|Fruit of the Spirit: Peace (Psalm 130, 131)|
The third quality that Paul mentions in describing the fruit of the Spirit is ‘peace’.
As we consider this topic a number of New Testament texts suggest immediately themselves. These include texts which speak about peace with or from God: ‘Peace I leave with you’ (John 14:27); ‘...since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1). There are also texts which urge Christians to maintain peace with each other: ‘Live in harmony with one another ...If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (Rom. 12:16‐18).
But I want to speak on the topic of peace from two Old Testament texts, two psalms which belong to the collection known as the ‘Songs of Ascents’: Psalms 131 and 133. Psalm 131 addresses the issue of peace with or from God, and Ps. 133 the issue of peace among God’s people.
It is important to read the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) as a unified collection: they have a common heading; they are all roughly the same length (apart from Ps. 132); they share a number of words, phrases and themes – all of which suggests that they are meant to be read together. The collection dates, I believe, from the post‐exilic period.
The general theme of the Songs of Ascents is the theme which runs through so many exilic and postexilic texts (both in the Old Testament and in other Jewish collections such as the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha): Israel’s restoration after exile. When is God going to restore his people? When will he restore the nation to its pre‐exilic glory? The Songs of Ascents focus on Jerusalem (Zion), and on the Jerusalem temple which was a focus of Israel’s hopes for the future, and a symbol of God’s kingship over Israel and over the nations.
The collection falls into five ‘triads’, each of which give different perspectives on these over‐arching themes: Psalms 120–122; 123–125; 126–128; 129–131; 132– 134.
Psalm 130 dwells on the themes of sin, forgiveness, hope, redemption and the love of God. It may seem for much of the Psalm that the writer is focussing on his own sins. But why does he end by urging Israel (the entire nation) to hope in the Lord? Because the question which lies behind this Psalm is: when is God going to redeem Israel? When are God’s people going to be restored? This is why Ps. 130 ends as it does: ‘O Israel, hope in the LORD!... It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.’
This sets the context for Psalm 131, and helps us to explain some of the phrases in this Psalm which might otherwise seem unhelpfully vague. What are the ‘things too great and too marvellous for me’ (131:1)? Why has the writer found it necessary to ‘calm and quiet his soul’ (131:2)? Putting it differently, what was it that previously troubled or disturbed his soul? If you take Psalm 131 by itself, the answer might be more or less anything: some aspect of God’s dealings that the writer finds inexplicable (illness, personal misfortune; the misfortunes of others...). But note how Psalm 131 ends: ‘O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore’ – that is, with words very similar to those at the end of Ps. 130.
The underlying issue in Psalm 131 is the same as in Psalms 129 and 130: Israel’s rescue, the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the restoration of God’s people. When are these things going to happen? Why are there so few signs that they are going to happen in the writer’s own day? This is the issue that has been troubling the writer: when is God going to act? When is God going to do as he has promised, bring deliverance to his people and glory to his own name?
The writer’s answer to these questions is clear: I have decided to leave such matters to God; I have decided that I must trust God’s timing; in that way I find peace. And Israel as a whole must follow the writer’s example: ‘O Israel, hope in the LORD’.
Psalm 131 describes the peace that comes from God. This peace takes the form of trust in God, and dependence on God, because only God can bring about what the writer longs for. It belongs, therefore, with the first set of New Testament texts I mentioned at the beginning, the texts which speak of peace with or from God.
Of course, this Psalm comes earlier in the biblical account than the New Testament texts I referred to. We 21st‐century Christian stand further on in the history of God’s people; we know more about God’s purposes of deliverance than the Psalmist did. You could say that the New Testament texts I read out earlier celebrate the fulfilment of the things the writer of Psalm 131 hoped for: peace, reconciliation, the deliverance of God’s people, which now includes both Jew and Gentile.
But it’s not as though we have moved entirely beyond Psalm 131 because we are Christians, because we stand the other side of the cross. The attitude which this Psalm commends must remain part of our spirituality: an attitude of trust, when we do not understand what God is doing; an attitude in which we deliberately ‘calm our soul’ – remind ourselves of the reasons we have to trust in God, put aside panic, ignore the many things that clamour for our attention and focus instead on God.
After all, if we look at the immediate future, are there not many uncertainties, many things which lie beyond our control, many areas where we have to look to God? Are there not many things of which we have to say, in effect: ‘O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore’?
Peace with God, then: peace that comes from knowing that God has saved us; peace that comes from the assurance that God will not abandon his purposes in mid‐stream; peace that comes from trusting in God even when we do not see the way ahead.
Remember David, begins Psalm 132, remember how he brought the ark up to Zion, and raise up the line of David again; ‘for your servant David’s sake do not turn away the face of your anointed one’ (132:8). In the second half of this Psalm, it is as though we hear God answering this prayer (132:11‐18): I will remember David; I have not forgotten Jerusalem (Zion). Many different voices speak in the different Songs of Ascents, but here for the first time we hear God’s voice, saying: I will honour my promises concerning David and Jerusalem (Zion); I will carry out my purposes.
Psalm 134 speaks of the worship which takes place in the temple, and the blessings which flow from the temple: ‘May the LORD, maker of earth and heaven, bless you from Zion’ (134:3). In this Psalm Zion as the focus of God’s purposes, the source from which God’s blessings flow throughout the world. (Think of a stone thrown into a pond and ripples spreading out from it.)
And, in between those two Psalms with their deep and far‐reaching theology, comes Psalm 133, a Psalm which speaks of the unity of God’s people: ‘How very good and pleasant when brothers live together in unity.’
This had not always happened in Israel’s history: think of the hostility which at one point burned between Joseph and his brothers; think, on a larger scale, of the later division of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. But how pleasant, how appropriate it is when there is unity among brothers.
The image at 133:2 is one we may find it hard to connect with: oil poured on the head, flowing down the beard, running onto the robes of Aaron the priest. It seems rather a messy image, but it is meant to suggest blessing, the blessing that takes place in the context of worship: blessing for the high priest (Aaron), the oil symbolising God’s goodness to him; blessing, too, for the people whom the high priest would bless.
And note the link between unity and worship: the unity of brothers (the Israelite tribes) was meant to be expressed particularly when the tribes came together for worship. As in the New Testament, so in the Old Testament, the themes of worship and unity belong together. Where unity is disrupted in a gathering of believers, it is questionable how authentic the worship is.
Psalm 133 ends with an attractive image: dew of Hermon falling on the mountains around Jerusalem; an image of refreshing. This is the blessing that unity in God’s people can bring; this is where God has commanded blessing, ‘life for evermore’, in the place where God’s people meet together in unity. How do we experience this blessing? By seeking unity, by seeking peace.
What I have treated as two different sides or aspects of peace (peace with/from God, peace among believers) belong together. We need to know the peace that God brings, that comes from experiencing God’s salvation, that comes when we reflect on what God has done for us and what God has promised to do, the peace that is expressed by trusting in God when we do not understand what God is doing, or when we see no signs that God is at work.
And along with peace from God, we need to seek unity and peace ‘among brothers’, within God’s family: as a testimony of what God has done, and how God has brought us together by saving us; as a sign of what is to come; and as a visible token of God’s blessing
The two belong together: we should reflect on the fact that we have peace with God; we should do all we can to live at peace with others, and especially with fellow‐believers.
- Dr. Philip E Satterthwaite
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