The Discipline of Declining Days
''And it came to pass, when Samuel was old. . .'' (I Sam. 8:1)
There are disciplines of childhood: diligence to obey parents and decision to accept the gospel invitation; of adolescence: dependability, delight, determination, and discipleship; of mature years: duty, darkness, delay, diversion, distinction; there is also that of old age. It is different from earlier disciplines; nevertheless, just as real, with results for good or ill that can help or hinder the rising generation. Samuel, the last of the judges of Israel, affords an excellent illustration of this discipline of declining days.
Declining years bring decrease of activities and responsibilities. The Tireless Thirties and Roaring Forties have given way to the Sensible Sixties and the Slackening Seventies. To grow old gracefully and graciously is a triumph; not to do so is a tragedy. There are those who will never admit to themselves or to others that they have passed the period of their effectiveness and service; and with hard hand and harsh voice they insist upon their place and position, which long since they have ceased to fill. They
can be a grief to themselves and an aggravation unto others; while all the time by facing the facts squarely and sweetly they could be a benediction and blessing to all. One remembers the sage observations of Solomon, ''The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.'' and ''The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head'' (Prov. 16:31, 20:29). One remembers also Browning's words,
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ''A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be
But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I,to the wheel of life
With shapes and colors rife,
Bound dizzily,mistake my end, to slake Thy
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death
complete the same!¹
¹ ''Rabbi Ben Ezra.''
In that regard it is well that men and women in their mature years begin to plan for decreasing responsibilities when that day comes, so that they can adjust themselves without hurt of heart to themselves or harm to others. The best illustration of that foresight, and the lovely fruits thereof, I have seen on the Wheaton campus. While still a young man, he observed that some old men cling to their position too long for their good or that of the work; with the result that he determined, should God spare his life, he would resign his college presidency at sixty, to devote himself loyally to teaching again; at seventy, he would decline all administrative heartaches and headaches, and devote his last active days to decreasing class schedule. One remembers his announcement, with a twinkle in his eye, ''Now I am threescore and ten; and I want nothing more of department chairmanship or heavy committee responsibilities.'' Does anyone wonder that he was the ''Grand Old Man'' of the campus, mellow and mature in his understanding of history, kindly and constructive in his counsel and prayer with students, enthusiastic and active in his attendance at athletic contests, sensible and sagacious in his advice to faculty and administration? He had planned to grow old graciously, and accepted the discipline of declining duties as it came.
A major difficulty in the discipline of graciously granting responsibilities unto younger men and women is the feeling of not being wanted any longer. Samuel had served his people over the span
of a long life. As a child he had been consecrated to the service of God and country; and ''all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord'' (I Sam. 3:20). For more than threescore years he bore willingly and patiently, the burden and grief of leadership of Israel (7:15-17); until as an old man he faced the demand of the elders of his people, ''Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations'' (8:5). He, who had served so long and so unselfishly (see 12:3-5), was no longer wanted in that position. Sad the old heart that sinks under ingratitude and indifference; and by the same token, happy the heart that has learned like Samuel to bring every matter to the Most High. ''And Samuel prayed unto the Lord'' (8:6). The Lord has a way of answering His trusted servant (8:7-9), and keeping him useful, as we shall see, under the shadow of His hand.
It was also a difficulty to Samuel that his sons walked not in his footsteps. As a little child, he had heard in the stillness of the night the statement of God against the carelessness of Eli, ''because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not'' (3:13). He had seen defeat of Israel at Alphek (4:1-10), and the resultant death of Eli and his sons (4:11-18). For some reason or other, he too had been unsuccessful in training his sons to assume the tasks that some day he would have to lay down. Much cruelty can be committed in judging Samuel
on insufficient evidence, or any father, for that matter, whose sons are not his equal. If sons and daughters sensed the sorrows and shame that their aged parents can feel when they follow not in the ways of God, they would bestir themselves spiritually and every other way, I am sure. ''A wise son heareth his father's instruction: but a scorner heareth not rebuke. . . . A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish man despiseth his mother'' (Prov. 13:1; 15:20). By way of contrast, who can measure the joy and pleasure of parents whose sons follow their father, as I have seen, in ministry or industry, profession or other calling. Solomon added, ''The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy of him. Thy father and thy mother shall be glad, and she that bare thee shall rejoice'' (Prov. 23:24,25).
A further difficulty for old Samuel was the adaptation to demands of a new day. He had succeeded Eli as judge in Israel; and they had followed a long succession of judges, whose office had been instituted of God after the death of Joshua (Judges 2:16). The nation long had been content with its political organization: a theocracy, with the judge as Jehovah's representative. Now they demanded a king, to be like the other nations of the earth (I Sam. 8:5). Instinctively Samuel felt that not only he was being set aside by his people, but God also was being rejected by them. That concern was corroborated by the word of the Lord, ''For they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I
should not reign over them'' (8:7).
It seems to me that God had planned to provide a king for Israel, in His time and when His man was ready (see Deut. 17:14,15). It is my persuasion that David was that man, one after God's own heart (I Sam. 13:14; 16:7,12). Samuel's life span reached until David's manhood (25:1); and if Israel had not been impatient, they need never have suffered under Saul. In vain did Samuel protest to the people that a king would be a luxury to them, a taskmaster and tax-gatherer (8:11-18). ''The people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations;. . .And the Lord said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king'' (8:19,20,22).
It is a dark and difficult discipline of declining days to see the next generation turn from tried paths and tested principles to untrodden pathways. Like Samuel one can give his advice with earnest, even tearful admonition (8:11-18; 12:6-17). He can remind them of the efficacy of the old ways, of the hand of God in their national history, of the dangers of new political or religious theory and practice. Perhaps they will not listen, as was true of Israel. Rather than becoming sullen, scolding, sensitive or sentimental, one can have the sweetness and sincerity of Samuel, saying, ''Yet turn not aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart; . . . For the Lord will not forsake his people for his great name's sake: because it hath
pleased the Lord to make you his people. Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way'' (12:20, 22, 23).
To pray and to teach! This word of Samuel brings us to the deepest discipline of declining days. When days of active service are done; when prominence becomes obscurity; favor, forgetfulness; association, solitude; service, silence; strength, senility; usefulness, apparent uselessness; then it is comforting to know and challenging to experience newer kinds of service. In my opinion, Samuel did more for Israel in the days of retirement than in all the long years of active and conspicuous service. He prayed for his people and their new king, in days that were darker and more difficult than any they had known under Samuel's administration. Who can measure the efficacy and effectiveness of his prayers? The Divine Record states succinctly, ''Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the Lord, and he answered them'' (Ps. 99:6). Who would have thought that the divine epitaph of Samuel would include him as an intercessor like the lawgiver?
God's patriarchs, no longer preoccupied with the problems of the present, can pray for this new generation, that it walk in God's way. Abraham prayed for Isaac, Ishmael, and Lot; Jacob for his sons and their households (Gen. 48; 49); Moses for Israel that they be not shepherdless (Num. 27:15-17);
Samuel for Israel and Saul; Elisha for Samaria (II Kings 13:14-20). Listen to an old man, spent with many years of service for God and man, in the darkness and dampness of a prison cell as he prays, ''For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith . . .'' (Eph. 3:14-17). He could say, ''I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ . . .'' (Phil. 1:3-6). The prison prayers of Paul for the Christians of that day, who can measure their power! Or who can measure the might of the prayers of men and women no longer active in service for God and man who say, ''God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you''!
Or in teaching! It seems reasonable to understand from the Scriptural account that Samuel had been so busy with administration that he had been unable to give much time and effort to teaching. The two functions are quite different. Now that he was no longer to be the leader of his people, he could pray and he could teach. It appears in the
history of Israel that Samuel gathered around him young men who were taught in the Scriptures, and who became ''prophets'' among their people (I Sam. 19:18-20). Thus began the ''school of the prophets'' (II Kings 2:15; 4:38; 6:1); which institution had a lasting influence for spirituality and godliness, in the centuries after Samuel. Thus it appears that Samuel accomplished increased lasting good for his people in the days of obscurity following his retirement from public office, for then came the opportunity to teach and to pray as never before.
The discipline of declining days that comes when days wane and strength subsides, when doors close and comforters depart, when others bear the heat and the burden of the day; then to grow old graciously and sweetly; to grant responsibilities to stronger, though less experienced, hands of our sons or those of others; to adapt oneself to the demands of a new day; and above all, to pray for others and to serve the Lord in whatever hidden ministry may be ours. Thus disciplined in spirit we are sweetness and strength to those who need us most.
When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man,
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!
How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses who He chooses,
And with every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out
God knows what He's about.
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