The first section of this essay begins with a historical and cultural look at the Psalm, in context of Psalms and the life of King David. The second section will be much more specific, looking at Psalm 131 phrase by phrase.
The most overlooked, yet most prevalent and deadly sin known to mankind is that of pride. “We are proud by nature,” C.H. Spurgeon explains, “though there is not one among us that has anything to be proud of. It makes no difference what our condition is: we universally dream that we have something whereof to glory [in]” (3:112). It is precisely in light of man’s destructive problem of pride, in all its forms, that David expresses his prayer to God in Psalm 131. John Calvin summarizes the alternative to pride, in that “those who, like David, submit themselves to God, keeping in their own sphere, moderate in their desires, will enjoy a life of tranquility and assurance” (5:140; italics mine). By careful study and application of this simple, yet profound Psalm, a right understanding of humility can be understood, with its great benefits and joys, and rest can be given to the restless soul of mankind. Psalm 131:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
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. (ESV)
The brevity of this Psalm is clearly remarkable, given the depth and intricacy and weight of the truth it contains.
First of all, to fully appreciate David’s prayer, the historical context must be put in place. From the perspective of the modern reader, it becomes almost impossible to connect most Psalms to past, historical events; in the long run it is a blessing, for it lets the Psalms be applied to varied circumstances the Christian faces. Yet, some important connections can be made to events in the life of David, and this Psalm almost fits as an overview to his lifestyle of humility and trust in God.
1 Samuel 17:24-37 shows David, as he comes in wartime to his brother, shocked by the terror Goliath has inflicted on Israel’s army. His brother, Eliab, accuses the shepherd boy of pride (28), but God did not see it as such, for not long after this the giant lay headless on the battlefield, with the Philistines routed (48-54). God had upheld His servant, David, honoring his zeal for God (Psalm 69:9), for he had boldly trusted in God and not himself. Conversely, these same characteristics can be seen of David in a different situation, as he did not even dare touch God’s king, Saul, when the opportunity was before him multiple times (I Samuel 24, 26). His desire was to do God’s will in all things, and did not consider himself to have any right or authority in and of himself. Naturally, a high view of ourselves defines us: “We have need continually to be kept lowly before God, for pride is the besetting sin of mankind” (C.H. Spurgeon 3:113).
Moving forward now, to the text of Psalm 131 itself, some specific notes must be made on the form of the Psalm and on its immediate context within the Psalms. Psalm 131 is interesting, not only for its shortness, but for its distinction from other psalms surrounding it, not fitting the common mold as far as type. By itself, this Psalm only shows a confession of trust (131:1-2) and a call for others to trust in God (3). The Psalm also includes some important Messianic nuances, but it is not primarily this. This challenge, to categorize this Psalm, is answered by the immediate context of Psalms 130 and 132. Both of these are clearly lament Psalms, showing the Psalmist calling out to God for help in his desperate need.
Psalm 130 is particularly interesting, for one can see, from a simple reading that there are several important parallels between the two. It begins with the common lament, asking God for help (1-2) and then moves into a confession of trust where God is upheld as merciful (3-4). The parallel is then very strong beginning in verse 5 and through the end of the Psalm:
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
The previous context is that God forgives sins, and thus is worthy of fear and hope (4). True humility is the outcome of these characteristics, one that knows God is over all things and man is nothing, yet one that believes God to be true to His character of mercy and love. This leads the Psalmist to long for God, to wait and hope in Him (5-6). Clearly, waiting for God is not an easy place, but one that requires complete trust, patience, and ultimately a resting in His ability to save. The parallel of this is clearly seen in Psalm 131:1-2.
Also, the repetitive nature of both Psalms is important, because not only are the phrases “more than watchmen for the morning” (130:6b) and “like a weaned child” (131:2b) repeated in both, but they hold a similar purpose. Both positions, that of a watchman carefully keeping watch throughout the night, and a child in his mother’s arms, express trust and hope. The watchman has not seen his hope realized as he “waits for the Lord”, but the child has, as he is as a soul in God’s arms. Lastly, the conclusion to both Psalms is likely the clearest of all, with a call for Israel as a nation to “hope in the Lord” (130:7a; 131:3a).
These three reasons seem to connect these two Psalms together, and a conclusion can be drawn that perhaps these two were originally one and the same Psalm, or written at a similar time, or at least written with the same purpose in mind. These two Psalms, then, together seem to constitute a lament, with Psalm 131 being the confession of trust and a call for Israel to return to God.
[to follow…a phrase by phrase look at Psalm of 131]