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Bible Lexicons

Girdlestone's Synonyms of the Old Testament


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The elder is always Zakén (זקן ), literally an old man, and is represented in the LXX by πρεσβύτερος, Presbyter. The word is frequently used in each language to express old age, for which in the LXX πρεσβύτης is also used; but gradually it was restricted to an official sense. The first intimation of such a sense is in Genesis 50:7, where we read that 'Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the l and of Egypt.' The office was in those days a natural, social, and civil one in Exodus 17:5 the elders are again referred to as lay-representatives of the people. So again in Exodus 18:12; Exodus 19:7; Exodus 24:1; Exodus 24:9.

In Numbers 11:16 the Lord says to Moses, 'Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them, and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with me.' These men represented the various tribes of Israel, and were quite distinct from the Levites and priests (Joshua 24:1; 1 Kings 8:13). They acted on behalf of Israel on great occasions, whether civil or religious, and in the first instance their appointment was sanctioned by an outpouring of the Spirit up on them, as we read in Numbers 11:25, ' and the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto Moses, and took of the spirit that was up on him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested up on them, they prophesied, and did not cease.' It was on the occasion now referred to that there remained two of the men in the camp, Eldad and Medad; ' and the spirit rested up on them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.' When Joshua, in his eagerness, wished Moses to forbid them, the lawgiver gave that noble and remarkable answer, 'Enviest thou (i.e. art thou jealous) for my sake? Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit up on them.' this passage implies that the outpouring of the Spirit on the presbyters caused them to become prophets, constituting them a spiritual, though not a sacerdotal, order.

The word is rendered 'ancients' in Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 24:23. The latter passage is one of peculiar interest. We here read that 'the Lord shall reign in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously,' or (as it is in the margin) 'there shall be glory before his ancients.' Are not these 'ancients' or 'elders' the same as those whom St. John saw in vision (Revelation 4:4) before the throne of God, giving glory to God and to the Lamb? May they not be taken as the representatives of all God's people.

The Office of Elder in the N T

The importance of a right judgment of the position and functions of these elders cannot well be overrated when we come to discuss the nature of the analogous office of presbyter in the N.T. on the one hand, the elder was neither a priest nor a Levite, but a representative of the people; on the other hand, he had special duties and responsibilities in consequence of this position, and he also had special grace conferred on him (in the first instance, at least) to enable him to perform those duties aright.

The word presbytery, πρεσβυτέριον, is used three times in the N.T.: twice of the Sanhedrim (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5), and once of the gathering of Christian elders who laid their hands on Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14). [Paul himself laid hands also on Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6), but perhaps at a different time and with a different object. It may be observed that the great Apostle of the Gentiles was formally appointed to his missionary work, not by apostolic ordination, but by the laying on of the hands of the ministers at Antioch (Acts 13:3), although he had previously received a mission, accompanied by the special gifts of the Holy Spirit, by the laying on of hands on Ananias.]

Christian presbyters or elders are first named in Acts 11:30, where reference is made to the elders in Judaea or Jerusalem. St. Paul appointed elders, apparently by the laying on of hands, and after nomination by the people, in every Church which he founded (Acts 14:23). We find these elders in conclave with the apostles in Acts 15:1-41.; and we have a most instructive address, illustrating their office and work, in Acts 20:17, &c.

Elders are not mentioned in the Epistles until we reach the First Epistle to Timothy, though they are probably the persons referred to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 : [Compare the προϊστάμενοι here with the προεστω̂τες πρεσβ., in 1 Timothy 5:17.] It seems strange that they are not in the list of gifted persons mentioned in Ephesians 4:11; but this may be accounted for by the fact that the work of an elder, as such, did not call for extraordinary gifts, and was to be carried on long after those gifts had ceased. They may, however, have been included under the name Prophets. From the First Epistle to Timothy we learn the character and position of the elder; whilst from Titus 1:5 it would appear that the system of appointing elders in every city where there was a Church, was still sustained. Both Peter and John describe themselves by this title (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1).

The advice to the elders given by St. Peter falls in exactly with the exhortations given by St. Paul to those of Ephesus. St. James also doubtless refers to those who held the rank of elder in the Church, in the remarkable passage (James 5:14) in which he speaks of healing the sick by the medical use of oil, in connection with the pardon of sin.

According to the analogy of the O.T., the elders would be spiritual but non-sacerdotal representatives and leaders of the various local communities which are feeders to the one Church (see chap. xix.). They would exercise their spiritual and ministerial functions in the name of the congregation, being counsellors and helpers, guides and feeders of the flock over which the Holy Ghost had appointed them. Many of them at first were no doubt possessed of the gifts of prophecy and tongues, and were selected for the responsible position which they held, either because of their age, wisdom, and piety, or because of the special gifts they possessed. But they no more held the peculiar position of the Cohen or priest than did the elders under the O.T. dispensation. Although they would naturally take the chief part in the administration of the Lord's Supper, this was not a sacerdotal act. Just as the Passover Supper was administered in every family by the head of the household, so the Lord's Supper is administered by the presbyter as leader of a community, but not as a sacerdos, and at a table, not at an altar. See chap. xvi. § 7.

Public Domain
Girdlestone, Robert Baker. Entry for 'Elder'. Synonyms of the Old Testament.
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