Sorrows and Consolations of Old Age
Very mournful are some of the Bible descriptions of old age. "The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away!" Psalm 90:10. This is no picture of imagination. Nor is that which Solomon gives us by way of enforcing the exhortation, "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
Such is old age, and such its invariable ending. And so far as its physical aspects are concerned — as it is with the wicked, so it is with the righteous.
But the picture has another side: "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness." Proverbs 16:31. "The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green!" Psalm 92:12-14
Even to us in Western lands, who, though we have seen palm trees and cedars, are not familiar with them, this description is very striking and suggestive. The ideas of majesty, and beauty, and fruitfulness, and honor — all connect themselves with the cedar and the palm tree. "The palm tree," we are told, "grows slowly but steadily from century to century, uninfluenced by those alternations of the seasons which affect other trees. It does not stop growing in winter's snows, nor does it droop under the drought and the burning sun of summer. Neither heavy weights which men place upon its head, nor the importunate urgency of the wind, can sway it aside from perfect uprightness. There it stands, looking calmly down upon the world below, and patiently yielding its large clusters of golden fruit from generation to generation. They bring forth fruit in old age."
When the Psalmist says, "Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God," he alludes probably to the custom of planting beautiful and long-lived trees in the courts of temples and palaces, and in all "high places" for worship — a custom still common in the East. Nearly every palace and mosque and convent in Syria has such trees in its courts, and, being well-protected, they flourish exceedingly. Solomon covered all the walls of the Holy of Holies with carvings of palm trees. They were thus represented in the very house of the Lord; and their presence there was not only ornamental — but appropriate and highly suggestive; the very best emblem, not only of patience in well-doing — but of the rewards of the righteous — a fat and flourishing old age, a peaceful end, a glorious immortality.
Old age, with all its physical infirmities and drawbacks — may then be very beautiful, very useful and very happy!
But, in order to this, the one grand essential prerequisite is that the old man should have faith in God and in Christ. I say "in Christ," because a mere general faith in the being and government of God is not sufficient. "How dreary would old age and illness be without the great doctrine of the Atonement!" said John Foster, when himself old and ill. He spoke as a Christian and with reference to his Christian life. The omissions and shortcomings of the best life presented themselves to his mind. "One feels," he said, "that, in the great concern of religion, much more might have been done." And it was this thought that made him revert to the great doctrine of the Atonement.
Conscious that while he had "lived to God" he had lived so imperfectly, had come so far short of what he ought to be, and what he ought to have done, where should he look for peace but to that atonement through which sin is forgiven and the sinner reconciled to God? And if the Christian's condition would be dreary without free and daily access to Christ for daily cleansing and pardon, how unutterably dark must be the condition of the man who, old and feeble, has never come to Christ, and does not now come to him — but bears on his soul the load of the accumulated sins of many years! If he only thinks, let him look behind or before, and he will find nothing but darkness: behind, the darkness of a life without God; before, the darkness of an eternity without God. The darkness is such as may be felt, and the wonder is that it does not appal and overwhelm his spirit.
There is a second thing needful in order to make the old age of man, like the old age of the palm tree, fat and flourishing; it is that the old man should call into constant exercise all the principles which belong to him as a Christian, and which form his dearest heritage — that of which neither worldly adversity nor decay of nature can rob him. He is a child of God. Let him think of this. Once far from God — now made near; once an enemy — now a friend; once an outcast from his Father's house — now restored and pardoned: let him think of this. The relation in which he stands to God, is one so full of blessing and of hope, that he has only to understand it to find in it a fountain of peace and strength. It is natural for him amidst his infirmities to look on the dark side of things — but his faith reveals to him a bright side, a very bright side, and he will do himself wrong if he does not strive habitually to look upon it.
Be it that all things are transient and changing in this world, and that he now sees their emptiness more than ever — the God whom he loves, in whom he trusts, his Father as well as his God, is without change, and he is the portion of his heart, the rock of his defense, his shield, and his exceeding great reward!
Be it that he has seen one generation after another passing away, rank after rank of his fellow-soldiers in the battle of life mown down by the scythe of death, and that he finds himself alone in the world, pining in solitude even though surrounded by crowds of travelers and soldiers younger than himself — his God is with him, the Father is with him, and no fellowship can be more real or sustaining than this.
Be it that he feels himself now at the very end of life, those things which were once, in the future, objects of desire and ambition, being now and forever, in the past, stripped of all their false halo — that he has come within a span of the very goal of his earthly existence, the point beyond which he can see nothing — what does it amount to but that he has reached within a span of the end of sin and sorrow, of care and toil? — that his earthly education for his Heavenly state is about being finished, and that in a few more months or years he will cease to be a child, and will possess all the strength and knowledge of a man?
Be it that the aged Christian shrinks, as nature will shrink, from the grave, and what men call the unknown future — let him remember that Christ has abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light; that the future is no longer unknown, the veil having been taken away by Christ; that, whatever may be his own helplessness in the hour of the dread transition from time into eternity, he will hear a voice, well known and loved, saying, "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God!"
Let the aged Christian accustom himself to meditate on these truths and hopes, and promises of the gospel, until each of them shall be as habitually present and familiar to him as the countenance of his dearest friend — and he may expect to enjoy an elevation and a cheerfulness which will triumph over the labor and sorrow of his fourscore years. Or, if there be physical causes operating involuntarily and irresistibly to depress him, he will still find that the grace of the gospel does not leave itself without a witness in this assurance: "Like as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For he knows their frame; he remembers that they are dust."
There is a third thing which must be kept in view to make it sure that our old age shall be characterized by the fruitfulness and beauty of the palm tree. And it is something that concerns the young rather than the old. Whatever that is, which we should like to be when we are old — whatever grace or virtue we are pleased with when we see it in others, or would like others to see in us — we must cultivate habitually all the days of our life. No sudden effort, no convulsive struggle will make us at a bound, what we ought to be. Most good things are of slow growth, need much culture, and are ripened only by time. If we would have our old age distinguished by patience, gentleness, lovingness, consideration towards others, and by an all-pervading faith in God — we must seek to attain these excellences in the season of health and of early life. If we are self-indulgent, self-seeking, imperious, fretful, distrustful of God throughout life — much more shall we be all this when the feebleness of old age has diminished our self-control.
We are often surprised by a manifestation of unlovely tempers on the part of aged Christians. These are the results of the former lack of care in spiritual culture, and obtrude themselves so painfully on those whose duty it is to nurse the aged, that observers are perplexed, and do not know how to interpret what is so unfitting in people who are supposed to be maturing for a higher state. What a joy it is on the other hand, to see the excellences which have been conscientiously cultivated by the Christian all his life long shining brightly, and with all the freedom and spontaneousness of a second nature, in the aged! The submission to God, the grateful recognition of his hand in every gift and mercy, the holy patience, the loving self-forgetfulness, the desire to be useful to others — these bear witness to the rich grace of God in converting the autumn of decay into a scene of spiritual beauty. Thus — but thus only, may the aged become like the palm tree, and realize the Psalmist's description.