23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. 26 They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” (Numbers 8:23-26)
I had never noticed that God put an upper limit on the time a Levite could serve in the tent of meeting. Fifty years! In our culture that seems really young. But perhaps when you think about the heavy lifting involved with all those sacrifices, the upkeep of the tabernacle, and (at least until they were settled in the Promised Land), the work involved in breaking down and setting up the tabernacle whenever the Lord led them to a new place, it starts to make sense.
Add to that the wear and tear of being the representative of the people to God, and (for me anyway) you begin to see God’s grace in creating a mandatory retirement age for the Levites. I like what the Expositor’s Bible Commentary says about this regulation:
Again, in these regulations we sense the holiness and the mercy of God. His holiness demands that his ministers be fully able to do the work that is required for them. His mercy precludes a man doing the work when he was no longer physically able.
I agree, but I think the mercy goes beyond giving an aging priest a pass. Because notice what the Scripture says: even though they are not actively slaughtering the sacrifice, or carrying the utensils, or loading the oxcart, or maintaining the eternal flame, they aren’t just “pastors put out to pasture.” Instead, verse 26 says, “they minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard.”
Such kindness. Long before psychologist Erik Erickson developed his theory of developmental crises, God understood that a human being will deal with the desire to contribute, and the feeling that they still have something to offer as they get older, as opposed to simply stagnating.
And it isn’t just a token job. These aren’t Wal-Mart greeters here. Once a priest reached the age of fifty, they were to minister to their brothers by standing guard.
I read this in two ways. First, literally standing guard. Protecting the holiness of the tent of meeting. Ensuring that all the procedures and rituals were properly followed. Watching for intruders, troublemakers, and enemies.
But I also zeroed in on the “minister to their brothers” part. Anyone who serves as a pastor will tell you how important it is to have older mentors and accountability partners in their life. Someone who knows firsthand the temptations associated with pastoral ministry. Someone who will affirm them, encourage them, strengthen them, guide them, pray for them, celebrate with them, and correct them when necessary.
When you look at it this way, you realize that this isn’t just giving an old guy something to do in a patronizing way when they can “no longer do the work.” It is realizing that shepherding the shepherds is vital and crucial.
I am unbelievably blessed to have breakfast once a week with three older men. One is my former boss, Travis, the senior pastor with whom I served before becoming a lead pastor myself. He has been retired for a couple of years now. But I will never miss an opportunity to spend time with him. He is the finest example of ministry with integrity for the long haul that I know personally. And though he still actively serves as an interim pastor at a small church in the country, he has eased comfortably into his role of ministering to his brothers.
In many ways, he is what I want to be when I grow up. I hope that in ten or fifteen years, I’m going to be the one having breakfast with a pastor or two from the next generation, doing everything I can to stand guard over the care of their souls.