Moses, in the classic movie The Ten Commandments (1956), goes down to oversee the work of the Hebrew slaves. He does not yet know that he too is Hebrew by birth; Egypt’s golden chalice rests comfortably in hand. He arrives after the taskmasters have seized Joshua (his future assistant and successor), who just rescued an old Hebrew woman nearly crushed under a large stone.
Deaf to pleas to spare the old woman, the taskmasters had refused to halt the workforce to free her. The woman couldn’t escape. So Joshua went down and struck an Egyptian overseer, halting the work immediately, sparing her life and forfeiting his own.
Moses, prince of Egypt, arrives at the behest of a Hebrew woman. Hearing what happened, he asks Joshua, “Do you know it is death to strike an Egyptian?”
“I know it,” he responds.
“Yet you struck him. Why?”
“To save the old woman.”
“What is she to you?”
“An old woman.”
Moses took less time to recover from the slap than I did. Because she is an old woman. I realized how much more Moses I was, than Joshua, in this exchange. Joshua had a clear moral category I lacked: that of saving an old woman simply because she is an endangered old woman. His heroism needed no further explanation or incentive. She did not need to be his mother, his aunt, or his queen. For Joshua to forfeit his own life for hers, all she needed to be was an old woman, desperate for help.
This exchange left a mark because I imagined my own inner calculus in the crisis:
Do what you can — chide the taskmasters for their insensitivity and murder; receive a lashing for it even — but don’t be so foolish as to lay down your own life for hers.
To do otherwise seemed bad math.
She already stood with one foot in the grave. Her best days of productivity, of house and community building, faded in the rearview. The way of women had ceased with her (Genesis 18:11). Weak and frail, she had mere days and months ahead of her; I gripped years and decades by the throat. Her sun was setting; I was rising. How could her remaining life outweigh mine?
And yet, in a flash of glory Joshua strikes the oppressors, venturing to substitute his life for hers.
Do you know such calculations on a smaller scale? Are we today a people known for honoring our elderly with our time, resources, and attention? Or is it not the case that if a friend should proverbially walk an old lady across the street, we would instinctively ask, “Who is she to you?” The youthful, the innovative, the beautiful, the YouTube sensations, the celebrities and professional athletes receive our admiration. The enfeebled, the mostly spent, the hard of hearing and seeing and walking do not.
Is it not true that the elderly mostly live in the background of our attention, cast as the extra pecking away at an iPhone, trying to send a text? Youth are rarely taught to honor grandma and grandpa, let alone the aged in general.
The scene of this endangered old woman comes closer to God’s timeless expectations than our assumptions today. The real Moses would soon write a law that read, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). A special respect and care were due to the elderly of Israel.
Why don’t we stand before the elderly man in our midst? Why so little honor paid to the weathered face of the old woman? Why so little fear of God? Of the many options, I contribute two that have discipled me to give less regard to the elderly than is fitting.
Throughout time, the elderly have served as sages of the community. They have experienced and lived, lost and learned lessons lacking among the untested thoughts and ideals of youth.
So Job spoke, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). So Elihu explained his deference in saying, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom” (Job 32:7). And so Paul exhorts that the older women are to “teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (Titus 2:3–5). Generally, the elderly ought not only to be the wisest among us, but also regarded as so.
But what is abuelo and abuela compared with all-wise Google? What can they tell me that a quick search can’t? Expertise on anything under the sun lies at my fingertips. What good is one old chief, viewing life from his narrow, dated lens, compared with a million sages with advanced degrees, anticipating the next trends and offering unsleeping counsel on anything I care to know?
Jesus taught that Christians who lose family for his sake receive back a hundredfold in the church. We seem to believe that those who lose wisdom from the elderly receive back a millionfold on the Internet.
Our society does not like to look at death. Our funerals are short; our grieving brief. When the signs of the end begin, we cover it. We dye our hair. We get fake teeth. We iron wrinkles and use liposuction. We diet and make-up and teeth-whiten to preserve the appearance that we will live forever. While living, we embalm.
We all dread the infirmities old age brings. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 12:1–8, captures the “evil days” of aging in poetic terms. These are days when one says, “I have no pleasure in them” (verse 1). Days when the sun and moon and stars darken, and you live under perpetual cloud (verse 2). Days when hands and arms shake violently, strong men hunch, and your grinders — your teeth — cease because they are few (verse 3). Days lived indoors with light sleeping and little hearing (verse 4). Days afraid of heights, days of graying hair and shriveled appetite (verse 5). Days when the golden bowl begins cracking, the silver chord begins fraying, and the body prepares to return to dust and the spirit to God (verse 6–7). Vanity of vanities, the Preacher concludes (verse 8).
And so what are we to do with these weathered boats with tattered masts sailing among us, these reminders of what the crash of time and sin is doing to us all? Honor them or ignore them? See glory in their worn faces or our own inevitable defeat? In the halls of honor, we do not keep dying flowers.
Our God would have us stand up before the gray head and honor the old face.
What can the aged teach us (a question already lacking humility)? Well, while any elderly person can speak of the scars and successes of human experience, the old saints in the church can tell you about a lifetime of God’s faithfulness, his kindness, his steadfast love.
Siri will not answer how good God has been to her. Google cannot testify that even to old age, God has carried him through countless trials (Isaiah 46:4). The wrinkled face of the saint with a wrinkled Bible is a treasure to all who love God and want to know him more. And the elderly saint, “full of sap and green,” has a testimony and wisdom that the young and beautiful and strong need to hear (Psalm 92:12–15). David wanted to age for this very purpose: “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” (Psalms 71:18).
“Gray hair crowns an old and well-lived life, a life that should be celebrated, not ignored.”
And what of the challenges of growing frail? How do we commend that? The Bible also speaks of fullness of days as a splendor. “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). We see the glory, but not the splendor. And, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31). Gray hair crowns an old and well-lived life, one that should be celebrated, not overlooked.
We miss much of the wisdom and glory of old age when the elderly dwell apart. Ancient times did not have government-run nursing homes, social-security programs, or retirement centers. All three converged in one place: the household. With multigenerational living now mostly a thing of the past in the West, we pick and choose to see our elderly family or not, affording them little influence in our lives. And without multigenerational representation, we can miss it in the church as well.
Of course, some elderly people have not lived wisely or well. Yet, John Piper observes, “There are tokens of respect and demonstrations of honor that belong to older people, simply because they are older. God has granted them to live long, and you shall fear your God by honoring the men and women who have borne his image to old age.”
The fear of God presides over this honor. Piper again says of Psalm 71,
This text commands the younger ones among us not to stride presumptuously and carelessly into the presence of an older person as though we were crossing no gap — as though we and they were simply peers with no special respect and honor to be shown to them. “You shall rise up before the gray head; you shall show honor to face of an old person.” . . .
And the loss of these manners of respect from baby boomers and teenagers is directly related to their small view of God and the contemporary foreignness of the idea of the fear of God. If God has become a buddy, you can hardly expect people to stand when an old man enters the room.
“The old saints in the church can tell you about a lifetime of God’s faithfulness, his kindness, his steadfast love.”
Some elderly among us forfeit degrees of honor because of how they lived. Yet old age is still to be acknowledged. We take the customs of our culture and communicate to our elders, “You are venerable.”
Technological advances, state-run nursing homes, the worship of innovation and progress, and Western individualism may make it seem unnatural to show special honor to the elderly. Society little incentivizes my generation to look to old heads for wisdom or show deference or respect. The old is passing away; the new has come.
But while we smirk at the old man struggling with his iPhone, or shake our head as the old woman drives 30 miles per hour under the speed limit, God calls for honor. While we size up the gray hair and wrinkled faces for what we think they contribute to the progress of society, God might have us stand when they enter the room.
Do you honor the gray head in your family, neighborhood, church? When the world observes how we behave among the elderly — especially the elderly in the church — and they wonder aloud, “What is she to you?”
In the fear of the Lord, reply, “An old woman.”