At the End of the Years
"O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come." (Psa.71:17‑18)
There is a ring of mature faith in those stirring words, the mellow confidence of one who gave his heart to the Lord in the golden days of youth and now in the quietude of old age realises that his faith was not misplaced. The One Who gave him work to do in those early days of youthful zeal and enthusiasm has work yet for him to do. Even in old age he may still shew forth the strength of God’s righteousness to a new generation that the work of God may continue. Even while the shadows of death close around him he may still, with his last expiring breath, tell of God’s power and glory to those who are as yet babes in Christ. There is inspiration and encouragement here for those today—and there are many such—who look around on depleted numbers and a diminishing fellowship in which the tale of years is many and the signs of youthfulness almost absent. There is more than inspiration and encouragement, too, there is a call to action and service, a reminder that the labours of the consecrated do not finish short of death, that at all times during our sojourn this side the Vail we are capable of some service for our Lord and King, some means of declaring his strength to this generation and his power to that which is to come.
The Psalmist here admits physical weakness but refuses to admit any ageing of the spirit. As a young man and in the heyday of middle age he rejoiced to declare God’s wondrous works. That was to him the breath of life and without the joy of service life would not be worth living. The whole object and end of his existence was to give praise and honour to God in the sight of all people, to witness to the wonder of his Plan and the grandeur of his Promise to all who would listen. It needs physical vitality as well as mental alertness to do that; one cannot endure the heat and burden of Christian witness in the outward sense without a goodly measure of physical strength. Those not so favoured can and do serve in quieter ways, in the ministry of prayer, the ministry of comfort, the ministry of healing, and so on, but the active work of prosecuting (proclaiming) the Gospel requires the ability to be active in the physical sense. And that is an attribute of the young; it cannot be expected of those who have passed the prime of life and whose physical powers are failing. Such a time must come to all of us and it cannot be avoided. But there is no reason why the spirit should fail too.
This word comes as a reproof and chiding to all who have used advancing age as an excuse to lose interest in the work of God in this Age. It is an unhappy spectacle, and one that is all too common, that of one who has laboured mightily, spending and being spent, in the service of his Master, maybe from early youth, through the twenties and thirties and forties and fifties, and then lost heart. The apparent failure of fond expectations, the disappointments and disillusionments that the Christian life is bound to bring, instead of performing their intended work of making mature and mellow the Christian character, have been allowed to make virtual shipwreck of faith. For it is no good claiming that faith is retained if the works of faith have been relinquished. It is no good saying we still look for and expect the Kingdom if we no longer evince any outward sign of concern for its interests. Our consecration is unto death, and although it may be true that our outward man perish, yet it is equally true that our inward man is being renewed day by day, if so be that we are still faithful to our covenant. (2 Cor.4:16)
There is another and more subtle delusion abroad also. It appeals especially to the elderly. It is the feeling that "the end" is so near and loss of faith in the world so general that the Lord would no longer have his faithful ones preach the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it but rather devote their remaining time and energies exclusively to their own calling and election and that of their consecrated brethren. It is not well to condemn such conclusion too hastily; it is a natural reaction to the rebuffs and failures and apparent lack of success of many long years’ active preaching and witnessing. But the attitude must be deprecated nevertheless. It is not a healthy one. It breeds egotism and self‑righteousness and tends towards an exclusiveness and narrow‑mindedness that is the very reverse of what the mature and mellow Christian should manifest. There was no such thought in the mind of the Psalmist when he wrote these words. He did not say, "Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not while I abide in splendid isolation before thee, proclaiming no more thy glory to this generation and utterly ignoring every one that is to come." Far from it. On the words once more. "Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come." So far from voicing a plea for a kind of "honourable retirement" from the work of evangelising, the Psalmist passionately beseeches that God will not forsake him in his old age until he has declared the message to yet another generation. He wants to labour to the end; he wants with his last expiring breath to declare the greatness of God to those who still know him not.
There is a certain ring of "up‑to‑date‑ness" in the Psalmist’s words. He wants to declare God’s strength to "this generation." He himself, old and greyheaded, belongs to a generation that is past. In many things the world has grown beyond him and the fashion of the world is strange to him. Customs, conventions, practices, which in his day were unknown or not accepted have now become commonplace. The very language in which the new generation talks is one that is fast becoming incomprehensible to him. The pace of life has quickened and those things on which he and his once set such value are now lightly esteemed. The temptation is ever present to withdraw from this strange new world and dwell in more comfortable seclusion with other greyheads of like mind until the call comes to "go home." The world is no longer the understandable place that it was; it is better that we shut it out from our lives and beseech the Lord to take us away from it quickly.
Not so the Psalmist. It is this new and strange and in many ways uncouth generation to which he wished to declare the glory of God. He knows that the fashion of the world must needs change as the clock of time ticks on; he knows that restless man, ever exploring and seeking something new, must change with it, as generation follows generation. He knows, too, that faith will ebb lower and lower with each succeeding age so that the one who takes his stand on the words of God will appear to be more and more an outworn relic of a past era. He knows all this, and feels within himself that he is getting older and more out of tune with this modern way of life. He realises how easy it would be to accept what appears to be the inevitable, and give up the conflict, waiting for the end. He might reasonably anticipate the words of St. Paul and apply them to himself. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day." (2 Tim.4:7‑8)
He might do all this; but he does nothing of the kind! "Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not, until..." What though this new generation has a new language? He will speak to them in that language! What though they adopt customs and conventions and practices which seem to him strange and even repellent? He will relate his message to those customs and conventions and show that generation how the truth of God is for them as well as for those of the past! What though their interpretations and ideas, yea, their very practice of the faith he tries to inculcate in them, show features undreamed of in his own youthful days and features that would have been roundly condemned in those days? He will seek to find in all this the evidences of younger hearts giving themselves to the Lord and strive to give them wise guidance in the pathway that they must certainly tread for themselves and in their own way.
Our own position in this day, as life goes on and we find ourselves surrounded by a new generation whose accepted standards differ so much from ours, is to play the part of understanding counsellors and convinced witnesses. No matter what else changes, the truth of God stands the same. No matter how we must change the language in which it is preached, it remains the same message having the same power over all generations new and old. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." (Heb.13:8 WEB) Our earthly powers may be failing and days of active evangelism be over, but there is always something we can do to declare God’s strength to this generation and his power to that which is to come. Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses while the battle raged; it was little enough they could do but it made all the difference to the outcome. (Exod.17:12) When Israel went out to fight their enemies it was decreed that he who "tarried by the stuff," and cared for the camp property should share equally with the warriors when it came to dividing the spoils. So it is with us; so many there are who must perforce "tarry by the stuff," but all the time they can be "holding up the hands" and contributing to the success of the Lord’s cause. Let those who still can, go forth into active service for the Lord and his Gospel; those who can do so no longer, wait upon him in prayer and supplication, perform the countless little services that mean so much to the warriors in the field, help with words of encouragement and confidence, evincing a ready sympathy with the progress of all that is going on, and in these and many other ways demonstrate their own unity in thought and action with the Church militant all over the world.