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This psalm has been said to be "like a string era Christian 'Lyre Innocentium'" (Bishop Alexander). It breathes the profoundest humility and submission to God's will (Psalms 131:1, Psalms 131:2). At the same time, it encourages the faithful to maintain a lively "hope" in God's sustaining grace (Psalms 131:3). The ascription of the psalm to David is quite in accordance, both with the language and the contents.
Lord, my heart is not haughty; or, "not lifted up". Not unduly elated by the prosperity that thou hast bestowed on me. Nor mine eyes lofty (comp. Psalms 101:5), "Pride," as Hengstenberg says, "has its seat in the heart, and betrays itself especially in the eyes." Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me; literally, too wonderful (comp. Psalms 139:6, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: it is high: I cannot attain unto it"). The speculative debates of so-called "wise men" concerning the deep things of God's moral government are probably glanced at (see Job 42:3).
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself; rather, I have stilled and quieted my soul. I have brought my soul into a state of peacefulness and content. As a child that is weaned of his mother. The weaned child is quiet and content; the suckling always impatient and restless. My soul is even as a weaned child. Another repetition for the sake of emphasis (see Psalms 130:5, Psalms 130:6).
Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and forever (comp. Psalms 130:7). Israel is exhorted to have like confidence and trust in God as the psalmist.
Lowliness of mind.
This psalm may have been written by David so far as its subject-matter is concerned. For that lowliness of mind of which it treats is quite as compatible with a high as with a humble position in life. Royalty may be very meek, and obscurity may be very proud. All moral qualities are independent of situations; they are a question of character, not of circumstance. Of the greatest One that ever bore our likeness it is said, "Thy King cometh … meek" (Matthew 21:5). But we have here—
I. A COMMON TEMPTATION. There are souls that do not aspire to be or do what is beyond them in any direction; but they are probably the exception rather than the rule. In all departments of activity men and women long for that which is out of their reach. The sailor is looking forward eagerly to a captaincy, or to be commodore or admiral The soldier will not be satisfied until he is gazetted colonel of his regiment. The politician hungers for an office which is much higher up than the one he holds. And thus it is in every sphere. It is right, indeed, that every one should seek and strive to putout all his powers, instead of allowing them to slumber in silence and inactivity. We are bound to be our best and do our utmost in a world that is crying for help and for redemption. But our temptation is to long and to labor for that which is beyond our capacity, for which we were not created and endowed, which would exalt us, but which we should not adorn. The student wants to master that which is "too wonderful for him," actually "unattainable" (Psalms 139:6). The servant of Christ wants to fill a post in the Church for which he is not mentally and morally qualified. The traveler thirsts to reach a latitude which is outside the range of practicable pursuit, everywhere, in all classes and conditions, men are sighing and striving for that which they will never reach, or will only reach when they have exhausted their strength and cannot enjoy what they have gained.
II. THE LESSON OF EXPERIENCE. Experience is continually teaching us the folly of seeking to move in a sphere which is beyond us. It is constantly resulting in defeat, in disappointment, in mortification. The position sought is not won, and there is the deep discontentment of having toiled in vain; or it is gained, and is found to be full of difficulty that was not anticipated, and, instead of yielding the expected pleasure, it is productive of dissatisfaction and complaint, and it ends in serious, perhaps disastrous, failure. They are wise men who, witnessing this in other people, or beginning to discover it in their own case, reach the psalmist's conclusion; this is—
III. THE PRACTICAL CONCLUSION OF THE WISE. To be contented with the sphere which God has assigned us, and to do our best therein. The psalmist has learnt the lesson. He has had to compose a disquieted spirit, and he has done so; he was restless and passionate, like an unweaned child clamoring for its mother's breast. But he has "quieted himself," he has calmed his spirit; he has withdrawn from a false position; he has settled down permanently to the only true one. His heart is not lifted up; his eyes do not look enviously and hungrily to the heights beyond him; he does not dwell in anxious, wearisome thought on matters which are best left alone; he concentrates his sympathies and his energies on that which demands his attention, and which is productive of good to himself and those around him; he is perfectly contented to be just what God has made him, to go where his Master sends him, to do what is placed in his hands to do. He is so far from thinking himself essential to the prosperity of the Church and the redemption of the world, that he hopefully, and even confidently, leaves that in the care of the Supreme (Psalms 131:3).
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
The soul's most blessed condition.
That which the psalmist here affirms of himself is undoubtedly the spiritual condition which is nearest to heaven that here on earth we can know.
I. HE TELLS US WHAT IT IS NOT.
1. Pride of heart is absent from it. "My heart is not haughty." We may say this to our fellow-men, and deceive them by a show of humility; but it is quite another thing to affirm this, as is here done, before the Lord, "to whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets are hid" Happy are we if before him we can say this. For pride is destructive of all real happiness: it is continually meeting with rebuffs; nothing people like so much as to take down the man who is haughty of heart. To humiliate him is the keenest delight. If the devil has planted pride in all men's hearts, as he has, God has so ordered the world that every man's hand shall be against such pride.
2. It is free from ambition. "Nor mine eyes lofty." The man's eyes are not forever fixed on and hankering after something higher up in the world than it has yet reached. Blessed is the man who is content with the lot God hath ordered for him, and is solicitous only to be found faithful there.
3. And from presumption. "Neither do I exercise myself," etc. (Psalms 131:1). But how many there are who are forever doing that which the psalmist here disclaims! David's brothers accused him of this, though wrongly, and blamed him for leaving his sheep to come to the battle-field. But though David was innocent of such fault, many are guilty of it. They want to know all mysteries, to be able to explain all that they see around them in God's providence, and all that they meet with in the Scriptures: they want to undertake work which is beyond them, whilst that which is within their power they refuse. They could sweep a crossing, but they want to rule a kingdom; they could manage the one talent, but because they have not the five, the one they have they bury, to their infinite shame and loss.
II. HE TELLS US WHAT IT IS. To have one's soul "as a child that is weaned from its mother." Therefore:
1. It is separation from what it once loved. It is a terrible time for the child when this separation has to be made: the metaphor is as touching and beautiful as it is powerfully expressive. And the soul knows how it once loved the world, not so much, perhaps, the evil things of the world as those that were not evil; but it has come to give them all up, and to be content with what the Lord orders for him. Yet morels it separated from the sinful ways of the world. Once it loved them, but that time is past.
2. And it is not only separated from them, but has ceased to desire them. The child is happy and at rest, though no longer allowed that in which it once so delighted. The very desire is gone.
3. And this is not through any disappointment, chagrin, or disgust with the world. Some men rush from the world in anger because of the way it has treated them. But this is not the motive here: such are wrenched from the world rather than weaned from it.
4. Nor either is it the relinquishment which comes from satiety with the world's pleasures;—from having had so much that the soul has come to care no more for it, its sweets clog and nauseate rather than give pleasure.
5. Nor from want of capacity to enjoy what the world has to offer. But it is a willing abandonment of that which once it delighted in—the world's pleasures, profits, honors, comforts, as well as its more questionable belongings.
III. HOW WAS THIS BROUGHT ABOUT?
1. It was not self-produced. No child ever weaned itself.
2. It has been the Lord's work. By his Holy Spirit and his providence he has wrought this wondrous change. Hence we have come to find that what once delighted us so much fails to do so now. The world has become embittered to our taste. Our God has separated us from what we loved and clung to; there was no chance of our voluntarily giving it up, and so God took it away. And he has given us what is better far than that which we have lost (cf. Psalms 63:1-11.). Higher, purer joys are ours. Also he has blessed our own endeavors after self-denial and renunciation; he has "worked in us to will and to do,' etc.
3. And the result is most blessed. The calm quiet and stillness of the soul; its freedom from fret; its heavenly peace.
IV. WHAT THIS EXPERIENCE LEADS TO. A delight in God, and a conviction of his love and faithfulness, which make him call upon all his countrymen to hope in the Lord. When the soul has this experience, it cannot but commend the Lord to others. It must bear its testimony.—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The sense of what is acceptable with God.
This psalm expresses the meek humility of the pardoned and restored sinner. But taken as expressing the sentiment of the restored nation, it suggests the mood of cherished feeling that keeps us in right relations with God. It is not a mood of submission, or even of submissive obedience only. It is a mood of willing submission, of delighted obedience; of submission that has ceased to be a strain, and has become the free, natural, joyous expression of the self. The "heart is not haughty;" so there is no resistance to what is felt to be the duty.
I. SUBMISSION THAT IS STILL A STRAIN CAN ONLY BE PARTIALLY ACCEPTABLE WITH GOD. And very much that is called submission is really only submission in the making. Indeed, if we speak with absolute precision, we must say that submission wholly free from strain can never be the experience of men while they are under human conditions and limitations. We have no instance of perfect submission save that of the Divine Man, the Lord Jesus Christ; and even in his case we have to notice that strain and struggle continued up to Gethsemane, and that absolute entireness of obedience was won only on Calvary, where even the very life was surrendered. We can, therefore, while we are on earth, never gain more than a qualified Divine acceptance. There is peace, and promise, and power, and joy in the measure of acceptance we can gain; but it is always an inspiration, not a satisfaction. Very many good people never get above or beyond this apprehension of Christian life; "they submit because they must." They never can rise to get duty glorified. Indeed, there are many who try to persuade themselves that their submission cannot really be submission unless they feel the strain of it. But it is with this grace as with the digestive process—it is only healthy when we know nothing about it.
II. SUBMISSION THAT HAS CEASED TO BE A STRAIN IS FULLY ACCEPTABLE TO GOD. The will may persistently force attitudes and acts of submission. Then man is but a dual being. The goodness is forced. The man may submit with a reserve. He is willing to go so far. The man is wholly willing to submit sometimes and in some things. It is clear that none of these cases can be fully acceptable to God. When a man's heart is in the submission, then the man's will is rightly swayed, and a man's conduct is in harmonious order. The man is a unity in his submission; strain of resistance is gone, and the full Divine smile can rest upon him.—R.T.
On knowing our spheres.
Prayer-book Version, "I do not exercise myself in great matters: which are too high for me." The poet disclaims three distinct kinds of pride; secret conceit of heart; the ostentation of the man of lofty bearing; and the presumptuous self-importance which intrudes. One of the things that can only be learned through the experiences of life is what we can do, and what we may do. Putting wise limits upon our undertakings and our spheres is one of the most important and anxious things that we have to do. And one of the chief modern sins is attempting too much, and not being willing to keep ourselves strictly within the limits of what we can do really well. The young man thinks he can do anything and everything; and it may often be the consequence that he does nothing really well.
I. OUR SPHERES ARE DISCOVERED FOR US BY DIVINE PROVIDENCE. Nothing is more remarkable in a man's life than the way in which he is led round to the occupying of spheres of which he had never dreamed, and to the undertaking of work for which he had never recognized a fitness. It may occasionally be the case that what a man has to do in life is shown him early, and he runs in the appointed rut from the beginning to the end of his days; but in the majority of cases, even if a hint of the future is early given, the way round to its realization is a set of surprising experiences; and often the life-work unfolds suddenly and unexpectedly, in the time of a man's maturity. The good man sees in this the leading of Divine providence.
II. OUR SPHERES ARE DISCOVERED FOR US BY OUR AFFINITIES. There are things we have to do, and things we like to do. And, in the long run, life comes round to fit to our likings. We can do well what we enjoy doing, and we gradually drift into the spheres to which we are fitted by bias and inclination. Ideally life would be perfect if every man was placed according to his affinities. Towards the ideal perfection humanity is moving, though its progress is greatly hindered and confused by human self-will, and the exigencies of civilization.
III. OUR SPHERES ARE DISCOVERED BY OUR ATTITUDES OF OBEDIENCE. This is taking the higher, the Divine view of life. When a man fully realizes life as service to God, he rests assured that his Divine Master appoints his sphere and provides his work; and his Master will be absolutely sure to provide sphere and work for every servant who jealously keeps the attitude of obedience.—R.T.
Restraint of natural ambitions.
"Instead of fretting after what is too great for him, he quiets his ambition, and his spirit lies calm and gentle, like a child in its mother's arms, that, after the first trouble of weaning is over, is soothed and lulled by the maternal caress." The image is strikingly simple and true, of natural desire stayed and of a subdued quietness of rest rather than delight. Perowne quotes the following as a mother's experience: "The weaned child has for the first time become conscious of grief. The piteous longing for the sweet nourishment of his life, the broken sob of disappointment, mark the trouble of his innocent heart: it is not so much the bodily suffering; he has felt that pain before, and cried while it lasted; but now his joy and comfort are taken away, and he knows not why. When his head is once more laid on his mother's bosom, then he trusts and loves and rests; but he has learned the first lesson of humility, he is cast down, and clings with fond helplessness to his one friend."
I. NATURAL AMBITIONS ARE NOT WRONG IN THEMSELVES. They do but express a man's individuality and energy. They are but the sign of the intelligence that can fix an aim and a purpose for a life. It describes a helpless, hopeless man to say, "He has no ambition." Such a man wants nothing, tries for nothing, and gets nothing. Religious people often condemn ambition as an essential evil. All we need say is that it may be, but it need not be.
II. NATURAL AMBITIONS BECOME WRONG WHEN THEY ARE SELF-CENTERED. A man is a being in relations. There is a measure of health in every scheme he has for the benefit of another. A man is a dependent being, and his first consideration has to be the approval of him on whom he depends. Ambition to secure purely selfish ends is sin against our relationship, and against our dependence. Ambition that is self-centered is only too likely to inspire unscrupulous means.
III. NATURAL AMBITIONS NEED RESTRAINT WHEN GOD'S WILL IS KNOWN. It is not that God's will is either antagonistic to, or out of harmony with, our natural ambitions; it is that they are either exaggerated, or have become masterful. If we could read life aright, we should always find that God's will for our life is in strictest harmony with our own real and well-qualified ambitions. And precisely what the revelation of God's will does for us is help us in getting our ambitions into proper limitation and control. God does not want the service of men out of whom all heart and energy have been taken. It is not any crushing out of our individuality that honors God: restraint within wise limits means the retention of all good and right ambitions.—R.T.
Man's personal experience may be the basis of his hope in God.
"Let Israel hope in the Lord;" let him, because he has such abundant reason for so doing, in the experience that he has had of the Lord's gracious working. This is the refrain of several of these "songs of degrees," which, we have seen, are essentially "songs of uplifting," or calls to put trust and hope in God.
I. MAN'S PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IS SELDOM, IF EVER, PRECISELY REPEATED. Froude suggests that experience is like the stern-lights of a ship, which show the way that has been taken. And he hints that experience is of practically little use for the guidance of the way that has to be taken. But this is a very partial view. It would not culture a man in the dependence and trust, which are the key-notes of his nobility, if his life were a mere succession of precise repetitions, so that he might know precisely how to act in each recurring case, and the lessons of experience were a mere routine; a fixed measure to be applied to every instance. Life with emergencies and surprises is alone a healthy life for a moral being in whom character is to be trained. It was a misanthrope who said, "The thing which hath been is, and there is nothing new under the sun." And every man will be prepared to say, on looking over his life, that nothing ever happened in his life which was a precisely imitative experience; nothing that proved to be exactly what he expected it to be. Then it may be hastily said that experience is a delusion, and cannot really help us. What we have to see is that it cannot, and never was intended to, help us as a yard-measure does. How, then, does it help?
II. MAN'S PERSONAL EXPERIENCE ESTABLISHES PRINCIPLES AND BRINGS KNOWLEDGE OF WHICH MAN CAN MAKE PRACTICAL USE. Israel restored from exile had a new set of experiences, but his knowledge of God's adaptations of grace to all previous experiences established confidence in him. It was easy to argue that God, having made adjustments to their need in forty-nine cases, was not likely to be baffled by the fiftieth. And we can always get that persuasion out of a life-experience. And we can plainly see the force of this principle—all human experiences, though apparently unlike each other, go into classes. We can always find something in past experience which belongs to the same class as our present experience; and then, if we can fully apprehend the Divine intervention in some case that belongs to the class, we can confidently say to our soul, "Soul, hope thou still in God."—R.T.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
"Lord, my heart is not haughty," etc. "The psalmist has learned from adversity the lesson of submission, and counsels the nation to fit itself in like manner for winning the blessings which are still in store." The authorship is uncertain; but it was probably written after the Exile. The writer had learned—
1. Humility is exemplified in a lowly estimate of ourselves be/ore God and man. Before God as well as before man.
2. In not aiming at things which are beyond our powers of attainment. Some men's ambition is greater than their ability. And yet none of us uses his ability to the utmost. We ought to learn how much God will help us to do.
II. SUBMISSION TO THE WILL OF GOD.
1. This implies the recognition of God's will as good. Not only as supreme, but as good. Only thus shall we be able to say from the heart, "Thy will be done."
2. The overruling of all discontent with the changes of circumstances. As a child that has been weaned at length learns to rest on its mother's bosom.
III. HUMILITY AND SUBMISSION ARE CONNECTED WITH PATIENT WAITING AND HOPE.
1. God rewards the patient and humble. "Giveth grace," etc; "but knoweth the proud afar of."
2. All the deeper knowledge of God, springing from humble patience, leads on to a greater hope in him. The deepest experiences lead to the highest hope in God.—S.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 131". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20