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"Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading" by Vincent van Gogh, 1881

The Elder’s Song — Psalm 71

WITH SUFFERING COMES WISDOM? With the advance of age, the increase of learning? Perhaps, but not without years of unbridled struggle with the tangle of contradictions that daily surrounds us. An enemy approaches? Indeed, a “wicked” enemy is near at hand (captor, oppressor, anxiety, disease) whose firm grip latches on with “the grasp of the unjust and cruel”!

A “lament” is not a supplication cushioned by casual thanksgiving. It is a plea of pain joined to praise. Like most other laments, this one is the cry of a person who knows both need and consolation. The advancing wisdom is not that the years have brought lessening of the pain; rather, with the years has come a closer identification of the pain-ridden with the One who is able to comfort and sustain. “Be thou to me a rock of refuge.” Who, indeed, has not sought that Shadow of Stability as the years crept snail-pace along, or in sudden debility leapt upon us?

Whether we live to be eighty or forty (and in many primitive societies only ten percent of the populace exceeded forty), the issue of our mortality and the taunt of our mortal enemies is of grave concern to any would-be psalmist (you, reader?) who knows our frail, earthly condition.

Hymn seventy-one of Israel’s songbook strikes a chord of universal disharmony, exposing a personal dilemma with which all of God’s creatures sooner or later must contend. The feelings of forsakenness, and of being the one who is “put to shame and consumed” are no respecters of age and circumstance. Yet perhaps oldtimers attend more resolutely (thus their wisdom) to the only lasting source of strength, which can out-distance “The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks I That flesh is heir to.”*

This gray-haired songster gives a testimony. This music is obedient passing-on of the living traditions of the elders, whose mouths are founts of complaint and adoration, whose faith is a descant lifted “all the day long” but only slightly above the sonorous lament. Together they break forth in sacred chorus. The message? Either our earthly ballads are ended with a dread finale composed by the Enemy; or the last strains of hope are played by Hands whose grace redeems all death-dealing adversaries, including the “last enemy” itself.

In this oft-practiced chant, an ageless ancient’s voice transcends “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”** holding forth in triumphant melody as though to say: Is not the praise of God our deepest fulfillment? Is not the trust of Yahweh our everlasting hope?

Pray you, wise and weary fellow traveler, chant the same.

* William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, sc. 1, lines 62-63
** Ibid., line 58.

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