This article is an edited and slightly revised version of a sermon delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Proverbs 20:29 tells us, “The glory of young men is their strength. Gray hair is the splendor of the old.” Or as the Moffat translation puts it, “A young man’s strength is his charm, and gray hairs make even an old man beautiful.”
Let’s think about these young men and their strength for a moment. (Of course he’s talking about women, too. I hope we have that in mind from the beginning.) “The glory of young men is their strength”; it’s their physical power, their vitality, their ability to do things. But this also describes the spirit and eagerness that young people bring to life. If you’re moving from one apartment to another, who will you call to help — to hoist those books and lug those dressers? Not your grandmother. When it snows and you’ve got a broken leg, will you phone the AARP to request a sidewalk shoveler? No, you’ll call someone young and strong. When a nation needs an army, it will call the young, vigorous, and proud.
Not long ago, I received gel injections in my knees. But my knees didn’t always need such artificial cushions. I remember in 1970 pulling into downtown Chicago by train (or was it a bus? I don’t remember). My left hand held a 12-string guitar; my right, a clunky suitcase. I had to walk for miles. But I was young and fit and happening. I walked in my bell-bottom pants and loved every step. I was on top of it. That’s what this verse is talking about. The glory of young men is their strength.
When you watch television, most of the actors are young. If a team of detectives is solving the most difficult murder in history, they’re all young. A few older people may be scattered around, but when the real expert comes onto the scene, he or she invariably is relatively young. Why? Because we like watching people who are vigorous. God speaks about that here in Proverbs.
Ancient kings were no dummies, nor were they different. They also liked surrounding themselves with the fit and the attractive. You’ll recall that Nebuchadnezzar, having taken a number of people captive, ordered an official to bring in some Israelites of the royal family who were exiles: “Young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning” (Daniel 1:3-4). Kings did not want to spend time staring at wrinkles.
The Bible doesn’t mock youth’s beauty; it praises it. Why else, in Esther, would the writer tell us she was beautiful in features and form? It’s pretty specific — head to toe, she was stunning. By God’s Spirit the writer describes this because it gives God pleasure to make people who look like that. To some extent, young people mirror God in all His beauty.
The Splendor of the Old
But what about old people and their wisdom? The verse says that gray hair is the splendor of the old. Clairol, L’Oréal, and Just for Men dislike that verse, but from ancient times most cultures have respected gray hair. Even today, many cultures respect gray hair, particularly Asians. To them, gray hair is a sign of wisdom.
I have a friend in her 20s, an attractive young woman who recently described a man in his 50s. “I like talking to that guy, because I noticed the crow’s-feet around his eyes,” she said. “It makes me think of him as someone who’s spent years listening to people. It makes me think about all that experience and the kindness that comes out of it.” This is what crow’s-feet do. As the New Living Translation puts it: “The gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old.”
So here we have a balanced scale: youth’s beauty and vigor, and the wisdom of age.
In presidential races gray hair poses no problem, if a candidate doesn’t have too much. I remember when president-elect Bill Clinton attended an economic summit. In that election, “It was the economy, stupid.” As cameras panned the room, he gently tapped his reading glasses against his chin. He was surrounded by economists, and the news anchor said, “There he is, the thoughtful scholar, probing the best minds of his day.” That’s the image he wanted to portray: a man who would guide the economy wisely. People want that in a president. They want the wisdom implied by a hint of gray.
“Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom. Let not the strong man [young and tough] boast in his strength. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and he knows Me.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
Here’s another, more personal example. When my wife was a little girl, she was Amish. Her parents eventually left that life when they became Christian believers, but her early years were in a horse-and-buggy home. As she and I raised our eight children, often we were in over our heads. Our first child was colicky, and we didn’t know what to do. So Verna went to her mom — mom with the shoofly-pie background and the Amish common sense.
“Well, mom,” Verna asked, “what am I going to do?” Mom picked that little rascal up by the ankles, hung him upside down, and shook him a couple of times. Let me tell you, he was done with all his gas. But you won’t get a remedy like that from the pediatric hospital. In Verna’s mom, we had somebody with age and wisdom. And this, the Proverb says, is a beautiful thing. It gives a person dignity. The Bible’s writers admire old age’s wisdom just as they admire youth’s vitality and beauty.
That’s it. That’s the Proverb. So what should we learn from all this? Several things are obvious. The first is this:
Each age has its particular honor, its particular set of joys and privileges.
God Pushes Us Toward Each Other
Each age is better at something, right? Then a clear corollary is that the generations need each other. Imagine Pentagon generals — guys in their 50s, 60s, and 70s — sitting around the table in the war room, planning to rescue American hostages captured by Somali pirates. After they develop their wise plan, these generals drive to the airport, suit up, don parachutes, and off they go. Arriving over the target, they jump, floating down to rescue those hostages. Things won’t turn out so well, will they? The glory of young men is their strength.
Now conversely, imagine that Navy SEALS — men skilled at parachuting and pirate-busting — are running the Treasury Department. That wouldn’t be good. (Well, considering how things have been lately, maybe it would be an improvement. But you get the idea.) We need each other; that’s why God has made people of different ages. God wants the generations to mix and to feed into each other.
I sometimes walk into a convenience store to buy a cup of coffee. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become invisible to anyone behind the counter in their teens or 20s. They see I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. To them I don’t exist. But when I walk into my church, kids talk to me. Teenagers joke with me. Singles in their 20s slap me on the back. I love it, because in that room God does what this passage is talking about: He smiles on young and old alike and knits them together. So I ask you who are young: Do you realize what a gift you are to older people? There are people in your church and neighborhood who all week long see nothing but wrinkles and gray hair — until they brush shoulders with you. And to those who are older: Even though you may be intimidated by the young, there are young people who think “older people don’t even know I exist — they don’t care about me.”
God pushes us toward each other. As we mix, I think He’s telling the young: “Don’t be impatient with older people. Don’t despise them because they can’t get around.” He’s saying, “Have respect for older people.” And to the old, I think He says, “Don’t pine for the good old days when you were young.” Where does He say that? In the Hebrew parallelism of the verse. Often, in poems with this parallel structure, the second line offers the better of the two options. In this verse, the second line says that old people have gray hair as their glory. In the poet’s mind that’s a step up from the glories of youth.
But to both groups, I think the Bible says, “Don’t be preoccupied with your age.” Rather, here’s what God says in Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom. Let not the strong man [young and tough] boast in his strength. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and he knows Me.”
Christ, the Perfect Blend of Strength and Wisdom
This combination of strength and wisdom is ideal. But can the two qualities exist in a single person?
Oh, yes. Picture a man, young and tough. One day He strides into a temple, rolls up His sleeves, and manhandles a number of people there. He grabs guys by the scruff of the neck and throws them out. He kicks over tables. Then He stands up and addresses the crowd. Afterward, people go away saying, “No one has ever spoken like this man.” That’s who your Savior is, of course, and we see in Him, in this episode, the wisdom of age and the vitality of youth coinciding perfectly.
We see the wisdom of age again in Revelation 1, in the vision of John: “I saw in my vision a being whose hair was white like wool.” This is gray hair on steroids; it’s the wisdom of having lived from eternity past. And yet this one with snow-white hair is eternally young. I had never thought about the eternal youthfulness of Jesus until years ago, coming across a sermon by Charles Spurgeon. It was on Psalm 110, which is highly messianic (as all the Psalms are, but this one especially). Speaking of the Messiah, verse 3 says, “From the womb of the dawn, you will receive the dew of your youth.” The idea is that at daybreak, a garden has dew everywhere: You can smell the freshness. But as the sun rises, dew evaporates, and the sparkle dies. The Psalm implies that life is like that. You start life with anticipation, but by midday you grow tired.
But it says that Jesus will receive from dawn’s womb — that is, from daybreak — the dew of His youth. In other words, the dew of daybreak will remain His perpetually. He is eternally fresh, young, and vigorous. Here’s how Spurgeon said it: “The person of Jesus is an ever-young person. He is never the old man Jesus.” Have you ever thought of that? You never see Him past age 33. He was never an old man on earth, and He never can be old in the sense of becoming senile or decrepit. Christ’s person is everything today that it was before the foundation of the world. Christ is in His resurrected body never to decay. He sits on His throne — wise beyond imagining —yet intercedes for you with the vigor of youth. Isn’t that amazing?
Some may be daunted that you lack the wisdom of gray hair; others, that you lack the vigor of youth. But what happens when you are joined to Jesus Christ? You become wise, even when you are young. 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, “You are in Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God.” Or consider the composer of Psalm 119, who says “I have become wiser than all my teachers because of your Word.”
If you are old and don’t pine for the vitality of younger people, here’s what Daniel 12:3 says about you in heaven: You, the righteous, will “shine … like the stars for ever and ever.” If that doesn’t thrill you, how about Zechariah 9:17? Speaking of you in the new heavens and earth, it says, “How attractive and beautiful they will be! Grain will make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women.”
Recently the media announced that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are getting married. You women out there, no matter what your appearance, you will one day — I say this in all seriousness — make Ms. Jolie look like a porpoise in comparison. You men will be stunning in a way that Brad Pitt could only dream about. This is in front of you; this is what Philippians 3 means in saying that Jesus Christ “will transform these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body.” Meanwhile, before heaven comes, He gives foretastes of all this. How? In 2 Corinthians 4, we read, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” A beauty shines out of Christians even if they are decrepit.
My wife’s mother is now 80. She hears poorly and shuffles along. Yet every Sunday night, having spent a week ministering to people as best she can, she attends our church’s prayer meeting. She sits in the circle, scarcely able to hear a word, and pours her heart out silently in prayer. My goodness, the beauty that emanates from her! When she sheds that body and gets her new one, watch out!
These things are true of you because of your union with Jesus Christ. The best illustration I can think of is from the Song of Solomon. It’s about two lovers, a man and his wife. It’s a picture of earthly marriage, but ultimately a picture of Jesus Christ and His relationship with you. The woman is young and beautiful — a picture of you as remade by Christ. The man is handsome — a picture of Christ. But here’s what’s interesting: It says of Him, in Song of Solomon 5:11, “His hair is wavy and black as a raven.” Why? Because He’s eternally youthful. Why is the woman beautiful? The bride is beautiful and young because the groom is beautiful and young. She has joined herself to Him, and He makes her stunning. That’s what He’s doing to you this very day. So take heart, Jesus Christ is making all things new. He’s making you wise, and He’s making you young.
Steve Estes is senior pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pa. He earned his M.Div. and Th.M. degrees at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Estes is the author of Called to Die (the story of slain missionary Chet Bitterman).