taken home, “David got up from the ground.” Then “he washed, put on lotions, and changed his clothes” (v. 20). He could have spent the rest of his life in grief. Instead, he moved forward with hope.

His life would never be the same again. Losing a child is not a broken bone which heals and leaves no scar. The rest of his story would forever be different from that which had gone before. But his life could still be good. There would be Solomon, not to replace the son who died, but to continue life. There would be a nation to lead, people to defend, a legacy to continue. A life of service to offer.

And David chose to worship God. He went into the tent where he had located the Ark of the Covenant, where he “worshiped” (v. 20). Where he honored God despite his questions, his pain, his grief. He didn’t turn from the One he most needed, when he most needed him.

When my father died, the book which helped me most was John Claypool’s now-classic Tracks of a Fellow Struggler. He was a Baptist pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, when his eight-year-old daughter, Laura Lue, was diagnosed with leukemia. The book reprints the sermons he preached around her diagnosis and eventual death. His first sermon was delivered eleven days after the diagnosis came. Here’s how it ends:

“I was deeply moved this week by an observation of Dr. George Buttrick concerning the Dead Sea in Palestine. Again and again as a sermon illustration I have heard the Dead Sea compared unfavorably to the Sea of Galilee, which is fresh and sparkling and full of fish, while the Dead Sea is salty and no fish can live in it. The usual point is that the Jordan River flows through the Sea of Galilee, but only flows into the Dead Sea because there is no outlet.

“Dr. Buttrick concedes the truth of this point about life through giving but then goes on to identify another truth of which I had never thought. He claims the Dead Sea does have an outlet—the upward one, toward the sky. Across the centuries as it has surrendered itself to the sun, a residue of potash has built up and remains along its shores. Potash…is a main ingredient of fertilizer. Engineers have estimated that if the potash around the Dead Sea could be mixed and distributed, there would be enough there to fertilize the whole surface of the earth for at least five years. The point is, life never comes to a complete dead end. When no outlet is open except surrender to the sky in helplessness, even this response is not without its positive residue, for out of it can come the miracle of new life.

“So this is my intention: I will do all I can, stay open and hopeful at every point, and finally surrender my burden to the sky.”

Let’s join him.