Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone. — Psalm 71:9
In Judaism, one of the 613 mitzvot —commands — given to the children of Israel is to show respect for the elderly because of their wisdom, and to uphold their dignity. Paul echoed this command in his letter to his younger protégé, Timothy (1 Timothy 5:1). Explore this commandment in its various applications through the timeless teachings of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
According to Jewish tradition, Psalm 71 was composed by David during the rebellion led against him by his son Absalom. In David’s younger days, when he was often pursued by King Saul, David was sustained by the promise that he would one day ascend to the throne and live out his life. This time, however, David was already 65. His youth was behind him and old age was before him. He worried that this battle could be his last and this would be the end of his life. In this psalm David cried out to God, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.”
The Jewish sages elaborate on the conversation that David held with God during this perilous time. According to the sages, David said to God, “When I was young and strong, I put my life in danger to lead Your sons, the children of Israel, into battle. But now that I have grown old, they no longer appreciate me and they say, ‘When will he die and his name perish?’ (Psalm 41:5).” God responded with words from the prophet Isaiah, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). And indeed God did just that. David was victorious and returned to Jerusalem as the king of Israel.
David’s passionate words in this psalm, asking God to be with him in his old age, have become particularly meaningful to all who are fortunate enough to make it to their “golden years.” It is a blessing to live a long life, but it’s not merely existence that we aspire toward; we want life with meaningful relationships and experiences, the ability to contribute, and the peace of having our needs met. Too frequently, old age is a time of vulnerability and a source of fear for so many. This verse and this psalm serve as a healing balm that reassures us that God will be with us even in our final years. We need not fear for He will be with us.
The sages teach that this verse can also apply to times in our life when we are young. There are times when we feel tired, weary, and are lacking vitality. Just as the old can still be young at heart, there are young people who are old at heart. For those times as well, this psalm is a potent prayer.
Let’s take comfort in David’s words and God’s promise in Isaiah. God is with us on our first day and our last – and every day in between.