Psalms of Ascent: 131
You certainly couldn’t say there’s no variety in the psalms! The first one we looked at in this series was a ‘God bring fire down on their heads’ type; the one Lynette looked at last week was a cry to the Lord; while this week’s has a different flavour again.
We don’t know the exact context of the psalm although, unlike 129 and 130, we do know this was written by David. Which makes it even more amazing. Consider David was a king, so think for a moment everything that would go with that. A king in those days would have had to have been constantly on the lookout for potential attack from neighbouring countries, as well as political intrigues likely to be happening in their own court. The day to day demands would have been huge because they were the equivalent of the Supreme Court for the country. And yet at some point David wrote this, a psalm which could be described as being characterised by contented humility.
Verse 1: I Have Not…
There are three things in this verse that David says he had not done, all three of which point in the same direction.
I have not lifted up my heart
This is a little oblique, but it’s meaning is quite simple: in his thinking he had not been proud or conceited. This itself could be read as a statement of pride (I’m proud of the fact that I’m not proud or conceited), but more likely it’s a simple statement of fact. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been times when it wasn’t true, but he’s simply stating that the overall direction of his heart is humility.
I have not raised my eyes too high
What is contained in the metaphor of raising our eyes too high? My impression is of someone who:
- has eyes literally and metaphorically scanning everything within 360 degrees, on the lookout for the next best thing;
- is forever looking for something that will give them a leg up or an edge over someone else;
- is running on anxiety due to fear of missing something important;
- is frenetic.
David has not done that; his way of looking at things is real and realistic.
I have not occupied myself with things too great for me
This final have not flows from the first two. He has not gone beyond his station, not dabbled in those things that belong in God’s realm rather than his. We know that part of the human condition is the desire (conscious or unconscious) to be God. David had not gone down that path. He lived within his limitations and had not gone after the impossible.
The strong note of this verse is quiet humility which, as I said earlier, is all the more remarkable give the person and position of David. There are very few people who could be in a position such as David’s and be able to say what he said. Very few can remain humble when holding the reins of power. It’s hard enough as it is without anything to further complicate it.
Why is humility a characteristic that’s hard to attain and maintain? No doubt there’s a whole bunch of reasons, but it seems to me we’re at constant risk of being absorbed in ourselves and of looking down our nose at other people. Not only that, we have to actively work against taking on things that are God’s department and not ours.
I have no doubt that David wasn’t blind to his failures and weaknesses, but all in all it would seem that he had an uninflated and accurate view of himself.
Verse 2: I Have…
While there were the three things he had not done; on the other hand there was one thing he had done: I have calmed and quieted my soul. The literal meaning is ‘I have made level my soul.’ I really like that imagery. When I was recently in Mannahill we did a lot of driving on two wheel tracks that were quite rough. It was such a pleasure to then get onto a patch of smooth track where I didn’t have to be watching every single thing coming our way. Smooth tracks meant I could relax and enjoy the driving and take more notice of what was around us. That’s what comes to mind for me in this image.
Like a Weaned Child with its Mother
For David, the metaphor that described it for him was like a weaned child with its mother. I’m not 100% sure what he had in mind when he used that metaphor; maybe a mother might have a better understanding. Here’s what it could be: Back in those days, children were probably weaned around the age of 3 so a weaned child would be a bit older than a baby still breast feeding. A young baby, when it’s hungry, all it wants is food, and food NOW! An older, recently weaned child is likely to be more settled and not as urgent in terms of getting food. Perhaps that’s what’s in view here with the main idea being contentment.
What’s the sum of these two verses? Humility, quietness, contentment. In a world where we’re encouraged to put ourselves first and to be self-reliant and independent, and where there seems to be so much noise and frenetic activity—we may feel this as virtually unattainable. Let me give you a simple example of the noise with which we contend. My Christmas present from one of the kids was a ticket to the basketball, something I hadn’t done for some years. As the game was part way through, something suddenly struck me. I put up with the booming, affected voice of the announcer, but when the actual game was in progress i.e. the players were running up and down the court, even then there was repetitive, annoying music playing over the PA. I realise I’m most likely showing my age, but I found myself asking why it was not possible to simply watch the game without the extra background noise. We seemed to manage the last time I went, so what was different now? I do think it’s indicative that we have become so used to noise that we can’t handle silence. I’d describe this as a quiet or noiseless psalm. What are we in danger of losing, or have already lost, with our seeming inability to be without noise?
Verse 3: Hope in the Lord
Verse 1 describes David’s character, verse 2 what he did, and the last verse gives us the reason why both were possible: hoping in the Lord. We may place our hope in others, and that’s fine to a degree. But if that’s out only source of hope it’s on very shaky ground because they, like ourselves, are weak, frail people. It seems to me that many finally end up hoping in themselves. That might be fine for a while, but is always at risk of coming unstuck. It must also be quite frenetic as we try to cover all the bases needing covering. Further, if we live in a world of competing selves all hoping in ourselves, it very quickly degenerates into a dog eat dog environment in which the one at the top of the heap wins.
Ultimately, our only reliable and sure object of hope is the Lord himself. That’s what makes humility, contentment and quietness possible. Ultimately the path of faith in God is the only one that leads to quietness, rest, contentment and humility because that path has nothing to prove or achieve. The extent to which we live frenetic, noisy, tense and anxious lives is indicative of where our hope lies—whether in something or someone else, or in the Lord himself. Humility, contentment and quietness are only found in and through faith in him.