Gray Hair and a Righteous Life

It has always been one of my favorite proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” It’s one that clashes hard with Western culture and its glorification of youth. But it’s one that is fully consistent with a biblical worldview and its emphasis on wisdom.

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The book of Proverbs is meant to demonstrate two very different ways to live. It contrasts the way of wisdom with the way of folly. In this generalized view of life, the foolish make bad decisions, suffer the consequences, and die young. The wise make good decisions, enjoy the consequences, and live to a ripe old age. The Old Testament views older people not as “elderly” or “senior citizens,” but as “gray-heads.” But because gray hair is associated with long life, which is in turn associated with wisdom, this is an honor, not an insult.

Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” If you’re helping someone move furniture, you may point to your son and say, “I brought him along to be the muscle.” You are defining him by just one part of his body, but you mean it as a compliment. After all, “the glory of young men is their strength.” But as the years go by and strength fades, that great attribute is replaced by another one. Strength is replaced by wisdom, so that the glory or splendor of old men is their wisdom, which is pictured in gray hair. Young men are great in strength but small in wisdom; old men are small in strength but great in wisdom. God has a place or a role for both.

Of course proverbs are general rules for life, not universal truths. Not everyone who has gray hair is wise, just like not every young man has a glorious set of biceps. There are some weak young men and there are some foolish old men. But the point is clear. While everyone ages and while most will eventually see their hair go gray, only those who are wise—those who have lived a righteous life—are able to consider that gray hair “a crown of glory.”

We need to know that this crown is not a symbol of office but a recognition of achievement. It is not merely bestowed, but has to be earned. This isn’t the kind of crown that’s placed upon the head of a king at his coronation, but the kind of crown that’s placed upon a winner at his victory celebration. And while any crown carries authority, this kind of crown carries authority related to achievement—authority that comes when someone has proven his mastery of something.

If you want to learn chess, no one has more authority to teach it to you than a person who has been crowned a grandmaster. If you want to learn a sport, no one has more authority to teach it to you than a person who has been crowned an MVP. In this proverb, the crown has been given to a person who has mastered the art of living. He has received a crown that recognizes and publicly displays his success at living life. That’s a pretty good crown!

And the Bible calls upon each one of us to earn that crown. In one sense that crown is just given to you whether you like it or not, but in another and more meaningful sense it has to be earned. Everyone ages, but not everyone grows wise. Everyone wears gray hair, but not everyone wears the crown. That crown needs to be earned through a righteous life. And so each of us needs to ask: Am I living the kind of life that will allow that gray hair—that proof that I’ve grown old—to also stand as a symbol that I’ve grown wise, that I’ve lived a righteous life?