Peculiar Duties of the Aged
I have no doubt that you have observed with surprise, that the impression of the reality and importance of eternal things is not increased by the nearness of your approach to the end of your course. Time glides insensibly away, and it is with us in this respect, as in relation to the globe on which we reside. While other things appear to be in motion, our feeling is that we are stationary. The mere circumstance of being old seems to affect no one with a more lively concern about the salvation of the soul. None appear to be more blind and stupid in regard to eternal realities, than many who are tottering on the brink of the grave. This, indeed, is so commonly the fact with those who have grown old without true religion, that very little hope is entertained of the conversion of the aged who have from their youth enjoyed the means of grace. And it is also a fact that real Christians are not rendered more deeply sensible of the solemn importance of eternal things by becoming old and infirm. The truth is, that nothing but an increase of faith by the operation of the Holy Spirit will be effectual to prepare us for that change which we know is rapidly approaching. Counsels and exhortations, however, are not to be neglected, as God is pleased to work by means. I have, therefore, undertaken to address to you such considerations as occur to me.
Having already spoken of the infirmities and sins which are apt to cleave to us in advanced years, I propose in this letter to inquire what are the peculiar duties incumbent on the aged. What would the Lord have us to do? — for undoubtedly, we are not privileged to fold our hands, and sit down in idleness, as if our work was ended. Indeed, it would be no privilege to be exempt from all occupation. Such a life to the aged or the young, must be a life of misery; for man never was made to be idle, and his happiness is intimately connected with activity. We may be no longer qualified for those labors which require much bodily strength. We may, indeed, be so debilitated or crippled by disease, that we can scarcely move our decrepit frame — and some among us may be vexed with excruciating pain — yet still we have a work to perform for God and for our generation.
If we cannot use our hands and feet so as to be useful in the labors which we were accustomed to perform — yet we may employ our tongues to speak the praises of our God and Savior. We may drop a word of counsel to those around us; and especially, the aged owe a duty to the young to whom they may have access and who are related to them.
Every aged Christian must have acquired much knowledge from experience, which he should be ready to communicate as far as it is practical. Why is it, my dear friends, that we allow so many opportunities of usefulness to pass without improvement? Why are we so often silent, when the suggestions of our own conscience urge us to speak something for God? How is it, that we consume hours in unprofitable talk, and seldom attempt to say anything which can profit the hearers? We may plead inability — we may excuse ourselves, because we are unlearned and not able to speak eloquently and correctly — but let us be honest; is not the true reason because our own hearts are so little affected with these things? We cannot consent to play the hypocrite by uttering sentiments which we do not feel; and we have often been disgusted with the attempts of others, who, in a cold and constrained manner, have introduced pious conversation.
It is easy to see where the fault lies; it is in the state of our own hearts. Let us never rest, then, until we find ourselves in a better state of mind. Let us get our hearts habitually under the influence of divine things, and then conversation on this subject will be as easy as on any other. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matt 12:34) There are companies and occasions, when to obtrude remarks on piety would be unseasonable and imprudent, for we must not cast our pearls before swine: but, in most cases, an aged person may give utterance to seasonable and solemn truths without offence — and very often a word spoken in season has been the means of saving a soul; and the advice and exhortations of parents and pious friends are remembered and prove beneficial, after their heads are laid low under the clods of the valley.
I have often heard aged people, incapable any longer of active service, express surprise that their unprofitable lives were so long protracted; while the young and laborious servants of God were cut off in the midst of their years. The dispensations of God are indeed inscrutable, "His ways are past finding out" (Rom 11:33) — and we are too little acquainted with His counsels to sit in judgment on them. But I would say to those who think that they can be of no further use in the world, that they do not form a just estimate of the nature of the service which God requires, and by which He is glorified by His creatures upon earth.
All true obedience originates in the heart, and consists essentially of the affections of the heart. External duties are to be performed — but are only holy as connected with holy motives. The aged man may serve God, therefore, as sincerely and fervently as any others, if only the heart is right in the sight of God. He can glorify God in his spirit, by thinking affectionately of His glorious name, by contemplating His divine attributes, and by exercising love and gratitude towards Him. His devotion might thus approach more nearly to our conceptions of the services and exercises of the saints in Heaven.
But it may be that the lives of some are lengthened out that they may offer up many prayers for the church and for the world; for, after all the activity and bustle and zeal apparent, there is no service which can be performed by mortals, so effectual as prayer. Here there is a work to which the aged may be devoted. While Joshua and the men of war contend with the Amalekites in the battle, Moses assists by lifting up his hands in prayer; and when he is, through fatigue, no longer able to hold them up, he is assisted by Aaron on one side and Hur on the other. If you cannot preach, you can, by prayer, hold up the hands of those who do. You can follow the missionary, who leaves all to go and labor in heathen lands, with your daily and fervent prayers. It is not in vain for you to live, while you have access to the throne of grace.
Before the advent of Christ there were some aged people who seem to have been preserved in life that they might pray for this event, and that they might enjoy the pleasure of seeing the answer of their prayers, and embracing Him in their arms whom they had so often embraced by faith. While all around was spiritual death and desolation, and corruption and error had infected all classes, from the priesthood downward; there was a little band who had taken up their residence in the temple, or often frequented this holy place, who were waiting for the consolation of Israel. Two of these were Simeon and Anna; but there were others of the same character; for we read that this very aged and pious widow, who departed not from the temple — but served God with fastings and prayers night and day, "spoke of Christ (after she had seen him) to all those who looked for redemption in Israel". (Luke 2:38)
The darker the times, the more closely do the truly pious adhere to each other. This little knot of praying people knew each other, and no doubt spoke often one to another; and in this case the Lord hearkened and heard; for the object of their desires and prayers was given to them. Was the life of Anna an unprofitable life, although she never left the temple, and did nothing but fast and pray? Was Simeon a useless member of the church because he was probably too old for labor?
The truth was — and the same is often verified — that the true church of God was at this time confined to a few pious souls, while the priests and the scribes and the rulers had neither part nor lot in the matter. As God preserved Simeon, according to a promise made to him, until he saw the Lord's Christ, so He may be lengthening out the lives of some of you, my aged brethren, until you may have the opportunity of seeing the salvation of Israel come out of Zion.
Do you not wish to be witnesses of the rise and glory of the church? Pray then incessantly for the peace and prosperity of Jerusalem. Consider it as your chief business to pray that the kingdom of God may come. What though the signs of the times be discouraging — what though you live in troublesome times — what though the church may be shaken and the prospects of her increase be dark — yet remember that she is founded on a rock, and the gates of Hell cannot prevail against her. The vessel which carries Christ, though it be buffeted by storms, is in no danger of being wrecked.
But to govern and direct does not belong to you; your duty is to pray — to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) — to wrestle with the angel of the covenant, and not to let Him go until He blesses you. (Gen 32:26) Give Him no rest until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in all the earth. You cannot offend by importunity — but by this you will be sure to prevail; for "will not God hear his own elect — who cry day and night unto him?" (Luke 18:7) Therefore, never hold your peace — but as long as you live intercede with Him to fulfill His gracious promises, and to cause the earth to be filled with the knowledge of Himself as the waters cover the sea, when His people shall be all righteous, and there shall be no need any longer for any one to say to his neighbor, 'Know the Lord' — for all shall know Him from the least to the greatest.
Thanksgiving is also a duty peculiarly incumbent on the aged. In the providence of God you are spared, while most of your friends have been cut off in the midst of their career. Some of you have enjoyed almost uninterrupted prosperity. When you consider the dispensations of God's providence towards you, in the time and place and circumstances of your birth, in giving you pious and intelligent parents, who took care of your health and education, and in following you with goodness and mercy all the days of your life, giving you kind friends, faithful teachers, health and reason, together with abundant spiritual privileges — how thankful ought you to be! But that which above all other things enhances your obligations to gratitude is, that in His own good time He effectually called you from the devious paths of iniquity, and adopted you as a child into His own household and family, and perhaps has made you the instrument of much good to others; if not on a large scale, yet in your own family and in the church of which you are a member. If now, to all these blessings, He has given you pious children, who promise, when you are gone, more than to supply your place in society; or even if they have been preserved from infidelity and disgraceful immoralities and are inclined to pay a serious attention to the preaching of the Gospel — no words can express your obligations to give thanks unto the Lord and continually to praise His name whose mercy endures forever and ever. "Let us, therefore, offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually — that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name." (Heb 13:15)