I careened into the driveway and slammed the engine into park. My breathing was shallow and quick. I was hot and sweaty and felt like the car was closing in on me.
I flung open the door and hung my legs out, hunching over on my knees. What is happening to me? I wondered. I re-traced my day, realizing I had lost myself in a mental spiral about my career. I knew I would soon be looking for another job, though I didn’t know what kind, if I would have to move my family, or what that would even look like.
Fortunately, I was seeing a counselor around that time. I told her what happened, and she asked about my prayer life. “Huh?” I said, confused. “Your prayer life. How is it?” she replied.
Ugh, I thought, knowing it was basically non-existent. “It’s not very good,” I told her.
As we talked, I realized that as my anxiety increased, my prayer decreased. As my inner world became noisier, I filled the prayer space with podcasts, music, and audiobooks—anything to keep me from dealing with my thoughts.
And it was ruining me.
The more I hid from my thoughts, the more I felt like David in Psalm 39:
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.
My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned . . .
I’m guessing you’ve felt the same before. You tie your stomach in knots while planning your next move. You’re not sure if that school is right for the kids: They might excel academically, but what about their influences? You’re wondering what’ll happen if you take that job: Will my family be upset? Will we regret it in a year? You feel exhausted even when you aren’t doing anything physically strenuous. You’re depleted, anxious, uneasy, discontent.
David was no stranger to these emotions. Before he was crowned king, he spent years on the run from Saul, who wanted him dead because Saul knew God had promised David the throne. At one point, David took to hiding in caves. Alone in those damp, dark caverns, he surely had to ask God, What are you doing? I thought I was supposed to be king, but here I am hiding from a madman. Will this ever end? How long, O Lord?!
THE LONGEST PSALM TO LEARN
I wouldn’t be surprised if David eventually worked himself into a tizzy like I did that day in my car. But David didn’t have a counselor to calm him down, so what did he do? He wrote this prayer:
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.
It may not look like much at first, but Psalm 131 is one of the finest gems in all the book of Psalms. “It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn,” wrote Charles Spurgeon.
He’s right. I stumbled onto this psalm during those days of inner turmoil and it became a balm to my heart, soul, and mind. These three short verses reached down and plucked me from the cave I was hiding in.
Much like the other Psalms of Ascent, this song starts low but rises to great heights. It can take a wild-minded person and subdue them into an unhurried soul. And it starts with humility.
I DON’T WANT TO BE KING
David starts his appeal by admitting he has been humbled. Verse 1 shows the future king brought low by years of scrambling and surviving. His heart was no longer set on the throne. His eyes stopped gazing up as he daydreamed of ruling. He quit trying to figure out what only God can know.
David rightly connected his heart, eyes, and soul, for “What the heart desires, the eyes look for. Where the desires run, the glances usually follow.”[i]
God wanted David gazing up not at the throne, but at him. So it is with us. God wants us peering up with anticipation, but he wants our gaze fixed on him, not the things of this world.
Too often, I want to understand how the puzzle fits together. I want to know why things happen. I want all the information. But my eyes can only be one place at a time. When I’m fixated on planning my steps, I miss the God who establishes them (Prov. 16:9).
A humble and lowly heart is the beginning of sanctification. God works not with a heart of stone, but with a heart of flesh, softened and made malleable by being brought low. And what starts in the heart continues into the soul.
BE STILL MY SOUL
In verse 2, we see the result of David’s humbled heart—a calm and quiet soul. But this tranquil state didn’t happen on its own. David says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul.” It was an act of the will; in fact, it was a deliberate submission of his will before the Lord.
The word translated calmed can also be rendered composed. “To compose your soul means literally to level it. [To] bulldoze the building site,” writes David Powlison. “To quiet your soul means to silence the noise and tumult. [To say] ‘Sssshhh’ to your desires, fears, opinions, anxieties, agendas, and irritabilities.”[ii]
David stopped trying to control the uncontrollable, quieted his manic thoughts, and was left with a peaceful soul.
A peaceful soul is only possible when it has been hushed into submission. This surely rubs us the wrong way, but David gives us a word-picture to explain. He has calmed and quieted his soul “like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
As a father of four, I’ve learned that an unweaned child frantically roots around for milk when they’re anywhere near their mother. When it comes time to wean the child, they cry their little hearts out, breaking their mother’s in the process.
But the mother stays the course because she knows it’s necessary if the child is ever going to go on to solid food. After a while, the child moves on and is no longer overcome by their former desire. A weaned child can simply enjoy being in his mother’s lap, and this satisfaction is not a matter of food but of the heart.
This is a picture of David’s humbled heart. This infantile contentment leads to a parental concern for others, as seen in verse 3.
WAIT WITH HOPE
A humbled heart is freed to love and care for others. “Pride dies as the humility of faith lives,” writes Powlison.
As David’s pride died, his humble faith began to live, and the overflow of his contentment was to plead with his people not to make the same mistakes. “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore,” he says.
Stop pursuing impossibilities and start pursuing certainties. Hope in God, who we know is unchanging and good and loving. Don’t get impatient and move forward without him.
Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 3 this way: “Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope. Hope now; hope always!” A humble heart and submissive will allow us to wait with hope. Hope for the next phase, the next doctor’s appointment, the next meeting, the next day, even the next life. That hope then feeds and sustains humility in our hearts and helps us see the wisdom of submitting our souls to the God who formed our innermost parts (Ps. 139).
“When we cease to hanker for the world we begin hoping for the Lord,” wrote Spurgeon. The only way to cease longing for the world is to pick up our cross daily and follow the Lord of hope. That daily dying requires a humble heart, a submitted soul, and a patient hope.
THE PEACE THAT PASSES UNDERSTANDING
Once I realized I was ruining my soul by trying to control the uncontrollable, I calmed and quieted it instead. I memorized Psalm 131 as ammunition against my anxious thoughts. I fasted from podcasts and other audio while running or walking in the mornings. I deleted social media from my phone and blocked it in my browser.
I was back behind the wheel one morning when I realized I could feel the silence in my soul. I wasn’t inundated with anxieties. I was calm. I was quiet.
I wish I could say that tranquility has lasted, but I’ve relapsed many times since then. I am calmer and quieter than I’ve ever been, but I have a long way to go in turning over my heart, eyes, and soul to the Lord. Maybe you do, too.
If so, David’s last line in the psalm can bring us comfort. Linger over these words: “O believer, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”
Spurgeon wrote that Psalm 131 is like a pearl that will beautifully adorn the neck of patience. Be patient, brother. Be patient, sister. Hope in the Lord and adorn yourself with the peace that passes understanding.
Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four, and the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.
[i] Charles H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David: Explanatory Notes and Quaint Sayings on Psalm 131, http://www.romans45.org/spurgeon/treasury/ps131.htm.
[ii] David Powlison, “’Peace, be still’: Learning Psalm 131 by Heart,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 18 No. 3, Spring 2000, https://www.ccef.org/wp-content/uploads/archive/sites/default/files/pdf/dp_psalm131_1803002.pdf.