by James W. Alexander
aged believer consoled by God's promise
"For this God is our God forever and ever! He will be our guide even unto death!" Psalm 48:14
Holy Scripture takes cognizance of the various circumstances and stages of man's life, and we should do the like when we use the pen for the consolation of Christ's suffering people. To the young we often have to address ourselves in cautions fitted to rebuke the expectant excesses of hope. But to the aged, our task is more in the way of cheering, for which the gospel makes ample provision. If their number is small, their demand upon our sympathy and love is not the less imperative. Besides the claim which they make upon us as frequent sufferers, they are repeatedly and earnestly commended to our reverence in the word of God; and any volume of consolation would be strikingly defective from which their case should be left out.
'Length of days' is a scriptural blessing, and was eminently such under the Hebrew theocracy, where earthly benefits were the perpetual type of spiritual favors. As death was a penalty, so the shortening of man's days was a token of God's anger towards the race; and under every dispensation the hoary head is a crown of glory to the righteous.
Longevity, which in the case of the wicked only aggravates sin, and its awful reckoning; affords to true believers a longer term of useful service and holy example, increased proficiency in gifts and graces, and a corresponding recompense. Old age has its appropriate beauty, no less than youth. To the eye which can wisely discern, there is a mature loveliness in the "shock of corn that comes in its season." Thus we contemplate the kindly decline of the ancient patriarchs with a filial veneration, and in our own circle turn with a healthful delight from the gayeties of inexperienced youth, to the father and the mother "whose ripe experience does attain to somewhat of prophetic strain;" so that I envy not him who does not often love to draw near the sequestered corner that is honored by the chair of reverend wisdom and graceful piety, where the wearied ancient or the cherished matron sits enthroned in the affections of an observant filial group. Yet while this period of life has its deserved honors, it has its TRIALS likewise.
First among the ills of old age is infirmity of body. "Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away." Even if previous life has been exempt from bodily pain and weakness, the season of decline is usually visited with manifold diseases, some of which are peculiar to old age. Burdens which were scarcely felt in the mid-day pilgrimage, are apt to become intolerable torments towards the evening shadows. Scattered over the church and the world, there are thousands of people in their respective nooks of seclusion, as much lost to society as if they were in dens and caves of the earth. Their place in the house of God has been filled by others, and the church has long ceased to observe the vacancy caused by their absence, except so far as some pastor or pious friend seeks them out, to smooth their crude descent into the grave. But each has his sorrows, and needs consolation.
The weakness and lassitude of old age are familiar, yet these often take men by surprise. So reluctant are most to admit the mortifying approach of these closing languors, that they need more than the "three warnings" of the poet. The steps by which age advances are often stealthy and imperceptible. Gray hairs are scattered here and there, and they know it not. The beauty of the countenance is consumed, and gives places to wrinkles, sunken features, a stooping frame and tottering limbs. The dainties of the feast invite—but no longer gratify. The senses become dull, and the sufferer enters into the experience of Barzillai—"How many years of my life are left that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I'm now 80 years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or drinks? Can I still hear the voice of male and female singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?" To such a one the grasshopper is a burden, no he is a burden unto himself. It is a condition in which he manifestly needs support.
The absence of former companions belongs to "the time of old age." Amidst their troops of friends, the young think little of this; but the longer a man lives, the more does he outlive the associates of his early days. And though Dr. Johnson wisely advises men who advance in years to "keep their friendships in repair," it is unquestionably true, that the susceptibility for such attachments grows less with the decline of life. The tree which has outlived the forest stands in mournful solitude, and is lopped of its branches, and exposed to storms. If these pages fall under the notice of an aged reader, he will readily assent to the truth of what is said, being able with ease to number up all that remain of those who shared his early joys. Childhood seems far back in the distance; parents have been long removed; brothers, sisters, friends have died; perhaps, we must add poverty, widowhood, and childless desolation.
The solitary condition of aged people is aggravated by the reluctance of the young to seek their company; so that we often find them constrained to pass days of weariness, and evenings of solitary gloom. Except where there is eager expectancy of some wealth to be divided, the old man is left to sit alone, which naturally leads to another trial.
The lack of society is keenly felt in "the time of old age." We are fond of saying, that old age is honorable; but the writer has lived long enough to observe that in point of fact it receives little honor, except for certain adventitious accompaniments. Boys soon become men; men soon grow old; old men are soon forgotten. Venerable people are sometimes honored for their wealth—such is our trafficking, mammon-serving, ignoble view of things—or for their place or power—but how seldom for their years! The stripling, with his "gold ring and goodly apparel," shall have more to show respect to his "mirthful clothing," and to say, "sit here in a good place," than the poor man of hoary hairs. It is a serious question whether neglect of the aged in general, is not a national sin. Carrying to extravagance our notions of equality, we can brook no superior, and will own no master. Hence we have come to hear lads manifesting their spirit by giving to father or mother, whom they should reverence next to God, appellations of jesting or disrespect. Now he who does not honor his parents will honor no one else, except to eat of his morsel.
The world's neglect is an ingredient in many a cup of old age. The rich may not know it; but the rich are not all the world, nor, taken as a class, the best part of it; and if all their claims to honor are founded on revenue, they are poor indeed. There is many a good man, far gone in the valley of years, who feels the saddening change from the days when all hastened to do him respect.
Decay of natural spirits belongs to "the time of old age." The outworn traveler says of these days, "I have no pleasure in them." "The daughters of music are brought low." This period of life is proverbially one of caution; and caution easily lapses into timidity. The old man pauses at the leap which twenty years ago he would have taken at a bound. It is the habit of his life to forecast the future, and many anticipate gloom. Experience has taught him to see dangers on every hand. But besides this, weakness of body brings with it depression and sadness. The aged are solitary even in the thronged assembly. They muse and pine. There is much in the past to make them thoughtful—great experience has opened to them many sources of sorrow, all unknown to the mirthful circle around them; and what can they realistically expect for the future? Shut out from active employment, or slow to learn that their competency is lessened, they feel their isolation. If an irritable frame and sensitive temperament superadd to these things irascibility, and peevishness, how greatly are the ills increased!
All this makes it the more rare and signal, when we behold a contented and cheerful old age; and, through God's infinite grace, and the influence of his Holy Spirit, we are sometimes called to this edifying and delightful spectacle.
The approach of eternity confers solemnity on "the time of old age." This single consideration insufficient to overshadow the soul with a solemnity unknown before; and though we sometimes find foolish triflers who are advanced in life—the best and wisest are made serious and considerate. Yet facts do not justify the assertion, that the bare increase of years does anything towards the conversion of the sinner. The youthful reader should take warning, when he sees the aged dying on every side, and others with hoary hairs standing around their graves unconcerned about their own eternal state. Nevertheless some truly lay this to heart, and to these it is a trial. It is the dreadful case of some to be given up to despairing thoughts on the approach of death.
But it is unnecessary to enumerate all the particulars which go to make up the burden of old age—we turn with more alacrity to the CONSOLATIONS which are afforded by the word of God.
There is a sentence of the Psalmist which points out the direction in which he who is laden with years may look for cheering. It is that exclamation in the seventy-first Psalm, "Cast me not off in the time of old age, forsake me not when my strength fails." Though a prayer, it is also a promise. For when God himself dictates a petition, and so to speak puts it into our mouths, it assures us that what he thus prompts us to ask, he is ready to bestow. These words may therefore be considered as revealing the basis of comfort and support offered to an aged Christian. It is as though he said, "Man may cast me off; society may cast me off; friends, helpers, even children may abandon me; but O my God, cast not me off, in the time of old age!" It is a lawful, an urgent, a comprehensive prayer, and may be studied in its several meanings, with edification.
The prayer implies, "Leave me not to helpless imbecility!" It is permitted to deprecate extreme poverty. We are taught to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." The old disciple is not forbidden to ask under submission to God's holy will, that he may be exempted from wasting languors and decrepitude. But submission has here a large part to perform. As we resign to the decision of our faithful Creator, the time and manner of our death, so must we leave ourselves implicitly in his hands, as to the whole color of our latter days. Competence and poverty are at his disposal. Nevertheless it is thus recorded by one who knew, "I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread." And if any may appropriate the cheering words, the aged may surely so do—"Be content with such things as you have, for He has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you;" words which seem written to be a heavenly answer to this very petition of the Psalmist. The whole connection, however, shows, that the servant of God may be sometimes reduced to straits and apprehensions, in which his faith is sorely tried, and in which he can look to none but God. Yet we have reason to encourage every believer, whose old age is encompassed with cares about worldly subsistence, to support himself on the Lord his Preserver.
The prayer further implies, "Be a friend to me under the loss of friends." There is a wide scope of application in those words—"When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up." The degree of comfort which this consideration brings to any individual, will be in proportion to the reality of his previous communion with God. He who has made God his friend, and has humbly and lovingly walked with him during a lifetime, is prepared to endure with equanimity the loss of friends. In days of prosperity, when his children were around him, and his table was encircled with guests, he already looked to God as his covenant friend and supporter; how much more when his windows are darkened, and the coals have died out upon his hearth. He has learned before this great trial came, to turn to God as the enlightener of his solitary way, and the portion of his soul. Like Abraham, he has, early in his pilgrimage, heard a voice saying, "Fear not; I am your shield, and your exceeding great reward."
Now, therefore, when he begins to find himself alone in the world, he is beyond expression thankful that he has not this divine acquaintanceship to begin to seek. He is sure that the Lord has not brought him thus far to make him a laughing-stock to his soul's enemies. God will help him, and that right early. Many are the aged saints who can join in the exultation, "So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me."
Suppose the worst case, even that of desolating bereavement and complete isolation—an aged believer left without partner, child, or relative on earth; if he has made God his friend, he can still say, "My soul waits only upon God, for my expectation is from him." And God is accustomed to answer the prayer of the desolate, by stirring up the tender mercies of man. Friends are raised up for the forlorn and sinking one. This is a consideration which ought to lead pious and charitable people in our churches to turn their attention to the aged. Very often, it is not so much temporal aid which they require, as the smile of recognition, the light of a friendly countenance, the voice of cheering, the hand that lifts the latch of the solitary chamber, the Christian conference, and the fellowship of prayer. Let the reader ask himself whether this duty has not been neglected, and whether there is not, even within his own communion and neighborhood, some ancient servant of God to whom he might render the offices of a son or a Christian brother. But by whatever means it may be accomplished, the Lord will not allow his aged servants to sink under their bereavements.
He who prays, "Cast me not off," furthermore asks thus, "Cheer me by your presence, under the neglects of men." None have greater need than the aged to concentrate their regards on the honor which comes from God; for the attentions and complimentary tributes of society are usually seen to decrease as age advances. The world casts off its old servants—but God does not cast them off. A man who has set great value on the caresses and adulation of the people during his middle life, is in a fair way to see the matter in its true light when he falls into decay. Then it is that he finds his flatterers vanishing, like birds of passage which seek more sunny climates. In such circumstances it is an invaluable blessing to have the heart fixed on God. His approval and praise have a heavenly quality about them which fills and satisfies the soul.
The prayer of the aged imports, moreover, this, "Sustain my sinking spirits by the hopes of your gospel and the supports of your grace." This is possible, though it is against nature. We have seen such trophies of grace. Especially could I name an aged disciple, whose latter days were by far his best, even in regard to this point. As years advanced, he became less restless and susceptible under the vexations of life; his temper was more even, his spirits more cheerful, and his kind smile more abiding. If the reader will give himself the pains to make a survey, he will find numerous instances of this kind among the churches. And such a one is more lovely then, in the sight of God—than ever amidst the florid exuberance of youthful promise; more wise, more pure, more holy, more tranquil, more graciously humble. Let the young be invited to seek the company of such; the Isaacs, Israels, and Johns of our church. Let them be sought, as for as hidden treasure, though the quest may take us among the humblest of society.
Those of us who exercise the ministerial profession have been taught that some of the most instructive and most lovely objects to a Christian eye are concealed in garrets, cellars, and beds of suffering. A vain, frivolous, time-serving, mercenary, contemptible world, judges otherwise; but when their money perishes with them, true holiness and happiness shall survive the shock of death, and go into eternity. The sun shines on nothing more glorious than a truly ripe believer waiting to be gathered into the garner of the Lord. To comprehend the greatness of such godliness, we must know its hindrances. There are many people who maintain their consistency well during seasons of prosperity—but which would be sadly shaken by the stormy weather of old age.
The aged man's prayer includes, finally, "Cast me not off on the approach of death." Does the reader, perhaps, feel in his members the signs of declining years? Then let him consider that old age is the beginning of death. It is true, that death may come well before old age; but he that is old is assuredly on the brink of death. Natural fears hover about the most careless in regard to this impending catastrophe. The relief which most aged sinners have is by the method of 'diversion'—or the turning away of the mind from the revolting object. But this is a miserable resort, and a few spasms or pangs are sufficient to shake a sturdy and impenitent soul out of this refuge of lies. Let the truth be told; there is no real consolation under fears of death—but in God. "The peace of God which passes all understanding" can make an infirm and threatened old man go down firmly into the valley. Suppose God should, after all, cast off his servant in the time of old age! It is a surmise which sometimes darts across the soul. But no, he will not. "Even to old age am I he, and to hoary hairs will I carry you." The dictation of such a prayer is equal to a promise that it shall be answered.
We have looked with wonder and delight on an aged disciple thus waiting until his change comes. He is not exempt from the infirmities and pains which beset this season of life; but his mind is drawn away from them, to fix itself on the "exceeding and eternal weight of glory." He knows not at what moment his summons may come—but he knows whom he has believed, and is persuaded that he is able to keep the great deposit until that day. Christian hope does not allow him to give way under the disquietudes of life. It is his endeavor to show, by the uniformity of his cheerfulness, that religion can despoil even old age of its terrors. Among younger Christians he sits as a patriarch who has experienced all the diversities of the disciple's lot. He has discovered the emptiness of the world, and has made what remains of the present life—a meditation of the life to come. His great business, therefore, is to prepare for eternity. But this he does without perturbation or servile dread. Long ago he has cast his burden on the Lord, and ventured his everlasting hopes on the promise of mercy in Christ Jesus; and having been sealed with that blessed Spirit of promise, he looks into the future with a confidence founded on divine authority; having a desire to depart and be with Christ. Such a condition as this, is among the happiest on earth; and it throws a radiance of commendation over the gospel which produces it. The Lord does not forsake his people. In those emergencies of life in which their strength is most tried, he may be supposed to regard them with peculiar tenderness. And at length he abolishes death, and admits them to the glories of the eternal state!
Where Christian graces are vigorous, the aged disciple will be much in meditation of that eternal world which he is approaching. There the majority of the brethren whom he has known here have entered before him. Every bodily pang and weakness suggests to him by contrast, the blessed exemptions and perfect delights of a state where God shall wipe all tears from the eyes. At the resurrection, the soul and body shall be reunited; and the body which shall be raised will have no frailties or susceptibilities of distress. It is comfort for the aged saint, aching with the weariness of a hard pilgrimage, to muse on the day when his body shall be newly fitted for the service of the soul, and when he shall emerge into the balmy springtide of perpetual youth. He knows that he shall exchange the solitude and neglect of a world where he has long felt himself a stranger, for the associations of that communion to which the wise, and holy, and blessed of all nations, churches, and times have been adding themselves for ages. Groaning under the consciousness of imperfection in his best services, he lights up with rapture at the thought of a world where he shall glorify God without weariness, intermission, or defect. Remembering the clouds and darkness of his sad journey, he longs for the perfect light in which he shall see face to face, and know even as also he is known. This hope of eternal glory, which brightens as graces become mature, may be considered the prime consolation of old age. Where it is possessed in large measure, it is a full restitution for losses, and an antidote to the poisonous influences of this mortal condition.
Consolation in old age is much promoted by a thankful review of God's providence as to the past. This appears to be included in that remarkable promise, Isaiah 46:4; "I will be the same until your old age, and I will bear you up when you turn gray. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will bear and save you." He who made us and preserves us, will continue to care for us. God will not allow those on whom he has expended so much, to fail at the last. The fact, that the believer has already passed through so many toils and dangers unhurt, affords good reason to hope that he shall be carried through all, even the last and worst.
The eye of the aged pilgrim takes in, from his eminence of observation and retrospect—a great extent of way which he has traversed. In this he recalls many a spot signalized by its Ebenezer, and testifying to the faithfulness of God. This principle of consolation is the very one which leads the sacred writers to such frequent recapitulations of Israel's way through the wilderness; Moses also recounts the whole of the journey, just on the verge of the promised land. This is our assurance that God will not cast off in the time of old age, that he has clung to his people as their support, in all preceding times.
If now, as can scarcely be denied, there are professing Christians, advanced in years, and, of course, approaching their eternal abode, who have none of this peace; who feel the burdens of life more keenly with every new step into their final valley, who repine at their lot, indulge the petulance of continual complaint, and shudder at their inevitable and impending death; what shall we say—but that they have failed to take the blessings which are made over in the covenant gift? They have not from the heart uttered that prayer of the Psalmist which we have been considering. From which we learn this momentous lesson—that to be happy in old age, we must regard true religion as the one thing needful; not merely as important—but as all-important; that "principal thing," without which all else is vanity and vexation of spirit.
For in what other direction can the aged look for comfort? What can this world offer them? They have tasted every cup, and having drunk each to the dregs, have found it first foam—and then bitterness. They have but a few days, possibly not a single day, to live. Time is hurrying them with dreadful rapidity into the presence of their Judge! Unless they have sought his kingdom and righteousness first, and above all; unless they have laid up their treasure and their hearts in heaven—they are absolutely cut off from every source of rational enjoyment. The hand upon the 'solemn dial-plate of life' points at midnight, and in a moment comes the fatal stroke! Let none suppose that a mere nominal standing in Christ's church, or a name among professing Christians, affords a basis for hope amidst the despondencies of age. Generally, those who possess the serene enjoyments of which we have spoken, are such as began to make God's service their great concern many years ago, and now, in the autumn of their days, are reaping the golden fruit, agreeably to the sowing of an earlier experience. And if these lines should meet the eye of any to whom such a preparation is all unknown—he should lay down the book and prepare to meet his God!
One of the greatest consolations of old age is to spend what remains of life, in honoring God. David connects this with one of his pathetic prayers—"Even when I am old and gray, God, do not abandon me. Then I will proclaim Your power to another generation, Your strength to all who are to come." How remarkably this was accomplished in his latter days we know very well. Ecclesiastical history relates of the apostle John, that when for very age he was unable any longer to preach the word, he used to be carried into the Christian assembly, where the most he could utter was, "Little children, love one another!" The modern church affords numerous instances of aged believers, who "still bring forth fruit in old age." Younger disciples properly look up to them as advisers, and endeavor to profit by their long experience. Their very patience and tranquility, while they wait for their Lord, is edifying to the church. Their words fall on the ear with peculiar weight from the authority of mature wisdom; and it is an evil day, in church or state, when any forsake "the counsel of the old men." For these reasons, aged Christians are not lightly to suppose that their work is done, because they are shut out from public service. It may be that God is more glorified by the quiet graces of their eventide, than by their most strenuous exertions while bearing the burden and heat of the day.
In the wonderful ordering of the dispensation of grace, it is observed, that although the susceptibility of new impressions from objects of sense, and the pleasure taken in passing events of a worldly nature, are very much abated by the progress of years—it is not so in regard to spiritual enjoyments—the feeble and departing servant of God is still alive to the things of the kingdom. Memory, imagination, even the perceptive powers may be seriously impaired—but sensibility to the truths of the gospel remains in vigor; the name of Jesus is still delightful, and the coming glory of the kingdom still cheers the soul. For such a blessed experience, however, there must have been a long preparation, by daily communion with God, which affords an inducement at once to 'early piety', and consistent walking with Christ, throughout the years of strength. We cannot err in supposing that the Lord of such a servant looks down upon him with peculiar delight in these days of bodily weakness—but 'spiritual ripening'. He may be likened to the just and devout Simeon, who took the infant Jesus up in his arms, and said, "Lord, now let you your servant depart in peace." He knows that his salvation is nearer than when he first believed.
As one long in bondage looks out pensively for deliverance, so he lifts up his head, because his redemption draws near. Weaned in some good measure from the world, and dead to its appetites and pleasures, he has his citizenship in heaven, from whence also he looks for the Lord Jesus, who will change his vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body. Hearkening for the footsteps of his beloved Master, who is coming to transport him to himself, he patiently waits until his change comes. These are blessed fruits of grace, enjoyed at a period when the world has nothing to offer to its outworn devotees. It is the privilege of aged Christians to expect these comforts, which are the more satisfying, as being altogether independent of all outward circumstances. They may he possessed, and have been ten thousand times possessed, by the poor, the infirm, the diseased, the deaf, the blind; the united voice of hope and exultation, which rises from the tabernacles of aged pilgrims is, "For this God is our God forever and ever! He will be our guide even unto death!"