Ecclesiastes 3 sets out a poetic and memorable reminder that life has its seasons, and there is a time for everything – to be born and to die, to plant and to reap, to kill and to heal, to break down and to build up, to weep and to laugh, to mourn and to dance, to cast away stones and to gather stones (for building), to embrace and to refrain from embracing, to seek and to lose, to keep and to cast away, to tear and to sew, to be silent and to speak, to love and to hate, for war and for peace (Eccles.3:1-8). More succinctly, David declared of God: ‘My times are in Your hand’ (Ps.31:15a).
I have well and truly reached the period of life when far more of it is behind me than in front of me. God formed us in the womb, and He knew our days before we ever saw one of them. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139:13-16). Childhood brings its immaturities (1 Cor.13:11) and its instabilities (Eph.4:14), yet it also provides a picture that our Lord uses of simple and humble trust in Him (Matt.18:3-4). With age comes responsibilities: marriage, a new household, another generation, and the blessings and battles of life as a fallen sinner in a fallen world. With advancing age comes the prayer of the Psalmist: ‘So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim Your might to another generation, Your power to all those to come’ (Ps.71:18).
Few reach old age like Moses with his eye undimmed and his vigour unabated (Deut.34:7), let alone like Caleb who at 85 was as strong as he ever was and ready for battle (Josh.14:11-12). For most, if we get that far, it is a case of thinking it is heroic if we can get off the couch in one movement (see Eccles.12:1-8). Yet the Psalmist can say of those who flourish in the house of the Lord: ‘They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him’ (Ps.92:14-15). To the advocates of euthanasia and voluntary assisted suicide, once a person is considered useless, he ought to be shuffled off the stage and off the payroll, but the Christian can bear a good testimony to the Lord right to the end, and the Lord will bless and use that.
In 1696 Nahum Tate (a poet who was the author of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’) and Nicholas Brady (a clergyman) reworked Psalm 34, and captured its message in a most memorable way:
Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.
Derek Kidner refers to this as a ‘glowing Psalm’, as those who look to God are radiant, no matter what their stage of life.
All humanity seeks to be happy. As Augustine says in his Confessions: ‘All men are united by one purpose, temporal happiness on earth, and all that they do is aimed at this goal, although in the endless variety of their struggles to attain it they pitch and toss like the waves of the sea.’ Nobody wants to be miserable, but millions upon millions make themselves miserable trying to be happy. The most common mistake is to seek happiness in certain circumstances – in place or people or in prosperity – and in avoiding other circumstances which do not appear so promising.
The Christian knows ‘the changing scenes of life’, that there is trouble and joy, but the key thing is to know ourselves to be under God, not just in the sense that all times and seasons are under Him (James 4:13-16), but through being in Christ. In November 1845 John Geddie preached his farewell address to his congregation on Prince Edward Island as he prepared to spend the rest of his life bringing the gospel to the islanders on Aneityum in what was then called the New Hebrides. After eight years’ work together, Geddie told his people: ‘I could have ended my ministry among you’. I could echo the same sentiments after 21 years, but it is not to go to the other side of the world to proclaim the gospel, but to transition somewhat due to the ravages of time.
We are where we are because of God’s good providence. John Flavel once quipped that the providence of God is like Hebrew words – it can only be read backwards. We can see where we have come from, we can see where we are, and we trust for where we are going.
I’ll bless the hand that guided, I’ll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.
The scenes of life change, but the Lord never changes, and all who are in Him are safe and joyous forever. Their song shall ever be that of Jacob’s prayer: ‘I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to Your servant’ (Gen.32:10).