Though the Bible seldom discusses old age directly, there are several terms that relate to this topic. The most common Hebrew expression for age, zaqen [eqz], is often a simple designation of advanced age. After Abraham is said to be old (zaqen [eqz]), an explanatory phrase is used: "well advanced in years" (lit. "days", Gen 24:1 ). This phrase illustrates the Hebrew practice of indicating age by marking the passage of time, usually employing the word "day" or "year." As Jacob approached death, his 147 years were summarized as "the years of his life" ( Gen 47:28 ). A rich, full life is one that is satiated in time, as Job was "full of years" ( Job 42:17 ; cf. Abraham in Gen 25:8 ).
The adjective zaqen [eqz], "elder, old, " is applied to various offices in the Old Testament, always as an indication of one's nobility. It could refer to the oldest servant of one's household ( Gen 24:2 ) or to the officers of the Egyptian royal court ( Gen 50:7 ). The office of "elder" took on political connotations when it referred to David's chief servants ( 2 Sa 12:17 ), as well as to the elders of Egypt, Moab, or Midian ( Gen 50:7 ; Num 22:7 ). During the time of Moses, "the elders of Israel" were an important group of leaders who accompanied him on his first meeting with Pharaoh ( Exod 3:18 ), served as intermediaries with the nation ( Exod 19:7 ), assisted Moses at the ratification of the Sinai covenant ( Exod 24:1 ), and assisted Moses in many other ways throughout his lifetime ( Exod 17:5 ; Num 11:16-17 ).
The Old Testament also uses "gray head" (seba [sebavzomai]) as a synonym for advanced age. In the famous covenant ceremony of Genesis 15, God assured Abraham that he would die in peace and that he would be buried in "a good old age" (seba toba, v. 15 cf. 25:8 ). Likewise David died "at a good old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth and honor" ( 1 Ch 29:28 ). A "gray head" was looked on as a crown of glory attained through righteous living ( Pr 16:31 ). A similar picture occurs in Daniel's vision of the Ancient of Days, whose hair was like pure lamb's wool ( Da 7:9 ).
The term yases can refer to an aged and decrepit person who is helpless or defenseless. Nebuchadnezzar had no compassion on the aged or the feeble ( 2 Ch 36:17 ). This term's derivative (yaso) designates those worthy of respect due to their age ( Job 15:10 ; 32:6 ). Hebrew also uses kelah, which usually connotes "wealth, " for ripe old age (NIV's "full vigor, " Job 5:26 ). The Old Testament places high value on the elderly, as is evident from the command in Leviticus 19:32: "Rise in the presence of the aged (seba [sebavzomai]), show respect for the elderly (zaqen [eqz]) and revere your God."
As in the Old Testament, the New Testament term "elder" (presbytes [presbuvth"]) can denote simply a person of advanced age. Zechariah uses the term to describe himself as nearing the end of child-bearing years ( Luke 1:18 ). Paul uses this term to refer to himself as "an old man" (Philemon 9). He also gave instruction to Timothy regarding his speech to older men and women ( 1 Tim 5:1-2 ; cf. Titus 2:2-3 ). But more commonly, the term is used to describe the leadership of the people (presbyteroi [presbuvtero"], Matt 21:23 ). The "elders" were apparently an unofficial political group that played an active role in public affairs. They appear frequently in association with the chief priests and scribes.
Later in the New Testament period, the "elders" became the official religious leadership in the early church. Though the specific origins of eldership in the early church are uncertain, it seems clear that the office was based on the Old Testament and early Jewish custom of bestowing honor and respect to members of the community of advanced age. As the fledgling church began to grow, elders were appointed or ordained as overseers for each local congregation ( Ac 14:23 ). Early in the history of the church, they were seen as an established class of officials, who were leaders of the church in Jerusalem ( Ac 11:30 ). They appear along with "the apostles" at the Jerusalem Council to settle the dispute about Gentile converts ( Acts 15:2 Acts 15:4 Acts 15:22 ).
The officers known as "elders" in the early church are also sometimes called "bishops" ("overseers, " episkopos [ejpivskopo"]). The two terms are interchangeable in Titus 1:5 and 7. "Elder" and "bishop" appear to overlap in 1 Timothy, where the instructions concerning "elders" (5:17) probably refer to both the bishops of 3:1 and the deacons of 3:8. So the elders of the early church were overseers (or "bishops, " Acts 20:28 ), pastors ( Eph 4:11 ), and leaders ( Heb 13:7 ), who had authority over the flock of God ( 1 Th 5:12 ). They were called on for prayer ( Jas 5:14 ) and teaching the Word ( 1 Ti 5:17 ). Elders were protected from malicious accusations, but if they persisted in sin, they were to be rebuked publicly as an example for all believers ( 1 Ti 5:19-20 ). A church without an elder appointed over it meant the work of the missionary was "left unfinished" ( Titus 1:5 ). Qualifications for the office of elder included a righteous lifestyle, monogamy, and humility.
The New Testament term geras [gh'ra"] (and related verb gerasko [ghravskw]) refers to old age in general. The angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth had conceived a son "in her old age" ( Luke 1:36 ). The author of Hebrews proclaims that something that is obsolete and "aging" will soon disappear ( 8:13 ).
In tribal societies of the ancient Near East, reverence and respect were accorded to the aged. In the Bible, longevity is considered a reward for a virtuous and righteous life, and the aged were thought of as mature in wisdom and experience. The Old Testament custom of honoring the aged with positions of favor politically and socially was continued in the New Testament practice of conferring leadership roles on the "elders."
Finally, we may note that the modern concept of "retirement" is unknown in the Bible. The Levites retired from official service at age fifty, but they then assisted younger priests ( Nu 8:24-26 ). Zechariah, in the New Testament period, considered himself old, but he continued his service in the temple ( Luke 1:18-25 ). Without doubt, in ancient agricultural societies, the nature of physical labor meant cessation from work at a relatively early age. But retirees were then responsible for training their grandchildren and became advisors for the younger generation. The Bible has no concept of ending one's life-work in order to spend the remainder of one's days in leisure.
William T. Arnold
See also Death, Mortality
Bibliography. J. G. Harris, Biblical Perspectives on Aging: God and the Elderly; R. K. Harrison, ISBE, 3:587.
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