This article was first published on June 24, 2017 at Desiring God. I am remarkably grateful for the opportunity they gave me to grow and learn.
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know how exhausting it can be. Even just a steep hike can shorten the breath and cause your legs to burn. But as tiring as they may be, mountain climbs and hikes are usually rewarding and fun. The effort of the climb gives way to impressive views, a feeling of accomplishment, and the enjoyment of rest once you reach the top.
But many of us are much more experienced climbers in a different sense. Our lives are a constant climb, like a 9–5 session on an emotional StairMaster. The satisfying experience of conquering a mountain or a forest trail is like the difficult journeys we walk every day, but twisted tight to wring out all the satisfaction. The low valleys, the steep calf-burning climbs, the occasional summits, and then restarting all over again — all the pieces are there, but without the joy. Only the grueling, endless, upward journey.
Regularly, the people of Israel would set out on a sort of corporate hill climb. In fact, at least three times a year, the Israelites were commanded to assemble in the hill-city of Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:16). On the way, the Israelites sang psalms to prepare their hearts and minds to celebrate their festivals. Those psalms are called the “Psalms of Ascent,” and one of those is Psalm 131:
As the Israelites journeyed, they climbed many hills, a difficult trip to their destination. As they climbed, the words of humility and rest in the psalm were meant to confront and treat the conditions of their hearts. The difficult journey was a picture of their lives — and ours.
Perhaps you, like me, have a tendency to rush on to the “next and better” thing. Unchecked, my heart runs the opposite direction of the one described in Psalm 131. My anxious heart is more likely to believe David Powlison’s anti-Psalm 131:
Often, even in our churches and families, we tend to pursue the route of overwhelming busyness, independence, and marketable success above all else. We even find ways to twist bits of Scripture to fit these goals, attempting to make the search for our “best life now” acceptable to those around us.
We focus on parts of the Bible that match our ambitious moods, like receiving the “immeasurable riches” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7), or being faithful in the little so that we might be “faithful in much” (Luke 16:10), and then the Lord might see our obedience and reward us with the life that he gives abundantly (John 10:10). Sometimes we listen to these truths with the wrong ears, thinking that if only we were better stewards, our dreams will come true. Try harder. Do more.
The message of Psalm 131 doesn’t seem quite appealing to a heart like mine at first glance. It is not attractive to be dependent upon someone else. It feels countercultural (and counterproductive) not to seek a better thing, especially when we are dissatisfied with what we have in our hands. It is much easier to lose ourselves in the comparison game until we find ourselves better than the person next to us.
Yet, Psalm 131 is a call to die to ourselves. It is a song of deliverance, not from any outside enemy, but from our own flesh — from the desire to be better and do more than our friends, family, and fellow church members.
Psalm 131 would have been sung by God’s people as a community, all in a similar spot on their journey to Jerusalem. Older people and younger people, together experiencing the grueling climb upwards, making the ascent with one voice.
As you enter church on Sunday, it might be easy to compare yourself to those around you. You might compare your walk with Christ and spiritual maturity with those around you, or your material things, or your success at work or at home.
But the songs we sing together as a body of those who worship Jesus place us all on the same ground before the cross. Corporate worship “levels the playing field,” because no matter where you find yourself in your walk with Christ, we all are in need of Jesus to come, redeem, and renew.
Here, there are no statuses to seek because our ultimate status as God’s children has been given to us by our heavenly Father. And, joined together, we remember it with heightened awareness as we read and sing the words of confession and hope that are ours because of the death and resurrection of the one true King.
Perhaps on their way up to Jerusalem, the Israelites sang this song of dependence with dirt in their teeth, tired from the heat of the sun, clinging to nothing except the sweet peace of trusting in a God who will not fail them — like a calmed infant resting in the hands of a mother. There is great grace in this surrender of control, and it’s a grace that kept generations moving forward, because it wasn’t about them, but about God.
He had always been faithful to them, even in moments where they had failed to be faithful back to him. These pilgrimages into Jerusalem did not celebrate themselves, but the God who had provided, both in times of want and times of plenty. The Israelites knew that in the middle of the desert, their every source of life was coming from him alone.
This short psalm puts us in our rightful place. It teaches us to open our hands to whatever God gives us each day, in want or in plenty. Because these daily graces come from a God we know and trust, we can trust what he gives us. We don’t have to grasp in mistrust that our God won’t come through in our need. We don’t have to compare with others for what they have or don’t have. Our trust and our hope are found in someone who has never failed before. We can rest in him and keep moving when our hearts are tempted to compare.
O brothers and sisters, “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”