The Flip Side of Psalm 131

There’s a Bible study technique I like to employ sometimes where you state the opposite of what the Word is saying. It can be highly effective. For instance, in Psalm 103:8, David says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That’s a pretty straightforward and comforting description of God’s character. But what if you took the last phrase and flipped it? It would say, “The Lord is slow to love and abounding in steadfast anger.” Jarring, isn’t it? But step back and ask yourself if that doesn’t represent some of our own secret suspicions about God. Yes, we would declare on Sunday that he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We sing it with our whole hearts. But what about Monday? What about when we have to repent for that sin … again? Do we still believe that God abounds in steadfast love? Or do we silently harbor a belief that God is peering over the rail, ready to zap us when we fail?

Dane Ortlund’s timely book, Gentle and Lowly, has worked wonders for many in unearthing these deadly suspicions we sometimes harbor about God. But this technique is still helpful, not only in unearthing wrong assumptions about God, but in revealing our own prideful assumptions about ourselves. Let’s use the same technique with Psalm 131. Here it is in the ESV:

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.

Now take each verse and state the opposite. And pay attention to what is revealed in your own heart.

O Lord, my heart aspires; my eyes long for lofty things; I am obsessed with getting to the bottom of every mystery.

In the original, the psalmist expresses an intellectual humility. He doesn’t feel the need to poke his finger into every controversy. He knows he will never be able to understand every mystery. But when we state the opposite, we see an insatiable and prideful curiosity to know everything. He must know everything. He must have a hot take. That makes me reconsider that downward tug to refresh my social media feed.

Next:

But I have roused and agitated my soul, like a toddler throwing a tantrum with his mother; like a toddler throwing a tantrum is my soul within me.

In the original, there is an image of deep contentedness of soul. A weaned child can rest against his mother’s bosom without striving for immediate sustenance. But when we state the opposite, we see a soul that’s never satisfied, rising up against his mother who knows best.

Finally we get to the last verse, and here I will stop the experiment, because hopefully we have seen the futility of our own pride and attempts at self-sufficiency. Left to ourselves, we will only strive and grasp at the wind, but Psalm 131 offers us what Eugene Peterson called, “the plain way of quiet humility.” Let’s turn away from ourselves and instead hope in God.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

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