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Occasional Letters: Solomon's Three Rs

D Newell, Glasgow

They tell me that retired men have time on their hands. The other day, while I was scrutinizing mine, it struck me forcibly how much they resembled my mother's as she became older – wrinkled, crinkled and worn. I remember holding hers during her final illness with a sense of sadness at the tangible evidences of bodily deterioration. Time takes its toll on the hands as on the rest of the physical frame. The gloomy Jaques in Shakespeare's As You Like It famously reduces old age to "second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Those who know the play will perhaps recall that his cynicism is immediately challenged by the arrival on stage of an elderly servant supported by his young master: age and youth in mutually profitable harmony. That's the very essence of assembly fellowship. But it makes sense to know about ageing while we are still young. Here's Solomon's advice:

Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity. Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity (Eccl 11.9 – 12.8).

This sharply etched piece of poetry offers an educational programme far superior to the traditional three Rs of my childhood. Solomon's key words are "rejoice", "remove", and "remember". However, before considering his counsel we must bear in mind that he was not a Christian but an Old Testament Jewish believer. Wise though he was, he knew nothing of an accomplished work of salvation, a heavenly citizenship, or the hope of the Lord's return for His saints. Even the truth of resurrection was a faint glimmer. These things were not clearly disclosed before Christ came. The technical term is "progressive revelation": God did not unfold everything at once but gradually, bit by bit, over time. That said, Solomon's insight is telling. He reminds the young that they will become old – and it happens far more quickly than you can imagine.

Drawing on vocabulary associated with a range of human experiences – weather, a decaying building, the natural world, Near Eastern funeral customs, a broken well – he paints a portrait both arresting and sobering. Age and death are the expected destiny of fallen humanity. The onward march of mortality causes the hands ("the keepers of the house") to tremble and the legs ("the strong men") to totter under the weight of years. The teeth ("grinders") begin to fall out and the sight becomes clouded. Hearing ("the doors…in the streets") is impaired and appetite ("the sound of the grinding") diminished, while a night's sleep is all too easily disturbed and the voice reduced to an unmelodious croak. The elastic vitality of youth gives way to anxiety when ascending or descending a flight of stairs, and to real concerns about physical frailty. The hair (if one is still blessed with any) turns white ("the almond tree shall flourish"), and the lightest load constitutes an encumbrance ("the grasshopper shall be a burden"). As the grave approaches, all the exhilarating aspirations and enthusiasms of youth vanish. Solomon's one non-metaphorical image cements the point: "the mourners go about the streets". The conclusion is a graphic description of breakdown: the aesthetically precious ("silver cord…golden bowl") and the vitally functional ("pitcher...wheel") disintegrate ("loosed…broken"). And it's back to Genesis in a reversal of the original creative act, for the body returns to dust and the spirit to God. The cycle is complete.

Now, Solomon's aim is not to foster debilitating morbidity but to stimulate the wise investment of time in the present. Some of my older readers may be dismayed by the apparent negativity of his sketch, but let's not forget that the Old Testament balances it with the prospect of a spiritually satisfying maturity: "Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing" (Ps 92.13-14). If we stick close to the Lord and His people we can continue to bear the fruit of godly character for His glory, for though there may be retirement in Christian service there is none in Christian living. And there are encouraging Biblical examples (Moses, Barzillai, Anna, Mnason) to cheer our souls. Visiting a Scottish castle recently, I was heartened to discover that OAPs (as they used to be called) not only received generous discounts but were ingeniously re-classified as "Super-Adults". Younger believers should take note, for the old have deep reservoirs of experience from which to instruct their juniors if they have but the ear to listen. Don't overlook the super-adults in your local assembly.

So what is Solomon's training programme for the young? Rejoice, that is, make the most of youth with all its fervour and energy, always bearing in mind that earthly existence is transient and that there is an assessment at the close. God-given life is meant to be pleasant (the God of the Bible is no kill-joy), but its delights only make sense when we live for the One on whom we are dependant and to whom we are accountable. Therefore, remove (translated "put away" in Proverbs 4.24) anything that will impede or damage a saintly lifestyle: expel sorrow (that is, vexation or any inappropriate attitude) from the heart, and evil (any improper action) from the flesh. The New Testament equivalents are Hebrews 12.1 and 1 Peter 2.1. And (here's the key command) "remember thy Creator". Solomon is not advocating a barren intellectual exercise but a serious and practical course of conduct. The word is first used of God remembering Noah (Gen 8.1) – no passing thought but positive action for Noah's benefit. It's used of Joseph asking the chief butler for assistance in getting him out of prison: "think on me [remember me] when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me" (Gen 40.14). To remember one's Creator is to think upon Him, to give Him His place, to bring Him into one's reckoning at every stage of life. And the Christian believer will want to amplify "Creator" in the light of Calvary: "Remember thy Creator, thy Saviour, thy Master". New Testament revelation has expanded our knowledge of God. To live for Him is the secret of a joyful youth and a contended age.

To be continued.


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