“The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness” (Prov 16:31)

In the normal course of events it is assumed that with age comes wisdom, that life’s experiences teach lessons that make for better judgment and stability. Elihu thought that it should be the case. He refrained from speaking before his elders saying, “Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom” (Job 32:7); and Eliphaz was sure he was right because, as he says to Job, “With us are both the gray-headed and very aged men, much elder than thy father” (15:10). When Rehoboam followed the advice of the young men, his contemporaries, and forsook the counsel of the older men, the result was disastrous (1 Kings 12). But is this axiomatic? Our reading of the Scripture shows us that it is not necessarily the case. There are numerous examples of prominent and godly men who made shipwreck of their lives in old age. Herein lies a lesson and warning for us all. There is much truth in the words, ‘there’s no fool like an old fool’. Let us look briefly at some of these cases.

Examples from the past

Take the case of Solomon. He was greatly loved by his God and given wisdom greater than any other. He was brought up by David, “a man after (God’s) own heart”, but this did not guarantee that he would complete his life as he commenced it: “For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with Yahweh his God” (1 Kings 11:4). Powerful influences bore down upon him and adversely affected his judgment. The accumulation of wealth and power, fascination with foreign women and pagan religious rites, insidiously warped his values and brought the anger of Yahweh upon him (v9). He was older, but he was not wiser.

Look at the life of Asa. In his early years he abolished idolatry, was granted a great victory against a huge army of Ethiopians, and united his people in a solemn covenant with Yahweh (2 Chron 14, 15). But this did not mean that he would benefit from life’s experiences and rely always on Yahweh. When Baasha, king of Israel, came up against him he sought aid from the Syrians and did not rely on God (2 Chron 16). When Hanani the prophet rebuked him for this he was furious and had him imprisoned (Prov 15:31, 32)! And after that, instead of seeking Yahweh’s help when stricken with disease in his feet, he sought to the physicians (2 Chron 16:12). What had happened to this great man? The outstanding acts of faith and valour were missing in his old age.

There seems to be a pattern. Kings enjoy great privileges, riches and power. These evident things can come to mean more than the blessings of God, than the things that are “not seen” but which are eternal.

Uzziah is another relevant example. He was 16 when he began to reign and he reigned 52 years. Poignantly we read that “as long as he sought Yahweh, God made him to prosper” (2 Chron 26:5). But then we read that “he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction” (2 Chron 26:15–16). He even presumed to take to himself the priestly role and “went into the temple of Yahweh to burn incense”. Why did he do this? He knew that according to the Word of God the sons of Aaron were to perform such duties. His wealth and power had eroded his wisdom. Humility before his God had ebbed away to the point where he thought he was above the law, that he could breach God’s law with impunity. Yet fundamentally this is true in the case of all sin.

There is also the great king of Judah, Hezekiah. We read of his inspiring faith and leadership in times of crisis, but strangely in later years we read of his possessions, his “exceeding much riches and honour”, and how his heart too was lifted up bringing wrath upon Judah and Jerusalem (2 Chron 32:25–29). It is a relief to read that at length he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart” (v26).

Is today any different?

We should all know about the demon of disguised pride. We are quick to recognize pride in others but are easily deceived by it in our own case. We, too, live in an affluent world and enjoy great blessings, but if not kept in perspective they can lift up our hearts. We need always to realize how frail we are and that we are utterly dependent on the grace of God: essentially we of ourselves are nothing and have nothing (Job1:21;1Tim6:7). We are what we are by the grace of our Father. This we are liable to forget when riches and power come our way. “If riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Psa 62:10). Too often we find even in the Truth that those we have loved and esteemed are capable of acting in the most foolish of ways. Thereby great damage is done to the Truth; there is shock and often many are disillusioned. How could this happen? How can brethren and sisters so highly regarded falter in such ways? In a certain sense we should not be surprised at what flesh is capable of.

Pride comes before a fall. Riches and power can lead us astray, can intoxicate us so that we have a mistaken view of our own importance. We may even think that we are immune to temptations that others would be unable to resist: “… let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall”(1 Cor10:12). “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” How different this is to the teaching of Christ. As Peter says, “be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5); and Paul calls upon us to be “kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Rom 12:10). How different is such a ‘mental climate’ to that where pride blinds and reigns. And remember that age does not secure us against folly.

We need always to hear what is being said. Sometimes we find advice hard to take, like king Asa. It is the Word of God, ingested daily, that ‘keeps our feet on the ground’ and tells us what the flesh is like. Solomon made an observation which tragically he failed to uphold when he said, “Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished” (Eccles 4:13). It can be very difficult to give advice when the response is likely to be explosive. But if we observe a brother or sister sinning we have the responsibility to speak to them about it, in a manner and at a time most likely to be received favourably.

A personal experience

Quite some years ago another brother and I were approached by an older esteemed brother who said he wanted to give us some advice. So in a private place he spoke to us about things he had observed in his life and he thought they would be of interest and perhaps be a warning to us. He said that he had seen many men prosper, do well in their vocations, enjoy promotion and the fruits that come by that. They had been entrusted with responsibilities and authority, had experience of ‘men and things’ and everything seemed to be progressing wonderfully for them and their families. But then suddenly their world had collapsed around them. Power had enabled them to manipulate situations, they were answerable to no-one, and opportunities had come their way which they were not able to resist and they had fallen. There are various scenarios which can be imagined … but the brother earnestly turned to us and said, “Don’t let that happen to you!” It was a solemn warning and unforgettable. I have repeated this story to younger brethren who have been ‘successful’. The fact is that the only way to be successful in life is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Every other course will end in remorse and abject failure.

Hopefully what I have said here might be a wake-up call for brethren in these last and perilous days where opportunity and temptation abound.

The wisest man of all

The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was the wisest man who ever lived. He did always the things that pleased his Father. From early days he was instructed by his Father. Morning by morning he was awakened: “he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned” (Isa 50:4). At the tender age of twelve he was found in the Temple and “all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47). “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature [mrg ‘age’], and in favour with God and man” (v52).

Assiduous attention was given to the Word of God. By it he was able to vanquish the temptations of ‘the diabolos’ (Luke 4). The display of wisdom in both his teaching and his deportment distinguished him from his fellows. Six months prior to his death on the cross, he went up into the Temple and taught. His words were with power and even his detractors were caused to marvel and to exclaim, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15,16).

There was no faltering in his life, though endowed with immeasurable power and wisdom which could have been misused. He was true to the will of his Father. There could be no derailing of this one, who was devoted to the purpose his Father had with him. Sin would have to be conquered in the very nature in which it had found expression in all others, and so it was when he was crucified.

Finally

What does this mean for all of us?

In considering the pitfalls of age, it is important to keep things in perspective. The Apostle Paul enjoined on Timothy respect for older brethren, “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father”; and to count those who rule well “worthy of double honour” (1 Tim 5:1,17); but these hoary heads need to be “in the way of righteousness”.

Our Lord is the greatest example of consistency. There was no wavering, there could not be. Our pilgrimage can be a long road. Like our Lord we must be steadfast and unmovable, for he that endures to the end shall be saved. May it not be said of us that when we were old we were not wise.