Now hear the words of Jonathan Edwards as preached to the sinners in his famous Enfield sermon of Puritan days long long ago:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in His eyes as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended Him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet it is nothing but His hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: it is ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night . . . .

What continues to be fascinating about the good and gloomy reverend is how archetypical an American of his time he remains--and yet also how sharply his reality differs from our view of ourselves, then and now.

They were a grim and rigid group of people, those early settlers we romanticize and remember on our annual Thanksgiving holidays, and for good reason. For them, life was a constant harsh bitter struggle for survival.

Yet despite their dour view of the world and their belief in a wrathful, vengeful God judging them, somehow even in the midst of real adversity they retained a remarkable sense of optimism. Until recent years, that optimistic view of life, the belief that tomorrow would always be better than today, was a hallmark of Americans.

Now we seem to have fallen into an uncharacteristic state of pessimism. We tend to believe the worst and even expect it. In the realities of today's world that's as paradoxical as was the earlier affirmation of American well-being in truly hard times.

A distinguished social scientist, Prof. Robin M. Williams Jr. of Cornell, poses the paradox this way:

"We live in the best-fed and healthiest era of recent history. Death rates are at all-time lows. The percentage of disposable income that the average consumer spends for food is 16.5 percent in the U.S., 30 percent in the U.S.S.R., and 65 percent in the developing nations. We have an unprecedented level of scientific and technological knowledge, a high level of material comfort, fast and effective systems of transportation and communication. But many people do not seem ready to accept this as a Golden Age. Pessimism is widespread."

As if unwittingly to confirm his view, this holiday period began with front-page stories reporting latest Washington Post-ABC national poll findings: "Americans enter the 1981 holiday season with gloomy expectations for themselves."

Prof. Williams would say they have reasons to be more positive than negative about their lives, but he also probably would agree that one group of Americans has legitimate cause for concern. They deserve to be at the center of the nation's attention, and are not. Whether they are recognized as such, they are certain to become an even more important factor in national life in the closing years of this century.

I refer to Americans aged 65 and older, surely an appropriate subject to ponder this weekend when generations gather for annual family reunions and reminiscences.

Last year's census counted 25.5 million people in the over-65 age bracket, a growth of more than 50 percent in only 20 years. As a group they represent a profound change altering the reality of America.

Political consultant Horace W. Busby, whose work on the increasing political and economic power of the Sun Belt states commands wide attention, describes them in arresting fashion.

"If all over-65 citizens lived in one state--as the California and Florida experiences suggest they might prefer to do--that would be our largest state, larger even than California," he says. In the House, "On a proportionate basis, such a state of the over-65 would be entitled to 48 seats. That is three seats more than California, which has the largest delegation in Congress, and exactly double all the seats of the New England states."

Busby, a former top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, adds:

"Clearly, this is a new reality for politics. Neither our parties nor our public office-holders have ever faced the infinite ramifications of such a cohort in the electorate. Over the next several decades the influence of the over-65s will affect every political race and public budget."

These older Americans already exercise a power out of proportion to their total numbers in the population.

Of every 10 persons aged 65 and older, eight vote. At the other end of the national demographic scale, less than half of those between the ages of 18 and 25 bother to vote.

For some unaccountable reason, this significant group of citizens remains all too ignored or misunderstood. Even they seem to share the widespread public misconceptions about the reality of their lives.

As a group they are commonly thought to be afflicted with twin problems of poverty and loneliness. Older people themselves believe that to be the lot of their fellow senior citizens. The belief is false.

Pollster Lou Harris strongly makes that point in a surprising new survey commissioned by the National Council on Aging, the second such Harris study in seven years. He finds that, on every single issue tested, the elderly are perceived as being in much more desperate shape than they actually are.

"On the impact of inflation, coping with energy, loneliness, poor health, fear of crime, poor housing, not enough job opportunities, not enough medical care, getting transportation to stores, to doctors, to recreation, on all of these," Harris says, "much larger numbers of the non-elderly are convinced older people are in more desperate shape than the elderly themselves report they are. Indeed, the under-65 group, in many cases, report themselves to be just as beset by these problems as those 65 and older. Sadly, large numbers of the elderly themselves buy the libel about their senior fellow citizens."

He adds:

"These results, which first surfaced in our 1974 study, should explode the myth that most elderly people in this country are a hopeless inert mass teetering on the edge of senility, simply waiting out their time to die.

"Mark it well, the elderly in our society are survivors, resilient and very much alive, who want to make a major contribution to the mainstream of life in the work they do and are capable of doing."

There are, of course, large groups of older people--most notably blacks, Hispanics and women--who are, as Harris puts it, "living a miserable, dismal existence." But whether presently in distress or not, all of our older ctizens represent major unresolved questions for the nation.

They, more than any group, stand at the center of the debates about cutting domestic spending while increasing defense allocations. They will be most directly affected if national priorities change. As the aging of America continues in years ahead, they will become even more of a central issue.

The question now is whether the politicians understand all the implications of this "graying of the budget" and are prepared to deal with them.

When it comes to answering that one, I'm about as optimistic as old Jonathan Edwards.