Age of Despair or Age of Testimony?; Psalm 71

I remember my grandfather before he passed away always being a pretty big guy. During the 50’s, when he was younger, he served in the Navy, so he was fairly muscular and strong. Further, he stood about half a foot taller than most people, so if you ever saw a photo of him from around that time you would see someone standing upright and confident. As time went on, he began to lose a lot of that muscle which he worked to achieve and began to develop a slouched posture so much so that inevitably (and for most of the time that I knew him) he walked around with a cane or a walker in his hands. A lot of the active muscle which kept him upright now weighed him down and became a burden to him.

The topic of aging is often a neglected subject in that we do not often hear teaching on the Christian view of it. We talk about dying certainly, but we usually do not hear emphasis on what precedes death: old age. I am willing to wager that the bulk of our aversion to this subject has to do with us being uncomfortable with the idea of loss. In particular, we do not like the idea of us being somehow lesser than we once were and the difficulties which come with aging. Our culture is very individualistic, and sometimes that is a good thing. However, in our corporate enthusiasm for personal achievement and public accomplishment before others we often inadvertently wince at dependence and the notion that one day we ourselves will be totally dependent on the mercies and cares of others. What was once our strength and what we lived upon is lost to us and can even become a burden which we must carry into a weaker stage of life. It is these realities with which the writer of Psalm 71 is wrestling.

This psalm is interesting in that there is no one dominant theme which runs throughout it. It has elements of invocation against one’s enemies, constant praise to God for His righteous deeds, and prayers for God not to forget the psalmist in times of weakness and dismay, in particular during his old age, so the question I want to navigate is how does the psalmist come to terms with his elderly age? How ought the Christian orient himself in anticipation of the fact that he will become old and die? Furthermore, as the writer of this psalm is anonymous to us, I want to examine the life of Jacob as an Old Testament figure who will picture the principles of Psalm 71. We will see how Jacob’s life is a manifestation of Psalm 71, and how the conditions of the life of the psalmist, Jacob, and the Christian today all mirror one another when it comes to aging.

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress” (vv. 1-3, ESV).

The most prominent theme throughout this psalm and where the psalmist goes first is declaring the righteousness and security of the LORD. The psalmist confesses that God Himself is a place of shelter, and this reference in verse 3 which, in the Hebrew, is a “rock of dwelling” is likely not a generic reference to any kind of high rock or firm mountain; rather, what is likely in view here is the Temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, the place where the psalmist “enters continually.” The Temple was a place to hear from the LORD concerning His word and His will for Israelites, so the setting for this psalm is likely the Temple complex where the psalmist is invoking the LORD and praising His name. It is here that the psalmist would encounter the presence of the living God, it is here where he would hear spoken words of teaching in righteousness and assurance of forgiveness before God, and it is here where the psalmist would sing the praises of God continually. Speaking from the perspective of old age, the psalmist also looks back towards his youth in remembrance that this has always been the case.

“For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you” (vv. 5-6).

God’s providence and care has stood over the whole of his life from a very early stage, and it is this past faithfulness which gives credence to the assurance of God’s favor which he currently possesses. The psalmist has experienced God’s righteous acts, and he interprets his life in light of them.

This story is not unique to the psalmist though. Remember that in Genesis 25:23 Jacob too receives attention and care from a very early age. He and his lineage are declared to be served by the older brother and his lineage not because of what he has done; in fact, it is in spite of what he will do that he is blessed by God, and in chapter 28, towards the beginning of his long journey, he encounters God by the stairway leading towards heaven. Jacob sees angels ascending and descending the stairway and declares that he too has witnessed the abode of God. And, similar to the psalmist, Jacob receives word from God about His protection and care for Jacob. “‘Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gn 28:15-17, ESV).

For both Jacob and the psalmist, what defines them is their encounter with the mercies and promises of God in His abode, and, according to Mark 3, for those of us who are in Christ, who do the will of God, we are already in house with Jesus and so we too receive these same mercies and promises. Just as these encounters with God and His word define the lives of the psalmist and Jacob from the very beginning of their lives, so too are our encounters with God through His word and by His Holy Spirit life changing for us and so should alter our disposition towards the future. This does not require us having knowledge of God from a very early age (although there is immense spiritual blessing in that), but it does mean that we always remember and praise God for His provision and righteousness which we have encountered from the beginning of our new, eternal lives in Him.

We have already seen how the psalmist spends the largest portion of Psalm 71 praising God for His righteousness, so for the bulk of this psalm we are led to believe that the presence of God is purely a place of safety where the psalmist can escape the dangers of his enemies and find joy in praising the LORD; however, the reader is stopped in his tracks immediately by the presence of verse 20, “You… have made me see many troubles and calamities.” Suddenly, we are no longer sure where we are. Are we still receiving the joy and promises of God’s righteousness? The psalmist would certainly say yes, but he would add that such a notion is mistaken if we believe that life with God is a parade of euphoric bliss unchallenged by adversities. Similar to the confession of God’s righteousness, another theme which runs throughout this psalm is the writer pleading with God for rescue from his enemies. From the viewpoint of the psalmist, it is not simply that the presence of God has temporal refuge from which the psalmist must go again and again to have a barrier from his enemies. It is that the psalmist must approach the LORD again and again because he knows that God is sovereign over the events of his whole life including the tribulations he undergoes and the enemies he faces. In other words, the psalmist recognizes that at the end of the day, his God who rescues him is the same God who controls the dangers he faces.

We see the same occur with Jacob in Genesis 32. Whereas Jacob’s first encounter with God occurs at the beginning of his journey, this second encounter occurs at the end before his reunion with his brother Esau. Here Jacob also must face adversity, but his adversary is the same God who has promised to bless him from the beginning of his life. Just as the psalmist must come to terms with the fact that God’s sovereignty to bless entails His providence in suffering so too does Jacob’s blessing not come without intense adversity. Jacob wrestling with God is not merely an anecdotal occurrence in the life of one individual but rather is prototypical of the psalmist and all of the faithful of Israel in living with God, and it also stands as essential to the heart of Christian living. Of course, Jacob’s wrestling is far more literal and so too is the mark which he gains by God striking his leg so that for the rest of his life, he must walk with a limp. For the rest of his life, he must bear on his body a sign that he has had an encounter with God, and this encounter has changed him. 

Here, then, is the irony: just as Jacob and the psalmist are marked by their encounter with God’s word and promises, they are equally marked by the adversities God inflicts upon them. The same God whose righteousness defines us also brings adversities which challenge and mark us. The same God who delivers us, slays us, so the question to ask is how then is He still righteous? How can the Christian freely confess with the psalmist that God is righteous even in His provision of blessings and of adversities? I believe that the resolution of these conflicting principles is immediately apparent in the Christian struggle with growing older.

“So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come… You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again. I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (vv. 18, 20-23).

A sentiment which has been crippling to the development of a well-rounded theology of suffering in certain circles has been the abandonment of the idea that there are times when the effects of sin and the desires of God are aligned. I am not (of course) implying that God is comfortable or cozy with sin. Quite the contrary I believe; God sent Christ to destroy sin, but we should not be surprised that when the effects of sin afflict our bodies God is providentially using this to bring about His redemptive purposes.

For example, look at the issue of aging. Why exactly do we age? There are scientific reasons as to the gradual decay of the biological processes which keep us alive, but what is the ultimate reason given at the fall for our growing old? We are cut off from the tree of life, and our communion with God is ruptured and a shadow of its initial good state (Gen 3:22-24). In other words, the biological effect of sin is our growing old and dying. But notice that the psalmist also offers another possibility as to why we grow old: so that we might in our weakness rely upon God and proclaim His sufficiency to another generation. Throughout this psalm we have seen the writer cry out to God for His provision and righteous acts on behalf of the psalmist, and in verse 18 we see the effect of such dependence, “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” The purpose of the psalmist’s dependence on God is the declaration of God’s strength and sufficiency for those who will come after him, and the purpose of the psalmist’s reliance on God in affliction is the preaching and teaching of God to those who will in turn need exhortation to rely upon God and endure sufferings. As such, God has structured the natural life and processes in such a way so that we might age and so rely upon Him in all weakness. 

Is this not reflective of what Jesus says? In Mark 2:17, Jesus notes that it is not the healthy and independent who need a physician but instead it is the weak and dependent who are foremost reliant upon the healing hand of the physician. Paul also proclaims in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient and His power made perfect in weakness; in fact, it is Paul’s preaching about his weaknesses which causes Christ’s power to dwell richly within him. Further, note that in Revelation 12, the holy ones of God overcome Satan and sin not by health and wealth but by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony for it is these which bring them to not love their lives even unto death (v. 11). Note again the irony: it is the testimony about what God has done in their lives which causes them to forsake their lives as a testimony to the righteousness and sufficiency of God and of Christ. Believers overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony. God has accomplished the atoning blood of the lamb, and He is presently working in you the word of your testimony for the next generation. A means by which He accomplishes this feat is by granting to us sufferings and weaknesses in age so that in Him we may be strong.

The effects of sin and the desires of God stand in tandem with one another in our growing old, but where sin brings about age so as to destroy us, God brings about age so as to sanctify us. For the Christian, the purpose of aging is the progression of sanctification and the anticipation of resurrection for the day when God will remake us as He exists: immortal and incorruptible. Look with me once more at the story of Jacob in Genesis 47:28-31. Here Jacob has reached the end of his life, and he summons his son Joseph to command him not to bury him in Egypt. Instead, Jacob tells Joseph to take him back to Canaan, the land of his fathers because in his old age he looks forward to the place promised him and his lineage by God that he might rest there forever. 

As it is true for Jacob so it is for us. Just as in his old age he has hope to rest in the land of his fathers, so too do we have this precious hope that although we will be old and weak, we will be strong and young in Christ in whom our whole being is found. And until that point, the purpose of our aging is the progression of our sanctification and the anticipation of our resurrection. This hope helps us not only prepare ourselves for old age but also the limitations and difficulties which we currently face. This is why before I could preach on aging I first preached upon God’s righteousness. Any proper Christian exposition upon aging will foremost be an examination of the faithfulness of God and our response to it as our response to the latter determines our disposition towards the former. It is how we respond to God’s faithfulness which will impact how we face the adversities to come with age.

So my question to you is, where is your confidence? What are you relying upon in your youth for joy which will only fade as you face the inevitably of old age? What are the pleasures of your youth in which you indulge which will only bring about for you suffering as you grow older?

What relationships are you failing to cultivate? (Have you called your mother?) What meaningful pursuits are you neglecting because you’d rather live a modern life of luxury and self-indulgence rather than one of self-denial and discipline to be conformed to the image of Christ? The time we will have lost in age on meaningless diversions will become far more apparent to us when we are cognizant of what little time we have left. And when time begins to catch up with us, and our bodies and our minds begin to deteriorate, will we approach these adversities with the disposition of sorrow for what is being lost to us or the joy of assurance that what is being built for us is a testimony to the next generation and treasures forevermore to enjoy in Christ?

As Psalm 92 says, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (vv. 13-16).

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