Written by David Lamb
Friday, 05 July 2013 00:00
“O, NO! I have to write a blog for tomorrow. I don’t need this right now. There is too much going on right now.” I had just looked at my calendar to realize that I had yet another thing to do. My instant reaction was panic. My son was graduating tomorrow. I had meetings all day and night. Relatives were visiting. Biblical’s graduation was Saturday. I still needed to figure out loans and financial aid for college. I was falling behind on my writing schedule.
In a word, Stress.
But then I remembered the psalm I read this morning.
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
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.
2 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.
3 O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time on and forevermore (Psalm 131 NRSV).
In a word, Calm.
The psalms are prayers, and the author of this psalm begins by speaking directly to God and calling him by his personal name, YHWH (“O LORD”).
The psalmist then explains to YHWH all about his humility. (But is it humble to point out your humility? I guess it’s OK when you’re talking to God.) The psalmist’s heart and eyes aren’t too proud. His focus is not on things too great or marvelous. Currently, the psalmist’s focus is on God and not on the psalm (or blog?) he needs to write.
What’s the result of the psalmist’s humble attitude? He is like a weaned child with its mother. Calm and secure, quiet and safe.
If David wrote this (the Hebrew heading for this psalm could be translated “to David,” “for David,” or “of David”), it’s ironic to imagine a warrior like David as a child next to his mother’s side. Ironic, but powerfully memorable.
In ancient Israel, mothers typically nursed a child for two or three years. A recently weaned child is no longer an infant, but is still not independent of its mother. But hopefully, the weaned one will be less fussy. At least the child in this psalm apparently isn’t in the midst of the “terrible twos.” The child is content with mom. Calm and secure, quiet and safe.
The image of a weaned child is repeated twice in the same verse. Let’s compare two translations of the end of verse 2:
“My soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (NRSV).
“Like a weaned child is my soul within me” (ESV).
I like literal translations, so I often prefer the usually more literal ESV, but here the NRSV is more literal. The Hebrew here is literally, “Like the weaned child with me is my soul.” Thus, the Hebrew supports the NRSV’s rendering.
Why does it matter? In the ESV, the psalmist is just making a comparison, but in the NRSV, the psalmist is speaking in the voice of a mother, from her perspective: “the weaned child that is with me.” The image of a child and mother is brought one step closer to us as we hear the psalmist speak as a mother about the child on her lap. Calm and secure, quiet and safe.
How do we deal with the tension between the heading that associates the psalm with David and this verse which seems to speak in the voice of a mother? We have three options.
We assume that David wrote the whole thing, so he couldn’t have used a female voice (which is what several English translations appear to do).
We assume David did not write it (perhaps the heading should read, “for David”?), so it could have been written by a woman.
We decide there’s not enough textual evidence to decide definitively.
While I assume David wrote many psalms, people often base too much of their view of authorship on headings which are ambiguous at best. I think it could have been written by a woman, many other biblical songs certainly were (Exo. 15:21; Judg. 5; 1 Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55), but it is impossible to say definitively based on this half-verse.
In any case, there’s nothing like a mom to bring calm in the midst of stress, except God and God’s word. The psalmist therefore tells Israel to hope in God now and forever. The psalmist’s final exhortation here is valid for any of us in the midst of stress: Hope in God forever.
Reflecting on Psalm 131 not only reduced my stress in the moment, it also gave me a topic to blog upon.
It calmed my soul.
Where do you find other examples of maternal imagery in Scripture and how does it help us connect to God?
David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.