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O LORD, My Heart Is Not Lifted Up | Psalm 131

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.

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To Philadelphia: Patiently Endure | Revelation 3:7-13

Seven Letters Week 7

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:8)

Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. (Revelation 3:10)

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. (Revelation 3:11)

OPENING THOUGHT

With the exception of the faithful sufferers in Smyrna, each church appears to be the downward progression from the previous one. Ephesus had good doctrine but not love. Pergamum had good works, but they were conforming to the world around them. Thyatira had love and good works, but they allowed false teaching to enter the church. Sardis received no encouraging commendation; they looked alive but were dead.

Like Smyrna, the church of Philadelphia disrupts this pattern, as both are the only churches to not be rebuked at all by Jesus. Philadelphia was apparently a fairly small church in an environment that was hostile to Christianity. This persecution seems to have come from the Jewish population of the city attempting to stir up conflict between the Roman government and the Christians.

But even though Philadelphia was constantly threatened and had little power, Jesus gives them a flurry of encouragements. First, after being dispelled from the Jewish synagogue, Jesus promises that He has opened a door to His Kingdom for them, and no one can shut it. Second, He promises to one day reveal before all that the church of Philadelphia is loved by Him. Third, because of their patient endurance, Jesus promises to keep them from the hour of trial yet to come. Finally, Christ promises to establish those who finish their race faithfully within the New Jerusalem, which is an assurance that He will love them for all eternity.

Read verses 7-8 and discuss the following.

  1. Jesus introduces Himself as having “the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” He then states to have placed an open door before them that no one is able to shut. What is the open door to which Jesus refers?
  2. Jesus knows that the Philadelphians have little power, but they faithfully keep His word and do not deny His name. What encouragement can smaller churches gain from these words?

Read verses 9-11 and discuss the following.

  1. As in Smyrna, we see that the Philadelphians were coming under persecution from the Jews of the city. Why did the hostility exist? Why does Jesus claim that the Jews are not really Jews?
  2. Because the Philadelphians were faithful to keep Jesus’ word, He promises to keep them from the hour of trial that is coming. What does Jesus mean by this promise?

Read verses 12-13 and discuss the following.

  1. To the one who conquers, Jesus lists a staggering series of promises. What is New Jerusalem, and what is the significance of these promises?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Though the world might have considered the church of Philadelphia to be weak, Jesus knows that in Him they are strong. Consider your areas of weakness and how God might be glorified by working through them.
  • Philadelphia was built around a major trading road, meaning that traffic between Rome and Asia constantly poured through the city. This placed in Philadelphia a uniquely opened door for sending the gospel to places further to the east, like India and China. As in Colossian 4:3-4, pray also for open doors to declare the mystery of Christ in your own life.
The Man of Faith

The Birth of Isaac

Presently, I am entrenched in the twelfth week of studying the story of Abraham in Genesis. Analyzing the life of the man of faith has been an incredibly fruitful journey, yet as I now approach chapter 21, one word reverberates through my head: finally! We are, at last, able to read about the birth of Abraham’s promised son, Isaac!

Though only three months have passed since we first read God’s promise to Abraham, the wait has been excruciating. Of course, I believe that Moses (the author of Genesis) was trying to achieve that very effect by continuously reminding us of the promise in nearly every chapter. Through reading Genesis, we are supposed to experience a taste of Abraham’s longing for a son.

Still, our measly three months is nothing when compared to the twenty-five years that Abraham waited.

Can you imagine?

Twenty-five years.

And not even early in life.

No, twenty-five years on the backend of living.

Within those twenty-five years, Abraham and Sarah watched as their biological ability to bear children vanished.

After twenty-five years, Isaac was an impossibility.

So, why did God wait so long? What purpose could there possibly have been for God dragging Abraham and Sarah through such an ordeal?

Providentially, we know that nothing happens apart from the will of God, and we understand that God works all things “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[1] However, that promise can be difficult to believe whenever we do not clearly see the evidence of God’s orchestrating of events.

The same must have been true for Abraham, but we have a benefit that Abraham did not. We have his entire life laid out before us on paper. We are, then, able to see many workings of God in Abraham’s life that he may never have witnessed himself. And in these workings, we can see some of the purposes with which God delayed in providing Isaac, and perhaps, we might be able to glean something valuable from these lessons for our own life.

1. Waiting Builds Patience

Possibly the easiest lesson to be learned from Abraham’s waiting for Isaac’s birth is patience. Galatians informs us that patience is a fruit of the Spirit.[2] This means that followers of Christ should exercise patience because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many today believe that patience is simply the ability to wait, making patience a much neglected virtue. The Oxford Dictionary, however, defines patience as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.” Such a definition ought to also describe the temperament of a Christian.

Throughout the Scriptures, we witness the patience of God, and we are called to be likewise because patience correlates closely with faith. I mean, think about it. If I become impatient, it is almost always because things are not going how I would like them to go. Impatience almost always sees me trying to take matters into my own hands. Patience, on the other hand, understands that God is ultimately in control and, therefore, sees no reason to become upset or angry a circumstances. Our faith (or trust) in God enables us to be patient in trying times. Indeed, true patience can only proceed from faith.

It is no accident that Abraham was a great testament of both patience and faith. With the exception of the Hagar incident, Abraham displayed monumental patience as he confidently waited for the LORD to fulfill His promise.

2. God’s Timing Is Perfect

Chapter 21 begins by telling us that God did just as He promised to Sarah and Abraham “at the time of which God had spoken.”[3] This is, of course, a reference to Genesis 18:10, where God promised the birth of Isaac in one year. However, it also heavily reminds me of Galatians 4:4-5. In that passage, Paul writes that Jesus was born into the world at the “fullness of time.” Both Galatians and Genesis emphasize that God enacted His will with complete authority and sovereignty. Though God promised the coming of Jesus from Genesis 3:15 onward, the precise conditions of the early first century provided the perfect setting for the Son of God to enter the world. The births of both Jesus and Isaac reveal that God is in absolute control over life’s circumstances, and He uses them specifically for His glory.

3. God Displays His Power to Do the Impossible

If I needed to place one large reason on why I believe God let Abraham and Sarah wait so long to have a child, I would argue this point. God wanted to make certain that they had reached the age when child-bearing was a physical impossibility, so there would be no doubt that a miracle had been done. Essentially, God gave Abraham (and us, through his story) a lesson in God’s omnipotence, showing that there is nothing too hard for the LORD.[4]

This point, however, also develops into two applications in the remainder of Scripture. First, like the impossibility of Isaac’s birth, salvation is impossible for anyone. The account of Jesus and the rich, young ruler in Mark 10 gives evidence to this. The rich ruler was, by ancient standards, a very blessed man. Wealth was often associated with having the favor of God, but he also appeared to live a very moral, upright lifestyle. Yet Jesus turned expectations upside down by claiming that it is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. The impossibility of the wealthy achieving salvation then caused the disciples to exclaim, “Then who can be saved?”[5] Jesus answers, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”[6] Every single salvation is a task of sheer impossibility, but God is the worker of the impossible.

Second, as with Isaac’s birth, the promised coming of Christ seemed to be a ridiculous notion. Abraham’s twenty-five years is nothing when compared to the millennia that humanity awaited the offspring promised in Genesis 3:15. As the events of the Old Testament unfolded, prophesies concerning the Christ continued to build. Just to name a few, the coming Christ needed to be born in Bethlehem,[7] descend from Abraham,[8] Judah,[9] and David,[10] live in Egypt,[11] and be born of a virgin.[12] The list goes on significantly, but even the last one listed alone makes Jesus’ birth impossible (virgins cannot have kids!). The birth of Christ was an entirely absurd idea that could only happen by the power of God.

The End of the Matter

Twenty-five years may seem like a long time for God to keep Abraham waiting (and to be fair, it was), but through that process, God grew Abraham into being the man of faith that he was. God’s timing is simply not our own, and it never will be. But through faith, we must understand that the LORD’s plans are perfect, so we can patiently trust in Him.

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] Galatians 5:22

[3] Genesis 21:2

[4] Genesis 18:14

[5] Mark 10:26

[6] Mark 10:27

[7] Micah 5:2

[8] Genesis 12:3

[9] Genesis 49:10

[10] 2 Samuel 7:12-13

[11] Hosea 11:1

[12] Isaiah 7:14