The phrase knowing your place has gotten a lot of bad press lately—and often for good reason. Theologically speaking, though, we should have it at the center of our understanding. Do we know our place in relation to God? Are we humble before Him as our Creator and Redeemer? Are we humbled by the fact that everything we have is a gift from His hand?
Many people today, who are returning to ancient and pagan notions of reality, would say with Shirley MacLaine that “maybe the tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten that we are each divine.”
Whatever qualities that quote instills in the human mind and heart, humility is not among them.
A better quote for instilling humility would be “There is a God, and you are not Him.” That is a beginning statement that gets to the spirit of what David expresses in Psalm 131, where he wrote: “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” (Ps. 131:1).
Interestingly, this is one of the first things that needs to be established in parenting. A child needs to know that someone is in charge, and that it is not him. We know what happens when a child thinks he is in charge: strife. When a child is living within the confines established by a parent, there can be peace and calm.
Once we know this fundamental truth that there is a God—that someone is in charge—we can go about living as God intended. And He intends for us to live with humility. Humility makes us face the certain truth of who we are in relation to God and then orders our posture accordingly. Moreover, our realization of this truth and the humility it engenders will grow in proportion to knowing how reliant we are on God.
It is telling that the image David uses in this psalm to teach us the posture we are to have before God is the image of a child and mother: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:2). Is there a clearer picture of reliance than of a child and his mother? While a toddler, and certainly a teenager, has inklings of independence, a mere child does not have an impulse for autonomy. It’s a picture of dependence.
Perhaps this is why Jesus used a child to frame our entrance into the kingdom in Matthew 18:1–4: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
We must be humble like a child. That involves a posture of utter dependence on the Lord, just as children utterly depend on their parents. As we know, however, children can also be foolish and naïve. Scripture never commends those qualities. So, what fundamental spiritual reality might Jesus and David be getting at in addition to dependence? You’ll notice that David doesn’t refer to just any child in Psalm 131—it’s a weaned child. If an un-weaned child is around her mother, she’s restless, noisy, irritable. She thinks mom’s feeding is indispensable. A weaned child is no longer fretting—she’s calm and content.
This calmness is not merely external. We live in an age of machines, cities, and traffic where often what surrounds us is unsettling noise. Some have recognized this modern way of life and have sought simplicity and quiet by changing their external circumstances, by moving to rural areas. While this might have some positive effect, it ultimately cannot deal with the internal noise of the soul. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic to address the external without paying attention to the internal.
Our souls have their own noise. Have you ever noticed how we have an ongoing monologue with ourselves? Record it sometime: How much deals with worry, envy, arrogance? All these throw kerosene on the flames of our internal noise.
Internal noise can only be dealt with in relation to God. We need to know who He is: our relation to Him and His plans for us. When we know these things and when we apply them in the midst of the circumstances of our lives, we can say with the psalmist that we have “calmed and quieted” our souls. Dependence on the Lord and calmness in soul go hand in hand, for humility and contentment go hand in hand.
The closing admonition in this psalm to hope comes in the atmosphere of those who have learned humility and contentment. When we know our place, and are content with our lot, then we can hope: “O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 131:3).
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 13, 2021.