When People Live to Be Very Old
"I’ll take the senior discount," I said half-jokingly, knowing the young girl in the ticket booth would never give it to me. She didn’t flinch.
Without hesitation she handed it over. She really thought I was at least fifty-five—and I was! I stared in disbelief; my wife chuckled. A few months later, a pastor asked me to help out in a senior’s ministry. My heart sank. "Why would he ask me? Am I really that old? Already?"
Why do we have such an aversion to growing old? An old Beatles tune expresses it, "When I get older losing my hair, many years from now … will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?" Do we fear we will become insignificant, no longer useful, no longer needed, and no longer beautiful? Youth and beauty are two of the West’s coveted idols. Even evangelicals worship at these altars. This is hard to understand, because such gods are cruel and unforgiving. We all grow old. "Age is a state of mind," we quip. But it is also a state of body. The hard truth is, regardless of the number of workouts endured, health food meals eaten, or Botox injections received, eventually things no longer work as smoothly or look as good as they once did. Adding insult to injury, we can feel disheartened as we acknowledge that we haven’t accomplished in our lifetime as much as we had dreamed we would.
The Bible offers a few unflattering peeks into the lives of the aged. Naomi had become sad, cynical, and even bitter (Ruth 1:11–15, 20). Eli had become "an old man and heavy" (1 Sam. 4:18). Samuel must have felt the bite of age discrimination when his fellow Israelites complained, "You are old … now appoint a king to lead us" (8:5). The elders of Israel must have felt slighted when Rehoboam rejected their advice—probably in part because they were older and their views seemed out of sync with the times (1 Kings 12:6–15). The natural response is to feel that the good "old days" were better, though Solomon warns that such thoughts are unhelpful (Eccles. 7:10). Contrary to many television ads, Solomon warned that we cannot avoid the struggles of growing old. Rather, he said the days of trouble will come, and we will say, "I find no pleasure in them." Poetically he describes eyes that no longer see clearly, hands that tremble, backs that stoop, teeth that fall out, ears that don’t hear, and hair that turns white—along with insomnia, various fears, and difficulties in getting around (12:1–5). Moses was painfully honest when he wrote, "We finish our years with a moan" (Ps. 90:9).
Yet this is not the sum total of what the Bible says about growing old. A few Old Testament writers refer to it as living to "a good old age" (Gen. 15:15; 25:8; Judg. 8:32; 1 Chron. 29:28). Job’s friend Elihu alluded to the honor that comes with age when he remained silent because he was in the presence of those older than himself (Job 32:4–9). Solomon even described gray hair as a "splendor" (Prov. 20:29). In the New Testament Jesus’ attitude toward the elderly dispels any notion of a loss of dignity or worth. When it came to generosity, He reserved his words of praise for a poor (and I assume old) widow (Luke 21:1–4), and He castigated those Pharisees who dishonored their elderly parents by failing to care for them (Matt. 15:4, 6). The apostle Paul viewed "long life on the earth" as a blessing (Eph. 6:2–3). His frequent reference to elders and widows in the Pastoral Epistles suggests that in some ministry situations age is even preferred over youth.
Abraham and Sarah are perhaps the greatest example of God showing honor to the aged. They were beyond their childbearing years when God chose them to be the conduits of the promised Messiah (Rom. 4:18–20; Heb. 11:11–12). Abraham was one year short of a century when God called him to greater holiness: "Walk before me and be blameless" (Gen. 17:1). Age was not a factor in being blessed by God (17:1, 15). Neither did it hinder God from doing the miraculous (17:19, 24; 18:11–13). Nor did age dissuade Him from revealing His sovereign plans (18:17). Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety when they became the parents of Isaac, whose name means "laughter" (21:2–7). What was worth laughing about? Was it not precisely that God chose them in their old age to be the means of blessing for all nations? The situation was so remarkable that it brought forth laughter. But Abraham was even older when his greatest test of faith came (22:1). Issac was referred to as a "boy," a term also used to describe Abraham’s servants (22:5). This can refer to an age anywhere between early childhood (Exod. 2:6) and young manhood (1 Chron. 12:28). The boy was at least old enough to carry firewood, and some have suggested he was as old as twenty (Gen. 22:6). So if Isaac was in his mid-teens, his father was nearly one hundred fifteen! Even a few years later when Abraham was "old and advanced in years," we see him instigating a task that would have ultimate significance in God’s plan. Perhaps physically unable to travel, he sent his servant on a mission to secure a bride for Isaac (24:1). Abraham’s last recorded deed was passing his inheritance on to Isaac (25:5–6). Thus there came the time when Abraham’s service was vicarious in nature, the Lord working through his son and eventually his grandchildren.
God used others in their old age, too. Daniel was in his eighties when God entrusted to him some of the most detailed prophecies in Scripture (Dan. 10:1–12:13). Paul wrote Scripture and aided in the reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon when he characterized himself as "Paul the aged" (Philem. 9). According to tradition John the elder was quite old when he wrote the last book of the Bible. When Peter was younger, he failed miserably, but when he was older, Jesus purposed to use him in an ultimate way (John 21:18). The terms "elder" and "widow" found throughout the Pastoral Epistles suggest that the church benefits greatly from the service of those who have walked with Christ for decades.
Growing old does present challenges. Certain opportunities subside. But age is not a prelude to fruitlessness or insignificance. Other opportunities emerge. Without the pressures of work, when the drive for money or fame recede into the background, we have more time for devotion and undivided service. One of Solomon’s conclusions was "When people live to be very old, let them rejoice in every day of life" (Eccles. 11:8, NLT).