Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psalm 131

For my blog post today on my study in the Psalms, I will post Psalm 131 in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), and I will comment on each verse.

1 A Song of degrees of David. LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.

The part about not exercising oneself in "things too high for me" rubs me the wrong way, since it sounds so limiting.  For one, it can be taken in an anti-intellectual direction: You should just accept my fundamentalist spiel rather than questioning it on the basis of things that you're not qualified to study, let alone understand.  Just accept what I'm saying: My version of God knows more than you, so why ask questions?  I tend to shy away from that sort of attitude.  Second, this statement in v 1 can be taken in the direction of discouraging people's dreams: don't aim for that, for it's too high for you!  I'm sure some of you were told that when you were growing up!  My belief is that we should not be afraid to learn, to study, and to reach for the stars.  Even if I'm unqualified to study, say, science, and even if you should probably take whatever I say about science with a grain of salt, I should not be discouraged from at least trying to learn and to understand.  I believe that all knowledge is God's knowledge, even if that knowledge disrupts our neat picture of God and the world.

Notwithstanding my reservations about the directions in which v 1 can be taken, I still find some value in the interpretations that I read, at least for me.  There may be times for me to rest in God's love rather than allowing my mind to race about what I do not know or understand.  There's also a place for humility: for being content where I am rather than being jealous of others who may have more or be more talented than me.  If Psalm 131 is somehow about David, could it concern David's humility: that David was not aiming to advance himself politically but was humble before the LORD?  Of course, David did advance, but the biblical stories don't depict him as one who had a great deal of personal ambition; rather, David went about his life trying to honor God, and God exalted him in God's own time.  Isn't that the type of leader we'd want: one who regards himself as under a higher authority (whether that be God, or simply a moral code) and who cares for the people, rather than his own advancement?  Well, some argue that a degree of personal ambition is actually important for good leadership (see here), and that may be true.  But I believe that, ultimately, a good leader prioritizes the well-being of the people he or she leads.

2 Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

Within the interpretations that I read, there was a difference of opinion about whether the child was still nursing or had been weaned.  If the former is the case, then v 2 is about the child's dependence on his mother for food.  If the latter is the case, then the child is no longer nursing and continually crying for his mother's milk, hoping for that temporary satisfaction, and the image is about the person who is at peace in his relationship with God: he's not crying for this or that but is relaxed, appreciating the relationship.  The Hebrew word so often appears to concern weaning (Genesis 21:8; I Samuel 1:23f.; Isaiah 11:8), and even Jastrow's dictionary on the use of the Hebrew word in rabbinic literature listed the definition of wean.  But, for some reason, Rashi argues that the child in v 2 is still nursing!  I read one scholar who said that the Hebrew verb g-m-l concerns dealing bountifully, and he somehow gets nursing out of that; but I could not find anywhere that the verb had that exact meaning.  Holladay lists examples in which it can mean rendering good or evil, but I have a hard time going from that to saying that g-m-l in Psalm 131:2 means nursing.  Perhaps Rashi thought differently, however!

I looked at another article that was going into different translations of Psalm 131:2, and one translation said "like a weaned child in me is my soul."  V 2 is about the Psalmist quieting himself.  Could he in that case be like a mother to his own soul, quieting it?  Many of us would like inner peace, but could one path to inner peace be us taking the initiative of quieting our own souls, our own selves?  (Some may need medication to do this!)  And possible ways to do this may be to cease envying, to be humble before God's greatness, and to rest in God's love rather than stressing out about what one may not know.

I liked what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary had to say: "The righteous person is not arrogant because of his achievements or jealous of those who are greater than he.  For he knows that all success is bestowed by God, each person according to his needs and mission."

Why desire someone else's mission, when I have my own?  Psalm 131 does not explicitly say that, but perhaps one can take the lessons of Psalm 131 further by embracing such a concept.

3 Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.

What the Psalmist deems to be relevant to his own peace of mind and attitude, he believes also to be relevant to the people of Israel, who may be experiencing situations that don't make sense to them or that they don't fully understand; still, they can hopefully rest in God.

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