The Infirmities of Old Age
King Solomon, who was a wise observer of human, nature, gives us a full description of the infirmities of old age, expressed in what is called a figurative manner, the substance of which is easily understood, though, from not knowing perfectly the customs or the proverbial sayings to which he alludes, we may not be able exactly to explain every part of them.
"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, 'I find no pleasure in them' — before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets. Remember him — before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
Solomon describes old age by the darkening of the sun, the moon and the stars; and the return of the clouds after the rain. When thick and heavy clouds obscure the cheerful light of the sun by day, or of the moon and stars by night, people complain of the dullness of the weather, as it checks their pursuits both of business and pleasure; and thus it is in old age — afflictions of body and troubles of mind often produce a gloom; the days are dull, the nights are wearisome, and none of that pleasure is felt which the young, who have health, strength, and lively spirits, generally enjoy.
And then, it is added, "the clouds return after the rain" — that is, one pain and affliction succeeds another, as the clouds often do in a rainy season. In showery weather the clouds sometimes disperse, the clear shining of the sun succeeds for a little while; but soon the sky is overcast again, and a heavy shower descends. And thus in old age painful disorders are sometimes remitted, and the hope that health is returning is indulged; but, alas! the interval of ease is short; the pain is renewed — "the clouds return after the rain."
Another infirmity of old age is thus expressed, "The keepers of the house tremble" — the hands and arms, like faithful watchmen, were always ready to defend the body from assaults and dangers; but these become feeble, are sometimes tremulous by palsy, and can no longer prove a sufficient guard from assaults or accidents.
In like manner, "the strong men stoop" — the legs and thighs, which, in youth were like strong men, able to bear a heavy burden, are now become feeble, and too weak to bear the weight of the body, which totters from side to side, and without assistance is in danger of falling to the ground! The foresight of such a state led the Psalmist to pray, "Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails."
The failure of the teeth, so useful in preparing the food for its digestion in the stomach, is another infirmity of old age which the wise man thus expresses: "The grinders shall cease because they are few." The teeth, which in youth grind the food, like the stones in a corn mill, are decayed, or loose, or totally lost; so that some kinds of food cannot be eaten at all, and others are very imperfectly prepared for the stomach.
In old age the sight usually fails more or less, and in many mournful cases is totally lost. Solomon thus describes this affliction: "Those that look out of the windows are darkened." The eyes have been justly called "the windows of the soul." From these windows the mind surveys with pleasure the faces of dear relations and friends, and the delightful prospects of nature; discovers the approaches of danger, and reads the page of instruction. But all these sources of pleasure and safety are closed; the day is gone; the night, the long dark night, which will know no morning in this life, is come; and half the world, as to our enjoyment of it, is shut out for the rest of our days.
"When the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades." There seems to be an allusion here to the custom of the ancients, who, early in the morning, as soon as the doors of the house were opened, ground their corn for the day in a hand-mill. If this refers to the grinding of food by the teeth, then it may signify the lack of appetite and the refusal of food. Or it may signify their loving to stay at home, and keeping the doors of the house shut to prevent being disturbed by company. Others think it refers to "the door of the lips," and the aversion of aged people to speak much, especially in public.
"And he shall rise up at the voice of the bird." Old age is usually wakeful. Sleep, the "sweet restorative of tired nature," often departs from the eyes of the aged, or, if they sleep, they are easily disturbed. Even the crowing of the rooster or the chirping of the birds will awaken them; and often, unable to rest and tired of bed, they will rise at a very early hour.
"When men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint." Old age generally loses its relish for music and singing. That which was, perhaps, a great delight becomes rather a burden; the breathing is short and the voice tremulous. Aged Barzillai, whom King David would have taken to court, declined the proposal, saying, "I am this day fourscore years old; can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women? Why, then, should your servant be yet a burden to my lord the king?"
Another token of old age is, "When men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets." Fear of heights. Steep ascents are very difficult to the aged; a hill alarms their fears, for it threatens to produce much pain and weariness. Traveling now seems formidable to them. The young are often too bold, and venture into needless dangers; and the old are too timorous, and full of fear lest mischief should befall them. They prefer, therefore, staying at home, and not exposing themselves to harm abroad.
"The almond tree shall flourish." The almond tree, with its white blossoms, is a beautiful emblem of the hoary head. Gray or white hairs are the common symptoms of old age, and may be considered as truly ornamental, for "the glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head." Proverbs 20:29. God himself put honor upon it in the law, saying, "You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man." Lev. 19:32. But let the aged remember that these blossoms are certain intimations of the approach of death; they have been called "churchyard flowers," which, as one says, "may serve to them that bear them, instead of passing bells, to give them certain notice where they are shortly going."
"And the grasshopper shall be a burden." This signifies the extreme feebleness of the aged, when the lightest thing may be a load — when reduced to such weakness and nervous sensibility that the least inconvenience, though it may be as trifling as the weight or the chirping of an insect, may vex and fret them.
"And desire shall fail." Those animal passions and desires which in youth were so strong and violent, and too often the occasion of so much sin, now gradually decline as years increase and strength decays. And it is well it is so, for now it is high time to get the heart weaned from the world and a life of sense, and to "set the affections upon things above."
Then shall "the silver cord be loosed — the golden bowl broken — the pitcher be broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern" The whole verse seems to be a description of the functions of life, taken from a well, where there is a cord to the bowl or bucket with which the water is drawn up; a wheel by which more easily to raise it; a cistern into which it may be poured; and a pitcher or vessel to carry it away with; but now all these are broken and become useless. Thus, at death, the lungs cease to play, the heart ceases to beat, the blood to circulate; the whole surprising contrivance for forming and circulating the blood from the fountain of the heart to every extremity of the body is now entirely deranged.
What follows this derangement? "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." Then "man goes to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets."
How solemn are these words! They demand our most serious attention. When death takes place, a separation is made between the mortal body and the immortal spirit. The body soon corrupts, must be buried out of sight, and quickly returns to its mother earth. But the spirit — -the immortal spirit — what becomes of that? Does it cease to exist? No; "it returns to God who gave it" to be disposed of according to his holy and sovereign pleasure. If the spirit has been renewed by grace and made fit for glory, it departs from the body to be with Christ, "absent from the body, present with the Lord;" for "blessed are the dead which die in the Lord." But if the sinner died in a graceless state, unpardoned and unrenewed, it sinks into endless perdition. The spirits of the just are made perfect, and immediately pass into glory; but the spirits of the wicked "go to their own place" — as Judas did, and, with the ungodly rich man in the parable, are tormented.
"The mourners go about the streets." Most men die lamented by some, either sincerely or in appearance. A funeral is a solemn sight, and ought to be conducted and viewed with deep seriousness. The mourners are conveying a dear relation, a kind friend or a valued neighbor to his "long home" — so the grave is here, with great propriety, styled his long home. The deceased had, perhaps, resided in various dwellings during the course of a long life. He moved from one habitation to another, as occasion required; but the grave is his last, his long home. Thus, as Job speaks, "Man lies down, and rises not: until the Heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep." But, as Paul assures us, "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised."
The infirmities of old age ought to teach us the evil of sin. If sin had not entered into the world — these infirmities would not have been known. There would have been no pains and aches, no failure of hearing and sight, no wearisome days nor sleepless nights These are all the fruits and effects of sin. If man had not sinned, he would not have suffered by old age, any more than angels do: they have lived many thousand years, and they still enjoy all the vigor of youth; but man lives several years before he attains maturity; his manly vigor lasts but a little while — and then he fades like a leaf or withers like a flower! "The wind passes over it, and it is gone, and the place thereof knows it no more."
Surely, then, the aged man should reflect on the evil of sin, which is the sad cause of all his sufferings; for sin is the disease, and all our afflictions are but the symptoms of it. In some cases the aged may perceive that particular sufferings are the effects of particular sins; and may cry, with one of old, "You write bitter things against me, and make me to possess the iniquities of my youth" (Job 13:26); or, as it is in another place, "His bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust." Job 20:11.
The certain approach of death is another lesson taught by the infirmities of old age. The young may die — but the aged must die! Death may be near a man at any age; but it must be very near the old man. "As the Lord lives, there is but a step between you and death!" It is at the door! Do not you hear it knock? Your aching limbs, your failing sight, your trembling hand — are all certain signs of the great approaching change. Are you then prepared to die? Have you believed in Christ? Have you, as a guilty sinner, fled to him for refuge? Has your heart been renewed by grace? Are you become "a new creature in Christ Jesus?" Are you "made fit," by the Spirit of God, "for the inheritance of the saints in light?"
These are some of the questions which you ought to ask yourselves. Put these questions to your hearts, and rest not without honest answers to them. If you have neglected the care of your soul until now, how deeply should you repent the shameful delay; and how earnest should you be in your prayers for the pardoning mercy of God through Jesus Christ, that now, though it is so late, even at the eleventh hour, you may obtain the salvation you have hitherto slighted and refused! Not a moment more must be lost. Oh then "seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
But let the believer rejoice, for his redemption draws near. It is nearer than when he first believed. While you remain in the body, Christ will continue to support and comfort you. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tried above what you are able to bear. As your days — so shall your strength be. God will give you patience to endure all your pains and infirmities; and he has said, I will never, never leave nor forsake you; and then, in his own good time, he will relieve you from the burden of the flesh, and give you an abundant entrance into his eternal kingdom and glory.
Yet a season, and you know
Happy entrance will be given —
All your sorrows left below,
And earth exchanged for Heaven!