How do you maintain hope, joy and desire when you are staring down the barrel of old age? What do you do when you have reached the summit of physical and mental fitness? Growing older means moving from either hope to hope or else from hope to despair.
The Bible is realistic about ageing. And so Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12:1,
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
As far as Solomon was concerned, the Creator has set the pattern for our lives. He calls the past to account (Ecclesiastes 3:15) and He gives every good thing for enjoyment, including His word in order to protect your hope and joy.
The exhortation to remember in Ecclesiastes 12:1 is a reminder to enjoy life’s goodness at a time when we are most likely to forget – near life’s end.
Solomon emphasises life’s end with a poem. And, like all good poetry, it is meant to be felt, not overly analysed, chopped or diced.
Notice the succession of images in Ecclesiastes 12:1-8.
Nightfall, cloudy days, rain and a great house decline. This is the reality of old age. We become frail. The legs grow weak, the teeth fall out and the eyes lose their twinkle. The room becomes quiet, the dance begins to slow, the voices dim and the songs fade away.
Death is a shattered lamp, a broken bowl, and a broken wheel at the cistern. And, recalling Abel, whose name means, vapour or breath, and is the word often translated vanity or meaningless in Ecclesiastes, man is dust and his life is but a vapour. A mist.
The translation of vanity or meaningless is unfortunate. Abel’s life was not meaningless, it was fleeting. It was a mere breath, but it was not vanity. Likewise, growing is hard, but it is not hopeless.
The western world has no solution to old age, except to shuffle the elderly to one side and occupy them with pudding and reruns of the Weakest Link.
But for those whose hope is in God, growing old is central to God’s plan of adorning not only our own lives but the lives of others, with the gospel.
For those who are getting old, the hope of the gospel is not darkness, but greater light.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. (Proverbs 4:18)
Since the house is falling down, and we are foolish to pretend it isn’t, what age needs, and what the Bible calls for, is not an anti-wrinkle cream but faith. And so, if we are to navigate our way through the last chapter of our lives in this old house we will need to walk by faith, not by sight.
This makes sense once we acknowledge the inescapable truth that we are heading somewhere.
If you are heading toward darkness, you should expect things to be getting darker right about now. And along with the darkness will come all those things associated with it. Bitterness. Coldness. Hardness and the increasing absence of joy and hope.
If we are heading towards the light, then, despite what we see or feel, things are looking pretty good.
This does not mean that there is no hardship, pain and trouble both in mind and body. But it does mean that the closer you get to the last day, the brighter, the stronger, the more steady the light, and therefore the brighter and clearer the things it shines upon, ought to be.
For believers, the result in old age is not withering desire but maturing desire.
Such is the desire we are to cultivate in old Age. A desire for more of Christ than we already have.
Not only does the bible anticipate greater light as the days grow old, but also a greater witness.
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:17-18)
With greater light comes greater wisdom and therefore, the Bible anticipates a better witness, even in – or perhaps precisely because of – the apparent weakness of old age.
Here we see the righteous desire of the elderly. A desire to tell a future generation about Jesus. A desire that is sustained by God who holds you up, now more than ever (Isaiah 46:3-4).
This witness is especially directed at the young in scripture. And so, older women were to instruct the younger women in godliness, homemaking and honour. Likewise, older men were to instruct and be a witness to, the younger men in sobriety, wisdom and godly maturity (Titus 2:2-10, 1 Timothy 2:8-9).
For Paul, and the other authors of scripture, growing old is not a time for idleness and despair. You know what the next 20, 30 or 50yrs will look like for the young people around you and it is on your shoulders to mother and father those youngsters in the faith.
This is counter-cultural. But it is right, good and pleasing in God’s sight that you should not spend the last chapter of your life staring at obituaries and smoking the lint from your belly button.
An elder is, by definition, an older man and the Gospel anticipates that both men and women in their later years will be not only glowing bright with hope as they draw nearer to Christ but that they will be at the front of the queue in instructing the younger generation in their midst.
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The other thing about old age in scripture is this: Christians will often disparage the pleasures of life because they are, “vanity” or, “vapour”. We tell people to focus on the eternal stuff, the spiritual things.
But Solomon comes to quite a different conclusion (Ecclesiastes 11:8-9).
It is just because work and life are vapour we must enjoy them thoroughly while we have them. Do you like to read? The time is coming when you will not be able to. Do you like to dance? The time is coming when you can’t.
Do you like to eat and feast? A time is coming when the grinders will fail and taste will be gone.
Disparaging these things while you have them is the mark of a fool. It is a mark of unbelief and ingratitude towards the Creator who gave them to you for your pleasure and our instruction.
And this applies also to the wisdom He has given you in your old age, should you choose to keep it to yourself and take no delight in telling the coming generation.
We will, barring early death, grow old. It’s not easy, but nor is it fruitless or darkness or despair to those who see in drawing nearer to Christ the satisfaction of their souls.