And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. (Joshua 14:10-11)
“You can take the dog out of the fight, but you cannot take the fight out of the dog.” This expression so aptly fits the Old Testament leader Caleb in two ways. His name is the Hebrew word for dog; and Caleb was a great warrior.
But in a deeper sense, he defies this cliche’s simple logic, because you could never take this dog out the fight, even to his old age, when you’d expect someone like him to retire and step aside for the younger men. Caleb’s decision as a elderly man makes him such a rich example for those who us who have the privilege of acquiring a few grey hairs. Before we look to Caleb, the eighty-five year old leader of the tribe of Judah, who led his family into the promised land, come with me on a short detour about the place of the young and old in the revelation of God.
God cares deeply about young people. After all, he spoke to the boy Samuel, used adolescent David to defeat Goliath, and the youthful King Josiah to turn back his people to the Law. Most especially, nursing babies were used by Christ as a models for belief, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). Children are not potential adults, future members of his kingdom, but God’s own people at whatever age he calls them.
However, in our times we need to hear that the elderly are no less important in God’s sight.
Rather than being a quaint rule of an old-fashioned year-three teacher, or the convicting haunting voice of your mother’s instructions on a crowded bus, the idea of standing up for the elderly is straight from the pages of Scripture. “You shall stand up before the gray head and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:32) Deeply honouring those with experience is so countercultural to our world, quick to replace wives, male television anchors, church ministers and actresses who get a little bit older than the next rising star or starlet. Our disposable culture has has somehow transferred from plastic to people. However, in his law, God rejects such arrogance and calls for a deep respect that is somehow linked to the way we fear of his own majesty.
Lest anyone think this was a type of ancestor veneration, the previous verse forbids reaching out to the dead, former generations. “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:31) Both the ancestor appeasement of the Eastern world and the elderly neglect of the West are rebuked in these two verses. When we get to the New Testament, it the venerable Simeon and aged Anna who faithfully hold out for the Christ to arrive. The elder men of the church, both in age and godliness, are called guard the flock entrusted to their care (Acts 20, 1 Peter 5:1-4)
Early in the story of the Bible, the example of Caleb shines, being used by God so powerfully as a young man, and so surprisingly in his eighties. Could his example be a rebuke to those of us who dehumanise and demean the elderly and those who give ourselves a hall-pass on leadership, ministry and courage as soon as we reach retirement age?
1. Caleb, the middle aged man, who faced against his own people
On the Western shore of the Jordan river, having been liberated from Egypt so dramatically and having heard their Lord at Mount Sinai, the multitude of the Israelites waited in expectation as twelve spies returned to give a report of the land, intended by God as a help for their conquest. The headline mission report revealed that the land and its fruit were rich, the inhabitants powerful, and their fortifications impressive. (Numbers 13:27-29)
Caleb, being forty, the chief of the tribe of Judah, was one of those spies. He spoke words of courage. “But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
But most of the other tribal leaders led the people into rebellion. Rather than being able to conquer the land, they feared it would conquer them. Compared to the giants, said the other spies, “we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers”, despondently, and without any acknowledgement of God (Numbers 13:33). The whole assembly tried make a plan to return to Egypt, complaining about the Lord (Numbers 14:1-4).
With Moses and Aaron fallen on their faces, and noticeably saying nothing, Caleb and his one loyal fellow-spy, Joshua, stood up against the crowd, pleading with them not to reject the Lord in this way. Rather than finding success, they were almost stoned to death if it were not for the arrival of the presence of the Lord. (Numbers 14:5-10). Because of this flagrant rejection of God, the Israelites were punished and forced to wander the wilderness for forty years, enough time for the entire generation of culpable adults to die out.
In this defining incident, three things stand out about Caleb’s character.
- Caleb was willing to die for the sake of the Lord, at the hands of the Canaanites, or even by the murderous rejection of his own nation. Allegiance to God is often profoundly lonely and alienating. The cross of Christ is the supreme example.
- Caleb did not think of his people as grasshoppers, and the enemy as unbeatable giants. “The protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” (Numbers 14:9) The Israelites had an historical knowledge of God, but no faith in their present day when it counted. Is that true for us too?
- God judges Caleb very differently to the people; and makes a special promise to him and his descendants. “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.” (Numbers 14:24)
2. Caleb, the old man, who stepped up again to lead his own people
What Caleb experienced as a younger man would have haunted someone weaker, filling them perhaps with regrets, flashbacks, remorse or bitterness. His own people had rejected his leadership, trying even to kill him. But forty-five years later, as the new generation of the Israelites in earnest began to conquer the land, Caleb held the promise of God, as dear to him as his own life. Speaking to Joshua, he said:
7 I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart. 8 But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the LORD my God. 9 And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the LORD my God.’ (Joshua 14:7-9)
And Caleb didn’t just await his superannuation, his retirement package from the Lord, claiming rights without the risks of death. He acknowledges the Lord God’s perseverance of his own life and faithfulness to his promises. The fight was still there inside him, and there was no way he’d be left behind.
“And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. 12 So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.”” (Joshua 14:10-12)
Fittingly, the part of the land that Caleb received was the part which caused the downfall of the others with him, the most fortified cities, where the enormous people lived.
There is something astonishing in his words. Caleb feels as strong as he was in his peak. Which of us could say this? We usually do the opposite and talk ourselves down as we get older. While the Lord would most certainly have preserved his health so that his promise would be kept, it was also Caleb’s way of seeing himself that is remarkable. Forty years ago, all the other fit spies saw themselves as mere grasshoppers, but with the Lord’s presence Caleb saw himself as fit for the task. There is something very deep about this. If God is for us, who can stand against us.
The story continues with Caleb, and his men from Judah, driving out those enemies and capturing the cities, especially Hebron which was given to him because he remained loyal to God (Joshua 14:13). We then see Caleb commanding the next generations and inspiring them to continue the attack. Is it surprising that they were consistently the first in the attack! Instead of shrinking back, the tribe of Judah, and especially Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, had the same attitude as their aged leader. (Joshua 15:14-19 and Judges 1:1-15; 3:9-11). There is power when old men stand up and are counted.
Here are just there lessons that I draw from this.
A. Lift up the story of Caleb: encourage and honour the godly aged men and women
We can and should physically stand and show respect to all those who are older than us, but there is a way of doing this with our words too. We must especially heap honour on those who have lived long and remained faithful to the Lord. Do we do this? Our Christian gospel imagination needs to be expanded, to include, not just the young, but people like Caleb who were strong even as 85 year-old men. He didn’t cower at 40, like the rest of them, and he would not weaken 45 years later. This story was written for us! May it rebuke us and shape us.
If Caleb were in our time, he might well have had many younger men condescendingly hinting that he would be doing a better job if he made way for the next generation. I have heard this before. Yes he fought well in the past, but it is time for the others. Caleb defies this and ends up inspiring the next generation by keeping on being involved in his service of the Lord.
I heard recently of a church annual general meeting, where the oldest person in the room wanted to make a recommendation to the new leadership team, before they make decisions: 1. That they examine their own hearts each time and 2. That they alway pray. There is so much power in an older person, who doesn’t complain about the young children making noise, but delights in the way the church is reaching new people for Christ. The oldest person in the room sets a tone. And Caleb ended outliving even Joshua and set the tone for his own tribe, at least, to be devoted to God and his ways. See what good it will do if we hear more of these stories.
B. Read the story of Caleb: and stop seeing yourself as past-it because of your age
Some Christian believers are old on the outside, but young on inside; others have youthful bodies and minds, but are so timid that they’ve effectively moved into the Church equivalent of full-time aged-care. This doesn’t have to be the case, whether it be prayer, follow-up of younger believers, evangelism or giving.
Caleb did not see himself as small and useless. He had an appropriate courage and confidence, based on the promises of God. He already knew the lesson Moses and the eleven disciples had to learn. The way that God compensates for feelings of inadequacy of speech, strength or stamina is to remind us of his presence.
- To Moses: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12)
- To the disciples: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20)
- What Caleb already knew at 40: “the LORD is with us; do not fear them” (Numbers 14:9)
- What Caleb still knew at 85: “It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.” (Joshua 14:12)
C. Read both parts of the story of Caleb: Start young, to finish well
While there may be someone, like Moses, who only steps up to serve God in his old age, Caleb is the more realistic model that I have seen in practice. Many of the older godly people who have been Christians for a long time were younger godly confident people before.
Remember that Caleb was not just a fighter in his old age, he was loyal all through-out his life: as a spy, opposing his own people, wandering through the terrible wilderness still holding God’s promise and then in the moment that counted, he led his people into the promised land.
Martin Luther King said beautifully:
“And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.
You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.
Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right …”
Caleb didn’t die in his spirit at 40. What about you?