We come back to the Psalms of Ascent. And as we come specifically to look at Psalm 131 – prepare to be challenged – or even offended. On the face of it this seems like your average Psalm – interesting and instructive perhaps, but a run-of-the-mill Psalm nonetheless. But as we dig just a little into this Psalm – prepare to be challenged – even offended.
As we turn to Psalm 131, we begin not with its opening words but with its conclusion. In the third verse of this three verse Palm we read: “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.” O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. When we first hear those words, we might jump to the conclusion that they are words spoken by or to someone who is in trouble – someone who is experiencing pain or suffering – someone who needs help. Thought of in this way, these words become a reminder: “Yes, you’re going through a difficult time, but God will help you through it. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there will be light – the God of Jesus Christ will bring you out of the darkness. Be patient. Hope in the Lord.
Now, in other Psalms, in other contexts, that would be a good interpretation of verse 3. Very reasonable. We often hear such words of reassurance in scripture – and often need to hear them.
But that’s not what they mean here. In this Psalm there is no sign of trouble. There is no “Out of the depths I cry to you.” In this Psalm there is no “Where will my help come from?” In this Psalm there is no “save me from my enemies.”
So then what do those words mean, here: “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”
Well, prepare to be offended. Because in this Psalm these words actually invite a kind of quietism. These words invite a withdrawal from activity, a withdrawal from the world – these words invite us to put an end to our striving – to put an end to our building – to put an end to our planning. Quietism is a philosophy of life in which you refuse to be active – in which you refuse to try and make a difference by your actions. Verse three of Psalm 131 essentially says: Stop whatever you’re doing. Trust that God will do what needs to be done – God will take care. O Israel, Hope in the Lord form this time on and forevermore. You don’t need to do anything.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at Psalm 127. And from that Psalm we heard this message – relax. We don’t have to do everything. We are not responsible for everything. God is at work in the world. Our task, in fact, is to work alongside the God who has all things under control. Work, yes, but don’t take on more responsibility than is truly yours.
But Psalm 131 seems to go further. Don’t just relax a bit. No – stop whatever you’re doing. This Psalm is quietist in nature. It emphasizes a passivity that is in many ways offensive in our culture. In our culture striving, building, and planning are the order of the day. In the face of the passivity suggested by this Psalm, the response of many in our culture might be something like this:
How can you sit back and do nothing when global warming is going to destroy the world? Get busy. Save the planet.
How can you sit their quietly when there is so much injustice in the world? Get busy and make things right.
In a very different vein, many in our culture might respond to this quietism like this:
How can you sit back and do nothing – don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves. (Words which, we are reminded, are nowhere found in the Bible.)
How can you sit back and do nothing when there are renovations to be done on the house, when there is a future retirement to prepare for, when there are children to get through university, when there are new clothes to purchase, when there are new friends and experiences to be had.
In the face of all of this building and striving and planning, Psalm 131 doesn’t just invite us to relax. This Psalm says. “Stop”. Stop what you’re doing. Stop building. Stop striving. Stop planning. Stop saving the world. Stop making preparations. Stop all of it.
There is a powerful image at the heart of this Psalm that helps us get at what is going on here. In our translation of Psalm 131, we read in verse 2 of a child who has been weaned. The Psalmist writes: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” A weaned child, of course, is one who has made the transition from feeding on the breast to other forms of food. But actually that translation probably isn’t actually the best one. A number of biblical scholars have pointed out that the original Hebrew refers more obviously to a breast-feeding child that has just been nursed and is now quieted.
Now obviously I’ve never breast-fed a child – and others of you have never breast-fed a child. But most of us have at least seen a mother breastfeeding her infant, and most of us know what that child looks like in his or her mother’s arms once hunger has been satisfied. Is there any picture in the world that communicates satisfaction like that of an infant that has just been fed? Is there any picture in the world that communicates contentment like that of an infant that has just been fed? We have a few photographs of our kids that were taken just after they fed – perhaps there is still a bit milk on their chin – typically their eyes are three- quarters closed, their jaw is completed relaxed, their arms flopped in utter tranquility – their faces are a picture of perfect rest and contentment.
The infant that has just been fed has stopped in the most decisive way possible. There is no thought of building, of striving, or of planning. The child simply lies there in his or her mothers arms – the chest rising and falling, breathing in and out with a soothing regularity.
The Psalmist speaks of himself, and invites us to speak of ourselves: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like an infant that has just been breastfed.” I have become still and content on a mother’s bosom.
The Psalmist has stopped. He is not caring for himself. Not building anything. He is not striving after anything. He’s not planning anything. And it’s not just that he’s more relaxed than most others days. He has stopped. Otherwise put, he has put his hope and trust – his life, his days, his future, his whole being into the hands of God. And God is the mother who holds him. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. I have calmed and quieted my soul, like an infant that has just been breastfed – who lies at peace on a mother’s bosom.
You’ve noticed that we’re moving backwards through the three verses of this Psalm as we try to sort out what it means for us. And so we come now to the first verse of Psalm 131, which reads as follows: “O Lord, my hearts is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high: I do not occupy myself with things to great and too marvellous for me.”
With these words we begin to understand why the Psalmist has stopped – we begin to understand why the Psalmist invites this quietism or passivity on our part. Thinking about verse one perhaps the first thing we should remember is that humans are those who by nature reach out for things. Indeed, the opening verse of the Psalm reminds us that very often, we reach out for things that are not God’s desire for us. In the very things we reach for we thumb out noses at God.
So Adam and Eve reached out for that piece of fruit.
So men and women reached toward the heavens in building the tower of Babel.
So we today reach out for social status and wealth.
Sometimes in the very things we reach out toward, we thumb our noses at God. You don’t think I should reach for this, but I don’t care what you think.
But here’s the kicker. And I think this is really where Psalm is going. So often, even in our reaching out for the good things of life, for the things that are a delight to God, we tend to do it in a way that is forgetful of God.
In raising children.
In the development of friendships.
In the pursuit of our vocation.
In seeking after justice in the world.
In all of these good things, even, we can be forgetful of God. Especially, we have a need to be in control – a need for me to make everything work out right – a need for me to make sure the puzzle pieces end up where they belong.
In the opening verse of Psalm 131, the Psalmist says: “But I haven’t been living that way.” I have not been trying to control everything. I have not pretended that it is in my power make everything work out. I have not presumed that I can put all the puzzle pieces where they belong.
He says: “My heart is not lifted up.” I do not pridefully set myself in the place of God.
He says: “My eyes are not raised to high.” I don’ think more highly of capacities and wisdom than I should.
He says: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.” I don’t pretend I’m God.
But how is this possible?
How has he stopped himself from trying to control everything?
How has he let go of the pretension that he has the power to make things work out?
How has he let go of the presumption that he can put all the puzzle pieces where they belong?
There was only one way to do it. He stopped.
You see, as soon as we start striving and building and planning – then our need for control of our lives and future, our forgetfulness of God, and our pride in our own capacities – all of this kicks into gear very quickly whenever we start doing anything.
The point is not that we are all evil, nasty people. The point is not that we are bad through and through. In fact that’s far from being the truth about us. But if we honestly think about our lives, we will all know that whenever we do something, even the good and beautiful things of life, there is always some element of pride or power-seeking in it. There is always some need for control in us. In some way, even if it is a small way, we set ourselves up as God.
The only way to prevent this from happening is to stop. To do nothing.
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 marveous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like an infant just nourished at his mother’s breast – I have calmed and quieted my soul, like an infant utterly content and quite in his mother’s arms.
Ok – fair enough we might say. But you can’t stop living. You can’t drop out of life.
People who drop out of life just make themselves dependent on others.
People who drop out of life can’t serve their neighbour with the risen Jesus.
People who drop out of life aren’t using the gifts God has given them.
Right – so maybe we can’t just drop out of life.
But we can still stop. We can stop and realize that in all of our building and striving and planning we have a tendency to make ourselves little gods – that we like to be in control of ourselves and sometimes of others. Maybe we can’t drop out of life, but we can stop and realize that we are not the ones who will save the world or give our children what they need or secure our future. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
So in the end this Psalm is not an invitation to drop out of life.
Rather, this Psalm is an invitation to a spiritual practice – it is an invitation to stop, to actually stop (and not just on Sunday – not just during church) – it is an invitation to stop at regular intervals during our week in order to remember “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”
Once again this week there is an insert in the bulletin – and an invitation to take this Psalm as a basis for reflection each day. It is an invitation to stop – not to drop out of life – but to stop and remember the presence of the God who in Christ Jesus secures every important dimension of our lives and future.
It is an invitation to stop and become that satisfied infant. “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like an infant that has just been breastfed – who lies at peace on her mother’s bosom.”
This is not simply an invitation to stop and recharge our batters, not merely to catch our breath, not only to put our own life in perspective (though all of that might be a side benefit) – but it is an invitation to become attentive to the God of Israel, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, to the God who sends his Holy Spirit upon us day by day.
And perhaps with this we conclude – this psalm is not only an invitation to an individual spiritual practice. Remember, the Psalms of Ascent were sung by a group of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. We together are asked to stop – in the course of our lives to find time together to stop in prayerful remembrance of the God who graciously rules our world and lives.
Within a couple of weeks we will all receive a more concrete invitation to such a shared spiritual practice. Beginning this Fall, one morning a week we will have a time of morning prayer here at the church – a brief time earlier in the day to stop – to hear from God, to reflect for a moment on God’s word – to pray – to be still in the presence of God.
We will stop, in the middle of the week – to remember the risen Lord we serve.
We will stop, to remember the God who is alive in the world and in whose presence we live.
We will stop, to remember the Spirit who fills us daily with the joy, the love, the peace, and the goodness of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.