How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: Living Maturely: Growing in Worship

Sermon by Derek Thomas on January 5, 2000

Psalms 131:1-3

Now turn with me to Psalm 131. I was just thinking about this great Psalm, as Ligon has just called it. It’s a very short Psalm. Just glance down — it’s only three verses. I wonder if you’re thinking ‘What in the world does this Psalm have to say?’ ‘Not much,’ I suppose, is what you’re thinking. But actually this beautiful, beautiful Psalm has a great deal to say. It is an extraordinarily powerful Psalm, and has something to say of immediate relevance and impact to us. Let’s read the Psalm and ask for God’s blessing as we do so.

Notice once again it’s called A Song of Ascents, and it’s given the ascription of David.

“O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;

Nor do I involve myself in great matters,

Or in things too difficult for me.

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;

Like a weaned child rests against his mother,

My soul is like a weaned child within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

From this time forth and forever.”

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, in Your infinite wisdom You caused this Psalm to be written, inspired by the Holy Spirit and given for our instruction and our learning. Teach us, give us teachable minds; give us hearts, O Lord, that would respond to everything that You would have us know. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now this really is a strange Psalm. It’s strange for many reasons. One is because it’s so short. It’s not the only shortest Psalm in this group of Psalms known as The Ascent Psalms. You look over to Psalm 133, and especially Psalm 134, they, too, are very brief in compass. But it’s not its brevity, it’s what it says that makes this Psalm just a little bit strange. Notice what it says half way through the first verse: “Nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me.” It’s like a text for the death of theology, isn’t it? Why study anything that’s going to prove too difficult? Let’s go back to the comic strips! It’s almost as if the Psalm is saying something like that.

Well, of course you know that it’s not saying anything of the sort. I was glad that Mr. Lemon in his prayer quoted that passage in Timothy, I think, about “rightly dividing the word of truth,” and “study to show yourself approved; a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” So there’s Paul saying the exact opposite of what this Psalm seems to be saying.

Well, it only seems to be saying that. It is in fact saying something entirely different, and that’s why when we read the Psalms, and when we read the Scriptures in general, sometimes we need to do a little bit of digging. And here especially we need to employ a hermeneutical principle, a very important principle, that one Scripture must never be pitted or set against another Scripture. So whatever this Psalm is saying, it’s definitely not saying that we shouldn’t involve ourselves in studying the word of God or involve ourselves in the deep things of theology.

There’s a link between this Psalm and the previous Psalm, and it’s the word hope. You’ll see right at the end of this Psalm [and we’ve seen this a number of times in the Ascent Psalms], although it begins in a personal sense, it moves into a more corporate sense, and this is the exhortation at the end of this Psalm: “O Israel, hope in the Lord….” And that picks up, I think, in verse 5 and again in verse 7 of the previous Psalm, where the psalmist has also mentioned the hope, or the confidence, that he has in the Lord. And whereas in Psalm 130 his confidence and his hope has arisen out of who God is, and we read in verse 7 that “…For with the Lord there is lovingkindness…” — that beautiful Hebrew word reminding us of His covenant identity. Because of who God is, we are to have hope and confidence in Him.

Psalm 131 is based not so much upon a theological reflection on who God is, but it is based upon his own personal spiritual experience of the things that God has been doing in his soul; and because of that, because of what he has known of what God has done in his soul, he makes this exhortation to hope and to trust in the Lord.

This is a Psalm basically about Christian maturity, about growing in grace, about developing as a child of God. I’m reminded of that opening verse of Hebrews 6, which exhorts its readers to go on to maturity, laying aside the fundamentals and principle things and going on to the deeper things. And in some ways…although, as I’ve said, that’s not what the Psalm appears to be saying…but in fact that is what the Psalm is saying. It’s saying ‘Because I have experienced this depth of knowledge in the things of God, I want you to experience it, too.’

I. A spiritual condition.

Now there are two features of this experience that the psalmist wants us to appreciate, and this experience that he has known is one of contentment. He uses the picture, the metaphor, of a weaned child…a weaned child…a child that is no longer dependent upon its mother for food and nourishment but is independent, and is, as it were, almost standing on its own two feet. And that’s the picture that the Psalm is giving to us.

Now, we need to appreciate that in Hebrew society it was very common for a child to be weaned round about the ages of 4 or 5, and you can imagine something of the difficulty of weaning a child at that age. It wouldn’t be an easy thing! It would be a process which would involve a great deal of difficulty, a great deal of pain, a great deal of heartache. It wouldn’t be an easy transition at that age, and it’s as though the psalmist is saying ‘I’ve passed through something of a crisis, a crisis that can be likened to the weaning of a child, and I’ve come now to a position of being in some way independent and not leaning upon, or dependent upon, as I once was. And I’ve grown, and I’ve matured.’

Now, what kind of contentment does this psalmist have in mind? This picture of a child, now, that is independent of its mother, and, as it were, content in a way that it wasn’t content before. And the psalmist seems to be saying that this is first of all a spiritual experience. It’s a spiritual experience.

Now there are many kinds of physical and psychological temperaments that characterize various people. Some people are by nature placid, and others are by nature frenetic in their personality. Some are hardly rattled by anything at all, and others get into a tizzy at the slightest thing. It’s seen, I think, in some people’s homes — (and here I venture out onto a limb!) Some people’s homes resemble a weekend burglary; other people’s homes are like something out of a magazine, a Better Homes & Gardens. We’re all different. We’re all entirely different despite the outward persona that we like to portray. There are different personalities. But the psalmist here isn’t talking about his personality. He’s not talking about something that is native to him, he’s talking about a spiritual condition, a spiritual experience. It’s the experience of growing in grace. It’s the experience of maturity, and it’s a spiritual experience.

God intends to make us, you and I who love the Lord Jesus Christ and know the blessings of the forgiveness of our sins, God intends for us to resemble more and more His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s God’s plan. That’s what God is doing in our lives, and in order for that to be accomplished, sin needs to be mortified, the patterns of our Adamic rebellion need to be changed, the blueprint of Christ’s identity and Christ-like qualities need to be stamped upon our souls. Well, that’s a painful process.

Interesting, isn’t it, that Paul should say, writing to the Philippians, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am therein to be content.” I’ve learned it, because it was something that didn’t come to him naturally. He wasn’t like that by temperament. In fact, I think Paul was the opposite in temperament. Paul was a difficult man to get on with! Paul was an opinionated man. Paul was a man who said things just as he saw them. Everything was black and white for the Apostle Paul. But he says ‘I’ve learned in whatever condition, in whatever set of circumstances I’m in, therein to be content.’ And you know how painful a process that was. Paul tells us, writing to the Corinthians…in II Corinthians 12, he reminds us of that thorn in the flesh for which he cried to God three times that he might be delivered. But he wasn’t. Because it was through that process that God was conforming him to the image of Jesus Christ. It’s a spiritual condition, then, of which the psalmist here is speaking.

II. A heart condition.

But it’s also, in the second place, an inward condition…an inward condition–a condition of the heart, and, as we shall see, a condition of the mind.

It’s easy, isn’t it, to say ‘Well, I’ll be like a weaned child, independent of all my surroundings so long as my circumstances change.’ (You know — ‘I’d be a contented Christian, if only I had a bigger house. I’d be a contented Christian if only I had a better salary. I’d be a contented Christian, too, if only the stock market would do what I want it to do. I would be a better Christian so long as I had a different wife, or a different husband, or different children.’) Now, don’t pretend that we don’t play those games, because we do. And the psalmist is saying here ‘I’ve learned contentment. I’ve gone through this crisis, this spiritual crisis, and I’ve emerged on the other side. But I’ve learned that contentment in the circumstances; not apart from them, but in them, through them, because of them.’ And, oh! What a word that is! What a powerful word that is to some of us here this evening, who need to hear that…who need to hear that sometimes the very circumstances that trouble us are the circumstances that God intends to use in order to fashion us and mold us more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. Because the more we fight with those circumstances, the more it reveals of how un-Christlike we are, and how much work there is yet to be done in our hearts and in our souls.

Well, if the Psalm speaks of the nature of this contentment of which he speaks as spiritual and inward, it also speaks in the second place of the pathway to maturity — the pathway by which this contentment in the first place was learnt, but the pathway by which this contentment is maintained in our lives. And again the psalmist mentions two particular features by which this contentment is both gained and maintained.

In the first place, he speaks of the condition of his heart. Notice how the Psalm begins in verse 1: “My heart is not proud…”; and then (I think by way of a Hebrew parallelism which explains what he means by that) he says, “…nor my eyes haughty.”

He doesn’t look where he oughtn’t to look. He remembers his station in life. He doesn’t aspire to be something that God doesn’t want him to be.

You know, there’s a beautiful illustration of that in the life of David. David aspired to be king. There’s nothing wrong with ambition — we all have ambitions, we all have longings. And David’s longing to be king was a noble longing. Of course it was! Samuel had already anointed him as king, long before Saul had expired. But you remember that moment in I Samuel 24, when Saul and his friends have pursued David to the Valley of Engedi, and you remember David and his friends are hiding in that cave — that cave which has that beautiful title Crags of the Wild Goats. And David and his men are inside that cave, and you remember what happened. Saul and his men come in, as the King James so beautifully puts it, “to relieve themselves,” and there in the darkness when David has an opportunity to destroy Saul and thereby fulfill his ambition, he will not do so. He will not attain his ambition in a way that would violate the command of God. And that, I think, is a beautiful illustration of what David means here when he says, “My heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty.” He’s learned to rein in the ambitions of his heart.

Solomon puts it like this in the Proverbs: “Better is one handful with quietness than both hands full with a vexatious spirit.” And that’s what the psalmist is just saying to us: the condition of his heart, the way to contentment, is to rein in the ambitions of our hearts.

But there’s something else which the psalmist is equally adamant about: that the way to attain this contentment and the way to maintain this contentment in our Christian lives is to take care of the preoccupations of our mind — not only our heart, but our mind: “I do not concern myself with great matters.” “I do not involve myself,” the New American Standard says, “in great matters, or in things too difficult for me.”

Now what on earth does the psalmist mean when he says that? It sounds, doesn’t it, like the death of theology? It sounds like a seminary professor’s worst nightmare, that a student should quote this text to him. Well, of course the psalmist isn’t saying anything of the sort. What is he saying?

He’s saying in the first place that he doesn’t concern himself and he doesn’t get preoccupied about things which he cannot change. That’s the problem, isn’t it, about worry? That’s the problem — that worry. We worry about things that we cannot possibly change, over which we have absolutely no control whatsoever. And Jesus warns us, doesn’t He, again and again in the Sermon on the Mount about that unnecessary and sinful worry about things that are beyond us…beyond our control, beyond our power to change. The pointlessness of worrying — to be consumed by the cares of this world….

Imagine the providence of God that has brought you to this building tonight. All the various incidents and details and circumstances that have come together — dozens of them…hundreds of them…thousands of them…millions of them — all intimately related to each other to bring you to this point in time. And there’s no way that we can even imagine that. We can’t even piece all of that together, let alone do something to change it. And what the psalmist is saying here is ‘I rest content in the knowledge and the certainty, and with the peace of mind, that God is in control, that God is sovereign, that I’m kept in the palms of His hands.’ That, in the words of that hymn that we sang earlier this evening,

“My times are in His hands,

My God, I leave them there….”

Because there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do to change that. Things happen that are beyond my control.

It’s often we feel, you and I, like sand on the seashore before a relentless incoming tide, and to try and change that is about as silly as King Canut trying to stop the tide from coming in. But that’s what worry is. And the psalmist is saying ‘You know, I’ve passed through this spiritual crisis, and I’m like a weaned child because I’ve learnt contentment: to put my hands, my life, my circumstances, my home, my family, my bank account, everything and anything about me, I’ve learned to put them in the hands of a sovereign Almighty.’ And do you remember the previous Psalm? Gracious God, a God of lovingkindness?

But I think the psalmist is saying something more than that, too, when he suggests here “I don’t involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me.” He’s saying not only that he doesn’t get beset by things beyond his power to change, but he’s saying more than that. He’s saying that he doesn’t get upset because of things that are beyond his ability to comprehend and to understand. Because, let’s face it, when some of us heard of the death of this young teenager of friends of ours, there’s no way we can comprehend that. There’s nothing you can say that makes sense of that — of a young child, 15 years of age, with a whole future before her, and a beautiful family, and she’s cut down on the way to church. And instead of going to church, she ends up going to heaven. And there’s nothing that you can say that makes sense of that…that can comprehend that.

But you see, that’s one of the lessons the Bible is so eager to have us learn, isn’t it? It’s one of the lessons of the Book of Job, that here is this man cut down in his family and in his home and in his circumstances, and wave upon wave of trial and distress come upon him that make no sense. (And there are always “Job’s comforters” about who can make sense of it in an instant with a few trite words.)

But what is the Book of Job about? It’s about the fact that things happen to us that we cannot comprehend, that we’re not called upon to comprehend them. We’re called upon to trust that God comprehends them, and that’s a big difference. I may not be able to understand what’s happening in my life. I may not be able to give sense of what’s happening in your lives. And some of you tonight are beside yourselves, and you’re distressed and troubled, and you get depressed and discouraged, and angry and cross, and bitter; and you not only have to deal with the problem, you have to deal with the response to your problem, and you’ve got two problems now. Because the problem is still there, but now you’ve got your response to that problem to deal with.

And this small, beautiful Psalm — it’s like a little nugget, isn’t it? A little nugget of gold, and he’s saying ‘I’ve learnt something. I’ve learnt something about trusting God, of who He is and what He’s like, that I don’t concern myself about great matters. Because there are things that happen in my life that are incomprehensible to me. I cannot make sense of them, even if I were to spend the rest of eternity trying to unravel all of its parts, I still couldn’t make sense of it. But I’m not called upon to make sense of it. I’m called to believe that God makes sense of it, and that He works all things together for the good of those that love Him, and that He weaves a patterns that is so intricate, and yet so loving and gracious, that in every thread of your life there is a gold line in it of the grace and the mercy of God.’

And that’s what this psalmist has learnt. He’s giving a testimony.

You know, when people stand up and give testimonies, usually they give testimonies about their conversion, but very often it’s much more interesting — although that’s important, don’t misunderstand me — but it’s sometimes much more interesting to hear of the testimony of the work of grace that continues in the lives of people, and that ‘I experienced the grace of God, not 30 years ago, but I experienced the grace of God this morning, and here is how I experienced it.’

And that’s what this psalmist is doing, and he’s saying ‘You know, this is what I’ve learnt, and it was painful, it was difficult; it wasn’t easy, but I’ve learned in whatsoever state I am, to be like a weaned child that rests on its mother.’

Isn’t that a beautiful, beautiful picture? And I wonder tonight, is that you? Or is it that behind the faзade and the mask there is a frenetic activity in your soul that is flying hither and thither? And do you know what you need to do? You need to go home tonight and take out this Psalm and pray over every line of it, and say, “Lord, make this experience mine. Make this true of me in my circumstances,” and name those circumstances — “because I’m concerned about this, and I’m concerned about that” — and ask the Lord to make you like a weaned child, resting on your mother. And you can say, like the psalmist can say to the whole of Israel, to the whole of the church of God: “Hope, trust, have confidence in the Lord from this time forth, and forevermore.”

Well, I trust that was better than the singing of this Psalm, and I hope these beautiful truths will be hidden in our hearts. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for these beautiful words that were written so long ago, and yet they speak to us with freshness and power this very night. God, we come — You know our hearts, You know even just now how we long to know what the psalmist knows here. Make it true of us, we pray, and give us hearts that are still before You, resting in Your sovereignty, in Your control, in Your love for us, no matter what happens. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you now and forevermore. Amen.

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