Psalm 131

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

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.

You might have heard of Charles Spurgeon, the mid-19th century London preacher.  He said of this psalm: One of the shortest to read, one of the longest to learn.  

This psalm speaks of David coming to the place of contentment.  What that looks like, what that feels like.  Contentment does seem a hard lesson to learn.  So elusive that Paul calls it a secret

It’s a good psalm for the end of the year, as we look ahead to the new year, of course not knowing exactly what it has in store for us.  It’s also a good psalm for the Advent season, a season of waiting, of expectation…all while we’re in a period of darkness.  

You’ll notice by the heading that this is one of the psalms “of ascents.”  While no one knows for sure what is meant by that heading, the best guess is that these psalms were sung during those thrice-a-year pilgrimages when the people of Israel were summoned to Jerusalem to celebrate feasts.  Because Jerusalem is set on an elevated hill, one has to ascend to reach it.   So, these songs would be sung a lot, and by the repetition great truths of the life with God were engraved on the hearts of the worshipers.  

As we said, one of those great truths that this psalm celebrates is the great good of contentment.  David the King details how he’s come to a place of contentment.  He begins with a list of negatives, what he refrains from, in order to find contentment.  

My heart is not lifted up.  – I’ve rejected reflections and plans and postures and attitudes and emotions of self-importance.  

You have a great example of a heart lifted up in the book of Daniel, in the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.  He did have a record of remarkable accomplishments.  But here’s what he did with that, as recorded in Daniel 4:29 – Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty.’  

There is a way of living, where you’re trying to be considered important, trying to stand out.  Maybe marked by speech that is always a little provocative, edgy, outlandish.  Always trying to be in the know and letting people know that you’re carrying around big secrets.  Always searching for openings to talk big about your kids, your work position, etc.  Dropping names about the important people you know.  Dreaming about accolades, influence.  Feasting on complements and awards.  

A heart lifted up is a proud heart.  What a proud person finds unbearable is the unspectacular, the mundane, the boring: you shouldn’t have to put up with boredom – so you’ll stir up trouble, you’ll spend money you don’t have, you’ll do drugs, you’ll view pornography – anything to avoid the humdrum and find excitement…because you’re too AWESOME to be bored!

But contentment comes via a rejection of this kind of puffed-up thinking.  In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Church is given the basic recipe for life: Love each other.  Do that more and more.  “And aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”  

Not the clamoring for attention, heart lifted up life, but the quiet life.  

Next, David says, my eyes are not raised too high.  This phrase is similar to the previous one, but narrows the focus onto the sense of superiority.  Haughtiness, Others are below me and I look down on them.  

You can find plenty of reasons to look down on people: because they’re conservative or southerners or strait-laced or they got the vaccine or they didn’t get the vaccine or they’re from the city or they’re not educated or they’re educated.  

One look of this eyes raised high is that no one can correct me.  I’m better, so why should I listen to them?  

Funny enough, you don’t have to be a rich or successful person to have this attitude of no one’s telling me what to do.  Indeed, it’s common for those with the least experience, the fewest accomplishments, to carry around a chip on their shoulder.  Their eyes are raised high.  

Always comparing yourself to others and trying to be better than they.  And if you can’t be better, you’ll tear them down.  Well, so-and-so is doing well but all he does is work.  So-and-so has children that still like her but that’s because they’re just after her money.  Always a sneer, always cynical.    

Eyes raised high are trying desperately to be noticed by the inner circle, by the older guys, by the successful people, by the hip people.  

On the other hand, if someone can’t do anything for you, then you ignore him.  You wouldn’t think about reaching out to someone who was below you in age, grade, talent, in social rank, in interest.  

David says, I’ve rejected this absorption with other people, attempting to rank them and figure out where I rank with them.  

Finally, David says, I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  Some things, he says, are beyond me, and I’m not going to reach for them; they’re not going to trouble me. 

We have to be careful here.  The poet Robert Browning famously wrote, A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  He’s right!  There is something to being ambitious, not settling.  Striving for more understanding and knowledge: It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search them out.  (Proverbs 25:21).

But there are plenty of things that ambition can’t touch, wasn’t meant to touch.  There are things we can’t know.  Because they’re hidden from us, and will remain  hidden.  

This used to be commonly accepted.  I’ve read something about the Harvard University seal, or “arms.”  You might know the image thereon are three books lying opened, with Ve – Ri- Tas –  – “Truth” written over these open books.  My understanding is that the first rendition of this crest was different: there were two open books and one closed book.  The open books were the books of nature and history – – those could and should be explored and discovered and learned about… but the third, closed book represented the knowledge we couldn’t find out – these “hidden things that belong to God,” as Moses called them.  Those things too great and too marvelous for us.  

There are plenty of things not given to us to understand.  That’s ok.  There are things even about our own lives not able to be understood.  

Proverbs 20:24 – A man’s steps are from the LORD/ how then can man understand his way?  Yes, even the course of my life is riddled with mysteries:  How exactly did I get here?  Were my motives pure?  How have people’s deeds and misdeeds affected the outcome of my life?  What if I had gone on that date?  Why was I born in this era and why not in a better era?  

Ecclesiastes 7:10 – Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?  For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.  

When we look back there are things too great and too marvelous for us to fathom.  Also, as we look around today.  

We’ll never understand the true situation of people: Even in laughter the heart may ache/ and the end of joy may be grief.  Proverbs 14:13.   The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy. Proverbs 14:10.  We’ll never really understand anybody.

The judgments of God are often impossible to fathom.  Why is my brother’s house so much nicer than mine?  Why was I given a stutter?  Why am I going through this dry time?  Why is one kid so easy to raise and other so hard?  Why this waiting?  Why this pain?  How long will the good times roll?  

And looking  beyond my personal situation: Why does God allow so much wrong in the world; why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people?   Ecclesiastes 8:14-17 – There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.  I said that this also is vanity.  And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful…

In other words: Justice is often upside down…  enjoy your meals!

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the time to read Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address which he gave as the Civil War was winding to its close and just shortly before he was assassinated.  It’s a masterpiece.  Here’s one of the things he said: 

“Each [side {North and South}] looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other ..the  prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”  

And so it goes.  The Almighty has his own purposes… and some of those He’s not sharing with you.  

And, of course, as we look into the future, there is much we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know.  The future is too marvelous and too wonderful.  

How exactly will my provision come?  What troubles await us?  Hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:34: Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.  Strange direction, here.  Don’t worry about what’ll happen down the road; save all your anxiety for when you arrive to the troubles.  Troubles be a’coming, but don’t start worrying over them yet.  

Even in our own lives, much of the past and the present and the future are, and always will be, inexplicable, too complex for our puny minds.  Even the things we know, we always know quite shallowly.  “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8: 2). So give up this futile pursuit to master situations and to fathom what can’t be fathomed.  Your mind racing in circles.  Beating your head against the mysteries.  Stay calm.  

So, this lesson in contentment the Israelites tried to sing into their souls:  Turn away from pride.  Turn away from haughtily comparing yourselves with others.  Turn aside from lines of thinking that are above your pay grade.  Those are avenues NOT to go down on the way to contentment.  

But secondly, and lastly, we’re given an image to help us toward contentment.  Like a weaned child with its mother.  

Most of you already know that a weaned child is one who has graduated from mother’s breast milk to more solid foods.  Even after being weaned, the child will still be dependent on her mom for the necessities of life.  But she’s confident! – because there’s already an established history of being fed by her mom.  She is confident looking to the future because the mom who has given of herself in the past will most certainly continue to provide into the future.  Just in different ways.

Remember, Israel would sing this song three times a year…this song that (among other things) celebrates the past supply of God and looks forward to the future calmly…expectantly.  

The people of Israel deliberately recalled their past because they learned they would get into trouble when they would forget their past.  They would forget about the rescue from Egypt, the supply in the wilderness, their shocking victories over Sihon and Og, kings of the Amorites and Bashan en route to the promised land, etc.  

As they forgot what God had done for them, they would grow myopic, and start looking in front of them, and only see lack and opposition and trouble.  Then they’d fret and complain and be enervated by worry.  Faith dribbled out of them…

Not David, though, and he would share his faith and hope with his countrymen.  David was like a weaned child with its mother.  You remember what David said to Saul before he met Goliath?  Saul said something like, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?  I don’t think you can handle this.  And in his reply, David recalled instances from the past of God protecting him, against the odds.  I’m confident now because I’ve seen what God can do.  I remember.    

Brothers and sisters, it’s not enough to just look back.  There are a lot of people looking back today.  We’re a nostalgic society.  So much today seems uncertain, dangerous, disintegrating, and so we look back wistfully to the Reagan era, or to the post- WWII era, when everything was expanding, or to our childhood, when times were simple.  Or, I want the good old days of the church again…

Why do we have to live in COVID times?  How can I escape these weird times of transgenderism and cancel culture and such?  And thinking of everything we’re going through, we get angry with an anger that is beyond righteous anger –  at politicians and cultural leaders and church leaders who are allowing this to happen.  

Ecclesiastes 7:10 – Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?  For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.  

We should look back. But we look back to the past provision of God…not to escape but so that we can then look to today and tomorrow with confidence.  We’re not trying to return to the past.  We’re recalling the past so as to be living confidently in the moment and hopeful for the future.  In the past we have seen, experienced God’s rescues.  He has provided for us.  He has come through for us, even if at the last minute.  He has taken us through embarrassment, shock, sorrow, danger etc.  

As year 2022 draws to a close, can you look back and see provision?  The many times God has forgiven you and brought you back into warm fellowship?  Lifting you out of despondency and into some goodness?  Renewing your energy, giving you lift like an eagle soaring?  Healing your diseases?  

I’m never one to embarrass someone, but I took this photo of my father-in-law the other day.  We told him, you can stay at our house if you do yardwork.  And there he was.  Seeing him I had to recall that just a few months before he had been in a hospital bed for a five weeks, down with sepsis, no exaggeration to say his life hung in the balance.  After he came out of the hospital it was dialysis several times a week and it appeared that might very well be his fate for the rest of his days.  I shudder to think about all the yard work that would have remained undone!

Can’t we, near the end of 2022, look ahead with confidence into the next year, because we have been at the receiving end of so much life already?    

Like a weaned child with his mother.  The mother gave of her own body to supply the young one who is now weaned.  And we’re in an analogous situation with God, but a how much more analogy.  

Here’s what St Paul said: 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.  Brothers and sisters, God is committed to us.  God is committed to us.  Paul says, He has given us, not just His Son, but His own Son.  His very self to us.  

You facing blinking engine lights.  Credit card debt.  Balding tires.  New pains in your body.  More frequent memory lapses.  Rising gas prices – –   Look back to God’s provision over the year.  Look a little farther back to God’s provision over your lifetime.  Look even farther to God’s provision to your parents and grandparents.  Look way back to God’s provision in Jesus Christ.  How more clearly can He prove to you: I’m for you!  I’m with you!  Of course, I’m not going to leave the one for whom Christ died!    

One more thing: I don’t know the correct age for a kid to be weaned.  But I do know eventually a kid needs to be weaned.  There’s a way to be nourished and cared for when you’re an infant, and there’s another way for when you’re older.  Mom makes that decision when it’s time for a change.  Time to grow up.  

My point being: the way that God provided for you in the past is not the same way that God will always provide for you.  There are transitions because you’re growing up because He’s growing you up.  He’s bringing you through all the stages of formation on the way to being shaped after the prototypical resurrected Man, Jesus Christ.  He’s overseeing this huge, grand undertaking of growing you up into Christ.

The constant running throughout the various phases of development is that God has been, is, and always will be the provider.  

Things will never be the same but things will always be the same.  God will stretch you: new processes to learn, new skills to master, new and bigger challenges to overcome, all kinds of stretching and discomfort…the same Heavenly Father.  The same Spirit of Jesus Christ the only begotten Son bringing you through it all.  

David learned contentment, and would share that lesson with all: O Israel, hope in the LORD/ from this time forth and forevermore.  May David’s Son and David’s Lord bring us this advent season further up and further into the secret of contentment.  Teaching us to not lift up our heart in pride.  To not look down our noses at others.  To not suppose everything in life is meant to be figured out, and to be ok with that.  To be patient.  And to live before God in remembrance – as He has already risen up again and again to supply, as He’s been the very picture of steadfast love, will He ever be until our last breath and beyond.  Relax.  Stay cool.  Stay calm.  Be content, friends.  AMEN

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