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Sermon - The Infirmities and Comforts of Old Age - 1805
Joseph Lathrop - 1805

Joseph Lathrop (1731-1820) graduated from Yale in 1754. He was ordained as pastor of the Congregational church in West Springfield in 1756 - a church he pastored for over sixty years until his retirement in 1818.

In this 1805 sermon, preached when he was 74 years old, Rev. Lathrop encourages his listeners to adopt a Biblical perspective on aging: to recognize that its effects are inevitable; to lean more heavily on God for grace to deal with the weakening of the body; and to maintain a positive testimony of faith before others. (Rev. Lathrop would preach another sermon on aging, Old Age Improved, in 1811, when he had reached his 80th year.)



The Infirmities and Comforts of Old Age

A Sermon To Aged People

By Joseph Lathrop, D. D. Pastor of the first Church in West-Spring field

My aged Brethren and Friends, You will permit an aged man, like yourselves, to speak, this afternoon, a few words to you…Or, if you please, he will speak to himself in your hearing…Pertinent to our case, and worthy of our adoption, is the Petition of the Psalmist in:

Psalm 71:9
Cast me not off in the time of old age…Forsake me not when my strength faileth.

There is little doubt, that David was the author of this Psalm. And from several expressions in it we learn, that he wrote it in his old age. He prays in our text, "cast me not off in the time of old age." And, in verse 18, "Now, when I am old and gray headed, forsake me not." But David, when he died, was but about seventy years old, and he probably wrote the Psalm some years before his death; perhaps in the time of Absalom's rebellion; for he speaks of "enemies, who then took counsel together, and laid wait for this life." And we find not, that he was ever in this perilous and critical situation after that rebellion. David, then, realized old age earlier than some seem to do. He noticed its first appearance; he brought it near, in his meditations, before it had actually invaded him; or, at least, when he began to perceive its approach in the decline of his strength, and the increase of his gray hairs. But many choose to view it as distant. "Grey hairs are here and there upon them, and they perceive it not." They enjoy, in a comfortable degree, the pleasures of life; and that evil day, in which there is no pleasure, they put far from them.

It would be wise for us to imitate David's example; to think of, and prepare for the evil day before it comes; to secure God's gracious presence now; and in our daily prayers to ask, that "he would not cast us off in the time of old age, nor forsake us when our strength faileth."

The Psalmist here reminds us, that old age is a time when strength faileth: And that at such a time God's presence is of peculiar importance.

I. Old age is a time when strength faileth.
There is then a sensible decay of bodily strength.

As we come into the world, so we depart, impotent, feeble and helpless. From our infancy we gradually acquire strength, until we arrive to our full maturity. We then for a few years continue stationary, without sensible change. After a little while we begin to feel, and are constrained to confess an alteration in our state. Our limbs lose their former activity; our customary labor becomes wearisome; pains invade our frame; our sleep, often interrupted, refreshes us less than heretofore; our food is less gustful; our sight is bedimmed, and our ears are dull of hearing; "they that look out at the windows are darkened, and the daughters of music are low;" the pleasures of reading and conversation abate; our ancient companions have generally withdrawn to another world, and the few who are left are, like us, shut up, that they cannot go forth…Hence social visits are more unfrequent and less entertaining; and our condition grows more and more solitary and disconsolate.

With our bodily, our mental strength usually declines. The faculty which first appears to fail is the memory. And its failure we first observe in the difficulty of recollecting little things, such as names and numbers. We then perceive it in our inability to retain things which are recent…What we early heard or read, abides with us; but later information is soon forgotten. Hence, in conversation, aged people often repeat the same questions, and relate the same stories; for they soon lose the recollection of what has passed And hence perhaps, in part, is the impertinent garrulity, of which old age is accused… You see, then my young friends, the importance of laying up a good store of useful knowledge in early life. What you acquire now, you may retain: Later acquisitions will be small and uncertain. Like riches, they will make them wings and fly away. In the decline of life you must chiefly depend on the old stock; and happy, if you shall have then a rich store to feed upon.

When memory fails, other faculties soon follow. The attention is with more difficulty fixed, and more easily diverted: the intellect is less acute in its discernment, and the judgment more fallible in its decisions.

The judgment is the last faculty which the pride of age is willing to give up…Our forgetfulness we cannot but feel, and others cannot but observe. But we choose to think our judgment remains solid and clear. We are never apt to distrust our own opinions; for it is the nature of opinion to be satisfied with itself. It is certain, however, that judgment must fail in some proportion to the failure of attention and recollection. We form a just judgment by viewing and comparing the evidences and circumstances, which relate to the case in question. If then any material evidence, or circumstance escapes our notice, or slips from our memory, the judgment formed is uncertain, because we have but a partial view of the case. In all matters, where a right judgment depends on comparing several things, the failure of memory endangers the rectitude of the decision.

When we perceive a decline of bodily and mental strength, fear and anxiety usually increase. Difficulties once trifling now swell to a terrifying magnitude, because we have not power to encounter them. Want stares upon us with frightful aspect, because we have not capacity to provide against it…The kind and patient attention of our friends we distrust, because we know not how long we may be a burden to them, and we have nothing in our hands to remunerate them, except that property, which they already anticipate as their own. "The grasshopper now becomes a burden' we rise up at the voice of the bird; we are afraid of that which is high, and fear is in the way."

This state of infirmity and anxiety, painful in itself, is rendered more so by the recollection of what we once were, and by the anticipation of what we soon shall be.

We contrast our present with our former condition…Once we were men; now we feel ourselves to be but babes. Once we possessed active powers; now we are become impotent. Once we sustained our children and ministered to them with pleasure; now we are sustained by them; and we are sure, our once experienced pleasure is not reciprocated. Once we were of some importance in society; now we are sunk into insignificance. Once our advice was sought and regarded; now we are passed by with neglect, and younger men take our place: even the management of our own substance has fallen into the hands of others, and they perhaps scarcely think us worthy of being consulted. And if we are, now and then, consulted, perhaps our jealousy whispers, that it is done merely to flatter our aged vanity and keep us in good humor.

Such a contrast Job experienced, and he found it no small aggravation of his adversity. Looking back to former days, he says, "When I went out of the gates through the city, the young men saw me, and hid themselves; the aged arose and stood up. When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me, because I delivered the poor and fatherless, and the blessing of those, who were ready to perish, came upon me. -But now they who are younger than I have me in derision. They abhor me and flee from me. They mar my path, and set forward my calamity."

And not only the remembrance of what is past, but the forethought of what is to come, aggravates the calamity of the aged man.

In earlier life hope stood by him to comfort him in all his troubles. If he was disappointed in his business, he hoped to succeed better in a future essay. If he met with misfortune, he hoped by and by to retrieve it. If he lost his health, he hoped by time and medicine to regain it. If he suffered pain, he hoped it would be short. Whatever calamity he felt, he looked forward to better days…But now hope has quitted its station and retired from his company. "His days are spent without hope." The joys of life are fled, never to return. He anticipates the increase of infirmities and pains from month to month, and the probable even of total decrepitude and confinement, and the entire loss of his feeble remains of sensibility and intellect.

Well might Solomon call this an evil day.

In the probable expectation of such a day, there is no solid comfort, but in the hope of enjoying the presence of God. Therefore, as we observed,

II. We ought to adopt the prayer of David, "Cast me not off in the time of old age: Forsake me not when my strength faileth."

In the first place, the Psalmist may here be supposed to request, that God would not cast him off from the care of his providence.

When we have reached old age, or find ourselves near it, we may reasonably and properly pray, that God would excuse us from those pains of body and infirmities of mind, with which some have been afflicted; that he would place us in easy and unembarrassed circumstances, and allow us liberty for those devout exercises, which are suited to prepare us for our momentous change. David had seen the gross misbehavior of some of his children, and was now probably suffering under the cruel persecution of an ungracious son, who wished the father's death, that he might possess the father's throne. In this situation the old man prays, "Deliver me out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. O God, be not far from me; make haste to my help." Under this severe affliction he doubtless requested, that God would incline the hearts of his children to treat him with filial duty and affection, and to study the peace and comfort of his declining age.

The happiness of the parent, in the latter stages of his life, depends much on the good behavior of his children; and particularly on their kind attention to him…I pity the aged man, who, when his strength fails, looks anxiously around, and sees not a son on whom he can lean: No; not a child, who will reach out a hand to sustain his sinking frame, and guide his tottering steps… But I congratulate the happy old man, who sees his children about him, all attentive to his wants, listening to his complaints, compassionate to his pains, and emulous each to excel the other in acts of filial duty…I honor the children, when instead of seeing the old father tossed from place to place, unwelcome wherever he is sent, they adopt the language of Joseph, "come to me, my father; thou shalt be near to me, and I will nourish thee." Such filial kindness soothes the pains, and cheers the spirits of the parent. It makes him forget his affliction, or remember it as waters which pass away.

But, secondly, what David principally requested was, that God would grant him the presence of his grace. Thus he prays, in another Psalm, "Cast me not away out of thy presence; take not thy holy spirit from me; restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with thy free spirit."

His outward man was decaying; but he solicited such supplies of grace, as should renew the inward man day by day. In his increasing infirmities he could take pleasure, when the power of God rested upon him; for however weak in himself, he was strong in the Lord.

1. In this prayer he asks grace, that he may maintain a temper and behavior suited to his age and condition.

It becomes the aged to be grave and sober, for they stand on the brink of the eternal world. And who would not be sober there? If we should ever happen to see such men light and vain, addicted to frothy discourse, fond of dissolute company, and seeking guilty amusements, we should be shocked at the spectacle. We should naturally conclude, that their hearts were totally alienated from God and religion, and completely stupefied by the habits of sin.

It becomes them to be temperate and vigilant, and to avoid every indulgence, which might tend to increase the peevishness and irritability naturally incident to a period of pain and infirmity.

It becomes them to be patient and resigned. As they are subject to peculiar trials, and the strength of nature fails, they should implore the presence of that good spirit, whose fruits are gentleness, meekness and long-suffering. They should call to mind former mercies, and meditate on God's works of old. They should consider that their time is short, and their trials will soon be over. "Now for a season, if need be, they are in heaviness through manifold temptations; but if patience has its perfect work, the trial of their faith, which is more precious, than that of gold which perishes, will be found to praise and honor at the coming of Christ. And these light afflictions, which are but for a moment, will work for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."

2. They should pray for grace, that by a pattern of piety and heavenly mindedness, they may recommend religion to others. They are required to be sound in charity, as well as patience-not only to bear their troubles with fortitude and dignity, but to exhibit in all things a behavior, which becometh holiness, that they may teach the young to be sober minded. This is the best exercise of their charity.

David, in his old age, felt a benevolent concern for rising posterity. Hence he prays, "O God, forsake me not, when I am old, until I have showed thy strength to this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come."

The aged man, taken off by his infirmities from the active business of life, can in no way do more service for God and for mankind, than by exhibiting a visible example of contentment and humility, piety and spirituality, faith and hope, in the near views of another world. He thus demonstrates the excellence and power of religion, and calls on all around him to embrace and cherish it, that, like him, they may pear affliction with serenity, and meet death with fortitude.

3. David here solicits communion with God. "Cast me not off." Deny me not free access to thee. "Turn not away my prayer, nor thy mercy from me."

The good man, in all circumstances, would maintain a heavenly intercourse. But he desires and values this privilege most in a time of affliction, and in the near expectation of death. Our Savior, who was, at all times, filled with a devout spirit, exercised this spirit most fervently and frequently toward the close of his life. And so ought the aged saint. As he is discharged from the labors and occupation of the world, let him dismiss his worldly affections and thoughts, and give himself, more than formerly, to self examination, meditation and prayer, viewing the time as at had, when, taking leave of all earthly things, he must enter into a new world, mingle in new connexions, and appear in the presence of God, let him employ himself in the contemplation of heaven and in the exercises of devotion more constantly than he could ordinarily do in former years, when the world had greater demands upon him. Looking forward to the last stage of life, and realizing the condition in which he may then be placed, let him often ask beforehand, that God would give him at that time, the spirit of prayer in a superior degree, would grant him, under nature's weakness, ability to collect and arrange his thoughts, and a fervor of pious affection in making known his requests. This, in a similar case, was the employment and the comfort of the Psalmist. "My soul," says he, "is full of troubles, and my life draweth near to the grave; mine acquaintance are put far from me; and I am shut up, that I cannot go forth." And what could he do in this condition? One thing he could do; and this he did. He applied himself to prayer, which is the best relief of an afflicted soul. "I have called daily upon thee, and to thee have I stretched out my hands Unto thee have I cried, O Lord, and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee. Let my prayer come before thee; incline thine ear to my cry."

4. David, in this petition, "Cast me not off in the time of old age," requests that, by the power of Divine Grace working in him, his faith and hope might hold out to the last; and that, by the sensible displays of Divine Light, and by increasing evidence of his title to salvation, he might be freed from the distressing apprehension of being finally cast off and forsaken of his God. Thus he prays, on another occasion, "Cast me not away out of thy presence. Restore unto me the joy of they salvation."

In all seasons and conditions of life, the hope of glory is much to be desired, and earnestly to be sought. This will lighten our afflictions and sweeten our mercies; defend us against temptations and smooth the path of duty; dispel the gloom which hovers round the grave, and brighten the prospect of eternity… But this hope is never more important, or more delightful than in old age. Now the joys of life have fled, and earthly prospects are cut off; now the day of probation is expiring, and the solemn hour of retribution is at hand…How unhappy the case of those, who are going down to the grave without hope, and going to judgment with a consciousness of unpardoned guilt; who, in the review of life, see nothing but vain amusements, sensual pleasures, earthly affections, and avaricious or ambitious pursuits; and in the contemplation of futurity see nothing before them, but death, judgment and fiery indignation… But how happy the aged Christian, who can look back on a life employed in works of piety to God, and beneficence to men, and who now feels the spirit of devotion and charity warmed within him and acting with fresh vigor to confirm his hopes of heaven, dispel the fears of death, and light up fresh joys in his soul? He can take pleasure in his infirmities, regarding them as kind intimations, that "now is hi salvation nearer, than when he believed."

Such was Paul's felicity, when he was ready to be offered, and the time of his departure was at hand. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me in that day." How did Paul obtain this felicity?-"He counted not his own life dear to himself, that he might finish his work with faithfulness, and his course with joy." "He kept under his body to bring it into subjection, lest by any means, when he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway." That we may obtain the full assurance of hope, we must be followers of them, who by faith and patience inherit the promises; and in this course we must give diligence to the end.

Our subject powerfully applies itself to us, who are advanced in age. We begin to feel the decays of strength, and to perceive the indications of our approaching dissolution. In a few a days, we must go the way, whence we shall not return. Soon we shall see man no more with the inhabitants of the earth; but shall be placed in new relations and in a new condition. While we tarry here, our infirmities will probably increase; our days and nights will become more wearisome; the pleasure of senses will lose their relish; the burden of worldly business will be too heavy for our bending shoulders; the implements of our labor will drop out of our palsied hands, and we shall have no more a portion in any thing that is done under the sun. And it is not improbable, that some of our last months may be spent in helpless confinement of body; ah, and perhaps too in derangement or stupor of mind.

Looking forward to such a season, let us daily pray, "O God, cast us not off in the time of old age; forsake us not when our strength faileth. Give us kind and patient friends, who will cheerfully minister to our necessities and bear our infirmities. Vouchsafe to us rich supplies of thy Grace, that we may sustain our own infirmities; may enjoy communion with thee; may maintain our heavenly hope, and by a pattern of Christian piety, charity and spirituality, may commend to those who stand around us that Divine Religion, which is our support, our comfort, and our joy…And if, in thy sovereign Wisdom, thou shouldst see fit to deny us the privilege of reason, let the prayers which we now offer be graciously remembered; and grant us pious and prayerful friends, who will send up petitions to thee in our behalf…And whether we shall then be capable of making a petition to thee, or not, we now humbly ask, That thou wouldst not cast us out of thy presence, nor take they holy spirit from us, but by thine own wonderful and secret operation make us more and more meet for heaven; and when our flesh and our heart shall fail us, be thou the strength of our heart, and our portion forever."

My brethren, if we wish to enjoy the comforts of religion at last, we must cultivate the temper, and keep up the exercise of religion now. It will be no easy matter to take up the business then, unless we have been accustomed to it before.

You, my friends, who are in the midst of life, and you who are young, are not uninterested in this subject. You all think, that we, who are aged, need the comforts of religion. God grant, that we may have them. Do you not sometimes think of us in your prayers? We hope you do. But know, if you live to be aged, (and you all desire many days) these comforts will then be as necessary for you, as they are now for us. But how can you be sure of them then, unless you obtain an interest in them now? To have the comforts of religion, you must have religion itself. Embrace it, therefore, in your hearts; cultivate the holy tempers which it requires; maintain the good works which it enjoins, and ascertain your title to the eternal blessings which it proposes…Thus lay up for yourselves a good foundation against the time, which is to come, that you may lay hold on eternal life.

[Rev. Lathrop's Sermon Containing Reflections on a Solar Eclipse is also posted on our website.]

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