You are herePsalm 71: Growing Old in God (I hope I get old before I die)
Psalm 71: Growing Old in God (I hope I get old before I die)
by Jeff Carter
Last Sunday – January 24, 2010 – was my birthday. I turned 35 years old, and I celebrated it like an old man: I took a nap.
Some of you chuckle because you know that 35 isn’t really “old.” And some of you – some of you kids and teenagers – chuckle because you can’t even imagine being old like Captain Jeff. “Old age” is a matter of viewpoint. If you’re only as old as you feel then some of us are younger than our years and others are far older than our years.
Me? Most days I still feel young. I don’t belt my pants above my belly-button. I don’t watch Matlock. I don’t eat dinner at the buffet at 4:30. I don’t grouse about “those ‘dern kids and their rock-and-roll music.” I still believe that if it’s too loud, you’re too old. And I like my music loud.
And yet… I’m starting to notice the occasional grey hair, especially in my beard and mustache. I’m seeing the beginnings of wrinkles around the corners of my eyes. I’ve noticed a change in my metabolism…. I know that I’m not “old” yet, but I can see that I will be, and sooner than I might like.
I used to joke with people that being a Major in The Salvation Army just means that you’re old, but I’ve quit using that joke since I’m only a few years away from being promoted to the rank of Major. “Major Jeff Carter” That just sounds old, doesn’t it? And I’ve realized that in 15 years I’ll be 50. (Yes. 50 seems old to me.) Now to some of the kids and teens, 15 years seems like forever. But I’ve been married to my wife, Mikey, for a few months short of 15 years now, and those years have flown by.
It seems like just a few days ago that Emma was born, and then Dune. But they’re already 10 and 8 years old. How did I get to be so old so fast?
It’s not that I’m afraid of growing old. Not really. In my relatively short life, I’ve had the good fortune to know many good and godly men and women with grey hair and wrinkles. I’ve admired them and learned from them and hope to be even half as interesting and vital as they are / were.
But as we grow older we are forced to reconsider our sense of identity. If you ask a child on their birthday, “how does it feel to be a year older?” they’ll probably tell you that it doesn’t feel much different at all. But with each additional year, we start to notice things changing.
At 35 years old, The Salvation Army expects its officers to have a complete physical examination. COMPLETE. (You know what I mean. And if you’re too young, to know, then you will later…) It’s a very practical and reasonable expectation. It’s time to take stock of my physical condition. Are there health risks of which I need to be aware? Do I need to worry about my cholesterol levels? My dad did, so that’s something I’ll need to watch. Am I at risk for other conditions – cancer or other diseases? Do I need to change my diet? Do I need to exercise more? These are important things to consider as I grow older.
But more than these physical things, turning 35 has caused me to reevaluate who I think I am and who I want to be. As we grow older we are confronted with this changing self and it can be difficult to look at those changes. Though I remember being the moody teenager and the hyper idealistic 20 something, I’m not that Jeff Carter any more. Some things have changed. Some things are still changing. We’re always changing. And so I have to ask myself – Do I like who I am? Do I like what I’ve become? Do I want to keep going this way?
These are difficult questions that confront us as we grow older. Some people confront them earlier than others. Some only realize them later, when they wish things could have been different. As we grow older we are confronted with this changing self – identity and we have to ask, do I like who I am and what I’ve done?
Like the Psalmist of Psalm 71 (who probably was King David) I’ve known God my entire life. My parents raised me with the understanding that I came to them as a gift from God and that they owed me back to God. They taught me the scriptures. They taught me to pray. And, what is more, they set me loose to find my own relationship with God. My faith isn’t my father’s faith. My faith isn’t my mother’s faith. For better or worse, with all my mistakes and failures, my relationship with God has been my personal relationship with God.
The Psalmist says that he has praised God all his life. From his childhood, from his mothers’ breasts, even from the womb, he has known that God has been with him. He has known God’s goodness and grace. He has experienced the wondrous love and the mighty works of God. The name of God comes to his lips in praise. The psalmist has lived a long and full life in the beauty of God.
But all is not golden in his golden years.
He knows that his fading out of life; his strength is melting away, his vitality is diminishing. He can’t run like he used to, his hips and his knees trouble him. He aches when he stands and is sore when he sits. His back hurts him. His arms are weak. His eyesight is fading and the world is growing dim. His hearing is going. He knows that people are speaking to him, but he can’t hear them or understand what they are saying.
This gradual diminution of the physical body was evidence of his gradual descent into Sheol – the pit – into the grave – the place of the dead where existence is minimal and men are strengthless.
And added to this weakening by gradual decline is the threat to the psalmist from his enemies. They pursue him and challenge him. They watch him closely, waiting for an opportunity – a weak moment – when they can overtake him. They can see that he’s not the victorious conquering youth any more. They see his age and they delight in his weakness.
The psalmist says “I’m a wonder unto many” (KJV) “Many were bewildered at me” (NJB) – an expression which has confounded translators and commentators. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do people look at him and say “Oh, how wonderful?” or do they look at him and shake their heads in disdain? Do they wonder why he has suffered so much? One translator (1) has suggested that the line should read “I have been like a target for archers.” They have shot their arrows at him. They have hurled poisoned words and malicious accusations. They have abused him and hounded him.
And he is tired.
He is old and he is tired. These were supposed to be his golden years when people would stand in his presence and honor him. (Leviticus 19:32) His white hair should have been his crown of honor. (Proverbs 16:31) But instead, they are plotting to destroy him.
Weakened by physical decline and by the unrelenting assaults of his enemies, the psalmist imagines himself to be in the lowest circles of Sheol. He feels like he’s already dead. He has exhausted his energy and there is nothing left.
There is nothing left except hope. “I will always hope,” he says. “My hope will never fade. I will ever add to your praise.” Even though he is dead tired, even though he is pursued by foes and slandered by his enemies, he has hope. He has hope in God even though he knows that is God who has led him through all these calamities.
“Though you have made me see full many tribulations, quarrels and wrongs,
You, God, have shown me much misery and hardship,
but you will give me life again, you will restore me to life.”
God has led him through the valley of the shadow of death – and even into death, and yet the psalmist is confident that God will be faithful and that God will restore him to life, that God will resurrect him, as it were.
God has always been his refuge, his stronghold, his fortress. God has not failed him. And now, even at the end of his life, he knows that God will not abandon him. God will not fail him in his hoary old age. God will not be far away (though, it may feel as he is). The psalmist is confident that God will let him live – long enough, anyway to tell the next generation about the goodness of God. The psalmist wants only to tell the children at his knee about the faithfulness and goodness of the God who has protected him and defended him through his life. He wants to tell them of the God whose love never fails, whose promise never fails, whose word never fails.
At 35, I know that I’m not old yet. But I am aware that I’m getting there. (No faster, no slower than anyone else). May it be that I can say, like the Psalmist, that God has been faithful to me – even to my grey haired old age. I trust that God is good.
(1) Dahood, Mitchell, The Anchor Bible Vol. 17 Psalms 51 -100 Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1968. page 173
In the Irony Department: The Who - who did not (excepting drummer Keith Moon) die before they got old - will be performing at the Superbowl next week.