Rest and Contentment in Psalm 131

This week, Dan Allender is joined by his best friend, Biblical scholar Dr. Tremper Longman, III, author of a new book, Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence, to launch a series reflecting on what Psalm 131 reveals about how cultivating rest and contentment might help us care for ourselves even in a world marked by trauma and pain.

This is a fascinating conversation, with Dan and Tremper bringing their different backgrounds and disciplines to the table. Tremper helps unpack some of the Biblical structure and context, including what “song of ascent” means and how parallelism helps deepen and further an idea through repetition.

Tremper: “The Psalmist is hoping that, like himself, Israel will find contentment in their relationship with God. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t aim for big goals—after all, remember David wrote this and he was king. It’s not like you withdraw from heavy responsibilities, it’s just that you find contentment by not grasping and manipulating to get what God wants you to have.”

Dan: “It creates the picture of what would be most true of our hearts captured by the hope of the Lord, now and forevermore.”

You find contentment by not grasping and manipulating to get what God wants you to have.

Drawing from his experience in psychology and attachment, Dan focuses on the metaphor of “a weaned child” as a picture of contentment. It’s an image that evokes intimacy, connection, and the raw, vulnerable need of an infant. But it’s also an image of loss, because to be weaned means to lose what Freud calls the “oceanic bliss” of nursing.

Dan: “A child who’s not weaned, in many ways, has a greater need, a greater physical intimacy flesh-to-flesh, life-to-life. […] The breast is the all-present affirmation that life is good, and in its absence there is a rage, a fear that our needs will never be met. […] A weaned child has already gone through the loss and, in some sense, metabolized that into the expectation of a more routine world.”

How do we find contentment in the midst of loss and uncertainty? Tremper is reminded of the two times David had the opportunity to assassinate Saul and claim his own place as king, but instead chose to wait on God’s timing. Ultimately David reflected this contentment imperfectly, but Tremper says we can find a perfect picture of it when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestling with what’s to come but ultimately choosing not to manipulate the will of God. That kind of contentment can only be rooted in the hope that death does not have the final word.

Tremper: “Unless you have hope, there’s no way you can find rest in the middle of stress.”

Next week, Dan will further unpack Psalm 131 by exploring the pride and haughtiness with which the Psalmist contrasts contentment. After that, to continue practicing the art of reading in community, Dan will be joined by his wife, Becky Allender, to reflect more on how we cultivate contentment in the midst of stress and loss.