Old Age Comforted
by John MacDuff
"Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he — I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you!" Isaiah 46:4
We have here another example Isaiah's contrasted passages. "Carry" and "sustain" are the two emphatic words singled out for this antithesis. The idols of Babylon are, in the opening verse of the chapter, represented as being "carried away" as spoil from the conquered city: they are piled on the backs of camels, and horses, and elephants — and these beasts of burden are described as groaning under the load. The gold and silver idols — the tutelary deities of Chaldea, which should have proved the guardians of the city and the defense of the besieged — are themselves borne along by panting teams in the enemies' caravans (verse 1), "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops. Their idols are carried away by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome."
'Not so,' says Jehovah, in verse 3, "O House of Jacob, and remnant of the House of Israel." Not so is it with the God you serve. These dumb idols cannot 'carry' their votaries. They have themselves to be 'carried.' But, "I will' carry' you." I have carried you "from the womb." "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he — I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you!"
These words bring God before us, under the new but beautiful and tender image of a father bearing in his arms, the child he loves. It is a repetition of the same emblem employed by Moses, in his wilderness address to Israel: "The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place!" (Deuteronomy 1:30-31).
We have a kindred image in the prophecies of Hosea, where Ephraim is represented, first as a little child, a tender infant, and Jehovah dealing with him as such. "It was I who taught Ephraim to walk — taking them by their arms" (Hosea 11:3). As the babe is, by and by, no longer carried in arms — but led by the hands, to teach it to walk; so God is, in the same passage, represented as conducting His children from stage to stage, alike in the natural and spiritual life.
"I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love" (verse 4). The picture here is fuller and more comprehensive still. It is the delineation of His unwavering covenant faithfulness — not in infancy or adulthood only — but extending from the cradle to the grave — from the smiles of the lisping babe — to the white hair of old age — when, lapsing into second childhood, tender nursing is again required. "Even to your old age," says God, "I am He" [or rather, "I am the same"].
Indeed the comparison of parental affection falls short of the reality. The care of the earthly parent is diminished or withdrawn on the approach of manhood — the same tender solicitude is not needed, as in the helpless period of infancy. Moreover, in the case of the parent, advancing years and infirmities — too often frustrate and forbid former efforts of love; while many are left fatherless and motherless, to pursue their solitary unbefriended way. Not so 'our Father in heaven!' No weakness, no infirmity paralyzes His arm! From the hour of birth — to the hour of death — it is one unbroken ministry of paternal kindness.
Of the temples of Babylon it is here said, "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops." These were the two great deities of Chaldea. The temple of BEL (Belus, or Baal), with its spiral colossal tower, on the right bank of the Euphrates, and its statue of gold twelve cubits high — was one of the seven wonders of the world. It was supposed to be erected for the worship of the planet Jupiter; while NEBO was the golden image which represented Mercury, the planet which was imagined in their mythology to be the attendant scribe or 'recorder' of the more brilliant orb, ever busy registering the phenomena of the heavens above, and the events of the earth beneath. Both of these idols and their lordly temples have fallen. What is left of them has become the haunt and home of the "the desert owl and the screech owl, the great owl and the raven" — and all doleful creatures.
In futile attempts to identify the site of what once "reached unto heaven" (Genesis 11:4), travelers can only state the competing claims of unsightly mounds on which the roving Arab pitches his tent. But "the Lord lives." While the visible heathen temples have "bowed down" and become a mass of humiliating ruin — the Invisible God ever lives and loves; lives as a Father, loves as a Father: "Even to your old age I am He!" — the same.
(Bel and Nebo are familiar compounds of the names of the chief Babylonian kings, such as Bel-shazzar, Nebo-chadnezzar.
In our own British Museum there is a remarkable stone — a block of black basalt in ten columns, with the cuneiform character, on which the following is part of an inscription extending to 620 lines: "Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, the supreme lord, the adorer of Nebo. I have restored the sanctuaries of the god. For Merodach is the great god, who created me; and Nebo his son sustains my royalty, and I have always exalted the worship of his august divinity. Nebo, the guardian of the hosts of heaven and earth, has committed to me the scepter of justice to govern men."
It is the believer who is "well stricken in years" — he whose "grey head is a crown of glory," being "found in the way of righteousness" — who alone can bear witness to the reality of this utterance of divine comfort! How many such there are! How many, trembling on the verge of the threescore and ten — can summon the four evangelists of life — Infancy, Youth, Manhood, Old Age — to write their dying — their farewell testimony, as to God's unchanging fidelity, and that, too, despite of manifold conscious changes both around them and within them!
There may be changes in their outward worldly circumstances. All else — much else — may have failed them, or been taken from them: like that file of wagons of which we have just spoken, bearing away the boasted spoil and treasure of Chaldea. Ah! how many a wagon-load of earthly treasure — sacred, hallowed things, to which their yearning affections have clung like the fond votary to his gods — have they seen borne away? Now, it is the wagon-load of worldly goods — the gold and silver they had taken years to amass. Now, it is the wagon-load of beloved clay-idols — hurled by death — the great foe of human happiness, from the dearest pedestals of their hearts, and sent away to the land of forgetfulness. Looking back through the long vista of the pilgrimage, what a strange file of spectral, gloomy visions — mingles with the hazy past!
But there is ONE — the true divine 'Recorder' of events in earth and heaven — who is without any variableness. There is no alteration in the promises of His holy word. These, which the old man once lisped as a babe on his mother's knee — are the same which now hang on his lips as he enters with feeble step the dark valley of death! The same Sun of righteousness which gilded life's early prime — gives a silver lining or golden fringe to the evening clouds. Like Jacob, with the same staff with which he set out in early morn from Bethel — he crosses Jordan.
And not only is the world changed around him — external circumstances altered; but he is himself changed — a mere wreck of what once he was. The house of his earthly tabernacle, once strong and stable, is now broken-down and torn with the chinks of age; the timbers are creaking, the windows are blurred and dimmed with cobwebs; the buckets are standing empty by the fountain, for "the wheel is broken at the cistern." No longer with elastic step can he go forth to climb the mountain, or to mingle with the reapers in the songs of harvest, or with the martial ranks in the shout of battle.
But he has sublime compensations. While the outward man is perishing — the inward man is renewing day by day; and, as in a former beautiful simile, like the eagle moulting its feathers, he "renews his strength."
The old Christian, despite of bodily weakness and infirmity — occupies a noble vantage-ground in spiritual experience and blessing. With what a glory are those divine promises to him invested, of which we have already spoken, which the young believer knows nothing of! The youth can only see these promises in the bud; the aged believer has gathered the rich flowers and fruits of autumn. The youth only catches, now and then — a glimpse of the mountain tops, as he ascends from the valley; the aged believer, up among the snows of years, is breathing the pure and exhilarating air of 'the better country.'
What a halo of glory encircles the head of the great Apostle, when he is "such a one as Paul the aged!" (Philemon 9.) He was left, as old age often is — alone, unsolaced. "Only Luke is with me" (2 Tim. 4:11), was the utterance of the friendless man; and many around were doing all they could, to embitter these closing moments, and mantle his evening in dark clouds. But his faith was too deep, too strong for that. If he had trusted to the idols of his former life — the vain confidences in which once he gloried — it would have been a gloomy close to a chequered day. 'But' says he, 'nothing can shake my faith; they may leave me, scorn me, malign me, scourge me, kill me. They may consign this aged body to the flames, and scatter its ashes on the wide sea!' "But, nevertheless, I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Tim. 1:12).
If we would have God as the prop of declining years — let us glorify Him with the strength of adulthood. It is only if we can say with the Psalmist, "O God, You have taught me from my youth — and hitherto have I declared Your wondrous works," that we can have good warrant to add, "Now also, when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not;" "forsake me not when my strength fails." It is a miserable thing to give to Him only the dregs and sweepings of life — the remnants of "a worn and withered love."
In our great military hospitals, it is only those grey-haired veterans who have fought the battle in youth and manhood — who can be received as pensioners. It is long and devoted service — which is the passport to admission there. The inhabitants there, bear upon them marks of the fight — the mutilated limb or the scar of battle; or medals hang on their chest — the mementoes of brave and heroic deeds.
Let us work while it is called today. Let us give to God, not the crumbs which fall from life's table — but the best of the feast; not the evening hour of weariness and sleep — but the morning prime of active energy; not the few stray winter berries left on the top of the olive-tree — but the ripe and abundant autumn fruits. And who among us shall have cause to lament the early surrender, the early consecration?
Old age without God? — it is the picture of worry, discontent, fretfulness, gloom!
Old age with God? — it is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness!
In the one case, it is the rain and the wind and the storm entering through the gaping chinks and apertures of the shattered tabernacle — and the crouching old man sits shivering in the deepening night-shadows by the smouldering ashes of his chilly hearth! In the other case — it is the sweet radiance of the summer sun sending its beams through these crevices of decaying earthly life. No! it is better; it is Jehovah's own light and love — stray sunbeams from the heavenly glory wandering down to illumine the crumbling tenement, tuning aged lips to sing, "My heart and my flesh fails — but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever!"
Old age without God? — the best wine is in this case taken first — youth and manhood drain the cup. When these are ended — the wine is exhausted; waning years must be content with "that which is worse," or mocked with the empty vessel.
Old age with God? — the best wine is kept for the last.
Old age without God? — it is graphically described, in this chapter, as the overturn of all worldly pride and glory, "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops!" It is the spoliation of the earthly temple, the pillage of everything that ministered to earth's ephemeral happiness.
Old age with God — it can stand with the prophet, even in the midst of catastrophe and ruin and death, claiming as its own — the sustaining words, "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you!"
"When anxiety was great within me — Your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer!" Psalm 94:19