< February 27, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 131

 

When I read the first line of Psalm 131 -- "O LORD, my heart is not lifted up" -- I immediately think of the sursum corda,

the opening dialogue to the Great Thanksgiving, which is used across many Christian traditions as part of the eucharistic liturgy. "Lift up your hearts," says the celebrant, and the congregation responds, "We lift them to the Lord." The liturgy directs our attention upward, so that we turn away from earthly things and turn our attention wholly toward the worship of God.

If to lift one's heart is to orient oneself to worship, then why does the psalmist emphasize that his heart is not lifted up? In the Old Testament, the metaphor of the lifted heart describes haughtiness or pride: "All those who are arrogant (literally, "all of lifted heart") are an abomination to the LORD; be assured, they will not go unpunished" (Proverbs 16:5). The image of the "raised eyes," paired in Psalm 131 with the lifted heart, is also a prominent metaphor of arrogance in the Old Testament, particularly in Psalms and Proverbs: "For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down" (Psalm 18:27). In Proverbs 6:16-17, "abominations" include "haughty (i.e., "high") eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood." In Psalm 131, then, the psalmist declares his humility by testifying to the lowness of his heart and eyes.

As a "Song of Ascents," Psalm 131 may have been used either by pilgrims going to Jerusalem or by Levites as they went up the steps of the Temple.1 Either way, the physical "ascent" requires a spiritual evenness: a heart not lifted up, eyes not raised too high. Like the sursum corda, Psalm 131 dictates an inner posture for worship. It just so happens that, in the metaphorical fields of the Hebrew Bible, the orientation of the heart is opposite its orientation in the Great Thanksgiving. Though the linguistic landscape differs, the sense of spiritual preparation is the same.

The psalmist employs another rich metaphor to describe the state of his soul: calm and quiet, "like a weaned child with its mother" (Psalm 131:2b).2 The choice of the weaned child over the nursing child in this metaphor is surprising and worthy of our attention. The idea of an infant, a nursing child, would suggest ultimate dependence. The book of Isaiah uses that image several times, referring either to an infant (Hebrew 'ul) or specifically a nursing infant (Hebrew yoneq). God is more faithful even than the mother who will not forsake her nursing child ('ul) (Isa 49:15). In the "new heavens and new earth" of Isa 65, there will no longer be "an infant ('ul) that lives but a few days" (65:20a). The poetry of Isa 11:8 puts "weaned child" in parallel with "nursing child" (yoneq) to say that all children, both older and younger, will play near venomous reptiles and remain safe. The weaned child, then, refers specifically to an older toddler or a child, decidedly not an infant who still relies on his mother's breastmilk for food.

Why, then, does the psalmist describe his soul as a weaned child? What does it mean for a weaned child to be "calmed and quieted" with its mother? At her mother's breast, the nursing child is utterly dependent, yet always satisfied. By contrast, the weaned child has some experience of the world. Having left the protection of constantly being at his mother's side, he has learned that such comfort and shelter cannot persist uninterrupted. Perhaps food will not always be so easily provided; perhaps safety is not always within reach. Nonetheless, amid the calamities of the world, the child may still return to the comfort of his mother, a comfort now rendered profound by the encounter with fear and hurt. The psalmist has allowed his soul a moment of respite, which does not return him to the ease of his infancy, yet which provides a reliable consolation.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Romantic poet William Blake published a pair of poetry collections that he entitled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which illustrate "contrary states" of human existence. Alexander Gourlay describes the states this way: "Individuals in a state of Innocence are generally neither ignorant nor unaware of the darker aspects of life, but are sustained by confidence in the redemptive presence of the divine, perceived as both sympathetically human (often like a loving parent) and somehow nearby. Those in Experience are often acutely conscious of the limitations of fallen life and its sorrows, often cripplingly so, and for them the divine may seem inhuman, inscrutable, impossibly distant, and cruel...."3 Read within Blake's schema, Psalm 131 might be called a "song of innocence." A weaned child may have more "experience" of the world than a nursing child, who has need for neither fear nor hope. However, the psalmist's soul is not impaired by its experience of life, as Blake's notion of Experience requires. Instead, the psalmist has experienced God's hope alongside the world's cruelties. His anxiety is quelled, and he is freed to exhort all Israel to embrace Innocence, hoping in the Lord forever.


1For a discussion of the possible meanings of the inscription, "A Song of Ascents," see James L. Crenshaw, The Psalms: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 18-22.
2The NRSV's translation of verse 2b -- "my soul is like the weaned child that is with me" -- along with the mother/child imagery of the psalm, has led some scholars to speculate that this poem may have been written or uttered by a woman. Though that possibility is exciting, I am reluctant to assume that a mother/child metaphor necessitates female authorship, and the Hebrew syntax of verse 2b is ultimately ambiguous.
3 Alexander Gourlay, "A Glossary of Terms, Names, and Concepts in Blake," in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake (ed. Morris Eaves; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 272-87.