O Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes become lofty. Nor have I walked in things too great or too marvelous for me. If I were not humble-minded but exalted my soul, as one weaned from his mother, so wouldst Thou requite my soul. Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth and for evermore.
Psalm 130 is one of the shortest psalms to pray and one of the longest psalms to learn. The second psalm of this last group breaths the arrival spirit. This journey that we have been on throughout the Psalms of Ascent is beginning to become a reality. The upward call and its destination is clearer and nearer than ever. This prayer of ascent brings the paradox of the knowledge of God into vivid clarity. The higher we look upward the greater our freedom to draw near to the transcendent humility that Isaiah prophesied about in this depth of God’s being. When in chapter 57 and verse 15 of his great prophesy we hear these words: ‘For thus says the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’ The timeless understanding of the ways of God has been put this way. The way of ascent comes by the way of descent—the higher we rise to union with God the lower we go from centering on ourselves. This is the difference between the way of the flesh and the way of the spirit.
Archimandrite Zacharias and his wonderful book Remember Thy First Love writes, “The evil one cannot humble himself. The enemy strives only to exalt and elevate himself, to set himself even above the throne of God.” When we humble ourselves for God we go downwards, and this is the one direction in which the enemy cannot follow us. And consequently, we are freed from his influence.
Moreover, if we humble ourselves to the utmost through prayer, God comes to our help. Our heart is wounded with contrition and begins to participate, and everything becomes easier. We pray with our whole being. Here is the mystery. As we draw near to the holy place, to communion with the Lord of Glory, our hearts deepen into becoming the holy place where God is pleased to dwell. The self-exalted heart is a place of desolation, defensiveness and ultimate despair. The eyes that have become lofty are running about wildly seeking fulfillment in every place that is not the sanctuary of God.
1 John 1:2 describes this dreadful journey as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the arrogance, the high-mindedness of natural life untouched by grace. This is the death-march into exile from the presence of God, from the possibility of returning to Eden and to the Tree of Life. For without repentance and humility the way is obstructed by the cherubim and the fiery sword.
This prayer confronts not only the exultation of the heart and the lofty search of the eyes, but also brings us obedient humility to our life experiences. It is natural and commendable to desire to do good in the service of the Lord, whatever our specific calling might be. That desire is sometimes called ‘the determination to make a difference.’ We think, if I set my heart and my mind on good goals, if I work hard and pray for the presence of Christ, if I sacrifice and pour out myself for others, then I will make a difference. There will be a kingdom sense that I have achieved. By God’s mercy I will leave something good behind. But Psalm 130 is teaching us to pray that we will learn not to try to rise to the holy place with our trophies in hand. Such things are too great and too marvelous for us.
Abraham, Moses, Job, Peter, Paul, and ultimately the Lord himself, came to the end of their earthly lives with the exalted lofty great and marvelous things beyond the grasp of their own hands. The vindication of their own lives lay beyond them. This is the way of faith without which we cannot please God.
At the end of the great faith chapter (Hebrews 11:39-40) it is said of people of faith, ‘All these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise: God having provided something better for us, that they shall not be made perfect apart from us.’ This ‘something better’ that the Old Testament people of faith yearned for brings us to the striking analogy in v.3 of our psalm—the early life experience of a child being weaned from his mother’s milk.
The infant at a mother’s breast is the image of one of life’s most intimate, peaceful and satisfying moments. A child at rest, comforted, embraced, secure, and being satisfied with the nourishment that gives life. The mother’s face looking down upon her child, giving herself and giving life and peace. Those moments, that face-to-face identity, child and mother looking into each other’s eyes, and the nourishment and the warmth of the breast. But the day comes when that relationship must change. It is time to be weaned, to surrender this life-fulfilling experience known from birth that today in our modern world, that change may be a gentle and natural transition without sorrow or a sense of loss, but however the bond of breastfeeding is removed there is a change to something else. The words of Hebrews 11:39-40 call it a change that provides something better.
The lives of the saints exemplified in the Theotokos, and ultimately in the Lord himself, tell us that the life of a saint matures to the experience of a profound weaning from the goodness of early infant pleasures. The story of the Lord’s birth, while surrounded with mystery, confusion, danger and deprivation, still gives the sense that the mother of God and the ever-faithful Joseph gave the holy child Jesus the care and nurture of peaceful security. But the day of weaning would come for mother and for child.
Simeon prophesied to the Virgin Mother, “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” The Lord of Glory and the Queen of Heaven, the God-man and the God-bearer live before us as those who know the struggle and the hidden weaning by the hand of God, this humbling deprivation, this stripping and wounding that stands at the crossroads on the way of ascent. The Lord’s supreme offering is heard in that prayer, ‘Not my will but thine be done’ as He prepares himself for the cry of saving desolation, ‘Oh God my God, attend to me, Why has Thou forsaken me?’ His mother is standing near His cross, heard His cry and it pierced her own heart. This is the weaning that saves the world. It is deprivation of the sense of love, of life that lights the flame of the soul.
We stand silent before the mystery of God, the good God who loves mankind. We bow before our Lord and we hear Him say, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ These are the words of the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith. This is the weaning of Paul who in faith wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 1:11-12), ‘I was appointed a preacher, an apostle and teacher which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed for I know whom I’ve believed and I am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have entrusted until that day.’
Psalm 130 is the deep prayer for every child of God in the face of the Father’s redemptive weaning. The choice in this place in the upward journey provides the gateway to union with the all-holy Trinity. This choice of acceptance, of trust in the goodness of the Father for the sake of the salvation of the world, is the narrow way.
It is what St Peter learned through first his resistance, and then his repentance and acceptance, when he wrote in his later years to his suffering flock who were experiencing their own severe weaning, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you at the right time.” As St Peter recalls in his pastoral guidance, we remember the nearby words of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not exalt your own wisdom. In all your ways know wisdom that she may cut a straight path for you.” This magnificent psalm reveals not only the way of the Lord’s path of salvation for the world, but it also reveals the way by which God prepares our own souls to become His sanctuary.
The spiritual and life-shaping choice of embracing the humbling path of going down, and staying under, the almighty hand of God with reverence and hope. It is the border between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. Not all choose this way—anger, cynicism and unbelief not only destroys the peace of soul, but its fevered turmoil also closes the soul to the beauty of the presence of God.
Even more, the fretting, resentful and irritated soul is forgetting that God’s people live in a larger reality in the Kingdom of God where the saving work of God goes forth in mystery, where the seeming reversals, failures and wrongs are all under the almighty hand of God to bring salvation to all the world in God’s good time. The Lord knew the reality of this humility when, in His spirit, He prayed Psalm 30, “In Thee O Lord have I hoped. Let me not be put to shame in the age to come.” In the time of testing this prayer is the saving reality.
No life on earth can be measured only by this world. The humility of Psalm 130 rests in the good God who loves mankind, and who dignifies the lives of His people by calling them to redemptive battle for the life of the world. It is this knowledge embraced by faith that is the heart of the prayer of Psalm 130. This means that praying Psalm 130 is a gracious gift from God that helps us to obey: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon Him; for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)
“O Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes become lofty, nor have I walked in things too great or too marvelous for me. If I were not humble-minded but exalted my soul as one weaned from his mother, so wouldst thou requite my soul.” When we pray this psalm we become as the tender child drawing close to his mother and learning to be quiet and at peace. For better things are promised and we can wait, even as Psalm 130 concludes, “Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for evermore.”
Dear friend, we are separated by miles in time, but God today knows your circumstance. Perhaps this is coming to you today in a time of deep sorrow, trial, uncertainty, confusion, despair, discouragement. This is your prayer. Truly, this prayer prayed in the crucible of life is a prayer rising to God, and the lifting up of our hands as in the evening sacrifice.