Old age comes suddenly upon us. No one knows that better than old people (Psalm 37:25, Hosea 7:9). Sorrow and sickness, loneliness and despair often accompany advancing years.
No one can ignore or remove the problems that old age brings. But Christians share God’s best in life, even in old age. Old age from a biblical perspective is life transformed, life renewed, life filled with blessings and opportunities. In fact, a man can even be born again when he is old (John 3:4).
Old age at its best is a time of wisdom and faith. “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). Proverbs 4:1 calls upon the young to heed the wisdom of those who are older. The elders among us have the great advantage of experience and the perspective of years. They can bring into any discussion, into life itself, views and wisdom not influenced unduly by excited passion or momentary impulse. Youth needs that kind of balance.
How unwise to ignore the wisdom of old age. One of the kings of Israel did so. “The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men…” (1 Kings 12:13-14). As a result a kingdom was divided, decimated, almost destroyed.
Faith also marks the best of old age. A larger experience in Christ confirms the truth cherished for many years. Such faith has survived doubts and challenges; it has been refined in the fire. Out of the struggle, not always victorious, against temptation, it emerges stronger.
Of course, length of years does not necessarily bring depth of wisdom and faith (Ecclesiastes 4:13). Years are filled with opportunity and accountability. Some old people may only have achieved a greater proportion of guilt as they near the judgment of God. But at its best old age is a time of wisdom and faith.
God wants old people to share their wisdom and faith. Exodus 10:2 is a command to grandparents: “…that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.” They were to relate to their grandchildren the story of God’s great deliverance.
God did not command that old people should tell of their achievements, what they had done. They were to recite to the next generation, the faithfulness and power of God. What an experience it is to hear shut-ins, people suffering, people in pain, people near death tell of the God of Israel and of Jesus who remains faithful (Hebrews 13:8).
Old age at its best, therefore, is a time of recollection and reflection. When Samuel was old, he spoke to the people of Israel, “As for me, I am old and gray, and my sons are here with you. I have been your leader from my youth until this day” (1 Samuel 12:2). Then he recounted some of the experiences of his life. God’s faithfulness was worth remembering. God had blessed him and guided God’s man into His own will.
Of course, old age must be more than a living in the past, a remembering of happier years now long gone. The Bible speaks of going on from “strength to strength.” The joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies of the years become building blocks on which to construct the present and anticipate the future. But what a blessing to share the joys and exuberance of the psalmist: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago” (Psalm 77:11).
Old age is a time of respect, according to the biblical pattern. The writer of Proverbs 23:22 commands the younger generation: “Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” Moses directed the people of God to have high regard for their elders, virtually equating such an attitude with true worship: “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). Visualize the reception the king gave his mother (1 Kings 2:19).
Old people should understand that such respect from younger people is not automatic (Proverbs 16:31). When Paul wrote to Philemon, he claimed authority as “Paul – an old man,” but it was Paul, not just anybody. His life and his relationship to Philemon had been worthy of respect and honor from others. Old age at its best is virtuous old age, and possession of godliness should accompany the claim of respect.
It will be only small comfort to older people today to know that they are not the first to be denied the respect of the young. Others before them have been the subject of ridicule and abuse: “…Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. ‘Go on up, you baldhead!’ they said. ‘Go on up, you baldhead’” (2 Kings 2:23).
Lack of respect for the elderly is a sign of a nation in upheaval. Isaiah speaks of such a people under the judgment of God, a nation about to be destroyed: “People will oppress each other – man against man, neighbor against neighbor. The young will rise up against the old, the base against the honorable….Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling…” (Isaiah 3:5, 8).
Old age is also a time for a proper view of death. Christians are free to speak of death. In fact they must do so, for their God and His Son offer resources to face all of life, even the great reality of death. Others may avoid the subject; some may even fear to use the word. How foolish to ignore a sequence that has universal experience to substantiate it – birth, youth, maturity, old age, death. After old age comes death.
Death is not nothing. But it is also not horrible, not for the Christian. It is rather a thing of joy. In calm meditation old age can be a time of getting ready for a meeting with Jesus, you and He both fully alive. What a shame it would be to waste old age on the young. Hear Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Old age at its best is also a time of youthful vigor. Other “strengths” may fail, but the grace of God endures and can be realized in greater abundance. “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31). While the outward man grows weak, the inner man can be renewed day by day.
A youthful outlook is not the privilege only of the young. In the midst of advancing years, in fact just before his death, Moses gave a stirring farewell message to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 4). He called them to live in the present, a day of privilege (vs. 4), advantage (vss. 8, 20), warning (vs. 26) and commitment (vss. 29-30). The love of Jesus is indeed “sweeter as the years go by.” Old age can be a time of renewed vitality, of spiritual vigor.
But old age, like any age, is also a time of service. “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree…. They will still bear fruit in old age…” (Psalm 92:12-15). Some challenges cannot be accepted; physical energy is just not available. But other service, often more valuable, can be rendered toward the close of life. Joshua in younger years had served in espionage, as Moses’ lieutenant, as an heroic warrior. But at the end of the book of Joshua, the last chapter of his life, he stands in dignity and serenity to render a high spiritual service to his God and people. For Joshua the best was last. God is not through using His people just because they happen to be old.
What can older people do? Pray. Tell your minister that you count it a privilege to pray for the needs of which he may be aware. Visit. Who is there better able to call on older people, to minister to shut-ins, to visit those in retirement homes, to do evangelism among the old and lonely? Read to children in a day-care center. Help one morning a week with a young mother in your church or with the caregiver of an elderly person. Volunteer for something.
Stand with Rabbi Ben Ezra and say, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first was made….” Pray with the Psalmist: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, ’til I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18)