"There is nothing," says Socrates to Cephalus in the Republic, "I like better than conversing with aged men. For I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom it is right to learn the character of the way, whether it is rugged or difficult, or smooth and easy" (p.328 E.).
It is to such an aged traveller that we are introduced in the person of Barzillai the Gileadite. And though he is one of the lesser-known characters of Scripture -- and we might perhaps never have heard of him at all had it not been for his connection with King David -- on the few occasions on which he does appear he acts with an independence and disinterestedness which are very striking.
The first of these occasions is at Mahanaim, in his own country of Gilead. In the strong fortress there David and his companions had taken refuge after the disastrous revolt of Absalom. Owing to their hurried flight, the fugitives were wanting in almost all the necessaries of life, and they could hardly fail also to have been a little apprehensive of the kind of welcome the Gileadites would extend to them. But if so, their fears were soon set at rest. Three of the richest and most influential men in the district at once came to their aid. Shobi the son of Nahash, and Machir the son of Ammiel, and Barzillai the Gileadite of Rogelim, brought beds, and cups, and wheat, and barley, and honey, and butter, and sheep -- all, in fact, that was needed -- for David, and for the people that were with him: for they said, "The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness" (2 Sam. xvii.29).
In so acting, the first of these, Shobi, may have been trying to atone for his brother's insulting conduct when David had sent messengers to comfort him on his father's death (2 Sam. x.1-5); and Machir as the friend of Mephibosheth (2 Sam, ix.4), was naturally grateful for the king's kindness to the lame prince. But, as regards Barzillai, we know of no such reasons for his conduct, and his generosity may, therefore, be traced to the natural impulses of a kind and generous heart. In any case, this unlooked-for sympathy and friendship had an arousing and encouraging effect upon the king. He no longer despaired of his fortunes, black though at the moment they looked, but, marshalling his forces under three captains, prepared for war with his rebellious son; with the result that in the forest of Ephraim Absalom's army was wholly defeated, and the young prince himself treacherously slain.
With the death of its leader, the rebellion against David may be said to have ended; but to the sorrow-stricken father victory at such a price seemed an almost greater calamity than defeat would have been. And it needed the strong, almost harsh, remonstrances of Joab to rouse him from his grief, and lead him to think of his duty to his people. At length, however, the homeward journey began, the king following the same route by which so shortly before he had fled, until he came to the banks of the Jordan, where a ferry-boat was in readiness to take him and his household across (2 Sam. xix.18). Before, however, he crossed, several interesting interviews took place. Shimei, who had cursed so shamelessly on the day of misfortune, was forgiven, and received the promise of protection; Mephibosheth was restored to the king's favour, and his old place at the king's table; and, what specially concerns us at present, David had his final parting with Barzillai.
The loyal chieftain, notwithstanding his eighty years, had come all the way from his upland farm to bid farewell to his king, and see him safely over Jordan. And as David remarked the old man's devotion, and remembered his former favours, the wish seized him to attach him still more closely to his person. "Come thou over with me," he said, "and I will feed thee with me in Jerusalem" (2 Sam. xix.33). It was from one point of view a dazzling offer. Barzillai had seen enough of David to know that what the king said he meant, and that if he chose to go with him, honour and position awaited him at the court. But he would not be moved. His grey hairs, if nothing else, stood in the way. "How long have I to live," he answered, "that I should go up with the king unto Jerusalem?" (verse 34). I am too old, that is, for such a life as would there be expected of me. And, after all, why should conduct such as mine meet with so great a reward? No! let me go a little way over Jordan with the king, and then "Let thy servant, I pray thee, turn back again, that I may die in mine own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother." "But," he hastened to add, as if anxious to show that he appreciated to the full the king's generous offer, and saw the advantages it presented to those who were able to enjoy them, "behold thy servant Chimham," my son, "let him go over with my lord the king; and do to him what shall seem good unto thee" (verse 37). With a plea so expressed, David could not but acquiesce: "The king kissed Barzillai, and blessed him; and he returned unto his own place . . . and Chimham went on with him" (verses 39, 40), to become famous as the founder of a caravanserai, or halting-place for pilgrims on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which for at least four centuries continued to bear his name (Jer. xli.17) and which may even, it has been conjectured, have been the same which, at the time of the Christian era "furnished shelter for two travellers with their infant child, when 'there was no room in the inn.'"
Round Barzillai's own name no such associations have gathered. After his parting with David we do not hear of him again, if we except a passing reference in David's dying instructions to Solomon, to "shew kindness unto the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite" (1 Kings ii.7), and the mention, as late as the return from Babylon, of a family of priests who traced their descent to a marriage with the Gileadite's daughter, and prided themselves on the distinctive title of "the children of Barzillai" (Ezra ii.61). But in the absence of anything to the contrary, we may be allowed to conjecture that, full of years and experience, surrounded by all the love which his useful, helpful life had called forth, Barzillai died in peace among his own people, and was buried, as he had himself desired, by his parents' grave.
Such, then, is the story of Barzillai's life, so far as the Bible reveals it to us. It is, as I have already said, as an old man that he is principally brought before us, and in thinking of his character further, it may be well to do so from this point of view, and see what he has to teach us regarding a true old age. Four points at least stand out clearly from the Bible narrative.
Barzillai was evidently by nature a warm-hearted, sunshiny old man, himself happy and making others happy.
David himself was such a man before the great sin which brought a trouble and a sorrow into his life that he was never again able wholly to surmount. And it may have been the sight of his own lost gaiety and lightness of spirit in the aged Gileadite that first drew out his heart to him.
It may be said, perhaps, that it was easy for Barzillai to be cheerful. The sun had shone on him very brightly: the good things of life had fallen very freely to his share. He was, according to the Bible record, "a very great man" (2 Sam. xix.32), evidently a most successful farmer, rich in flocks and herds, looked up and respected in the district in which he lived. But after all, is it the universal, or even the general, experience that wealth and power are associated with simple cheerfulness and happiness? Could anything, for example, have exceeded the bitterness and the boorishness of the other rich flockmaster whom David's youths, with Eastern frankness, had asked, "Give, we pray thee, whatsoever cometh to thine hand unto thy servants, and to thy son David" "Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?" burst out Nabal in a fury. "Shall I then take my bread, and my water . . . and give it unto men whom I know not whence they be?" (1 Sam. xxv.8, 10, 11). And even if that be an extreme instance, it will not be denied that outward blessings in themselves, and considered only by themselves, are apt to have a hardening rather than a softening effect. It says much, therefore, for Barzillai, that amidst his great possessions, he still kept the free, open, happy disposition of youth.
That he did so, is due amongst other reasons to the fact that he was a generous man.
His unsolicited assistance of David clearly proves this, while the very length of the catalogue of articles with which he and his friends supplied the fugitive's needs, proves that when he gave, he did so in no stinted fashion, but freely and liberally.
It is an excellent example for all who are feeling themselves burdened by the possessions and the opportunities with which God has enriched them. Let them remember that they hold them only in trust, and in helping to bear others' burdens, they will actually, strange to say, lighten their own.
"'Tis worth a wise man's best of life,
While, on the other hand, can there be a sadder thought for the man whose earthly course is nearly run, than the thought that there will be none to rise up after him and call him blessed, but that he will die, as he has lived, unhonoured, unwept?
If that, then, is not to be our fate, we cannot use too diligently every opportunity of well-doing which God has placed within our reach; we cannot live too earnestly, not for ourselves only, but for others: that from the seeds which we sow now, there may spring up hereafter a rich and abundant harvest.
Barzillai was contented.
Not many men in his position would have refused the king's offer. It seems rather to be one of the penalties of wealth and greatness, that their owners cannot rest satisfied with what they have, but are always desiring more. But Barzillai felt, and felt rightly, that in his circumstances, the place in which he had been brought up -- "his own place" -- was the best place for him. He was a home-loving old man, and the simple interests and pleasures of his daily life had more attraction for him than the excitements and rivalries of the court.
I do not, of course, mean to say that either here or elsewhere in Scripture, a wise and healthy ambition is discouraged. It is natural to wish to get on, if only for the sake of a wider sphere of usefulness; but let us see to it that we avoid that restless longing for change, simply for the sake of change, that coveting of positions for which we are not suited, and which, if gratified, can end only in disappointment.
"It is a great thing," said one to an ancient philosopher, "to possess what one wishes." "It is a greater blessing still," was the reply, "not to desire what one does not possess." And surely, in what we do possess, in the beauties of nature with which we are here surrounded, in the love of home and wife and children, in the intercourse with friends and acquaintance, we have much to make us contented, much, very much, to be thankful for. "To watch the corn grow, or the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to pray," -- these, says John Ruskin, "are the things that make men happy." And these are things that, in some measure at least, are within the reach of us all.
There remains still a fourth and a last element in Barzillai's honoured, life and happy old age -- his attitude towards God.
Though we are never distinctly told so, we cannot doubt that he was a religious man. And as it was in gratitude to God for all that He had done to him, that he first showed kindness to God's anointed, so it was in the same humble and trusting spirit that he accepted old age, and all that it involved when it came. That is by no means always the case. Are there not some, who, as they look forward to the time of old age, if God should ever permit them to see it, do so with a certain amount of dread? They think only of what they will be called upon to abandon -- the duties they must give up, the pleasures, so dear to them now, they must forego. But to Barzillai, the presence of such disabilities brought, as we have seen, no disquieting thoughts. He could relinquish, without a sigh, what he was no longer fitted to enjoy. He desired nothing but to end his days peacefully in his appointed lot. Enough for him that the God who had been with him all his life long was with him still.
Happy old man! Who does not long for an old age, if he is ever to see old age, such as his? But, if so, it must be sought in the same way. Every man's old age is just what his own past has made it. If, in his days of health and vigour, he has lived an idle, careless, selfish life, he must not wonder if his closing years are querulous, and bitter, and lonely. But if, on the other hand, he has devoted himself to good and doing good, if he has made the will of God his rule and guide amidst all the difficulties and perplexities of his daily lot, then in that will he will find peace. God wilt not forget his "work and labour of love" (Heb. vi.10): and in him the old promise will be once more fulfilled -- "Even to your old age I am He; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry and will deliver you" (Isa. xlvi.4).
In view, however, of the difficulty of reconciling the two passages, and of the fact that Shobi is not mentioned elsewhere, it has been conjectured that for "Shobi the son of Nahash" in 2 Sam. xvii.27, we should read simply "Nahash," see Hastings' Dict. of the Bible, art. "Shobi."
Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, ii., p.154.