A song of ascents. Of David. 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. (Psalm 131:1–3)
Let me tell you several reasons why it is a privilege to be with you as you begin your 40th anniversary celebration in this year.
First, I never feel more honored or more out of my depth than when I am called upon to preach the word of God. Think of it. The word of God. I am not here to give you my ideas about anything, but to try with you to see what God has said. It is an overwhelming privilege to herald the word of God.
Second, I love the vision of this year of hope. Romans 15:4 says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is a precious thing. If you look at the miseries of our broken and dysfunctional inner cities, for example, one of the deepest roots is the loss of hope. People do terrible things — to themselves and to others — when they lose hope, no matter where you live. It’s a great tragedy. And God does all that he does to give his people hope. For ever. So I am thrilled to be a part of this focus of your year of hope.
Third, I love the truth of Psalm 131. So does my wife. One of her email addresses is based on this psalm. I love it because it holds up a reality that I long for more and more. I want to know the peace that passes all understanding. The peace of a weaned child secure in his mother’s lap. I want to know contentment of soul that is based not on my circumstances but on my unshakeable restfulness in God.
I assigned Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, Rare Jewell of Christian Contentment, to my class on Philippians and have been reading it again. Burroughs compares contentment that comes from circumstances to the warming of your your clothes by the fire.
To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man’s clothes by the fire. But to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man’s clothes have from the natural heat of his body. A man who is healthy in body puts on his clothes, and perhaps at first on a cold morning they feel cold. But after he has had them on a little while they are warm. Now, how did they get warm? They were not near the fire? No, this came from the natural heat of his body. Now when a sickly man, the natural heat of whose body has deteriorated, puts on his clothes, they do not get hot for a long time. He must warm them by the fire, and even then they will soon be cold again. (28)
Psalm 131 is about a kind of contentment, or stillness, or quietness of soul, that is rooted not in circumstances, but in God — a God who never changes in his utter commitment to us in Christ. So I love this truth. I want this experience more and more, the older I get. And it is therefore a great privilege to be here say some of what God says about it.
Fourth, it is a privilege to be with you in this celebration because I enjoy your pastor. I have known Rick a long time, and have found him to be one of those remarkably steady, rock-solid ministers of the word and lovers of people. And to have him teaching part time at Bethlehem College and Seminary so that our paths cross more than they used to is a great pleasure.
So thank you, Rick, for the invitation, and thank you all for joining him with great expectations of hope in this year of celebration.
First, let’s walk through these three verses of Psalm 131 just briefly to see again the lay of this familiar land.
Verse 1 is David’s renunciation of pride and self-exaltation.
Verse 2 is David’s very intentional composure of soul — calm, quiet, contentment his heart.
Verse 3 is David’s call for his people to join him in this restful, hopeful, waiting on the Lord.
Verse 1. David’s renunciation of pride and self-exaltation.
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.
In general, there are two kinds of pride — the pride of having and the pride of wanting. The pride of having is the pride of those who have superiority, or think they do; and it expresses itself in boasting or intending to boast. The pride of wanting is the pride of those who don’t have superiority but wish they did and continually crave others’ attention and approval. You might call it the pride of the strong, and the pride of the weak. Pride is very subtle and cloaks itself with some remarkably weak-looking forms so that you will feel sorry for it and see how much it is suffering, and how unrecognized this virtue is.
Be careful you don’t just see pride in the arrogant. It is more often manifest in those who have nothing to be arrogant about and crave the attention and approval of others.
David renounces all that, he says, in verse 1, and does so at three levels: the level of feeling, the level of appearing, and the level of acting.
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up” — that’s the heart level of feeling. I cut off the first emotional stirrings of any feeling that I have something that exalts me over others, or that I crave something that would exalt me over others. I put the first heart-stirrings of that feeling to death.
Second (v. 1b), “My eyes are not raised too high.” The eyes are the expression of the countenance, the face, the outward appearance. We have moved out from heart to eyes. Any prideful feeling that gets through his first defense against pride he cuts off at the level of appearance. He will not let pride use his face or any other part of the body (stiff neck, lifted nose, belittling roll of the eyes).
Third, (v. 1c), “I do not occupy myself with [literally: go or walk in] things too great and too marvelous for me.” Now he has moved out from the heart to the eyes to the activity the day. If any pride slipped through his first defense against feelings, or his second defense against appearance, he will cut it off at the level of action.
So at three levels, David is committed to kill pride in his life, from heart to appearance to action. Pride is a great evil, and David renounces it at every level.
The alternative to pride in verse 2 is a wonderful, peaceful, contentment of soul: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Notice the focus on his soul, his heart, his deepest inner person. If this deep level can be delivered from pride and boasting and craving self-exaltation and craving autonomy from any authority, then all appearances and actions will express this godly humility.
Piper: “The alternative to pride is a wonderful, peaceful, contentment of soul in God.”
This weaned child is a picture of contentment. The unweaned child is frantically rooting around for the breast and craves milk for his stomach. The weaned child is simply enjoying the way it feels to be in lap of his mother. He is satisfied. And it is not about his stomach. It’s about his heart. This is a picture of David’s restfulness, contentment, satisfaction, joy, peace in the secure, loving presence of God.
How do we know that? All it says is his soul is calmed and quieted, like a child with his mother. How do we know he is referring to contentment in God? We know it because of verse 3: “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” It would be unreasonable to think there is no connection between verse 2 and verse 3. If verse 2 has nothing to do with God, why summon the people to hope in God, or as the word is often translated, wait for God?
But there is a connection: Since I have found my contentment, my calm, quiet soul-satisfaction by turning to the Lord, and resting in his power and grace and wisdom, therefore I now call all Israel, “Join me in this! Put your hope in him. Find your rest in him. Calm your troubled heart I his presence. Quiet your soul by resting in the promise of his presence.”
So that’s the message of the psalm: Renounce all self-reliance and self-exaltation and self-rule at the heart level, the appearance level, and the action level. And find your calm, quiet, deep soul-contentment in God. And then commend this wonderful life of deep soul-contentment to others whose lives, like yours, are surrounded by the opposite of calm, and quiet, and God-saturated joy. Say to the world of Ray Rice abuses, and ISIL beheadings, and Ferguson tensions, and untold family upheaval — tell that world: Hope in the Lord.
“Renounce all self-reliance, self-exaltation, and self-rule, and find your calm, quiet, deep soul-contentment in God.”
When Rick asked me to come, he knew he was asking a Christian Hedonist to come. He told me so. A Christian Hedonist is not a person who believes that pleasure is the highest good, or the meaning of virtue — as if you have lived the good life if you have found a lot pleasure. No, the Christian Hedonist knows there is plenty of pleasure in this world that is deadly and will lead to ruin — even everlasting ruin. So, being the Christian Hedonist does not mean you will play the fool, and assume that all pleasure is virtuous. It’s not. A Christian Hedonist does not want to make himself miserable for a million ages for the sake of a mere eighty years of pleasures.
No, a Christian Hedonist does not say that pleasure is the meaning of virtue. He says that all true virtue includes the effort to maximize pleasure in God. Notice those two things: Pleasure in God, and the effort to maximize it.
Pleasure in God — not food, God not family, God not ministry, God not study, God not sex, God not sports, God not music, God not power, God not success, God not television, God not money. Christian Hedonism says with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). It hears and believes Psalm 16:11, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11).
And Christian Hedonism doesn’t just accept such pleasure, or find such pleasure, he pursues it and makes an effort to maximize pleasure in God. Psalm 43:4, “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” Christian Hedonists do not believe that pleasure — satisfaction in God, contentment in God — is merely a legitimate by-product of other good pursuits. It believes that pleasure in God is itself precisely what the heart should pursue, in all that it does.
Piper: “Pleasure is not the meaning of virtue, but all true virtue includes the effort to maximize pleasure in God.”
It is commanded, not just permitted. Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
So when David says in Psalm 131:2, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me,” he doesn’t mean, my calmness and my quietness and my contentment and satisfaction are from me. He doesn’t mean he’s the source of his joy and calm. The weaned child isn’t curled up in front of a mirror. He means God — like the mother — is my peace, God is my calmness, God is my quiet contentment. But I crawled up here. I sought this. I wanted this. I needed this and I pursued this. I have calmed and quieted my soul, in God! Not “I have produced it,” but “I have pursued it.”
And then he turns and tells all Israel to do the same thing. “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” O Israel, join me. Seek the calmness of your soul. Seek the quietness of your soul. Seek the deep contentment and satisfaction of your soul — in God.
And I think that is exactly what God intends for me to say to you: Village Church, it is not wrong to seek your maximum pleasure. In fact, it is a sin of huge, God-belittling proportions, not to seek your maximum pleasure in God. God is honored when we find in him our supreme treasure. God is honored when he is our supreme pleasure. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Therefore, Village Church, make it your vocation every moment of your life to maximize — for time and eternity — your contentment, your satisfaction in God.
O Israel, hope in the Lord. O Village Church, hope in the Lord. Hope for what? Hope for what I have just described in verse 2: Hope for a deep, sweet, quiet, calm supreme contentment in God. Experience God as your greatest treasure. Your supreme pleasure.
But let’s close by being a bit more specific. David found his deep soul-contentment in God. And he called all Israel to join him in this soul-satisfaction. What is it about God that makes him so pleasurable? The word “God” is not an empty symbol in the Bible. God has character. God has contours that mean some things are true of him and somethings aren’t. The whole Bible is given to us by God so that the word “God” would carry truckloads of meaning for us. So that when we say: My contentment is in God, we mean something glorious by “God.” We mean something glorious by the “Lord.”
So here are four truths about God and the way he deals with us that we find in the psalms when we track down this word “hope” or “wait” used in verse 3. What are the associations in David’s mind when he says, “Hope in the Lord”?
First, Psalm 33:22, “Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” Those who hope in God, that is, find their contentment in God find him full of steadfast love toward them.
Second, Psalm 130:8, “O Israel, hope in the LORD! . . . He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” Those who hope in God, that is, find their contentment in God find that he is a redeeming, forgiving God. And we Christians know how he can be that way and still be a holy God, because he sent this Son into the world to do what the law could not do, namely, condemn sin in the flesh. Our sin. His Son’s flesh. This is the God in whom we find rest.
Third, Psalm 33:18, “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those . . . who hope in his steadfast love.” Those who hope in God, that is, find their contentment in God, find that he is ever vigilant over them with care. His eyes run to and fro to show himself mighty on behalf of those whose heart is happy in him (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Finally, Psalm 147:11, “The LORD takes pleasure in . . . those who hope in his steadfast love.” This is almost beyond imagination: God taking pleasure in us. This would be inconceivable in the end without Christ to cover all our sins. But the focus here is on one thing: God takes pleasure in us when we find our supreme pleasure in him. This is essentially what it says. “The LORD takes pleasure in . . . those who hope in his steadfast love.” And we have seen that when David says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord,” he means: Join me in my child-like enjoyment of the Lord.
Piper: “God is most satisfied in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
So here at the end, we find that the usual watchword of Christian Hedonism (God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him) may be supplemented with a second one: God is most satisfied in us when we are most satisfied in him. That is, “the Lord takes pleasure in those who hope in him.”
So Village Church, congratulations on forty years of ministry. Set your face to go as deep as you can go in maximizing your joy, your contentment, your soul-satisfaction in God.