No Country for Old Men

The Bible generally speaks well of old men. Think of the disaster it was when Solomon’s son Rehoboam, ascending to the throne, listened to the foolish advice of the young men surrounding him and rejected the wise counsel of the old men who had advised his father. It only cost him the unity of the nation and the end of any chance for a successful reign before he even got started. Or consider one of the names for the pastoral office: “Elder.” That name assumes the maturity and wisdom that generally comes only with age.

       And yet, old men have their special challenges. The title of a movie by the Coen brothers signals this: No Country for Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff at the end of a long career in law enforcement in the barren country of west Texas. He is an old man. He is starting to see criminal activity that he never saw before. So fearsome are these new criminals that he doubts he can cope with it. This is not just a case of nostalgia—the old sheriff longing for the good old days—which in reality were never very good after all. What Sheriff Ed Bell sees is a real decline of the moral order that is frightening and overwhelming. He begins to think he needs to retire; he can’t deal with what is coming at him anymore.

       Even more important than the Coen brothers’ vision, Ezra includes an insightful detail about the old men returning with the exiles to Judah. It’s the story of a great revival, as the prophet Jeremiah had promised. When the exiles got back to the promised land, and the work on rebuilding the ruined temple began, it turned out to be a place where the old men had trouble:

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ households, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid (Ezra 3:12).

The text of Ezra tells us that while the old men were weeping, everyone else was experiencing something wonderful:

The priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the sons Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel (Ezra 3:10).

If you know anything about Old Testament history, you know that praising God at the direction of the priests, guided by the words of David, is at the very heart of what Israel was meant to be. This was a glorious event, especially coming after the dark days of the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the people of Judah to Babylon. Why couldn’t the old men appreciate it?

Old Age’s Downside

       You could argue that the old men were simply guided by their wisdom, gained from long experience, so they wouldn’t get too carried away by the rebuilding of the temple. They had been there when the original built by Solomon was still standing; they had seen how great it was. They had a standard from their own experience to measure and evaluate the new temple. They knew what real glory was, and so they were not so simple as to be swept up in the enthusiasm for what was starting to rise again in Jerusalem. Their wisdom, gained by long experience, tempered their response to what the returned exiles were experiencing.

"When there is genuine cause for joy, it is a very bad thing to be so weighed down by comparisons with the past that you can’t join the celebration."

       And it is true that people usually grow more conservative as they age. You know the proverb: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; and, if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” The old men in Ezra’s record had become conservatives. They knew the old was worth preserving; they knew what a loss it was that something old was no more. They were inoculated against the naïve assumption that whatever was new had to be better than what had gone before.

       It's one thing not to be carried away by temporary and shallow enthusiasm for the latest new thing. It is surely a blessing of wisdom to be even-keeled when everybody else is being whipped up with excitement they’ll likely be embarrassed about in a very short time. But Ezra is pointing out a real downside to the perspective of the old: These old men could not enter into the joy of fulfilled prophecy. They could not see right in front of them an astounding work of God. Just compare this celebration of the setting of the foundation of the temple with the state of the exiles after seventy years in Babylon. Remember what the exiles went through for seventy years, how they must have begun to think they would never see the promised land, or the city of the Great King, or the dwelling place of God. When there is genuine cause for joy, it is a very bad thing to be so weighed down by comparisons with the past that you can’t join the celebration.

Redemption Is Progressive

       Whatever wisdom these old men had, they had missed the truth that redemption is progressive. The original promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), was a promise to a childless couple that they would have a child, that his descendants would be too numerous to count, that those descendants would become a great nation, and that great nation would be a blessing to all nations. God made a great promise that would be fulfilled, gradually, but inevitably, in progressive stages of growth toward a great end.

       Ezra’s old men had to know that God’s dwelling with Israel took a great step forward when the tabernacle was set up and the glory of the Lord filled the tent. But that tabernacle was replaced with a temple that testified to the permanent presence of the Lord with his people. What sense would it make to weep for the loss of the tabernacle when the temple took its place? The promises of God had repeatedly been fulfilled with a reality far greater than anything that had been seen before. Why would it be any different with the redeeming work of God that was now focused on the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple?

       The old men could not imagine what could be better than Solomon’s temple, but the witness of the Scriptures was clear that each stage of God’s progressive revelation would surpass what had gone before. Just before the second temple was finished, God revealed this very thing to Zechariah:

Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (Zech. 4:8-10).

       Be careful of what you see in the “day of small things.” You may be focused on things that were never meant to be permanent but merely point to something greater in the future. What could be greater than Solomon’s temple? Listen to another prophecy about what would happen in the second temple:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1).

       The Lord himself will come to this temple, and when he does, nobody will sigh with nostalgia for Solomon’s temple. This was fulfilled by the eternal Son of God becoming man, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary; and so was born of her, yet without sin. He was called Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. He gave himself up as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God. This Messenger of the Covenant came into the second, comparatively unimpressive temple. He would put an end to any need for a temple.

"Be careful of what you see in the 'day of small things.' You may be focused on things that were never meant to be permanent but merely point to something greater in the future."

       Though you may not be able to think or imagine the wonders of God’s redemption, you can know for sure that each new stage will be greater than anything that came before. This is what the old men should have known when they saw that smaller foundation being laid under the leadership of Ezra.

       Geerhardus Vos brought out this essential truth about God’s redemptive plans and works. When he was inaugurated as professor of biblical theology at Princeton Seminary he defined his theological discipline as follows:

Biblical theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.

And he summed up the message of Scripture with this same note of the progress of redemption in history:

The Gospel of Paradise is such a germ in which the Gospel of Paul is potentially present; and the Gospel of Abraham, of Moses, of David, Of Isaiah and Jeremiah, are all expansions of this original message of salvation, each pointing forward to the next stage of growth, and bringing the Gospel idea one step nearer to its full realization.

Powers of the Age to Come

       Most of us can understand how Sheriff Ed Bell felt out in West Texas, whether or not we are old. You may shudder as you observe the plunge into darkness of our culture. You are justly outraged at the new Gnosticism that demands that a child with normal questions about his gender be subjected to the mutilation of his body, and the lie that this monstrosity is “gender affirming care.” You tremble at what will happen to your church in an age of hostility to the Christian faith. Are you longing for the better days of the past?

       We too need to remember that redemption is progressive. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was a fulfillment of redemptive promise so great that it brought into this evil age “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5). As you devote yourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word, you are immersed in those eternal glories.

       One more redemptive act is yet to unfold: The revelation of Jesus Christ in glory. And as we move ever closer to that day, there is daily progress as Jesus reigns as Mediator. He actively reigns at the right hand of God to build his body, the church. The humble, normal means of grace, the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments, are weapons of Spiritual warfare. The gates of hell cannot stand up against the weapons we wield as Gospel ministers.

"The gates of hell cannot stand up against the weapons we wield as Gospel ministers."

       When you are disappointed in ministry, don’t look with longing to the past. Set your hope on heaven, where Jesus reigns and actively intercedes for us, every day and constantly until he returns to judge the world. Be confident that his Mediatorial reign is perfect and wise. He has his purposes in the new mysteries of evil that cause us to question whether we are up to it. Let’s take our direction from the apostle who wrote:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1).

Rev. Dr. Steven J. Carter is Dean of Students and Vice President of Campus Life at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was educated at Boston University (B.A.) and Westminster (M.Div., D.Min.). He served in pastoral ministry and in a public corporation before his current service at Westminster. Steve is married to Susan, they are parents of three children, and doting grandparents of seven grandchildren. For fun, the Carters like to discuss movies with friends, cycle on level terrain, and enjoy as much of the summer as possible on Cape Cod.

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