The word “retirement,” like the word “divorce,” has never been part of my vocabulary. My sense has been that if we are in the King’s service–if the backdrop of our lives is the coming of the kingdom of God–then retirement is simply not a Christian concept. We can speak of a change of assignment, but not retiring in the sense of withdrawing or “giving ground” to the enemy.
In American culture, retirement speaks of “graduating” from the workforce to a life of leisure, wiling away the hours playing golf, fishing, and watching TV. Now please do not get me wrong, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these activities. But to assume that these should become the sum of life is quite tragic. When there is so much suffering, hunger, and poverty in the world, “when the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” (Matthew 11:12), it seems there is so much for people with their “grey-haired” wisdom to engage in. And besides, in all my years of studying the Scriptures, I cannot recall seeing the word or the concept of retirement mentioned.
As I approached this time of refrain from the “busyness” of seemingly endless e-mails and meetings, a number of friends have spoken into my life. As I have sought to rest and reprioritize my use of time, some friends have suggested books to read and passages of Scripture to reflect upon. One of the passages was Numbers 8:23-26. Here I was surprised to not only find the word “retire” but also the imperative phrase “must retire.” What does this mean? I must retire?
23 The LORD said to Moses, 24 “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the Tent of Meeting, 25 but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. 26 They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the Tent of Meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites” (emphasis mine).
This passage of Scripture is part of God’s instructions to the Levites, the Hebrew priestly class. In the early years of Israel, when the Hebrews were a nomadic people, the Levites were charged with carrying the tabernacle and its instruments of worship and furnishings from place to place. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem they then were charged with the care of the Temple and service of the daily life of worship of the Hebrew people.
At age twenty-five, young Levites would enter into an oversight-apprenticeship under the mentorship of their elders. At age thirty, they would enter the full duties of their office (Numbers 4:3), including the more physically strenuous work of transporting the tabernacle. The word work as it applied to those young Levites is the Hebrew word tsaba and connotes both work and the sense of service.
But when a Levite reaches the age of fifty years he must retire–he must not do the work. The Hebrew word translated here “retire” is shuwb; it is found 1066 time in the Old Testament and is most often translated “return,” “again,” “turn,” “back,” or “restore.” Only once is it translated retire. So the elder is not to go “into retirement” the way we think of in the United States. He is to “turn back.” At fifty, the Levite is not to retire, but to quit the regular work and to turn back or be restored to the time before he had the arduous labor of the Levitcial office. He is to continue his service, but it is a ministry bespeaking to his age and wisdom–and also his diminished physical capability.
There are two parts of this new service. First he is to assist (in Hebrew, sharath): to minister to or serve his brothers, the younger Levites. He is to render assistance. For me, I can imagine such assistance would be to mentor them as apprentices; to give them their voice. The second part of his service is to assist them in “performing their duties” (Hebrew mishmereth): to “keep” or to “guard.” The Levite’s trust was a sacred one. They were to maintain the tabernacle and the temple as the Holy habitation of the living God. We see this principle applied with Jesus jealously guarding the temple as recorded in Luke 19:45-46: “Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The Levites were not to retire, they were to be re-vocationed . Instead of doing the work in the Temple, they were to assist and provide their wisdom for the next generation of Levites.
Instead of Christians thinking and planning for retirement, let them think on how they can be re-vocationed; how they can best use their wisdom and life experience to mentor a younger generation of leaders.
As I continue my sabbatical, one of the questions to answer for the next season of my life is how I can best give voice to the next generation of young leaders. How can I best assist them and help them guard the trust they have been given?
-Darrow L. Miller