Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knows it not: yes, gray hairs are here and there on him, yet he knows not.
In Scripture these are sometimes associated with sentiments of honor and reverence, for they suggest the thought of ripe wisdom and venerable piety (Leviticus 19:32; Proverbs 16:31). Here, however, they are viewed simply as premonitions of old age, and of an old age, besides, that was premature. There is a lesson in our text, taking it even in its most literal sense. The believer's first grey hairs should remind him that the grace of God will enable him to "grow old gracefully." Bat the "grey hairs" spoken of in this verse are, of course, figurative. We may consider the text in connection with -
I. THE DECLINE OF NATIONS. Its primary reference is to "Ephraim," and to the symptoms which Ephraim showed of approaching national ruin. But the whole Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is full of teaching about the decadence of nations. The Hebrew prophets point to "the giant forms of empires on their way to ruin." Hence the priceless value of their writings to the Christian patriot, and to the devout student of history. What are some of the "grey hairs" which forebode national decay?
1. Idolatry. The northern kingdom had departed from God, first in worshipping Jeroboam's calves, and afterwards in serving the idol-deities of Phoenicia. And now, in his time of political need, Ephraim was looking for help to Egypt and Assyria (vers. 8-11), instead of returning to Jehovah as his Portion. This "grey hair" led quickly to the degradation and ruin of the kingdom. So, still, those nations that will not serve the Lord our God shall perish, and be utterly wasted.
2. Immorality. A people may increase greatly in civilization and intellectual culture, and yet be sprinkled all over with this "grey hair." Ancient Greece, when it was the land of art and poetry and philosophy, was morally all the while a mass of corruption. Rome, during the first century of the Christian era, was even worse. Juvenal calls it "a filthy sewer," and Seneca "a cesspool of iniquity." When immorality is rampant, it marks the commonwealth as moribund, and forebodes its "decline and fall."
3. Vicious luxury. It was a sign of decay when Ephraim began to" live deliciously," like ancient Tyre and Babylon (Amos 6:3, et seq.). In the palmy days of the Roman commonwealth the Romans were brave, hardy, and victorious; but under the Empire the inner life of the people was gradually eaten away by the canker of luxury. Our own nation, and all the great Anglo-Saxon communities at the present time, need to guard against this "grey hair."
4. Oppression of the poor. If a nation is to continue safe against dissolution, it must be governed by justice and humanity. The French revolution of 1789 was the result of the sinful waste of the Bourbon kings, and the misery of the French peasantry. But every nation is in danger which takes no care to "judge the poor of the people." This text reminds us, accordingly, of our duty as citizens. We must take order that our political representatives shall act in all public matters with justice and honor. Every Christian elector should use his ballot-paper under a sense of his responsibility to the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of nations; and he ought to do what he can otherwise to strengthen public opinion in the direction of wise political principles, and of a healthy condition of the national conscience.
II. THE DECLINE OF CHURCHES. For, alas! the marks of decay are often found there also. It was so with the seven Churches of proconsular Asia in the first century. In most of the epistles which the Lord addressed to them (Revelation 2., 3.) he points out the "grey hairs." How gradually, too, premonitions of spiritual decline appeared in the Church of Rome! The student of Church history sees at first only one or two "grey hairs" upon its head. We may indicate some of the signs of spiritual decay in Churches.
1. Prevalence of unsound doctrine. A Church, to be spiritually healthy, must be thoroughly evangelical. Its ministers must not regard themselves merely as the educators of some native goodness in man; and they must not preach as if the cross were only a myth, or the Holy Ghost a metaphor. The Church's best times are those in which it teaches most clearly and emphatically the three evangelical "R's," viz. ruin by the fall, redemption by the Lord Jesus, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
2. Lack of missionary zeal. This detect frequently accompanies unwholesome doctrine. The continued vigor of a Church depends upon its aggressiveness as a crusading institute in opposition to the sin and misery of the world. It is not enough that it provide carefully for its own edification, and know that its members are benefited by its services. It will decline in spiritual life if it forgets those around who perish "for lack of knowledge."
3. Decadence of family religion. In the Bible the true ecclesiastical unit is not the individual, but the family. Holy Scripture magnifies "the Church in the house." And experience shows that a congregation, to be strong and healthy, must be composed of well-trained, intelligent, and devout families. What both the Church and the nation greatly need today is godly households. The lack of family religion is a precursor of spiritual ruin.
4. The spirit of worldliness. The Lord Jesus detected this "grey hair" in the Church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:4) and in the Church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:15). And those of our own day are not untainted with the same spirit. It is a mark of decay when a denomination or congregation plumes itself upon its social importance; or when it makes an idol of decorum and good taste; or when it becomes formal in spirit, and discourages religious enthusiasm; or when it relaxes in faithfulness of discipline.
III. THE DECLINE OF SPIRITUAL LIFE IN THE SOUL. The figure appropriately describes the backslidings of true and professed believers. We shall mention one or two symptoms which even those who themselves manifest them are prone to fail to recognize.
1. Habits of sin. It may be that seeds of evil which we sowed long ago in our hearts are growing up now, and occasioning us spiritual failure and confusion. Little sins are like these" grey hairs;" e.g. the spirit of over-carefulness, the spirit of caviling, the spirit of ostentation in religious duties, the unforgiving spirit, undue love of human praise, uncharitable judging, etc.
2. Neglect of ordinances. Christ has given us his Word, and has invited us to come to the throne of grace, and has spread for us the communion-table. But how gradually may we lose our relish for these means of grace, and how easily may the habit of neglecting them steal in upon our souls!
3. Covetousness. Some one has described the love of money as "the Church member's sin." Thomas Binney has said of it that it is "about the only great damning vice which can be indulged and clung to in connection with a recognized modern religious profession." There is no sin more insidious; it may occupy the heart and one "not know" it.
4. Conformity to the world. The daily circumstances of our lot constantly appeal to sense and self, and continually tempt us to give up trying to lead a spiritual, pure, and consecrated life. Even a true believer, before he knows it, may be "following afar off," and slowly abating his testimony as a nonconformist to the ungodly customs of the world.
CONCLUSION. We require frequently to "examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith." We ought constantly to hold up before our eyes the clear mirror of Holy Scripture, that we may detect the "grey hairs." We must also see reflected in it the glorious form of the Lord Jesus, the one Image of perfect manhood. There are no "grey hairs" upon him; "his locks are bushy, and black as a raven" (Song of Solomon 5:11). We must seek grace to give ourselves constantly to the imitation of Christ. - C.J.
Parallel VersesKJV: Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knoweth it not: yea, gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth not.