February 6, 2020 • Third Third Journal
So, for those of us who are in the third third of life, or who are soon to enter it, Psalm 92 offers extraordinary good news. We do not have to stop being fruitful just because our hair is turning gray or our bodies are not as supple as they once were. If we live in the way God intends for us, if we let our “roots” grow deeply into the divine soil, if we rely on God’s strength and grace, then we can live with meaning and purpose.
Flourishing in the Third Third of Life: The Promise of Psalm 92
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the LORD,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The LORD is upright;
he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15 (NIV)
I must have read this passage from Psalm 92 at least a couple dozen times in my life, given my practice of devotional psalm reading. Yet, though this text passed before my eyes, it never before struck my heart. But this time was different. A few months ago, as I read Psalm 92:12-15, it was if I had never seen these lines before. They stunned me with their relevance and encouragement. In particular, according to this passage, the righteous “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”
Why did this picture of flourishing in old age spark my attention? There are at least two reasons why. First, though I’m not quite ready to own that I’ve entered “old age,” I can relate to the Hebrew from which this phrase is taken. The original language reads literally, “they will bear fruit even in gray hair.” Although I have several brown hairs left on my head, I admit they are outnumbered by the gray ones. Moreover, when I grew out my beard a couple of years ago, it was not brown, as it used to be, or even gray, but white, just like Santa’s, only not as bushy. So, though I’m not ready to say that I’m old, I will admit that I have entered “third third” of life. At 62 years of age, if I live as long as American men my age are predicted to live, which is 82 years, then I’m more than 7 years into my third third. Thus, given my perspective as a “third thirder,” I was ready to pay attention as never before to Psalm 92:15 with its promise of fruitfulness even “in old age.” I really would like to be “fresh and green” for many years to come.
There’s a second reason that Psalm 92:12-15 stood out to me as I read it recently. It has to do with my work at Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership. In the four plus years that I’ve been Executive Director of the De Pree Center, I’ve talked with hundreds of leaders about their work and the role God plays in it. In many of these conversations, people in the latter part of their professional life have expressed concern about their future. One man said to me, “I know I should retire to make room in the company for the people I’ve mentored. It’s their turn. But I don’t feel as if I’m done working yet. I don’t really want to retire. But some kind of change is coming. I know that.” This man, along with many other men and women in a similar season of life, added, “The De Pree Center should take on the issue of retirement. You could really help us figure out.”
Part of figuring out retirement (a word that really doesn’t serve us well in this conversation, by the way) is getting clear on the biblical vision of life as God intends it to be. In particular, we need to understand what our lives could and should be in the third third, when, as the biblical text says, we have gray hair (or, I might add, thinning hair, no hair, dyed hair, or even hair that has maintained its natural color).
Psalm 92:12-15 is a key biblical passage if we’re looking for how God views the third third of life. It begins by affirming that “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (92:12). Those who are righteous live in right-relationship with God, with people, and with and the world God created. Their growth is enhanced by the fact that, in a manner of speaking, they have been planted in God’s temple, thus deriving sustenance from the Lord. Israel’s date palms and Lebanon’s cedar trees were notable in the ancient world for their fruitfulness, resilience, stature, and beauty. The affirmation of this verse reminds us of Psalm 1, which affirms that the one who delights in God’s law “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (1:3).
But Psalm 92 adds something not found in Psalm 1. Not only will the righteous flourish, but they will do so especially in the latter seasons of life: “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (92:14). The Hebrew verb translated here as “bear fruit” is used in Scripture metaphorically with the meaning “grow, prosper, flourish.” So, even though they may not have the physical vitality of youth, folks in the third third who live rightly will continue to make a difference with their lives. They will be “fresh and green,” that is, young at heart even as their bodies age and their hair turns gray.
The final verse of Psalm 92 reminds us that flourishing in old age has everything to do with God. The righteous will proclaim that “The LORD is upright” (92:15). Whatever righteousness they possess comes from God. Thus, they say, “he is my Rock” (92:15). God is the one who is strong, trustworthy, and secure. Rather than claiming personal credit for their third third flourishing, the righteous acknowledge God as the one who has made it possible. Moreover, they are living so that God is glorified. In the language of Ephesians, they are flourishing “for the praise of [God’s] glory” (Eph 1:12).
So, for those of us who are in the third third of life, or who are soon to enter it, Psalm 92 offers extraordinary good news. We do not have to stop being fruitful just because our hair is turning gray or our bodies are not as supple as they once were. If we live in the way God intends for us, if we let our “roots” grow deeply into the divine soil, if we rely on God’s strength and grace, then we can live with meaning and purpose. Even if we experience major transitions in our primary work, we can still make a difference in the world. We can flourish, not only in our personal wellbeing, but also through contributing to the wellbeing of others.
 I got the expression “third third” from my friend and the former Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, Walter C. Wright, Jr., who wrote the book: The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future (IVP Books, 2012).
 See nûb in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegisis (Zondervan, 1997).