Honoring the Hoary Head

January 29, 2017 / No. 3865

Dear Radio Friends,
Today we finish our series of broadcasts on the upright man. This also brings to an end the time I spent with you on the Reformed Witness Hour. It was a joy as usual.
We have learned that the upright man is one who fears God and keeps His commandments. He does this when he is a young, single man. When he marries he tends to the things that will please his wife and walks in all faithfulness with her. If the Lord is pleased to give him and his wife children, then he must be diligent in the instruction of his children. The father must have a profound influence on the heart of his children. This is what we have learned in our series up to this point.
Now the upright man is old. His children have left the home to make lives for themselves in this world and in the church. Some of them, perhaps most of them, marry. Others determine that they can serve the Lord in single life. But the man and his wife have now become empty-nesters. Their young have left the nest.
The passage we consider today addresses the place the elderly man has in the church and families. It is a passage that needs to be preached on more than what it is. We read in Leviticus 19:32, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord.” This passage instructs us in how we are to view the older men of the congregation and of our own family. How are we to treat the grandfather?
This particular Word of God in Leviticus deals exclusively with how the younger men and women, the children and grandchildren of a man, are to view him and honor him. Since this passage is found in the Old Testament, we cannot help but notice the picturesque language used to describe our dealings with the elderly man. That will come out as we explain this particular verse. And it will, we pray, reveal concretely that God always demands of His people proper respect and reverence in His church. This is the way He has chosen to preserve His church in its generations: through reverence and honor of those He has given this to. So we consider together the place of old men in the church.
I. The Command
The term “hoary” is not all that familiar in modern English. It simply means the white-haired or gray-haired man. The term “hoary” comes from the frost that settled in Palestine usually on the higher slopes of the mountains, but at times on some of the inland plains. This was known as the hoarfrost. We here in Pennsylvania are familiar with such frost. Usually in the late fall, when the temperatures at night hover around freezing, a heavy vapor freezes in the air and settles on the tops of the grass. When it does, the grass is covered with a layer of white. That was referred to in Israel as hoarfrost. This idea is applied to elderly men whose hair was losing its pigment and changing to a gray or even a white. As such the hoary head was meant to describe men who had entered into their 60s, 70s, and older. And that is what is meant in our text today as well. The hoary head refers to the older men of the church, despite whether their hair has changed color or not. The term refers, as a general rule, to those whose children are grown and moved out of the house to begin families of their own.
The command here in Leviticus 19 states, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head.” According to this command a young man was obliged to stand up when an old man entered the room. Once the elderly saint passed by the young man might be seated again. But so long as the aged man stood before him the young man would stand as well. This was a custom observed among the Jews. In fact, it was considered, to use the words of a commentator who is considered a scholar in Jewish law, it was considered an “abominable wickedness” if a young person did not rise in the presence of the older man.
This was true because this act revealed a deep respect and reverence for the place of the senior in their lives. It was an act of honoring the elderly saint. This is an act, of course, that is long forgotten in the present age and society in which we live. This is due in part to the man who has reached his senior years. He considers old age a bane, a curse. He wants to stay young and he sees no honor in himself now that he has turned old. He insists that younger men call him by his first name and treat him as a peer. But this is also due in large part to the society in which we live, where little honor is given to parents, or magistrates, or others in authority. We live in a rebellious age and this creeps into the church too, when children and young men and women do not show the honor that they ought to the aged saint—men or women. When I was young, I was scolded severely if I presumed to call an older man or woman by their first name. It was Mr. or Mrs. with no hesitation. When I worked in the south, I noticed that young men and women addressed all their seniors as “ma’am or sir.” As a child I knew that when an older saint walked into the room, I must immediately get out of my chair and offer him my seat, even if there was nowhere else to sit.
There is something about that attitude toward the elderly that is lost today. And I say that because it is not a good thing! Old men are out of touch with the times, it is said. They are not progressive enough. They are stuck in the old ways. They hold the church back from developing. Oftentimes this is the assessment made about the older men of the church by the younger. When, in fact, the younger men of the church ought, rather, to consider that there may be a reason such older saints bulk at the impetuous changes the new generation wants to make without giving them much thought. Maybe there is wisdom in the old ways. There is, after all, a reason things were done the way they were done. The old men have a place in the church to caution the young that they do not foolishly, without thought, follow a path they ought not to walk. Solomon teaches us there is no new thing under the sun. That which has been shall be. The old man has lived to see what has been to warn against what perhaps shall be. Children, how much do you honor adults in your behavior? The saying is still true today, “Children ought to be seen and not heard.” How well do you follow that rule when adults are present? Is the adult given that respect by you? How often a child cuts into the conversation of the adult rather than sitting, listening, and learning.
This whole idea of respecting our elders is reinforced when the law here adds, “and honor the face of the old man.” I’m sure that we as little children have looked closely at the face of our grandfather at one time or another. Or noticed, as a teenager, while speaking with an older saint, that his face has taken on certain wrinkles and blemishes. His hair, or perhaps his beard, is turning gray. There are crows-feet around his eyes if the man is given to smile a lot, or a crease in the forehead if he is given to frown. His nose or ears are getting bigger. His eyebrows are getting bushier and his neck starts to hang. These are signs of old age. And we can smile at such a description too. But the idea of this command is: honor the face of the old man! And the word “honor” means view that face of an old man as an adornment! An adornment! Again, in our society a man starts getting a certain age and he wants to get a facelift or find a cure for his baldness. Some dye their hair in an attempt to hide the truth that they are getting old.
Scripture here looks at it from a different point of view. A man’s old face, his gray hair, his wrinkles, are an adornment that ought to be viewed as an honor. The younger men of the church, when looking on the old man, may not view him as useless or washed up so that it is time to put the old guy out to pasture. He is called upon to look at the face of an old man and honor him for his age! To stand before such a man with deep respect and reverence.
To reinforce this whole idea, we must remember that the verse we have before us is one of the Levitical laws! It was considered a capital crime if a young man did not show such reverence to an old man. It was not just a nice gesture on the part of a young man to rise and give honor to the old man. It was a requirement. There was no lackadaisical attitude allowed by a boy or young man toward his elders. It was something that parents saw to diligently in the instruction of their youth. We have indeed become lax in this. Little boys and girls need to be disciplined when they show disrespect toward an adult in any way.
Neither can we use as an excuse that this is an Old Testament law and custom that is no longer required today in the church of Jesus Christ. It may be true that it is not a capital crime to show disrespect to an elder, but it is still a sin. Perhaps a young man ought not to stand immediately when an elder walks into the room—although now that I am considered an elder in the church, I could appreciate that custom. But it is no longer a requirement that is forced on a young man today. We are no longer subject to the Levitical laws today. But the principles of these laws do abide. Paul writes in I Timothy 5:1, 2, “Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father…; the elder women as mothers.” An elder here does not refer to the office of elder in the church. It refers to an elderly saint. Peter writes in I Peter 5:5, “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder.” The gray hair is a crown of glory! Now that is honor. That is adornment! The point is: the principle set forth in this particular law of Moses is timeless! It is to be observed in the church of Jesus Christ today. In fact, it is important that it be observed.
II. The Reason
God gives us the reason an old man must be honored in this law we consider: “Fear thy God: I am Jehovah!” God is Jehovah. This name literally means, “I Am That I Am.” This name brings to mind what we learn in Isaiah 46:9-10: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” God is. He has no beginning and no end. We cannot say of God that He was or will be. God is. He is eternal. Time has no influence on Him. Jehovah is identified in Daniel 7 as the Ancient of Days. God reminds the nation of Israel through the command to honor the aged man that He as God is from eternity. His eternity is a part of His essence, His identity. That is revealed in His name Jehovah. The evidence of this is that He has dwelt among His people since the beginning of time until now. God’s church is referred to in Scripture as the ancient people.
You see that face of the old man of the church—that face with its wrinkles and blemishes? That face is representative of God! The old man is time honored! He has lived through the hardships of life, the twists and the turns that life has thrown at him. He has had to battle with sin in his life, sin in himself and sin in others. He has been called to defend the faith against those who oppose it and to preserve those who would have slipped from it. The old man of the church has dealt with difficult matters, and God has seen him through. In wisdom, therefore, he can testify of God’s ways with him, his family, and the church. The old man contains a wealth of knowledge that young men ought to tap into and learn from, in order that they too can be wise. But most importantly in all this, the simple old age of men is to be honored. These men of the church have been in the world longer than the younger and God has sustained their lives here. God has given them length of days. And because God has bestowed on them such honor, they become fit representatives of God.
How sad when our present society views old age as a curse. How sad when the wicked view the maladies that befall the old as dishonorable and even a reason to put such people out of their misery through euthanasia. Age, even though fraught with maladies, in God’s eyes is honorable because it represents Him as the Ancient of Days. Jehovah, the I Am That I Am. Furthermore, this Levitical law points out clearly that fearing Jehovah God is the reason for rising up before the hoary head and honoring the face of the old man. This concept of fearing God has been the one underlying theme of this series, as well as of the series on the virtuous woman. The upright man walks in the ways of God’s commandments. He does so because he fears Jehovah.
The fear that characterizes the godly man of the church, the man of faith, is a deep reverence for God. He bows before God with reverence because he knows God as the ancient of days. He has a deep-seated respect for God. He stands in awe and amazement before the works of God and His wisdom. Who is so great a God as our God? We fear God, children and young men and women of the church, because the Spirit of our risen Lord abides in us. We have been given eyes to see God, ears to hear Him, and hearts that understand who He is. Christ has overcome the power of sin that has held us in its sway. He has loosed the bonds of corruption that held us. And now we know who God is and we love and honor Him. We fear God.
Because of this we fear the old men of the church who exhibit their own love and fear of God. We have the same respect for them as we have for God. We admire the wisdom of their experienced faith. We sit at their feet and hear them and learn from them. In all things we honor them. When as a youth I watched the elders walk down the aisle into church, I viewed those elders with awe. I was, at least as a child, afraid of them a little! And when they came to our house on family visitation with the pastor, I was on my best behavior. That should be the behavior of children and young people toward the elderly men of the church. The point is, out of our fear for God flows our honor toward the old men of the church of Jesus Christ, and a real desire to follow their example of wisdom to be like them. Old age is a God-honored age. What is inherent in this command of our text is the subsequent blessing that God bestows on His church when we honor the old man.
III. The Blessing
The blessing that this command implies is that of the preservation of the church. Since God is eternal, the Ancient of Days, He has chosen the way of honoring the elderly of the church as a way to preserve His church. Look at contemporary Christianity today. It has totally ignored the old ways of the church gone before. The Lord’s Day is desecrated. This was not the way of the New Testament church in the past. Worship is polluted. This was not the way of the church in the past. Heresy prevails. The confessions of the past, written by a church strong in the Lord, are ignored. The time-honored ways of God held by the elderly saints are despised. And when warning is given by the old, they are ignored, even despised, right along with God’s ways. As a result, the church is crying out for members. And those churches that boast of thousands in attendance—notice, I did not say members; they only attend—these churches are here now and gone with the next generation. God preserves His church today when we give heed to the wisdom and the warnings of the aged men of the church. It is not as if their way is infallible, but they do hold the church in check. They do offer the ways of wisdom. And God uses this to preserve His church from one generation to the next. This is God’s blessing on the church by way of honoring the face of the old man.
Children, young men and women, rise up before the hoary head. Stand in his presence and honor him. The eternal God, the Ancient of Days, commands you to fear Him by honoring the aged. When this is done, we shall see our children’s children and peace upon Israel.