A Gentle and Quiet Spirit

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 22, 2023.

            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.

            But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

                        like a weaned child with its mother;

                        like a weaned child is my soul within me.

            O Israel, hope in the LORD

                        from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 131).[1]

When Samuel died, David was still on the run. Though anointed Israel’s future king, he was classified an outlaw by his in-law, Saul, the current king. Samuel’s death then was surely a blow to David’s morale; his authoritative representative and defender was dead. And so, for a time, the would-be-king lived like a fugitive, moving from place to place.

At a safe distance from Saul’s conspiratorial reach, David settled in the wilderness of Paran, where a wealthy man named Nabal grazed his sheep. Characteristically stealthy, David and his men revealed themselves only in their kindness to Nabal’s servants, serving as “a wall … both night and day,” as one shepherd put it (1 Sa. 25:16). David and his men preserved and protected the wealth of Nabal with integrity. At the very least then, David should have expected an invitation to Nabal’s annual sheep-shearing feast. No invitation was given, only insults: Nabal denied David’s identity, insulted his family, questioned his devotion, considering him unworthy of a place at a rich man’s table. Ungrateful Nabal, whose name means fool, played the part, and snubbed the giant-killing, war-winning, future king of Israel, with not even a thank you.

David responded like any warm-blooded warrior would, commanding 400 of his soldiers, “Every man strap on his sword! … God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him” (1 Sa. 25:13, 22). In other words, David intended to slaughter the lot of them. And he would. Nabal was doomed and didn’t know it. Thankfully, his wife, Abigail, did. Described as both beautiful and discerning (both helpful virtues when seeking to subdue the wrath of a warrior), she prepared a meal for an army. She clearly knew the way to a man’s heart, or at least the way to delay his wrath.

But it was neither her beauty, nor discernment, nor her cooking that saved her husband’s household. It was her humility. She stopped the charging army by falling at David’s feet, explaining the characteristic foolishness of her husband, her intent to make things right, and an appeal to David’s honor that he not shed innocent blood, including insightful knowledge of his anointing and imminent reign as the king of Israel (1 Sa. 25:24-31). Nabal denied David’s identity; Abigail appealed to his anointing. Nabal insulted David’s family; Abigail appealed to his heritage. Nabal questioned David’s devotion; Abigail appealed to his honor. Nabal incited David’s vengeance; Abigail appealed to his justice. Hell hath no fury like a spurned king, but peace may be made through the humble wife of a fool.  

Humbled by her humility, David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!” (1 Sa. 25:32-33). As it turned out, the gentle and quiet spirit of a woman taught the man after God’s own heart the wisdom of humility.

The Wisdom of Humility

We do not know when David wrote this psalm, but certainly we can rule out the period between Nabal’s scorn and David’s intended retaliation. For, David prays not in a posture of vengeance but humility:

            O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;

                        my eyes are not raised too high.

His confession is meek, a submission to the LORD, Yahweh, the self-revealed name of the one, true God and heavenly Father of his chosen child. As Abigail appealed to God’s love for David, so he readily bows his heart before him, “not lifted up” but humbled. As the Bible uses the word “heart” it conveys the idea of a person’s “unified and rich nature within,”[2] so David’s confession reveals a genuine meekness, to the core.

In contrast, one may claim a false humility, but inevitably the truth comes out. It’s like a man I knew who spent all of his time telling me about himself, his personality, his perspectives, and how he would process what I might say. As you might guess, I didn’t say anything. He was too busy talking about himself, revealing an inner arrogance, everyone saw but himself. When Abigail fell at David’s feet, she had already spoken before she said a word. David conveys the same with the position of his eyes, his “eyes are not raised too high,” they are not haughty but humble.

A humble heart and eyes are a rare commodity in a world of self-promotion. One pastor observes,

It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as an achievement. What is described in Scripture as the basic sin … is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able; get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But [in] the end the devil has his due.[3]

In contrast, Abigail considered herself unworthy to address David directly, addressing him only as “my lord.” She humbly reminds David of his relationship with the Lord. She offers the blessing of a meal, asks for forgiveness on behalf of her foolish husband, and she respectfully reminds David of his role as the Lord’s anointed and future king of Israel. David learned humility not by carrying out his vengeance but in the posture and words of humble Abigail.

The Possession of Contentment

In this psalm, David confesses not only a humility of the heart and eyes but also of the mind, a perspective of humility:

            I do not occupy myself with things

                        too great and too marvelous for me.

To “occupy” himself is to, we would say, “concern” himself. Matters that may concern us are many, but there are some that must not. To occupy our mind with the unknowable is more than fruitless, it’s presumptuous. Remember, Satan’s appeal to Eve was not “you will be blessed by God” but “you will be like God” (Gn. 3:4-5). We often follow in her presumptuous footsteps, even obsessing on what we cannot know, when Scripture is clear on the matter: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Dt. 29:29). There is only One who may occupy himself with great and marvelous secret things, and it is not you or me.

But it doesn’t stop us from trying, does it? Think with me about last week: What occupied your thoughts? What affected your emotions? Perhaps it was the weather or a natural catastrophe. Perhaps it was the timing of events or the worry of tomorrow. Have you ever stopped to ask: How many things occupy my thoughts that are completely out of my control? How many things trouble me that belong to the mystery of tomorrow? Have you ever considered how presumptuous this is. Have you ever considered that occupying yourself with the unknowable is simply the veiled lust to be sovereign?  

I don’t know your list, but what I do know is that when we learn to trust the Lord with the unknowable, he blesses us with contentment. Matthew Henry says,

Let him do what he will, for he will do what is best; and therefore if God should refer the matter to me, says the meek and quiet soul, being well assured that he knows what is good for me better than I do for myself, I would refer it to him again.[4]

Occupy yourself that: “Let him do what he will, for he will do what is best.” As we are humans confined to time and space, we may not always think that. We may presume that we know better than the eternal God. But let me ask you: Why would I lift up my heart, raise up my eyes, and occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me, when “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Ro. 8:28)? We find contentment resting in his loving purpose, and in this we learn the often-forgotten virtue of quietude.

The Blessing of Quietude

This is what David confesses, “I have calmed and quieted my soul.” It’s not a passive statement. He is fully engaged in calming and quieting himself. From his heart to his eyes to his actions, he knows that he must actively engage or fall victim to worldly worries.

We don’t typically think this way, do we? We are told that active engagement means worrying over circumstances, fretting over situations, carrying ever-increasing anxiety. If you really care, you worry. We typically translate worry as the more palatable “accepting responsibility.” It really is remarkable how far the prideful heart can lead us from the truth.

In contrast, “like a weaned child with its mother,” David says, “is my soul within me.” Nursing her child from birth, a mother teaches her child to be satisfied with her care and provision. A nursing child cannot feed herself but is fully dependent upon her mother. And once weaned, she is satisfied in her mother’s arms. So also is the child of God to be, calm and quiet in the sovereign care of our Lord.

In the third chapter of this first epistle, the apostle Peter provides counsel to husbands and wives. Within his counsel, he cautions wives against adorning themselves outwardly at the expense of the inward. He writes, “let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pt. 3:4). It’s wise counsel for wives, like Abigail, but what is often overlooked is, it is wise counsel for us all. The “imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” is very precious in God’s sight whether man, woman, or child, and modeled for us by our Lord Jesus. Peter says, “When [Christ] was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly” (1 Pt. 2:23). For this reason, Paul says in Philippians,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Php 2:5-8).

And it is in the cross of Christ that we find not merely our model but our means to a gentle and quiet spirit.

By God’s grace through faith in Christ, we are redeemed and restored in right relationship with our Creator. We pray not to an unknown god but our heavenly Father, and we enjoy his loving presence by his Spirit within. In Christ was are enabled to adorn ourselves with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. God gives us what is precious in his sight.

Interestingly, a psalm that begins with personal confession ends with an invitation to the church: “O Israel, hope in the LORD.” Far from selfish and self-absorbed introspection, David invites us to join him, with humble hearts and contented souls. We hope not in apprehensive expectation but in full assurance, because our hope is rooted and rests not in ourselves but in God. But it is also an invitation to begin today, “from this time forth,” and to carry on, “forevermore.”

Oh, and do you remember the rest of the story of Abigail? God delivered an almost instantaneous judgment upon Nabal, and he died. Freed from the fool, Abigail married David, who became the king. We know little more about Abigail beyond her imperishable beauty, but we do know that she had but one request for David, to be remembered (1 Sa. 25:31). And so she is, a woman who possessed the preciousness of a gentle and quiet spirit, like Christ.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] A. Craig Troxel, With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will toward Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 19.

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 146.

[4] Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 21.

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