The Bible presents growing old as a normal, natural part of life in this world. There is honor involved in the aging process, because growing old is normally accompanied by increased wisdom and experience. “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31; see also Proverbs 20:29). God wants us to remember that life is short (James 4:14) and that the beauty of youth is soon gone (Proverbs 31:30; 1 Peter 1:24).
Ultimately, the question of growing old cannot be separated from the question of the meaning of life and the concept of the legacy we leave. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon provides a sagacious look at aging and the issues related to it.
We are born with a natural tendency to “live for the moment,” but the ultimate futility of that approach is the subject of Ecclesiastes 1–7. As people grow older and begin to feel the increasing impact of their mortality, they typically try to invest their waning resources in projects that to them seem to hold more promise of lasting meaning in life, especially the hope of perpetuating their “name” in a lasting legacy (Ecclesiastes 2). Unfortunately, no one can predict what projects will have lasting value and significance (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15), and this normally leads to varying levels of disillusionment and even despair over life’s brevity and apparent injustice “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 3:16–7:29).
With the growing realization that satisfaction in such activities is invariably fleeting, Solomon’s hope is that people will grow wiser in the use of their God-given “portion” or allotment before they die (Ecclesiastes 8–12; see also Psalm 90:12). This wisdom grows in relation to our awareness of “time and judgment”—we need a divine perspective in the face of life’s brevity and apparent injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:15c–17; 8:5b–8, 12b–15; 9:11–12; 11:9; 12:14). The Hebrew notion of time in these passages combines the concepts of opportunity (the right time to act expediently when the occasion arises) and limited lifespan (only so much time before all opportunity is gone). The Hebrew notion of judgment in these same texts presupposes complete freedom in the use of our God-given “portion” in life as our desires lead us, yet with a concomitant accountability to the One who distributed our allotted portions. The New Testament counterpart to these concepts can be found portrayed vividly in Jesus’ parables of the ten virgins and the talents (Matthew 25), the two sons (Matthew 21:28–32), and the unjust steward (Luke 16:1–13).
Among the most disturbing aspects of growing old—especially in cultures that set a high value on rugged individualism—is the increasing frequency of senile dementia as human lifespan increases. It seems eminently unfair that people so afflicted should be robbed of their intellectual, emotional, and social vitality while their physical bodies continue to survive. Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly difficult pill to swallow because the cause is unknown and it does not seem to be related to any particularly bad health habits. While progression of Alzheimer’s can be stalled, in part, by continued active involvement in mind-stimulating and physical activity, progression of the disease is nevertheless inexorable.
The author of Ecclesiastes acknowledges this vexing unfairness from a human perspective (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18; 8:14–9:3), yet he offers wisdom to help us deal with it from God’s perspective, entailing the notions of “time and judgment.” With our inevitable disillusionment over the human condition—our universal depravity, uncertainty, and mortality—it is wise to remember that “for all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6, NKJV). Knowing that they are accountable for their God-given “portion,” people should take joyful advantage of all their gifts, talents, wisdom, and opportunities in life sooner rather than later—before all opportunity to do so has ceased, before inevitable debilitation forecloses all opportunity (9:7-10; 11:9-12:7).
The thrust of this reflection from Ecclesiastes on growing old is that meaning in life is fulfilled in our God-given purpose, and our purpose is only fulfilled when we take advantage of our God-given portion in Christ, God’s promised Savior. While this portion may seem less fair for some than for others, life’s meaning will be consummated only at the final judgment when we receive our inheritance (Ecclesiastes 7:11) for the way we invest our portion, be it good or bad (Ecclesiastes 12:14; cp. 2 Corinthians 5:10). On that day, we will see God as eminently fair in His rewards, regardless of how unfair or unevenly distributed our portion may seem in this present life.