The name "Barzillai" is not familiar to most Bible students; it
never comes up in "Bible Drill" classes. And what a shame. In an era when many
worship at the shrine of youth, those who are aged and those who will become
such someday unless death gets us first (i.e., everyone), need a role model to
instruct us in proper attitudes and conduct as we get older. We have such in a
brief encounter with Barzillai (please read 2 Sam.19:31-39 before continuing).
In a chapter filled with quarreling Israelites and the likes of Shimei, this old
man (term used respectfully) is a refreshing change and teaches us many lessons.
Old age is nothing to be ashamed of and the frailties of old age should be freely admitted. The text plainly tells us: "Now Barzillai was very old, being eighty years old" and Barzillai himself said quite frankly, "Can I distinguish between good and bad? Or can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Or can I hear any more the voice of singing men and women?" (vs.35a). He was in the "evil days" (Ecc.12:1-ff) when bodily appetites and functions change--and not for the better. In a day when the elderly and those headed in that direction try--literally, sometimes--to cover up the "hoary head" and other signs of advanced years and avoid all discussions of death, we need to heed this good man's example: he did neither but, instead, spoke freely of both.
He faced old age gracefully. There is no hint of bitterness in any of this good man's statements about his advanced years nor any wistfulness for "the good old days" of youth. He knew he could not turn back the hands of time and that he had but a few more steps in life's journey (vss.34,37). Instead of a tone of regret there was eager anticipation (see Phil.1:21-23). The loss of those things which were once so dear should lead to a longing for that land in which "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death..." (Rev.21:4).
He didn't want to burden others (vs.35b). While David considerately and rightfully offered to care for his aged benefactor, there was no "you owe it to me...look at all I've done for you" attitude on the part of the venerable Barzillai; he had a considerate concern for others, realizing he could do little to help and, perhaps, much to hinder.
He spent his last days helping others (sustaining David in Mahanaim and then escorting him as far as the Jordan as he returned home, 17:27-29; vss.31-32). The word "retirement" was not in Barzillai's vocabulary. How sad that retirement is taken all too literally by older saints today and to see those with so much they could and should offer (Job32:7; Ps.71:18; 92:12-15; Tit.2:4) either get "on the road again" or sit down and turn the Lord's work over to the younger and less mature. A careful consideration of Barzillai's example should shame such into renewed activity.
He gave to others what he could have saved for his own. No doubt he could have rationalized that, instead of making generous provision for David, he needed to save his wealth for his children. But Barzillai evidently understood the joy that comes from giving to others while we are alive and can see and enjoy the use of what we have to share. How preferable is this rather than leaving material things to ungrateful, undeserving family members who do not appreciate and will misuse.
Let us keep alive the story of Barzillai the Gileadite -- on our tongues and in our lives--and "yield fruit in old age" (Ps.92:14).
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 11.1, January 2004