Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 5:16 NASB)
My friend Kerry and I have been doing a Rapid Bible Read Thru (thanks Keith Ferrin!) using the chronological bible scheme from the Blue Letter Bible, with hopes of finishing the whole Bible in four months. Last week we finished 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles and associated Psalms. The Old Testament histories are rich in detail and touch us with their plainly told stories of birth, growth and death, especially since we’re getting into our autumn of life.
Kerry and I are blessed to still have our parents and parents-in-law living. These precious elders are all in their late 80s or 90s. In one way or another, they’re each wrestling with changes and losses that come with old age. (My dad has just given up driving and he’s in mourning.) We’re wrestling, too, seeking to love and assist them without hindering the exercise of their independence or diminishing their significance.
The life of Barzillai, the Gileadite, speaks comfort and wisdom to us daughters of precious elders. Barzillai is mentioned in 2 Samuel as a man of means who supported David and his people when they were refugees in flight from David’s son, Absalom. The faithfully recorded details are honoring to Barzillai’s generosity. The text says Barzillai and others provided
beds, basins, pottery, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans, lentils, parched seeds, honey, curds, sheep, and cheese of the herd, for David and for the people who were with him, to eat; for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.” (2 Samuel 17:28-29 NASB)
After the crisis was over, David invited Barzillai to join him in Jerusalem, truly an honor, to sit at the king’s table and be supported in turn by him. Barzillai turned him down, eloquently:
“How long have I yet to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am now eighty years old. Can I distinguish between good and bad? Or can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Or can I hear anymore the voice of singing men and women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? …Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. However, here is your servant Chimham, let him cross over with my lord the king, and do for him what is good in your sight.” The king answered, “Chimham shall cross over with me, and I will do for him what is good in your sight; and whatever you require of me, I will do for you.” All the people crossed over the Jordan and the king crossed too. The king then kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his place. (2 Samuel 19:31-35, 37-39 NASB)
I read Barzillai as a man secure in his significance. He sees his own time ending soon and takes thought for the next generation. He may have regrets, but he’s aware of his blessings and satisfied with his life. I’m willing to bet that his children and grandchildren contribute to his sense of peace by how they honor him in his old age.
Recently, I dangled the possibility of a trip back to our family’s second home when I was a child — Yosemite National Park — to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday. He smiled and shrugged. He may have been thinking, “Do I still remember the names of every tree and flower? Can I still scramble like a mountain goat at the base of Yosemite Falls?”
We’re in a very different time than Barzillai. But our precious elders are people of significance, too. They have made provision for the generations following them. Their lives speak and our faithful remembering honors them. Now is the time to kiss and bless them, and tell them how we will pass on their story to the generations still to come.
Jani can be reached by email here.