Psalm 131 — from ambition to contentment

I am an ambitious person, with hopes and dreams for myself. I am a true American, pursuing my own happiness. My heart isn’t quiet. It’s in turmoil, boiling with my ambitions. Unsettled by my striving, disturbed with dreams of more and bigger and better. So, when I come to pray Psalm 131, the three-verse poem jolts me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.


This is not me. I may be years past being weaned, but I lack the contentment the psalm describes. A weaned child has moved on from the thinner nourishment of milk to the thicker meal of meat, which stays with you for hours, nourishing for a long time and satisfying the stomach.

No crying. Satisfaction.

When my hope is in the Lord, I stop basing my future on self-dreams. I take part in God-dreams.

Echoing the psalm, I find myself praying: Calm my ambitious heart, Lord. Help me be satisfied. Help me to transfer my dreams from myself that I might put my hope in you and you alone. There is too much of me in me. May I be filled with you. Your passions. Your purposes. Your presence. Your power. Your glory and not my own.

What is so great about this little psalm is that the psalmist, David, doesn’t disappear. He’s still very much there.

He references himself throughout the psalm: “my heart,” “my eyes,” “I don’t … myself,” “too wonderful for me,” “I have calmed,” “my ambitions,” “I am like,” “I am counted.” He continually refers to himself, but only twice does he reference the Lord.

The psalm writer doesn’t disappear and yet the Lord is the one who bookends the psalm. All of the Me is contained, constrained by God.

And, yes, David was ambitious. We know the story. After he was anointed by Samuel, he pursued the kingship with focused attention. When we set aside Sunday school lenses and reread 1-2 Samuel, we see David for the political animal he was. He didn’t consider it too much for him. He wasn’t content. He reached. He yearned. He longed. His story is very much in contrast to the words of the psalm.

He reached for the kingship and took it. He reached for Bathsheba and took her. And yet, when it was all accounted for, his reaching left him wounded and broken.

So, when did he quiet himself? When did he become content? When did God alone become his hope? Or was this an aspirational prayer, written during his young sheep herding days and always with him, reminding him and helping him transfer his hope to God?

That is my guess. This psalm is prayed not out of success, but out of failure. And that is how I pray it.

Perhaps each morning, after sleeping through the first eight hours of the new day, David wakes up and remembers that God had been working while David himself had been sleeping. And so, he pulls from his pocket this brief prayer, written on a slope in Judah while sheep lazed in shade of carob and sycamore trees, and prays it freshly and with sincere intent.

I imagine the prayer staying with him through the first few hours of the morning but then fading as he exerts himself relationally and politically as the day presses its requirements upon him. And then, as he prepares to sleep again as dusk thickens into night, he finds the prayer again. In some ways, it accuses him of his over-sized ego. But in other ways, it soothes him to sleep, reminding him that he needn’t worry about all that was left undone. God will sort out all of the odds and ends, tying up the loose ends. His hope is in the Lord, not in a completed checklist.

And each day, as he cycles through humility and ego, the psalm imprints itself more deeply into him, until he has become a content and satisfied man.

That is how I imagine this prayer working not just in David’s life, but in my own as well.