Retirement in the Bible? Some New Thoughts and Encouragements

By Mark D. Roberts

July 22, 2021

De Pree Journal

If you Google “retirement” and “Bible,” you’ll find some folks who say, “There is no retirement in the Bible.” Alongside this claim, they’ll point to biblical characters like Abraham and Sarah who lived well past 100 years without retiring from their faithful response to God’s call. Then there was Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt when he was 80 and who died at 120 with good eyesight and plenty of physical vigor. I’m not making this up. It’s right there in Deuteronomy 34:7.

The Retiring Levites

Careful students of the Bible, though basically agreeing with the claims of the anti-retirement crowd, rightly point out what seems to be the one exception to the “no retirement” rule. In Numbers 8:23-26, the Lord spells out a particular season of life during which the Levites are supposed to do their distinctive work in the tabernacle. They are to labor in Levitical service beginning at age 25 and ending at 50: “From the age of fifty years they shall retire from the duty of the service and serve no more.” They were permitted, however, to “assist their [Levitical] brothers in the tent of meeting in carrying out their duties.” But the 50-and-over Levites “shall perform no service.”

Old Testament scholars explain this unusual stipulation by pointing to the physical labor demanded of Levites, who were, among other things, in charge of the furnishings of the tabernacle (Num 3:5-10). This was hard manual labor, the kind of work that younger men would be able to do better than most older men. So, in a way, the prescribed retirement of the Levites was God’s gracious provision for them.

Nevertheless, the Levites were allowed to “assist their brothers,” meaning the younger Levites between the ages of 25 and 50. The exact nature of this assistance isn’t clear. Some commentators believe that the Levites assumed a kind of mentoring role, but this seems to be reading into the text what isn’t clearly there. It’s possible, but not certain.

Until recently, I was satisfied with the idea that retirement is addressed in only one passage of Scripture. Truly, the verb “to retire,” literally in Hebrew “to return” (shub), appears only in Numbers 8 concerning older adults ending a particular kind of work. But I believe other passages in the Bible, while not addressing retirement explicitly, do envision something like retirement and do remind us of several crucial aspects of transitions in the third third of life.

Elijah’s “Retirement”

I came to this realization through my recent devotional journey with the Old Testament prophet Elijah (thanks to Lectio 365). As you may recall, after Elijah led a miraculous, victorious battle with the prophets of Baal, his life was threatened by the evil queen Jezebel (1 Kings 18:20-19:3). So Elijah escaped into the wilderness, making a 40-day trek to “Horeb, the mount of God” (19:8). There, while hiding in a cave, God was revealed to Elijah in “a sound of sheer silence” (19:12). The Lord gave Elijah new instructions, which involved anointing several future leaders, including “Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place” (19:16). Elijah was to identify and authorize his prophetic replacement.

Elijah traveled to where Elisha was plowing a field and “threw his mantle over him” as a sign of the authority being invested in Elisha (19:19). Elisha, in response, said goodbye to his family, offered his farm equipment and animals in sacrifice to God, and “set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant” (19:21). Though Elijah had given his prophetic mantle to Elisha, the older prophet wasn’t done with his own prophetic career. With Elisha accompanying him as his servant, Elijah continued to prophesy until, finally, he was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). After this, Elisha took up the mantle of Elijah, both literally and figuratively as he began his prophetic service.

Scripture does not say that Elijah retired. He continued to prophesy right up to the end of his life. Yet, he knew for sure that his prophetic activity was coming to an end, which explains his passing of the mantle to Elisha. Moreover, in the time after that symbolic consecration, Elijah surely mentored Elisha, in word and deed.

The “Retirements” of Samuel and Moses

A century and a half earlier, the prophet Samuel had passed the torch to his chosen replacements as he grew old. According to 1 Samuel 8:1, “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel,” effectively retiring from his position as judge/ruler of Israel. The Living Bible translation, “In his old age, Samuel retired and appointed his sons as judges in his place,” reads more into the text than is there, but gets the main idea right. Unfortunately, however, Samuel’s sons were not up to the job. They “did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3). I have to wonder if Samuel had adequately trained and mentored his sons. Perhaps he “retired” prematurely.

Moses did a much better job passing on his leadership role to a younger person, Joshua. Years before Moses was about to die, he had given Joshua considerable authority (Exod 17:8-10). He took Joshua along with him when he went up Mt. Sinai to receive the law (24:12). Moses shared life and leadership with Joshua, though always as the primary leader (33:11). When it was almost time for Israel to enter the Promised Land, Moses gave Joshua a crucial mission and he fulfilled it in an exemplary fashion (Num 11:28, 14:30).

Luca Signorelli, Moses’s Testament and Death, 1481-2
This fresco shows several scenes from the last days of Moses. On the left side of the fresco, Moses (with a large white beard) is giving his staff to Joshua, who is kneeling in front of him.

Shortly before Moses was going to die, the Lord said to him, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight. You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey” (Num 27:18-20). According to God’s instruction, Moses made a public display of authorizing Joshua by laying his hands on him in front of the priest and the congregation of Israel. Joshua, whom Moses had carefully raised up for leadership, was now seen as the divinely-ordained successor to Moses. Yet he was given only “some” of Moses’s authority. Whereas Moses talked to God face-to-face, Joshua needed to consult with the high priest in order to fully discern God’s will.

What We Learn from the “Retirements” of Elijah, Samuel, and Moses

I am not claiming that Elijah, Samuel, and Moses “retired” in the way we often use that word. They did not stop working so they could spend the rest of their days enjoying life. But they were intentional about passing their authority to those who would come after them. Elijah and Moses didn’t just authorize their successors but also prepared them for effective leadership. Elijah and Moses commissioned their successors publicly so as to support and empower them for their leadership roles.

Elijah and Moses teach us a lot about ending well in our work. Their example encourages us to think about whom we are mentoring, and whom we are preparing for future leadership. Of course, many of us won’t be in a position to name and commission our workplace successors. But we can still find younger people in whom to invest our lives so that they might flourish in theirs. This, it seems to me, is an essential part of finishing well, whether it’s directly connected to retiring from a job or not.

It strikes me as particularly sad that Samuel was not successful in passing on his leadership to his successors, especially because they were his own sons. Since we don’t know how Samuel had related to them earlier in life, I’m not necessarily criticizing Samuel. He may have done everything he should and could have done to prepare his sons for faithful leadership. Sometimes those we mentor and train don’t turn out so well, even when they’re our own children. But what happened to Samuel’s sons reminds me to be sure, as I’m getting ready to pass the torch to others, that I’m not neglecting my own kin in the process, my sons and daughters, my grandchildren, and/or others in my extended family.

My Experience of a Leadership Transition

I can relate personally to some of what I read in Scripture about leadership transitions, not that I’m planning to retire from my work any time soon. And I’m really hoping that I won’t retire anytime soon in the way of Moses (by dying). For what it’s worth, I’m not ready for Elijah’s fiery chariot ride to Heaven, either. Of course, I don’t know what the future holds. But I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to work as part of the De Pree Center for quite a few more years.

However, as you may already know, I have recently passed my “mantle” to a younger leader, choosing to step back from the role of Executive Director in order to become a Senior Strategist, focusing on the spiritual formation of leaders and the De Pree Center’s “third third” initiative. I am pleased that the new Executive Director of the center is someone I had the privilege of hiring, encouraging, mentoring, and partnering with for three years, not unlike what Moses may have done with Joshua and Elijah may have done with Elisha. Michaela O’Donnell Long is not only someone I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and helping to promote. She is also my boss and an awfully good one at that. In a way, though I passed fifty several years ago, I’m rather like the Levites in that I am now in a position of assisting Michaela in her executive leadership of the De Pree Center while not exercising that level of leadership myself.

But, as much as I am delighted to have Michaela as my boss and am pleased to support her leadership, I would confess that it has sometimes felt strange to step back and down. I was raised, schooled, and enculturated to believe that successful people move up the career ladder, not down. I have been blessed to mentor many people over the years, but this is the first time I have intentionally stepped down to make room for someone who becomes my boss. (In the 1980s I supervised Tod Bolsinger, who was my boss at Fuller from 2017 to 2020. But there was a thirty-year gap between my supervising Tod and his supervising me.)

I am not suggesting that every person in the third third of life should step down from their positions of authority. Some will rightly continue to lead from the top, as it were, because that’s consistent with their particular calling. But I do believe that, as we think about the transitions in work and life that come with aging, no matter whether we use the language of retirement or not, we should be intentional about investing in younger folk, whether they are our direct reports, our colleagues, our mentees, our children, our grandchildren, or students in the local elementary school. Scripture helps us see that retirement isn’t just about us. It’s also about others whom we can support, encourage, mentor, and, in some cases, commission for their own leadership.

Thus, whether you’re thinking about retiring from your primary job or planning to continue on for many years, if you’re in the third third of life, perhaps it’s time for you to invest your life and leadership in one or more younger people. Who are your younger Levites? Your Elisha? Your Joshua? What might God be calling you to do for them?

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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