Howard Wallace's home page

(Sunday between February 25 and February 24)
Psalm 131

This short psalm is one of the group, Psalms 120-134, known as the ‘Psalms of Ascents’. The collection is marked out by the common heading. Just what the word ‘Ascents’ indicates is debated. It could be related to the use of the Hebrew verb ‘to go up’, in regard to the exiles returning to Jerusalem in Ezra 2:1; 7:9. It could indicate the collection is related to pilgrimage in general. Alternatively, the Mishnah implies a liturgical function seeing one psalm sung on each of the fifteen steps between the women’s court and the court of Israel in the temple complex (Mid. 2.5; Sukk. 5.4). The collection has traditionally been used by Jews in the festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles, recalling the wilderness wanderings. Different types of psalms are present in this small collection. The collection falls into three groups with Psalm 131 belonging to the final one.

This brief psalm presents us with a lovely image. It uses the image of a mother and child to speak of trust or hope in God (v. 3). The scholar, Artur Weiser, has described the psalm as ‘a wonderfully tender and intimate little song’.

At the centre of the Psalm stands v. 2. It is translated in the NRSV as: ‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.’ The last clause of the verse in the NRSV is awkward. It implies to me a sense of self control, of the psalmist having quieted his/her nerves so to speak. However, the Hebrew of the psalm is itself awkward and most translations show signs of struggling to make sense of it. Literally, the Hebrew reads: ‘as a weaned child upon me my soul/self/am I’. In my view the verse shows signs of corruption in transmission in ancient times and is open to shortening to two clauses instead of the three. It shows signs of accidental duplication or repetition of some words. I would render the verse still using some of the NRSV vocabulary: ‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.’

But one other point to note is that the words translated ‘calmed and quieted’ could also be translated ‘likened and compared’ if we take the root words from ones spelt the same but with different meanings. In short, I would then translate: ‘I have likened and compared myself to a weaned child with its mother’.

This provides the central image, namely the picture of a child in its mother’s protection. Weiser captures this in his statement: ‘...the (psalmist’s) soul rests on God’s heart and finds its happiness in intimate communion with him’ (The Psalms, p. 777). However, he then sets this in the context of what he calls a mature faith, by which he means the faith of an elderly person: ‘(The psalmist’s) words reflect the firmness and self-control of a man who has wholly mastered himself.’ The transitive verbs ‘calmed and quieted’ which we find in the NRSV and elsewhere, suggest, as Weiser picks up, that this is the soliloquy of a believer who has worked hard to quieten an inner self which is disturbed by external things. As Weiser interprets it, here is a psalm coming from a mature faith in the twilight years beyond all the demands and anxieties of youth.

In the translation I have offered above we have a different picture, one in which the Lord is compared to the mother, and the weaned child is the believer or psalmist. This understanding is possible with the NRSV but not clearly so. To my mind this interpretation makes better sense of the last verse and the whole theology of the psalm. Feminine imagery for God is not unknown in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament reading for this week we have precisely the comparison of the Lord to a mother with child (Isa 49:15; cf. also Isa 66:7-14).

Read in this way, the psalm points away from an image of self subjugation (of one kind or another) to one of the description of intimacy and of the depth of trust between the Lord and the psalmist. It is compared to the relationship of mother and child. It is not self mastery that is implied in the psalm but an awakening to the nature of self in relation to the Lord. The matter of trust opens up with an understanding of one’s own humanity and dependence. The sort of trust expressed here is not at odds with that of the lament psalms where the depths of hurt or anxiety leave the person completely vulnerable and open, defenceless and reliant only upon God.

It is in this sense that the psalmist extends an invitation in v. 3 to all Israel to join him/her in that kind of faith.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verse 1 of the psalm can be used as an introduction to the prayer of confession with individual petitions developing the thoughts there.

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 marvellous for me.

When I take pride in self achievement,
Lord have mercy.

When I am distracted by things of stature and grandness,
Christ have mercy.

When I seek to cope with anxiety
in my own strength,
Lord have mercy.

The final verse can introduce the blessing at the end of the service:
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time on and forevermore.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be with you now and forever.
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 49:8-16a

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page Year A