Finishing Strong

He died climbing.

Epitaph on a Swiss guide's tombstone

    There is a naiveté among young people that leads them to think that old people have always been old. Furthermore, they think that they themselves will never get old.

    I understand the delusion. When I was young, I sincerely believed that because I jogged, lifted weights, and ate right my body would go on forever. But I can tell you it isn't so. Every body descends into decay.

    The old philosopher had it exactly right:

When the keepers of the house [the hands] tremble,
and the strong men [legs] stoop,
when the grinders [teeth] cease because they are few,

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and those looking through the windows [eyes] grow dim;
when the doors to the street [ears] are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms [hair]
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred . . . (Ecclesiastes 12:3-5).

    In my opinion, the first half of life is a piece of cake. The last half is hard. Old age is not for sissies. It takes a strong man to stick the landing.

    I must also say, however, that there is good in aging. In the first place, you don't have to prove anything anymore. You can sit on the sidelines and watch other men jockey for position. Like Shakespeare's octogenarian, King Lear, you can kick back as you "pray and sing and tell old tales."

    Another advantage of aging is that it breaks down your energy and strength, and prevents you from too much activity. It's God's way of telling you to slow down and take more time for him. "Time hath a taming hand," John Henry, Cardinal Newman once wrote.

    Paul said of himself, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16). If we, like the apostle, take advantage of the aging process, we can stay spiritually strong and vital to the end, "green and full of sap," as the psalmist said.

    Occasionally you come across some old-timer who understands these things, who seems to be in touch with

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something the rest of the pack have lost track of. Caleb, the son of Jephunah, was just such a man.

    At 85 years of age, when most of his peers had retired to their condos by the Red Sea, old Caleb kept on truckin'. He went for the highest and the best — Mount Hebron, where the Anakim dwelled.

The beginning of the story

    We first meet Caleb at Kadesh, Israel's staging point for their long-awaited campaign against the Canaanites. There the Israelites made their first mistake: they sent spies into the land to gather intelligence.

    It's true the impulse seemed to come from God, but that was his concession to their unbelief. Forty years later, Moses would say, "All of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to'" (Deuteronomy 1:22).

    It was a profound mistake. God had promised to give them the land. He knew Canaan like the back of his hand. Why did his people need to gather intelligence? Why were they so anxious to make their own assessment? Couldn't they trust his judgment? It was a bad decision based on that old assumption that in general men know better than God.

    And so, because God gives all men the right to be wrong, he let Israel have what they wanted. He said to Moses, "Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders" (Numbers 13:2).

    Moses selected twelve choice young men. Their names are supplied in the verses that follow (13:4-16). Of the twelve, only two are memorable: Hoshea (whom Moses renamed Joshua) and Caleb. All the rest were unremarkable, easily forgotten, well known for being unknown.

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    Joshua we know well. Caleb is less familiar. He was an unusual fellow. First, his name means "dog" — a nickname, most likely. Dogs back then were not pets, but wild, feral creatures noted more for their ferocity than for being man's best friend. Caleb's name suggests that, at least at one point of his life, he was as mean as a junkyard dog.

    The other thing about Caleb is that he was a Kenizzite, not an Israelite. The Kenizzites were a wild tribe of nomads that ranged throughout the Sinai and southern Palestine.

    Caleb was a pariah, an outsider who, by God's grace, had come in from the cold.

The expedition

    Moses sent out twelve spies with these instructions:

"Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land" (Numbers 13:17-20).

    The spies explored the land from the Wilderness of Zin in the south to Rehob at Lebo-hamath, two hundred fifty miles to the north. They discovered that Canaan was, as God had said, a land flowing with milk and honey. But the Canaanites were there, and their cities were strongly fortified.

    Also, the Anakim were there, the Titans of Mount Hebron, whose stature and strength were legendary. These were the gigantic men of whom the proverb was written, "Who can stand up against the Anakites?" (Deuteronomy 9:2).

    The spies spent forty days reconnoitering Canaan, at the end of which time they returned to Israel's encampment and made their report:

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"We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan" (Numbers 13:27-29).

    Up to this point all twelve spies were in perfect agreement. This was an accurate portrayal of the situation. Then the ten said,

"We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are . . . The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them" (Numbers 13:30-33).

    The people sided with the ten, and Moses had a mutiny on his hands.

That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (Numbers 14:1-3).

    Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, but Joshua and Caleb rose to the occasion:

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"The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them" (Numbers 14:7-9).

    There's a lot of talk in this chapter about giant people and impossible places. All twelve of the spies had seen the strength of the Canaanites and the size of their walled cities, but Caleb and Joshua had a different way of looking at things.

    The ten said, "We can't attack these people!" The two said, "We can!" We can't! We can! All the difference in the world.

    What made the difference? The ten compared the giants with themselves and the giants loomed large; the two compared the giants with God and the giants were cut down to size."The LORD is with us," they said. "We have no reason to be afraid!"

    Unbelief never gets beyond the difficulties — the impregnable cities and the impossible giants. It preoccupies itself with them, brooding over them, pitting them against mere human resources.

    Faith, on the other hand, though it never minimizes the dangers and difficulties of any circumstance, looks away from them to God and counts on his invisible presence. "The LORD is with us," Caleb insisted, "do not be afraid of the giants."

    The book of Hebrews echoes the same sentiment: "God has said, 'I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.' So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5-6).

    What are your "giants"? A habit you cannot break? A temptation you cannot resist? A difficult marriage from which there is no escape? An overbearing boss? A rebellious son or daughter for whom there are no answers?

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    If we compare ourselves with our difficulties we will always be overwhelmed. But if we compare them with God there is nothing we cannot do. Faith looks away from the greatness of the undertaking to the greatness of an ever-present, all-powerful God.

    The Panama Canal builders originated the so-called impossibilities song. Somehow it found its way into some of our chorus books, altered to express a faith that sees every difficulty as an opportunity for God to show himself strong.

Got any rivers you think are uncrossable?
Got any mountains you can't tunnel through?
God specializes in things thought impossible;
And He can do what no other power can do.

    We can't; he can. Therefore, we can. "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13).

The promise

    Despite Caleb's counsel of faith, the people picked up rocks to stone him, but God intervened and in wrath God swore to himself that no one of that generation would enter the land. The writer of Hebrews concludes, "We see that they could not enter in because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:19).

    But there were two notable exceptions: Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb, the son of Jephunneh.

"Because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it" (Numbers 14:24).

    The vow and its exception is repeated later: "Because they [the Israelites] have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one

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of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed the LORD wholeheartedly" (32:10-12).

    The spies who brought the discouraging word died in the wilderness, but "Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived" (14:38).

    For forty years Caleb waited while that generation died off. For forty years he counted the days, counting on the promise, waiting for his chance. Like Milton's Abdiel, Caleb was "faithful among the faithless, only faithful he."

Caleb's inheritance

    Forty-five years later, Caleb got his chance. The story is told in the book of Joshua.

    Under Joshua's leadership Israel invaded Canaan, and in a series of lightning strikes they conquered the major strongholds in the land. The back of Canaanite resistance was broken, but there were still large areas of the land to be claimed.

    All Israel gathered at Gilgal to determine which tribes would secure those unconquered regions, but before the first lot was drawn, Caleb stepped forward to claim his piece of ground:

"You know what the LORD said to Moses the man of God at Kadesh Barnea about you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions, but my brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people sink. I, however, followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly. So on

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that day Moses swore to me, 'The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children for ever, because you have followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly.'

    "Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the desert. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I'm just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said."

    Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance. So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the LORD, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly. (Hebron used to be called Kiriath Arba after Arba, who was the greatest man among the Anakites.)

    Then the land had rest from war (Joshua 14:6-15).

    We can infer from Caleb's speech that the spies did not travel together, but were distributed individually throughout Canaan, each one searching a particular portion of the land. Caleb's portion was Hebron, the haunt of the dreadful Anakim.

    If this is true it gives a special flair and audacity to Caleb's faith. He had personally reconnoitered Hebron, the habitat of the giants, and he had seen them in their natural setting and strength. And yet he longed for that land.

    It also gives a special meaning to the land-grant made to him then and there: "On that day," he said, "Moses swore to

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me, 'The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children for ever'" (Joshua 14:9). This was a promise that by God's grace he would take the high ground.

    Caleb asked for no soft spot on which to retire, but the rugged places where the fierce and terrible Anakim dwelled. When most men would have sought retirement, old Caleb kept on truckin'.

    We ask, "What made this ancient veteran so aggressive and young at heart? What kept him on the cutting edge?" Six times we're told, "He followed the LORD, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly."

He wholly followed the Lord

    The expression "follow the LORD wholeheartedly" means simply that: Caleb followed the Lord wholeheartedly. He kept on walking with him, talking with him, worshiping him, loving him, listening to him, "trying to learn what is pleasing to the LORD."

    He kept wanting what God wanted, willing what God willed, and so continued into old age to be the embodiment of God's every thought, the expression of his every desire. Caleb never gave up in his pursuit of God, and that's what kept him young at heart.

    How striking are the last lines that David Livingstone penned on the night that his sons found him dead on his knees beside his bed in an attitude of prayer, a candle burning beside him: "My Jesus, my king, my life, my all; to Thee again I dedicate myself." He never gave up; every day was another day to grow.

    David said, "This God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end" (Psalm 48:14). It's especially important to remember this truth as we grow older. We tend to lose heart as we age. Very few motives are capable

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of operating then. Our physical strength abates; our health deteriorates; our memory gets cloudy. As a friend of mine used to say, "Just about the time your face clears up, your mind starts to go."

    But Paul assures us, we need not lose heart. "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16). Every day can be a new beginning toward "good old age." It can mean maturing, growing in grace, and becoming more like Jesus, getting sweeter as the days go by — more mellow, less critical of others, less impatient with the young and with their peculiarities. We don't judge them just because they're different.

    There's something exquisitely manly about an older man, "stayed upon Jehovah," filled with his presence and redolent with his fragrance.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the LORD,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will be full of sap and very green (Psalm 92:12-14).

    The drain of the years is amply met by the spring of God's grace that flows within. There is no reason to decline as we age. "The last sheaves that fall beneath thy sickle can be the heaviest; the width of thy swath can be the greatest as you turn toward home," said F.B. Meyer.

    Getting older can mean growing, maturing, serving, ministering, venturing, enjoying ourselves to the end of our days. There is still service to be rendered, mountains to be climbed, Anakim to be routed. "Old men ought to be explorers," insists T.S. Eliot. "Have a blast while you last," a friend of mine contends.

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    Many men approach their senior years and stagnate. They don't just get old; they get obsolete. "I've paid my dues," they say; "I've done my share. Let younger men lead." But none of us will ever have done our share. We can never repay the debt of love we owe to our Lord for what he has done for us.

    True, as we age we may not have enough strength and endurance for frontline leadership. Even God made provision for priests in Israel to retire at age 50 from the more physically demanding work connected with the daily sacrifices. But they did not retire from ministry. They continued to walk with God and pass on their wisdom to others.

    Those who make retirement the chief end of man wither and die before their time. You see them around town sitting on park benches — dull, dreary old men with nothing to do. They have that dead look in their eyes. Grown old in a weary world, "no wonder waits them," said Byron.

    A friend of mine, Ron Ritchie, claims that more people die in Winnebagos than any other vehicle. I think he has something there. Most people die as soon as they retire — if not in their bodies at least in their souls. Yogi Berra observed that "a lot of people my age are dead at the present time."

    Not so Caleb. There was no stagnation in him. "What he greatly thought he nobly dared." Caleb thrashed the giants — Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai — and drove them from the summit. He did what the rest of Israel could not and would not do, and he did it at age eighty-five because "he wholly followed the LORD."

    I think of some lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson . . .

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; but that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,

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Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" — a fitting epitaph for Caleb, and for us. Everything in us may beg us to back off, go slow, take it easy, lay back, and leave well enough alone, but that's old folk's talk. Those who walk with God never give up. They die climbing!

Moving on

    Hebron is not the end of the story. From there Caleb soldiered on.

[Caleb] marched against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher). And Caleb said, "I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher." Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.

    One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, "What can I do for you?"

    She replied, "Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water." So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs (Joshua 15:15-19).

    Debir was originally called Kiriath Sepher, the "City of Books," so called because it was a depository of the books and learning of the Anakim, the fountainhead of that degraded, dangerous culture.

    Debir had been conquered once before but had fallen again into Canaanite hands (see Joshua 10:39). Caleb was determined to wrest it once and for all from their control.

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    He did not himself engage in the struggle; rather he stirred up his nephew. It was "Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's brother, [who] took it" (Joshua 15:17) — the same Othniel who later became the first judge of Israel — the brave champion who saved Israel from Cushan-Rishathaim, the king of Aram (Judges 3:9-10).

    Older folks may not have the energy or inclination for leadership, but they are an invaluable asset to the next generation. Their greatest usefulness lies in passing on their faith and their wisdom to others.

    Not all old-timers are wise, of course. There are wise old men and there are wicked old men. But since knowledge, wisdom, and character is cumulative, those who have loved God and walked with him through time reach maturity rich in their understanding of God and wise in his ways.

    It is then that they can have a powerful influence on other men, especially younger men. They become the saints and sages of whom Robert Bly speaks, the wise old men who can pass on the sacred truths and the solemn secrets.

    To idle away our last years in self-indulgence and indolence is to rob ourselves and others of the best years of our lives. Even when "old and gray," we can declare "[God's] power to the next generation, [his] might to all who are to come" (Psalm 71:18). No one yet has ever outlived his usefulness.

Make us Thy mountaineers:
We could not linger on the lower slope,
Fill us afresh with hope, O God of Hope,
That undefeated we may climb the hill
As seeing Him who is invisible.

Let us die climbing. When this little while
Lies far behind us, and the last defile
Is all alight, and in that light we see
Our Leader and our Lord, what will it be?

Amy Carmichael

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