One night a few weeks ago we attended an off-Broadway show in New York City. We came out and walked a few blocks to Times Square. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Times Square at night, but if you haven’t, it’s like the Yonge-Dundas Square on steroids. Lights, lots of them, constantly changing and coming at you from every direction. People everywhere you look. Noise, not any one noise but just noise from traffic, people, music. We stood for a few minutes taking it all in. I loved it.
The week before we had spent a week on a lake in Wisconsin. There weren’t any lights there at night, except for the light from the moon. No noise, no people. Just stillness.
Now we’re at a critical weekend in our year in which we’re at the transition point between two very different worlds. I don’t know what your summer has been like, but I imagine you’ve had a little quiet and rest, a bit of a slower pace. This week we’re entering the Fall: kids and teachers going back to school, people returning from vacations, and so on. Life is going to go from a decent 60 kilometers an hour to 110, and you’re still going to have people passing you.
So this morning, before we go there, I want to look at an important psalm that’s meant a lot to me these past three months. If we pay attention to it, it’s going to tell us how our hearts can find something we desperately need that will lead to a soul that’s found its rest in the midst of the craziness, and even more importantly, a heart that worships God and invites others to worship him too.
A Negative Cameo
Psalm 131 was written by King David. You’ll notice that it’s called “A Song of Ascent.” Psalms 120-134 are all called Songs of Ascent. They were written to be sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the festivals three times a year. They’re songs that prepare us to worship.
In this psalm David gives us a negative cameo of someone who can’t really worship God, before he gives us a positive one. The negative cameo is found in verse 1. David gives us some qualities of character that he does not have. Listen again to verse 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.
So here’s a negative picture. David is giving us a picture of himself, and he says that there are two negative qualities that he avoids as he comes to God in worship.
The first is pride. He says, “My heart is not proud…my eyes are not haughty.” Can’t you just see the picture that David is painting in contrast to himself? Someone who not only has a proud heart, but who struts around and peers down at you from his elevated state. Here’s what it looks like to not be a person who hasn’t found rest in God and who isn’t able to worship: think lots about yourself, and very highly of yourself as well.
Let me give you the best definition of pride I’ve been able to find. “Pride is when sinful human beings aspire to status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon him” (C.J. Mahaney). What I love about this definition is that it makes sense of why pride is so antithetical to worship. Pride is all about self-glorification. Pride is about worship, but not the worship of God – it’s about the worship of self. When we are proud we are essentially robbing God of his rightful glory and seeking to glorify ourselves. We’re depriving God of something that he alone is worthy to receive. It’s like if I sang, “In my life, Darryl, be glorified, be glorified.”
The problem, of course, is that all of us are proud. It is part of our sin nature to suffer from pride. This is a serious problem. In fact, pastor and theologian John Stott says that pride is “more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself the essence of all sin.” Proverbs says that pride is number one on the list of things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-17). Theologian Jonathan Edwards called pride “the worst viper that is in the heart” and “the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ.” He ranked pride as the most difficult sin to root out, and “the most hidden, secret, and deceitful of all lusts.”
This is related to the second negative quality that David mentions: a refusal to understand our limits. David says, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”
In her book The Hiding Place
, Corrie ten Boom tells of an event that took place when she was 10 or 12 years old as she traveled with her father on a train from Amsterdam to Haarlem. She had stumbled upon a poem that had the words “sex sin” among its lines:
And so, seated next to Father in the train compartment, I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sex sin?”
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but, to my surprise, he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.
“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he asked.
I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.
“It’s too heavy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger, you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.”
And I was satisfied. More than satisfied—wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions; for now, I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.
What David is saying is that we need to stop trying to pick up the suitcases that are too heavy for us. Many of us are trying to lift God-sized issues in our own lives. No wonder we’re tired.
On the positive side, David is saying that he’s learned to begin seeking God’s glory rather than his own, and then to recognize his own limits – that God was able to handle things that are far beyond his limits. If you and I are going to have what David describes in this passage, we also need to root out the pride in our own hearts, seeking God’s glory instead of our own. We’ll also have to learn to stop trying to handle the issues in our lives that are God-sized issues. We’ll understand our limits and turn to God who is limitless.
A Positive Cameo
So David gives us this negative picture. He says that he’s learning not to pursue his own glory, and he’s learning that some things are beyond his pay grade. God is God and he isn’t. But then he gives us a positive picture. Verse 2 says:
But I have calmed myself
and quieted my ambitions.
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
This verse gives me hope. Up until now we could have thought that maybe David just doesn’t struggle with pride or that he naturally knows his limits. In this verse we learn that David has taken specific steps to develop more positive qualities. As one person puts it, “The soul…was by deliberate action reduced to a calm, gentle, submissive, patient, and contented state.”
In other words, David had to struggle with himself. If we don’t take deliberate action, we’ll default to pride and we’ll attempt to carry those issues that are too big for us.
David says, “I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions.” The ESV puts it this way: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul.” We all know what it’s like to have souls that are agitated and churning. When we’re pursuing self-glorification and trying to handle God-sized issues on our own, we’re not going to have calm souls. David has found a way to deal with an anxious heart and to calm it, even when he’s surrounded by situations that could easily overwhelm him.
Then he gives us a picture that captures what he’s talking about. “I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”
There’s a big difference between an unweaned child and a weaned child. Both may sit on mom’s lap. One is thinking about lunch. A child who’s still nursing will not naturally decide, “You know what, I’m old enough and probably should stop this nursing thing.” In a sense, that child is there for what he or she can get from mom, and will let you know about it if there are any problems.
But picture a young child who’s been weaned. She sits on her mother’s lap. She’s been through the battle and is now there not for food, but for the simple joy of being in relationship. Her soul is calm and quieted as she lies against her mother’s breast. The world may be going crazy, but she’s okay as long as she lies there. There’s a deep sense of peace, tranquility, and contentment. She can lie there contentedly without fretting or craving the breast. She’s content even in the absence of what she was considered indispensable. David offers this as a picture of what it looks like to find rest in God.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus said something similar. His disciples came and asked him, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Listen to what he said:
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)
There it is. Jesus himself tells us the same thing. If we are going to enter the kingdom of heaven, we’ve got to become like weaned children – humble and dependent. It means that there’s no place for spiritual self-sufficiency. This is true in every area of our lives, but it’s got to be true spiritually. We don’t come depending on what we’ve done so we can have relationship with God. We come as children in complete dependence on what Christ has done to bring us into relationship with God.
Do you realize who’s talking in this psalm? David is the greatest king in Israel’s history. He’s called a man after God’s own heart. He’s written more of the Bible than any other person. Yet as far as God is concerned, he comes the same way as everyone else. You don’t ever graduate from coming as a child in God’s kingdom. You never get past coming to him with empty hands.
You never get beyond this. It’s like the famous theologian who was asked how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published on theology. He replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” You never move beyond this childlike rest in God. True worship comes from cultivating a life that’s found its rest in God.
The psalm closes with this invitation:
Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.
It’s like David is saying that out of his rest, out of his humble confidence in God, he’s able to invite others to put their hope in the Lord. When we cultivate lives that have found rest in God, we will likewise be able to invite others into this as well. Our lives will be an invitation to others to experience the same type of rest that we’re experiencing ourselves.
This psalm has been very meaningful for me these past few months during my sabbatical. I stepped out of my normal role as pastor. I was reminded again that pastors come to God just like everyone else does – like children. During my sabbatical I was reminded of my propensity to be concerned for my own glory, and to try to carry issues that belong to God. I was able to discover again the joy of cultivating a soul that’s found its rest in God.
The same invitation is provided to you as well. You have nothing to prove to God. You can come with empty hands, because everything was provided for you at Calvary. When you see what Jesus accomplished in dying in our place, taking the judgment that belonged to us, we’ll be able to find our true rest in God.