O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
Psalm 131 ESV
The penultimate trilogy of psalms within the Songs of Ascents finds its conclusion in Psalm 131. After lamenting over outside affliction in Psalm 129 and repenting of sin in Psalm 130, we now arrive at this Davidic psalm of hope, patience, and trust in the LORD.
O LORD, MY HEART IS NOT LIFTED UP
Charles Spurgeon offers an excellent introduction to this psalm:
Comparing all the Psalms to gems, we should liken this to a pearl: how beautifully it will adorn the neck of patience. It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a man in Christ.
The nearly inexpressible profundity of this psalm is evident at a glance, and the truth of Spurgeon’s words is felt within one’s bones, if you but linger over the text for a moment. No exposition of Scripture is ever capable of fully capturing the vastness of a particular passage, but this psalm feels to me particularly elusive. It is “deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Ecclesiastes 7:24). I urge you, therefore, to dwell and meditate over this psalm before the LORD. Doing so will prove a marvelous blessing, while neglecting it is to pass by an unlocked storage of gold. If I can but give you a glimpse of the glories upon the foothills of this psalm’s mountain, the LORD will have answered my prayer.
The obvious theme of verses 1-2 is humility and patience. But what is the psalm’s most probable context?
We will never know in what stage of his life that David penned this psalm, but we do know that the Psalms’ compiler made it the 131st psalm for a reason. The settings of Psalms 129 and 130, therefore, are fertile grounds for envisioning this one.
First, let us consider how this psalm can spring from Psalm 129. In that psalm, the author began by lamenting Israel’s affliction and ended by praying for God’s judgment upon the persecutors. Affliction of any variety is a difficult pill to swallow, and it certainly does come in a wide variety. We may be afflicted internally or externally, physically or spiritually, verbally or bodily, subtly or overtly. Regardless of the type, affliction is painful, and from that pain, it can be natural to cry out of God with questions. If You are sovereign, why are you letting this happen? If I am Your child, then why am I suffering while those who deny You prosper? Such questions form the heart of laments, and the Bible encourages us to bring these cries before the LORD.
Yet the Scriptures also counsel us not to linger there. Instead, many of the Bible’s laments end in confident expressions of hope in God’s coming deliverance. Even the book of Lamentations, which seems to end with a desperate cry to the LORD, has at its center a confident hope in God’s salvation. Likewise, our present psalm can easily be viewed as a similar expression of hope. After the tears and questions of affliction have been poured out to the LORD in lament, we remember the steadfast love, mercy, and sovereignty of our God and calm and quiet our souls. We step away from the throes of anguish and enter into the shelter of trusting God.
From this place, we content ourselves with God’s plan and will. We remind ourselves that God has a reason and a purpose behind everything that happens and that understanding why He ordains and permits certain things is too great and marvelous for us. As God spoke through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
But this psalm could also quite naturally flow from the psalm of repentance that we previously studied. The psalmist of Psalm 130 made his cry for the LORD’s mercy and forgiveness from the pit of despair, the depths into which his sin pulled him. After affirming God’s readiness to forgive, the psalmist concluded that he would wait upon the LORD for salvation. Psalm 131 can easily be seen as what such waiting looks like.
Psalm 130:6 described waiting as marked by readiness. Just as the watchmen waits for morning to be off duty, so we wait longingly for the LORD to deliver us presently and finally from our sin. Psalm 131 guards against allowing our yearning to become impatience. Even as we pray fervently for God’s kingdom to come fully with the return of Christ, Psalm 131 calls us to keep Peter’s words in our mind:
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
And of course, the psalm could also be read, sang, and prayed as independently of the other two. From this context, we can read this psalm as a general antidote to pride and impatience (which, by the way, are far more connected than we are often comfortable with admitting). Even without outside affliction or an internal war on sin, we establish ourselves as having sovereign control over our own lives, often by default. Because of the Fall, we occupy ourselves with things too great and marvelous for us on a daily basis. Let us observe a few arenas where this propensity toward pride is most common.
First, it can be broadly seen in our incessant belief that we alone understand what is best for us. The flaws with this nearly baseline assumption are plentiful. We could focus solely upon the complexities of identity. Throughout life, we should be continuously discovering new aspects of ourselves, especially since our personalities are constantly shifting. While those shifts may be subtle, we still become different people as each passing experience shapes us a little more. If we are honest, this makes truly knowing ourselves fully a virtual impossibility, which would also leave open the possibility that we may not know what we really want.
Unfortunately, we tend not to stop with simply becoming captains of our own fate; rather, we, at least within our own minds, often believe our ways and ideas to be superior to those of others. We give advice not really as a suggestion but as a prescription. We nonchalantly consider how we might have handled the situations and circumstances of others better than they did, while not realizing that we cannot hope to fully comprehend the intricacies of even one event in another person’s life without actually being that person. Furthermore, how can we ever think we fully know another person at all if we cannot even know ourselves?
We could then, of course, move into the societal structures. It is not uncommon to presume that we could form a better government, a better system, a better business, a better church. This is especially true in the political sphere from both sides of party line. From the left comes the increasingly postmodern mindset that seeks to replace fixed truths with fluid ones. From the right come defenders of fixed truths that too often haven’t taken the time to understand those very truths.
Suggesting, even leading and guiding, organizational changes certainly isn’t sinful. In fact, because no structure is perfect, such change is necessary, but we should do so with humility. It is the prideful arrogance that we know best that is sinful. Likewise, giving advice about matters not explicitly directed by Scripture can be quite beneficial, but we can fall into sinful presumption whenever we come begin to believe that we could live another person’s life better than they are. Finally, returning to the realm of self, we should delight in doing things that we enjoy, but we are entrenched in pride whenever we believe that we can guide ourselves into sustained joy.
Once again, to think that cannot have any level of understanding or do anything good is false humility. True humility neither exalts nor debases more than deserved. When we are humble, we recognize and embrace our limitations, as the psalmist does here. Humility keeps us from lifting our hearts and eyes into realms that only God can inhabit. In humility, we gladly accept things that are too great and marvelous for us and, therefore, that we are not great and marvelous.
Such humility should find its expression in verse 2. Whether trusting in God’s sovereignty over suffering, His patience toward sinners, or simply that He is beyond us, our humbled view of self and exalted view of God should lead us to a calm and quiet soul. After all, how can we not possess a peaceful soul when the sovereign Creator is also our Father?
Perhaps this is why the Bible warns us not to be anxious. An anxious soul displays a lack of confidence in God’s control and love; whereas faith in those very things creates a peace that surpasses understanding. This battle between the two must be fought continuously. Indeed, notice that verse 2 says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul”, which implies that previously his soul was neither calm nor quiet. The Christian life, the life of faith in Christ, is a constant fight for peace.
The concluding lines of verse 2 provide insight as to how we might battle for that peace: by being like a weaned child for its mother. What does that mean? An infant’s cry is one of desperation, a plea of being in need. Particularly an infant needs its mother’s milk as its sustenance for life. A weaned child no longer depends upon the mother’s milk for its very survival; instead, the child now longs to be with its mother simply for her comforting presence. This is the psalmist’s attitude with God. Although he once cried to God for answers and comfort like an infant for milk, now he has contented himself with God’s very presence. He may never understand why God has orchestrated events to unfold as they have happened, but he is satisfied with knowing that God is in control and that His steadfast love endures forever.
As Christians, this means keeping the cross always before our eyes. Upon those intersecting planks of wood, we are given the most brilliant display of God’s sovereign love for us. Forever we are able to cling to the fact that the Author of life died for us. The crucifixion of Christ, therefore, is our anchor of peace within the storms around us. With the hymn we rightfully affirm: “this is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Of course, the great irony of looking to the cross is that while it requires the utmost humility there is also no place higher that we can set our eyes. Nothing is more marvelous or glorious than the splendor of Jesus Christ, so long as we maintain a proper view of self, we are invited to behold the glory of all glories. After all, the humble will be exalted, and the exalted will be humbled. The last will be first, and the first will be last. In losing our lives, we find them, but if we value our lives, they will surely be lost. Such is the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. Avert your eyes, therefore, from things too great and marvelous for you, and prepare to be shown wonders unspeakable.
O ISRAEL, HOPE IN THE LORD
With this final verse, David turns from praying to God to calling upon God’s people to hope in the LORD. I believe this verse essentially serves as the call to put verses 1-2 into action. Indeed, hope is intimately connected to humility and patience. The biblical conception of hope could be understood as faith in the future tense. Just as faith is the confident assurance of unseen realities now, hope is the confident assurance of things to come. For instance, the return of Christ is called by Paul “the blessed hope” of His followers. Hope, therefore, necessarily involves patience. In fact, we could argue that patience is the fruit of hope, and impatience signifies a lack of hope. And hope also requires humility because hope implies our inability to do something. To hope is to admit that we cannot fix everything so we wait upon the God who will. For these reasons, David’s appeal to hope in the LORD is an appeal for us to lower our hearts and eyes and to calm and quiet our souls before God.
Church, are you hoping in the LORD?
Perhaps you feel afflicted by the circumstances of life. By all means, cry out to the LORD in lament. He is ready and willing to hear our broken-hearted prayers for relief. Yet when the tears run dry, come to this psalm. Do not remain forever in a place of lamentation. Come before God’s throne in humility and patience, trusting the plan of the Maker of heaven and earth.
Or maybe you have lost yet another battle against sin, and your heart cannot help asking why God has not given you deliverance from that temptation. Maybe the thought of never being fully free in this life from the evilness within you is bringing you to the brink of despair. Remember again the forgiveness of our great God and fear Him. Even a lifetime of wrestling with the same stubborn sickness will barely be visible from the heights of eternity with the One who is our joy and treasure. Calm and quiet your soul before God and content yourself with His presence.
Or possibly you are in the throes of anxiety. For reasons that you might not even be able to form into words, your soul is everything but calm and quiet. Turn your eyes to the cross. Although immediately speaking of death, the words of Henry Lyte’s hymn are nonetheless a helpful prayer: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.” We must look to the cross where He who feeds the sparrows and adorns the flowers has shown that He will much more feed and clothe us. A calm and quiet soul does not happen by accident; it comes through fixing our eyes upon Jesus.
Or perhaps you don’t fall into those categories; instead, you view God as an advisor rather than Lord. Your eyes and heart are lifted above their capacity, you have become your own hope, and life is anything but peaceful. If you are a follower of Christ, come once again in repentance to Him. Having tasted and seen that the LORD is good, believe again that He knows best for you and submit to Him in humility. If you are not a Christian, believe in the sovereign love of God toward you and embrace the death and resurrection of Christ as your only hope. Surely, you know how you continue to fail at making yourself truly happy. Come and submit your life to the Maker of heaven and earth and find true joy in being made His child.
Hope in the LORD, brothers and sisters, who made heaven and earth and rescued you from your sin.