Please turn with me in your bibles to Psalm 131. Psalm 131. This unassuming little psalm can seem quite perplexing to us. It is one of the shortest psalms to read, but one of the longest psalms to learn. It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a mature Christian. This psalm is quick to memorize, but takes a lifetime to understand.
In my study I came across an article on this psalm by David Powlison, and I could do no better than his introduction, so I will read a brief portion to you,
“God speaks to us in many different ways. When you hear, ‘Now it came to pass,’ settle down for a good story. When God asserts, ‘I am,’ trust His self-revelation. When He promises, ‘I will,’ bank on it. When He tells you, ‘You shall… you shall not,’ do what He says. Psalm 131 is in yet a different vein. Most of it is holy eavesdropping. You have intimate access to the inner life of someone who has learned composure, and then he invites you to come along. Psalm 131 is show-and-tell for how to become peaceful inside.”
That’s one of the goals of this psalm; for the people of God to have a calmed and quieted soul, a contented soul, rather than what we all have experienced: a disquieted and noisy soul. This noise of the soul can take many forms and bear many different fruits. It can be a low-level background noise of irritability and frustration. It can be discontentment that spreads like a rash, irritating everything it touches. This noise of the soul can be despondency and depression, or it can be arrogance and pride. We’ve all tasted it. But what do we do with it, and how can we rid ourselves of it.
Let’s read Psalm 131 and see what David says about this seemingly universal condition of the soul:
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.
2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
Our text has three verses, and these will serve as my three points. We will see the result, the reason, and the root contentment, or a quiet soul. The result, the reason, and the root.
First, let’s look at verse 1 and see the Result. The result is humility, humble submission. David says, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high.” He is not proud, and that humility is the result, or the effect, of a soul that has experienced verse 2.
Proud souls are noisy souls, disquieted souls. This pride can be manifested in a host of different ways: anxiety, irritability, harshness, despondency, frustration. All sorts of things that disturb an otherwise quiet soul.
Powlison’s article, again, has an interesting exercise that helpfully illustrates this for us. He says we can take this psalm and read it as an anti-psalm. Turn it on its head, in order to illustrate the correlating truths. Look at the psalm, and then listen as I read through the anti-psalm 131:
My heart is proud (I’m absorbed in myself),
And my eyes are haughty (I look down on other people).
And I chase after things too great and difficult for me.
So of course I’m noisy and restless inside, it comes naturally,
Like a hungry infant fussing on his mother’s lap,
Like a hungry infant, I’m restless with my demands and my worries.
I scatter my hope onto anything and everybody all the time.”
Pride makes us cast our hopes on something or someone else other than God, which invariably makes us anxious, weary, restless, noisy.
But it is not just our relationship to God that is a problem. Pride leads us to have that standard physical expression of arrogance: haughty eyes. Haughty eyes is a universal sign. Every culture knows what it means to look down on someone. To look down your nose at them. Bare pride says “I am right in myself.” Haughty eyes says, “I am right compared to you. [from Powlison’s excellent article].
Haughty eyes are critical, quick to judge. “Why did you do it that way? If you would just do what I said, we wouldn’t be having this problem. If you’d do it my way and in my timing, then all this would be over.” A haughty person doesn’t need to hear advice from someone else; they already know how to fix all the world’s problems. They don’t need to respect others, they don’t need to deal charitably with others, have patience toward others, because all that matters is their own respect, their own treatment, and their own time.
Even the flip side of the coin is related to pride. The self-belittling tendencies—“low self esteem,” self pity, self-hatred, timidity, fearfulness, fears of failure and fears of rejection—each of these fundamentally express pride failing, pride intimidated, and pride despairing.
But David here says that he hasn’t done that. He hasn’t an elevated view of himself, nor does he have haughty eyes. He goes on to say in verse 1: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” As a young man, even with the anointing of Samuel, David did not take his own ascension to the throne and toppeling of Saul into his own hands. He waited patiently on the Lord and His timing. He was content with his station, with his level, with his status. He did not grasp at something that was not yet handed to him.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt such a temptation, to grasp after something greater, or to be preoccupied with things too great for you. In this life trials will come and with them come a peculiar temption for our preoccupation. We can be tempted to think that if I just occupy my mind with it, turn it over and over again, chew on it long enough, replay the situation in my mind, there will come from that preoccupation some sort of illuminating and liberating insight in “WHY?” [NB: this paragraph and several that follow are adapted and expanded from this sermon by CJ Mahaney].
But that is a false hope.
Choosing to be preoccupied will not bring contentment and rest. Preoccupation with matters too high for us is a sure recipe for a disquieted and noisy soul. Sinclair Ferguson says that “contentment is the fruit of a mindset that understands its limitations.” An unhealthy preoccupation with and desire for knowledge that is beyond what God has revealed to us is a subtle and dangerous expression of pride. Ferguson continues: “such preoccupations suffocate contentment.”
When you hear such temptations, they ought to remind you of the whispers heard in the Garden. Satan coaxing Adam: “express your discontentment with God and his providence. Be dissatisfied with your lot in life. I know God has given you everything else in the garden, but he held back that one really good tree. If you just had fruit from that one other tree, then, then you’d be content. Then you’d have true satisfaction.”
But such discontentment and dissatisfaction reveal an even deeper and dark problem. Discontentment in our circumstances shows us that it is not merely the circumstances, but it is God himself with whom we are discontent.
Brothers and sister there is no contentment without refusing this preoccupation with things too great for us. There is mystery in this life, and it will not depart until we do.
But Spurgeon encourages us by saying,
“Happily for us our happiness does not depend on us understanding the providence of God: we are able to believe where we are not able to explain, and we are content to leave a thousand mysteries unsolved rather than to tolerate a single doubt as to the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly Father.”
The psalmist was content with leaving those thousand mysteries unanswered. He refused preoccupation with mystery. Spurgeon continues, “Let us consider awhile. Is it not good for us to be…puzzled, and so forced to exercise faith?
We don’t naturally want to be puzzled. We don’t like things hazy and unclear. We want certainty and clarity. We want definiteness and detail. But part of the weaning process in this life is the presence of mystery without the preoccupation with that which puzzles us.
Would it be well for us to have all things so ordered that we ourselves could see the reason for every dispensation? Could the scheme of divine love be indeed supremely, infinitely, wise if we could measure it with our short line of reason? Should we not ourselves remain as foolish and conceited as spoiled and petted children, if all things were arranged according to our judgment of what would be fit and proper? Ah, it is well to be cast out of our depth, and made to swim in the sweet waters of mighty love! We know that it is supremely blessed to be compelled to cease from self, to surrender both with and judgment, and to lie passive in the hands of God.”
It is good for us to be cast into waters over our head, so that our faith might be exercised, God’s faithfulness proved yet again, and that we might be further weaned from the love of this world.
John Newton once wrote a poem entitled, Prayer Answered by Crosses, that so eloquently describes the surprising and even painful weaning from this world, and unto the Lord himself. Newton wrote:
I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and ev’ry grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust has answer’d pray’r;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hop’d that in some favour’d hour,
At once he’d answer my request:
And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this. he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord reply’d,
“I answer pray’r for grace and faith.
”These inward trials I employ,
“From self and pride to set thee free;
”And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
“That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”
The trials of this life, too great and high for us to understand, are employed by God to set us free from self and pride, for our growth in humility, and, ultimately, that we might discover joy in Him alone.
Which leads to the second verse, where we see the Reason why David can have a restful, rather than noisy soul. He writes: But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” I have calmed and quieted my soul, which has also been translated, I have composed and quieted my soul. David has gained composure, gained stability. How did this happen? What is this process of spiritual weaning?
To compose one’s soul literally means to razed it. Imagine a bulldozer leveling a house to the ground. To take something out of control, and subdue it to nothing. Think of Jesus on the boat in the stormy sea; he merely speaks and the tempest turns to nothing. Likewise, to quiet one’s soul means to silence the tumultuous noise. He has said, “ssssh” to his desires, his preferences, his opinions, his fears, his anxiety, his timing, his frustration, and his irritability.
And we know from Shawn’s study of David’s life that this composure of the soul is not apathy. It is not as if David was a man resigned to inactivity. He was a man of conscious dependence, not sleepy passivity. Self-mastery is not a passive activity. ON the contrary, composing one’s soul is perhaps the most effortful endeavor of our Christian lives.
But how can we do this? How did David do it? How does a proud and haughty eyed man quiet his arrogant heart? How do we wean ourselves off of the cares of this world? How do we remove from ourselves a preoccupation for the mysteries of “WHY?” that have not been revealed to us?
The short answer is that you can’t. You can’t resolve yourself into humility. You can’t beat on your chest enough times, you can’t cry enough tears, say enough chants, read enough books, listen to enough sermons to self-will yourself into a quieted soul. “Can the leopard change his spots?” God asks us in his word. No more can the leopard change itself can we change our hearts. You can only and will only produce lasting change in your heart by the work of God himself. God is the answer; God working through His Holy Spirit to replace that haughty heart of stone and put in its place a calm and quieted heart.
You’re not strong enough. You’re not capable on your own, any more than an infant can wean itself. On your own, not only would you not be able to, but you’d never actually have the desire to. We’re born naturally proud, our eyes come from the womb haughty. Not only are we not disposed to trust God’s providences, we hate it, and we hate him. Our hearts are full of restless evil, we have tongue of deadly poison.
But the good news of God is that He has sent His Son to be the perfect child in our place. We were restless, but Christ was at peace. We were bitter and angry at our circumstances, but he was content with God’s plan. We were proud of ourselves and looked down or noses at everyone else, but Christ was meek and lowly of heart, the king of the universe born in a stable, clothed in rags, killed like a criminal, and buried in the grave. Such is our great king.
And it is because of his calmed and quieted soul that we can have the same. He has promised us new hearts, if we but believe. He has promised us a peace, a quietness of heart, that surpasses all understanding, if we but turn away from our sin and submit to him as our master and Lord. We have to give up our preoccupations and our pride. Give up our arrogance and our attitude.
For we who believe, we know that he has died for these things, and it is unbecoming a child of God to continue to act in such ways. We must put off the obsession with knowing that which has not been revealed. We must walking in humility and meekness. We must battle to calm and quiet our souls, and then, and only then, might we know the peace of God, regardless of our circumstances, and regardless of our trials.
That’s the gospel of our Lord.
But before we leave this second verse, let’s look a little more closely at the analogy that David uses of a weaned child. Consider the process, for in it we see a picture of how we too are weaned from the love of this world.
A child is removed from the thing that he naturally craves, the thing that brings he joy and satisfaction, the thing that soothes a raging appetite. And when the child is deprived of the breast, he is agitated. He is rooting around, squirming, seeking what he comfortable and known. And when he can’t immediately find what he seeks, he fusses. He is frustrated that he can’t immediately get what he wants. The source of his life, his health, his satisfaction is removed from him. He becomes noisy and enraged, kicking and screaming. You see the same reaction in grown adults, by the way. They may not be literally kicking and screaming, but you see worry, despair, anger, confusion, discontentment, jealousy and envy.
But, the same child, after a little time passes and he is successfully weaned, seems to be a different child. A dramatic change has taken place. The child can sit upon the lap of his mother, quietly, giving attention not for his mother’s breast, but for the baby food being sat upon the table next to them.
That process of weaning is like the process of us learning peaceful contentedness in this life. The process of us calming and quieting our soul. God is taking from us the milk that we so craved, the things of this world that we thought could sustain us, and he is depriving us of them so that we might grow. Grow away from that which is deficient for our maturity, and grow into dependence upon the that which will sustain us. We’re being weaned from the things of this world that can never sustain us, and that process can be frustrating, it can be full of tears, it can even be full of a sense of great loss, but he’s weaning us from this fleeting and passing world, so that we might mature into peaceful satisfaction in Him and Him alone.
That’s the reason, the process by which David can say I have calmed and quieted my soul.
Let’s move onto the third verse. Here we mark a change. David had been having a divine conversation into which we were eavesdropping. But now he moves his attention to us. He says,
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
This exhortation is the root of the whole endeavor. How can be humble? How can we rid ourselves of a noisy and disquieted soul? Hope in God, David says. This is the Root of the fruit produce in verse 1 and 2.
This hope is a substantive hope, a theologically-informed certainty, based upon God’s revealed truth. This is an assurance, not merely a wish, like I hope to go to the game this fall.
Don’t miss the truth here, which is so simple that it is easy to overlook: hope in God calms the heart. Hope in God calms the heart. And conversely, misplaced hope brings turbulence, unrest, discontentment.
Where is your hope? Is your hope in some sort of different future? A future that you’d prefer, a future with a different outcome? Maybe not a different outcome, but perhaps a different timeframe. Proverbs tells us that hope deferred makes a heart sick, and if your hope is in your plan in your timeframe, you’re setting yourself up for the potential for great heart-sickness.
If it doesn’t come to pass in my way and my timeframe, I often find my heart noisy. I am discontent because my hope was not in God, my hope was in my plan. A calmed and quieted soul is the fruit of a heart that hopes in God: He is wise to enough to plan it, good enough to purpose it, strong enough to bring it about, and he has promised that he would withhold no good thing from those that walk uprightly.
Hope in God, dear brothers and sisters. Read what he has revealed. Read of his promises. There will be mysteries in this life; it is not going away. Trials and afflictions will come. But what has been revealed to us in His word and by His actions is certain and sufficient to sustain us even through the midst of the most perplexing trials, and not merely sustain us, but to actually calm and quiet our raging souls through the turbulent trials of this life.
George Muller once wrote, “There is never a time when we may not hope in God! Whatever the necessities, however great our difficulties, and though to all appearances help is impossible, yet our business is to hope in God.” Our business, dear Christian, is to hope in God.
And if David could say that before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, how much more can we hope in God after His coming. Paul reminds us of God’s love when he writes in Romans 8: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
We have been given the great antidote to our restlessness, Jesus Christ. Let us reflect often upon the gift of grace seen in him. May we battle, in the power of His might, against the restlessness remaining in our soul, that we might say with David, “I have calmed and quieted my soul.”
And if this quietness of heart is something that is completely foreign to you, if you have heard God’s word proclaimed and have been convicted of your haughty eyes and proud heart, then I urge you to come to Jesus and see of his mercy. See His as the meek and lowly Christ portrayed in Scripture. Read of his great love, even for the worst of sinners. Taste and see that the Lord is good, and by doing so, have your heart quieted within you, and we all mature, being weaned from the love of this world, that we might have greater satisfaction in Him.
To close, I thought it would be good to remember the words of a beloved hymn that was inspired by this psalm: Be Still My Soul.
May these lyrics be the prayer of our heart, as we all seek to have a calmed and quieted soul.
Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side,
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide,
In every change He faithful will remain,
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end
Be still my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears,
Be still my soul, the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below
Be still my soul, the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord
When disappointment grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored
Be still my soul, when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last