St. John’s University, Collegivelle, MN, 56231 2006
Friday, June 5
By Jeni Cook Furr
Psalm 131 (NIV)
1. My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child, I am content. 3. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forever.
Psalm 131 (CEV)
1. I am not conceited, Lord, and I don’t waste my time on impossible schemes. 2. But I have learned to feel safe and satisfied, just like a young child on its mother’s lap. 3. People of Israel, you must trust the Lord now and forever.
This little psalm distinguishes itself in several ways. First, it is short. It’s short enough to consider at least two different translations (above) to allow for a better understanding. Charles Spurgeon called it “one of the shortest psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn.” Second, we should consider the author. While the subtitle identifies David as author, this psalm is in a collection (120-134) considered “ascent psalms,” or “traveling up to Jerusalem” songs, and thus, some scholars attribute 131 to a woman, perhaps one traveling in pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival with her young child. Let’s consider both possibilities. Finally, we must take note that this is one of scant passages in which God is strikingly portrayed as our Loving Mother.
It has been said that you can’t speak about your humility, for as soon as you do, you’re being proud again. Yet here, “My heart is not proud, Lord,” is immediately followed by the acknowledgement that some “things are too wonderful (or impossible) for me.” It is a prayer, a confession, clearly not a boast.
If David is the author, he has certainly learned from his mistakes. He had been accused of being too ambitious for the throne, and too prideful, dancing in triumph while leading the way for the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. But now, he has learned the lessons of Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but to the humble he shows favor.” This is not arrogance. This is a humble acceptance of the author’s place in the world and before the Lord God.
Much like Job’s resolution in chapter 42, this author demonstrates honest humility before God. Some things are beyond the understanding of mortals, and we must each finally digest that truth for ourselves. Life holds many mysteries (both wonderful and terrifying) that we cannot understand. We have plenty of questions and doubts. Sometimes we have fear and anger. But there are some things in life we will never understand. Hopefully, like the psalmist, we can learn that we don’t need to know it all. And there is no need to inform everyone about our opinions. In the age of social media, this can be especially tempting! I am reminded of some wise advice attributed to Abraham Lincoln: It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. Instead of an inordinate desire to feel important, the author of Psalm 131 models a child-like humility, yet not without confidence.
Furthermore, we humans can’t, and don’t need to control it all. When I used to travel frequently for work, (and especially right after 9/11), I developed a litany of prayers for boarding an aircraft. I prayed for the pilot, co-pilot, flight-attendants, passengers, air traffic controllers, mechanics, screeners of passengers and luggage, weather conditions, the aircraft itself, and flocks of birds. I also asked God for special care during take-offs and landings. I always wondered if God was slightly amused by or annoyed with my feeble attempts to “name it and claim it” in prayer. Of course, my litany neither gave me more control, nor made God more attentive or caring. It didn’t change the reality of terrorism. But as I sat in my middle seat, I found comfort in talking with God about these things, in knowing that Someone much greater than I was in control. “These things are too great and too marvelous for me.”
This leads the psalmist to claim, “But I have calmed and quieted myself,” or better yet, “But I have learned to feel safe and satisfied, just like a young child on its mother’s lap.” This is a “weaned child,” one not seeking food or provisions. He/she is old enough to have some experience with this troubled and fallen world. The child still recognizes his/her dependence, and has learned that there is sometimes pain and fear in separation from the Mother. This verse makes me wonder about that mother/psalmist/song-writer traveling with her young child up the rugged terrain, the mile-high trek to the holy city of Jerusalem. What mother cannot identify with the experience of her child racing head-long into her arms with double-skinned knees, the world’s largest splinter, or the monsters of another bad dream? What mother hasn’t experienced this a hundred times over? And what child has not found the very best comfort, contentment and healing in that secure and loving embrace?
If we are honest with ourselves, in a world of COVID-19, we face fears we never imagined, an enemy we can’t even see. We fear touching an infected surface, touching our faces, forgetting to bring a mask, or going to public places where others don’t wear them. The danger seems to surround us.
In recent days, we’ve also seen violence unleashed again in our streets. This goes far beyond the “usual” violence we’ve come to think of as “baseline”. We’ve been horrified to watch violence hiding again as “excessive force,” and peaceful protests turned into senseless destruction and chaos by those who would take advantage of a raw moment.
Both of these evils seem endless. COVID-19 is new, but our need to quarantine may drag on week after week. Violence, including racial violence, is systemic and generational. How long, Lord? How long? Imagine the fear that David felt, running and hiding from the murderous Saul for years. Did he “calm and quiet himself” in writing this psalm? Did he think of God’s protection like a loving, maternal embrace?
My own mother had a wry sense of humor. In my earliest memories, she would lift me into her arms, hug and “love on” me and say, “I love you so much, I think I’ll just keep you.” That became the definition of the word for me. Whenever I needed an expression of love, comfort, healing, assurance or intimacy, I would run into her arms and ask her to, “Keep me, Momma! Keep me!” The psalmist knows that contentment and comfort are found in the loving embrace of God. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
Where do you find the loving embrace of God during these trying times? Maybe you have experienced it most often in a pew on Sunday mornings. So now where do you find the calming, comforting, loving lap of God? How often are you willing to humbly run into that embrace?
Our final verse addresses the people of Israel and exhorts them to trust in the Lord, or hope in the Lord. As the child implicitly trusts the Mother, we are to trust God’s wisdom and God’s timing. “Now and forever” is a statement of hope that our relationship with God is truly never ending. Christians trust in and hope for eternal life with God. Perhaps the “now” part is harder that the “forever” part. This psalm now leads us back to the beginning. We don’t control everything, or know that they will all work out like we want, or think they should. We must trust God, our good and faithful Parent, who is working them out as Paul says in Romans 8:28. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. So for now…”May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
Questions to Ponder:
As the threat of COVID-19 drags on and on, how and where do you find comfort, security and hope? Can we really come to think of that middle seat on an airplane as being seated in the lap of God?
Psalm 125 says, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people now and forevermore.” Is it possible to think of God surrounding our community, much like a Mother embraces her children? If so, what would this mean for our church?
What does it mean to you, in practical terms, to “trust in the Lord” now? Are there behaviors that demonstrate this?
You have probably seen or heard this before, but I was surprised several years ago, when I found this sign on the wall in my very capable and humble physician’s treatment room:
This is God,
I will be handling all of your problems today.
I will not need your help.
So, relax and have a great day!
And finally, from the very best poet:
Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened,
And I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
For I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls,
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Mt 11:28-30)