Psalm 71: Growing Old

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
    turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge,
    to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
    from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.

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Psalm 71

Two and half years ago I was diagnosed with tennis elbow, and ironically it might have actually been due to playing tennis! Two years ago, I was diagnosed with having a problem with my rotator cuff, having previously been blissfully unaware that I even had one. A year ago, I was diagnosed as having arthritis in one of my big toes. I appreciate that some reading this would be more than happy with that as a list of ailments, and wouldn’t mind doing a swap deal, but it is a reminder to me that I am getting older. We are all getting older.

Derek Kidner calls this ‘A Psalm for Old Age’ but I think it is a psalm written by someone who is not quite there yet. The Psalmist is aware he’s not getting any younger and fearful of what lies ahead. Specifically, he fears that his powers are in decline and that his enemies will take advantage and exploit his vulnerability.

The Psalmist’s mood changes during the course of writing. The opening verses express anxiety (vv. 1–4) but are followed (vv. 5–8) by hope and confidence. His thoughts then become gloomier (vv. 9–13) but the concluding verses (vv. 14–24) are hopeful and become a torrent of praise. Perhaps the rollercoaster of the Psalmist’s emotions reveal exactly how fragile a state he is in – the certainty and vigour of youth lie well in the past.

Quite a few might look forward to retirement, but growing old is a different matter. Our society is very different to the one in which the psalm was written, but we still worry. We worry about our declining health – not just physical health and the aches and pains I described earlier – but we worry where our increasingly forgetfulness will end up, what will we forget, who we will forget. Or maybe it us who will be forgotten. We worry about money, about finances – will we be able to cope as we enter old age or will it be a time of prolonged misery and loneliness? We worry that we will lose our independence, that we will no longer able to drive or walk to the shops. We worry that we will become increasingly out of touch in a world of bewildering fast-paced technological change and changing societal attitudes. We worry that we will be cast aside, perhaps even by God as we can no longer serve him as we once did (v. 9).

The Psalmist wrestles with his own thoughts and a tide of negativity threatens to swamp him. In verse 6 he recalls, even if he doesn’t remember, his birth. At his greatest time of weakness and absolute dependence God had been there as a midwife delivering him. The Psalmist had been someone impressive once – people looked up to him and admired or feared him – but his hope isn’t in his natural strength but in God who is his strong refuge (v. 7). It begs the question: who, or what, do we rely upon? This focus on God rather than himself leads to praise and renewed confidence (v. 8) but life is not straightforward. Dark thoughts return momentarily before being swept away by a tsunami of praise (vv. 22–24).