The Creature’s Psalm

Psalm 131 is a short psalm containing only three verses. And yet, it is crammed full of great creation theology. With brevity, the psalmist captures the heart of what it means to be a creature before God. He presents a pathway to peace, an alternative to a frantic existence. Take a look at the text.

“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. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”

The psalmist has embraced his human boundaries. He knows the limits of his capacity, ability, and influence. His words are an affirmation, an acceptance, as it were, of his very nature. It is as if he said, “I know I am a human being and I embrace all that entails. I find peace within the confines of my humanity…for it is here that I rest in my Creator and relish in being his creature.”

The text implies that the root of anxiety is the transgression of creaturely boundary. It is in occupying ourselves with things that belong to God that we are made restless and worrisome. We try to control what we cannot. We attempt to change things beyond our power. We grasp for knowledge that is above us. We seat ourselves on the divine throne though our feet cannot touch the ground.

Joseph Alexander states, “The great and wonderful things meant are God’s secret purposes, and sovereign means for their accomplishment, in which man is not called to cooperate, but to acquiesce.” Operating beyond our bounds will inevitably run us down. It’s like putting a four cylinder engine in a semi truck. On the other hand, rest comes from refusing to be anything but human.

The truth of this text also helps us to think realistically about the reach of our influence, the impact of our abilities, and the aspirations of our hearts. John Calvin has some helpful comments in this vein.

“In this he teaches us a very useful lesson, and one by which we should be ruled in life — to be contented with the lot which God has marked out for us, to consider what he calls us to, and not to aim at fashioning our own lot ­ to be moderate in our desires, to avoid entering upon rash undertakings, and to confine ourselves cheerfully within our own sphere, instead of attempting great things…the question, therefore, was not whether the lot of David was mean or exalted; it is enough that he was careful not to pass beyond the proper bounds of his calling…those who, like David, submit themselves to God, keeping in their own sphere, moderate in their desires, will enjoy a life of tranquillity and assurance.”

Charles Spurgeon addresses this same issue from his own angle.

“It is well so to exercise ourselves unto godliness that we know our true sphere, and diligently keep to it. A man does well to know his own size. Ascertaining his own capacity, he will be foolish if he aims at that which is beyond his reach, straining himself, and thus injuring himself. Such is the vanity of many men that if a work be within their range they despise it, and think it beneath them: the only service which they are willing to undertake is that to which they have never been called, and for which they are by no means qualified.”

Spurgeon also adds that this psalm is “one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn.” Indeed, being human is the hardest thing for humans to do. It is this reality that made the incarnation necessary. The gospel is about making us human once again, for it puts to death our attempts to be more than human and releases us from all that makes us less than human. Sin within either works to exalt or degrade our humanity. God’s grace engages both impulses, suffocating them and replacing them with new desires. These new creation impulses created through the gospel are not exceptional, they are mundane. They are desires to be a human being—trusting the Creator and roaming in the freedom of being a creature.

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Investigating the Down Cast Soul

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 teaches that life is filled with a variety of seasons. These seasons are not chosen by man. They are ordered by God. These seasons are marked by gain and loss, pain and joy, good and evil. We do not control when these experiences come our way or how long they last. Every season comes from the hand of God and he determines its timetable.

When God orders a season, he provides all that is necessary to navigate it. The Psalms are one such provision. The Psalms gives us wisdom, insight, and voice in every season we encounter. A few years back,  I did a project on one particular psalm that equips believers in times of loss and pain. I recently pulled up this project and did some editing on it. Here it is for your encouragement: Psalm 42: Investigating the Down Cast Soul.

Luther on the Gift of the Psalms

Martin Luther loved the book of Psalms. His thinking and theology were greatly influenced by his meditation on this book. When he became a professor, the Psalms were his first topic for lecture. From 1513-1515, Luther lectured on the Psalms. Below is his introduction to his lectures. It is evident that he was tremendously grateful for this book and that he viewed at as a gift of God to his people.

The Psalms


The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this:  it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly–and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom–that it might well be called a little Bible.  In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.  It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook.  In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.
The Words of the Saints


Beyond all that, the Psalter has this noble virtue and quality.  Other books make much ado about the works of the saints, but say very little about their words.  The Psalter is a gem in this respect.  It gives forth so sweet a fragrance when one reads it because it relates not only the works of the saints, but also their words, how they spoke with God and prayed, and still speak and pray.  Compared to the Psalter, the other legends and examples present to us nothing but mere silent saints;  the Psalter, however, pictures for us real, living, active saints.
Compared to a speaking man, a silent one is simply to be regarded as a half-dead man;  and there is no mightier or nobler work of man than speech.  For it is by speech, more than by his shape or by any other work, that man is most distinguished from other animals.  By the carver’s art even a block of wood can have the shape of a man;  and an animal can see, hear, smell, sing, walk, stand, eat, drink, fast, thirst–and suffer from hunger, frost, and a hard bed–as well as a man.
The Heart of the Saints


Moreover the Psalter does more than this.  It presents to us not the simple, ordinary speech of the saints, but the best of their language, that which they used when they talked with God himself in great earnestness and on the most important matters.  Thus the Psalter lays before us not only their words instead of their deeds, but their very hearts and the inmost treasure of their souls, so we can look down to the foundation and source of their words and deeds.  
 We can look into their hearts and see what kind of thoughts they had, how their hearts were disposed, and how they acted in all kinds of situations, in danger and in need.  The legends and examples, which speak only of the deeds and miracles of the saints, do not and cannot do this, for I cannot know how a man’s heart is, even though I see or hear of many great deeds that he does.  And just as I would rather hear what a saint says than see the deeds he does, so I would far rather see his heart, and the treasure in his soul, than hear his words.  And this the Psalter gives us most abundantly concerning the saints, so that we can be certain of how their hearts were toward God and of the words they spoke to God and every man…
 What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind?  Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving?  There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself.  There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of his blessings.   
On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation?  There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hades itself.  How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God!  So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them. 
And that they speak these words to God and with God, this, I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life.  For when men speak with men about these matters, what they say does not come so powerfully from the heart;  it does not burn and live, is not so urgent.  Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints;  and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.
The Communion of the Saints


This also serves well another purpose.  When these words please a man and fit his case, he becomes sure that he is in the communion of saints, and that it has gone with all the saints as it goes with him, since they all sing with him one little song.  It is especially so if he can speak these words to God, as they have done;  this can only be done in faith, for the words of the saints have no flavor to a godless man. 
Finally there is in the Psalter security and a well-tried guide, so that in it one can follow all the saints without peril.  The other examples and legends of the silent saints present works that one is unable to imitate;  they present even more works which it is dangerous to imitate, works which usually start sects and divisions, and lead and tear men away from the communion of saints.  But the Psalter holds you to the communion of saints and away from the sects.  For it teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken. 
In a word, if you would see the holy christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter.  There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is.  Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true [“Know yourself”], as well as God himself and all creatures….
To this may God the Father of all grace and mercy help us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be praise and thanks, honor and glory, for this German Psalter and for all his innumerable and unspeakable blessings to all eternity.  Amen, Amen (AE 35:253-57).
 

The Anatomy of the Soul

John Calvin called the psalms the “anatomy of the soul.” He recognized that the diversity of the psalms correlated to the diversity of seasons, experiences, and emotions of the soul. The psalms are our voice as we walk the journey of faith. They give expression to the things deep within our souls that we struggle to communicate. Whether we are overwhelmed with sorrow or bursting with joy the psalms enable us to come before God with appropriate expressions of faith. This, along with other things, makes the book of Psalms quite refreshing.

The book of Psalms is a unique piece of Scripture. It is God’s address to us about addressing him. The book is a collection of prayers and songs directed to Yahweh. But this collection is itself the word of God. A book of Spirit-inspired songs and prayers. The Spirit of God enabling the worship of God the Father. In the psalms God honors and exalts God in and through Israel. We learn that worship is a God-given, God-inspired, God-instructed, and God-aided activity. God has given us the psalms of lament, imprecation, thanksgiving, and celebration. He has given us a voice to engage him no matter what comes our way.

Both Sides of the Conversation of Faith

The life of faith is life before the face of God. Not just portions of our lives (like the parts that look put together and the parts that seem to be going good) but the whole (like the parts that are awful and we don’t want anyone to know about). One man describes faith as a two sided conversation. We converse with God when all is light and joy fills our hearts and we converse with God when all is dark and pain is our heart’s only companion. Faith engages God on the mountain top and in the pit—the location means little, the pursuit of God means everything. The problem is that we have lost the language of lament. Most of our conversation with God is one-sided. We do not know how to come to God when all is dark, bitter and hopeless. In fact, we may believe that we are not even welcome to come to God when we are in such a state. After all, aren’t we called to come before him with thanksgiving and praise? The reality is that the invitation to come with joy and the invitation to come with pain are equally emphasized in Scripture. I am not sure why we mute books like Ecclesiastes, Job, Lamentations, and Jeremiah. I am uncertain why we ignore the massive amount of lament material in the Scriptures. It is imperative that we capture this side of the conversation of faith. Without it, faith becomes a farce.