Psalm 131: A Song of Ascent for a Quieted Soul

Psalm 131
1 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.

My stepdad’s paternal grandmother was named Mary Clevia, whom they called Clevey. I met her when I was 8. She was in her mid 70’s, but still working long days on the family farm in the Shenandoah Valley of VA, sometimes alongside her mother who was in her 90’s. She laughed easily and smiled with every inch of her face, a third of which was covered by oversized, thick lenses housed in translucent plastic frames of an amber shade.

When you walked into her little house you were instantly distracted by the sound of static, interrupted by occasional beeping and abrupt voices, some urgent and others very matter of fact. Grandma Clevey would sit by the police scanner for hours waiting for something bad to happen. Before there was an obnoxious 24 hr news cycle, she was getting her news up to the minute from first responders. If there was a wreck in the little town of Elkton, Virginia, she would call around the family to make sure everyone was alive. One summer, I made the mistake of popping by her house for a visit on my supersport motorcycle. My mom got regular calls from Grandma Clevey, almost 90 herself by this point, to make sure it wasn’t me who was being airlifted to the University of Virginia.

She had learned to live with worry, anxiety and fear. Even live on it. 
In some sense, it’s who we knew her to be. She laughed easily, but she embodied her concerns every day. Lived into her fears. She carried the weight of potential loss and pain before it even occurred. She had experienced a lot of loss in her years. And this is how she found a sense of control or coping.

I’m not exactly a Grandma Clevey type. I’m not a fearful person or a worry wart. But I do have a tendency to think often of the weightier matters in life. To feel deeply burdened at times. Deeply bothered. Maybe you do, too. I have a tendency to try to shoulder broader concerns than I am able to do much about. I’m not a hand-wringer. Not pessimistic, but critical — serious and sometimes skeptical. I feel a great concern for matters of society, justice and truthfulness. I constantly think about how shallow and disordered our culture is. I consider the implications, known and unknown. More day to day, I am continually mindful of all the unknowns of leading a church plant.

So there is this question turning over in my mind these days — in my heart.

How does a follower of Christ have a genuinely quiet soul in such a disquieted world? Put another way, how can we live out our deep concern for order in a disordered world without it consuming our hearts in fear, anger, anxiety or cynicism?

In an applied sense, how do we as parents train our children without controlling their lives out of fear or unfair expectations? How do we prayerfully allow for growth in those we love — our spouse, our family — while we live with the ongoing difficulty of not being able to fix them. (Or fix ourselves, for that matter?) How do we speak the truth in love in a culture that is averse to God as one who has parental, transforming authority over the minds and bodies he created and loves?

What questions might you add, if any?
What are the unquiet tensions you live with?

Like the Psalmist’s Israel, the Church is a gathered people. We are living in an overlap of the ages, yearning for all these questions and conflicts to come to an end when Christ makes good on his promise to resolve and renew all things. To wipe away tears. To end all uncertainty. To fix unfixable things. The Spirit of God in us does inspire a groaning for renewal. But I often don’t need the Spirit to find my inner groan when I read the news headlines, which I am less and less inclined to do.

Being people of hope is our calling as the Church. We are echoing hope, with an eye on the lostness of a disordered world. We are redeemed to be people who have a tangible, expressive sense of trust in God as we navigate a world that is exploitative and destructive and systemically deluded. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world become pessimists; the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.”

How do we live as these hopeful people? There is no easy answer, but there is an answer. My heart has been gripped by these 3 verses in Psalm 131 for the last week and a half. Three verses from a Shir Hama’aloth — a Song of Ascent.

Fifteen Psalms, numbered 120–134, are all Songs of Ascent. Historians believe they were sung in repetition by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend one of the three great festivals — Passover, Pentecost and Booths. And they were most likely sung by Levite priests as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, there are lots of Psalms that sound like David sitting by the police scanner in fear. Lots of hand-wringing and crying out for vindication. Lots of deep concern for justice. But then there are these Songs of Ascent. And in particular, this one. 131.

Let’s walk through it together. I believe there is encouragement and instruction to be found for the tension of our longing and our disquieted souls. It begins:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;

This is not about being sad. It’s about being sober. The two words translated “lifted up” and “raised too high” are related to pride and exaltation. Even to haughtiness and control.We might translate this first part of verse 1 this way:

O Lord, I don’t feel or think I’m the ruler.
I’m not looking to — aiming to — control.

I confess this is often my problem when it comes to the weight of my world. I default to feeling perfectly and pridefully in control until I’m reminded I’m not really. My confident and willing stewardship of opportunities and problems is good. But I can be blinded to the magnitude of what I presume to be able to control. To carry. Until the weight is too much.

The Song continues:
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

The root of “occupy myself” has to do with walking, moving in such a way. I do not walk into or among “things too great and too marvelous.” Great isn’t about the quality of a thing (Hey, this is great!), but about it’s magnitude. Its gravity. And marvelous has to do with grandiosity or even fantasy. Something I’ve built up, even idolized. We might interpret this part of the verse as follows:

I am not inserting myself into things beyond my strength,
things that require more than my understanding or ability.
I’m not swept up in wild imagination and ambition.

Lord, I defer to you… That’s where this Psalm is going.

Do you ever feel you’re trying to get your arms around something too great? To solve a problem too complicated and it’s yours to solve, but you don’t realize how big it is until you begin to sink beneath it?

I’m a deferred-pain, deferred-stress guy. My tendency is to plug away. In many ways conditioned by my childhood to do so, I put my head down and push through hard things. And it’s often only afterward that I see and feel the pain of what I’ve been attempting. It’s after confronting a stressful or exhausting situation that I feel absolutely drained. Our overwhelming house renovation — 6 months of renovation squeezed into 98 days — is a good example, from which I emerged with carpal tunnel in one forearm, tendonitis in both wrists and a nasty, aching nail hole in the arch of my right foot. My whole body felt like I’d been assaulted by 1000 ninjas after it was all over. The stress of our necessary deadline was fully realized when the inspector passed our house. I wept with my wife in our new kitchen. If you only knew.

Walking through the death of my father was textbook deferral, with much of the anguish turning up a month after in the form of exhausted depression and even a panic attack while searching around our house for something insignificant, an episode like nothing I’d ever experienced.

What about marvelous things? Maybe you’re someone who lives captivated by the next marvelous thing, something promising that just might satisfy or quell your fears and insecurities. It might build you up by enticing you toward higher heights and you’re putting your hope in fulfilling that dream. It’s big. You feel compelled and, if you’re honest, distracted or consumed by it.

The singer of this Psalm is calling himself out on these sorts of tendencies. “Instead of taking the reigns, setting my sights and inserting myself presumptuously, I am settling down. Simmering down in hope. Taking my place in deference to God.”

To the second verse:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

Friends, we are, no matter how it feels, in the Lord’s loving arms. But we do have to let ourselves live like this. We have to actively receive what is being held out to us. In his sovereignty, God has ordained that we have sway over how we relate to Him within the circumstances he has allowed — within this present age and all its weightiness. He is working amid the circumstances of our lives. But we can crowd him out. We’re not robots. We don’t have hardwired spiritual reflexes. We have a will and a mind that must be calmed and quieted. A soul that must be coached, like David does so often. The shepherd king speaks to his soul, even. “Why are you so downcast? Put your hope in God!” The Psalms often express a determination to reorient the will — the heart. To take action. Psalm 131 is just such a profession of active determination. A willful choice. An active yielding. A relenting.

“I have calmed my soul,” the Psalmist announces. “I have quieted my soul,” the Israelites would sing. By the time it was penned, Israel’s national and spiritual identity had been and continued to be tumultuous. Unpredictable. Or, predictably up and down. A whiplash experience of hope and hopelessness, faith and faithlessness. And every festival season they would go up to Jerusalem to be reminded who is in control. This is their identity. This is their destiny. They are a people rhythmically reminded who God is and whose God is — He is theirs. They are his.

The Songs of Ascent are the soundtrack for their festal remembrance.

They are on a familiar leg of the journey. Back to the festivals. Back to the remembrances. And when the priests employ the Songs of Ascent, they are on, lets say, the 11th step of the Temple heading up to encounter God. To worship. To atone for sin. To remember. Pausing. Yielding. Remembering.

Passover — God has delivered us. Quiet my soul.
Pentecost — God has given us his truth through his servant, Moses. Quiet my soul.
Tabernacles — God has gone with us and provided for us in the desert. Quiet my soul.

“We are not in control. We are going up to worship. We are remembering. We are renewing our hope in him.”

Life is, in so many ways, navigating the illusion of control. Grandma Clevey felt just a little more in control of disaster if she could hear about it as soon as first responders were on the move. Remembering we are not ultimately in control is about renewing our hope in the one who is. There’s really no way around it as Israel. As the Church. As a follower of Jesus.

So, I return to the original question:
How does a follower of Christ have a quiet soul in a disquieted world?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news that reminds us we are not in control of our own salvation and we really shouldn’t want to be. We don’t dictate the terms or the degree of God’s love for us. And this is a wellspring of hope. The Gospel tells us Jesus takes the weight of our sin and our unquiet hearts. This disquieted world, even in our little enclaves, is too much for one or even a handful of disquieted souls to bear. But not too much for our Christ.

The tumult of the world, my immediate world even, is for him to bear. And he has borne it — for me. For us.

So often we live starved of this good news. We live disquieted by all the bad news, aggravated by all the frustrating news, hopeless amid all the sad news, crippled by our circumstances, or, commonly, just plain distracted. Clamoring like a hungry, restless child for ease or for satisfaction.

Our reaction is often to live determined to work or play or strategize our way out of the hard things and into a good of our own making. Of our own understanding. Something manageable. Something we can fit in our own arms. We set our eyes too high like kings of our lives, and can’t make sense of verse 3. Or we find ourselves in despair and can’t move into the hope of verse 3.

But this Psalm reminds us, we are meant to continually find ourselves in our Lord’s arms, who is mothering us to quiet. To calm. To understand only as we are understood. To be fully known even though we don’t fully know.

We must actively return to the cradle of the good news. To keep each other in the know of the Gospel. Encouraged prayerfully to put our hopes in God. Not in some unthinking positivity, but in remembering. Rehearsing our history. Revisiting the promises.

This is our vision for Village Church. We aren’t merely doers, though we are active in our worship and our servanthood. We are children in need of God our Spirit Father — who is also a wonderful Mother. Sinners in need of a Savior. Oft disquieted souls in need of calm in a disquieted world.

If we can’t worship and serve with increasingly quiet souls, what is moving us? A desire for control? Pride? Insecurity? Self-righteousness? And if so, then what is issuing from us into an already disquieted world? More disquiet, I think. Conversely, the Gospel taking root in our hearts through a tangible peace has power to affect the world. It has power to draw disquieted souls to the Lord and the mothering assurances we find there.

Our only true hope is the same hope of Israel, a people into whom we are grafted by God as his own. A people echoing hope within the Church and expressing it beyond the Church. It’s the soul calming, heart quieting assurance of verse 3, which is the Gospel message on our lips, issuing out through our lives together:

Our hope is in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Like what you read? Give Seth Cain a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.