How Psalm 113 Changed My Life

Article
12.10.2019

My introduction to Psalm 113 was when I sang it along with others in corporate worship. It was 21 years ago, and I was sporting a butch haircut and extra piercings in my right ear—because back in the day, left was right (straight) and right was wrong (gay). I stood in a pew in the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church awkwardly seeking a God that I secretly hoped would accept me as I was. Floy Smith, the pastor’s wife, stood at my side. Floy, a woman who could bridge worlds for me, brushed me with her shoulder before we started to sing. “God is making you His beautiful trophy, my dear,” she whispered in my ear, the one with the extra piercings. Pastor Ken Smith told us to open our Psalters to Psalm 113A in The Book of Psalms for Singing.

I jumped in with mouth open wide.

But before I realized what was coming out of my mouth, I sang the last lines of the psalm and implicated myself into what I believed then was hateful patriarchy and institutionalized misogyny.

Like many things that have caught me in mid-leap, this psalm started out on what I perceived to be safe ground. A song of praise to a God who has to stoop to examine his creation: He lowers himself to examine the stars, the moon, and the sun. He makes no bones about his authority over creation, and then he makes dead bones live. He tells the mountains to stand, and they obey without backtalk. He even bends low enough to build up men and women, giving love to the loveless, dignity to the depraved, and family to the refugee. But the crescendo verse brought praise to a halt for me. I choked mid-verse:

He the childless woman takes
and a joyful mother makes;
Keeping house she finds reward.
Praise Jehovah; praise the Lord!

That psalm stuck with me like a bad toothache. Its outdated embrace of patriarchy was unthinkable! I had warred against patriarchy for decades. As the daughter of a feminist, I took up my destiny with pride. Even more than my lesbian identity, my feminist identity grounded me in everything that I valued. I wasn’t a man-hater. I had women friends who were sexually partnered with men. I celebrated those male–female relationships that valued unity, interdependence, and service. And I deplored those male–female relationships that called for a woman’s submission, even if voluntary. My feminist worldview/religion declared any male–female sexual relationship that rejected unity, interdependence, and service but approved of a wife’s submission as foundational to rape culture. What God called good, I called rape.

The whole verse was unthinkable. “Keeping house she finds reward”! Absurd! How could anyone find reward in keeping house (aspiring to be a stay-at-home mother and wife)? Immediately, I jumped to the hope that this was just a bad translation or a vivid literary metaphor—one that needed some serious reining in. And so I asked the pastor’s wife. And then I asked the elders’ wives. And then I asked the other women in the church.

No one in my church apologized for this verse, and no one dismissed it as an over-extending metaphor.

Instead, Floy and the other women I asked told me that this line was both metaphor and material. It spoke of real women reflecting their relationship to Jesus by their resemblance to Jesus. And it gave a picture of God’s compassion on the solitary. My sisters reminded me that Scripture interprets Scripture. The sense and purpose and beauty of this verse had to be read in the context of Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 3:16.

And so, with the help of older sisters in the Lord, I started to study these passages. I read Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”). I beheld the dignity of this verse: that both men and women derive their image from God, not from each other. I beheld how far short my own feminist worldview stood in relation to God’s Word. The order of creation made the point: the sexes are equal in essence, and different in calling. Everything in my body and brain screamed: WRONG. Even so, a whisper in my heart craved covering by God and the covenant of church and family.

Then my sisters walked me through Genesis 3:16, God’s curse on Eve: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception. In pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” This verse was not easy to untangle. It became easier when I read it next to the parallel verse in Genesis 4:7: “Sin lies at the door, and its desire is for you,” God tells Cain. “But you should rule over it.” The literary echoes exposed how sin distorted everything—including relationships between husbands and wives. That sin’s entrance into the world produced a collision of wills within marriage is not some 1970s feminist rallying cry. It’s a logical and obvious interpretation of what total depravity reveals about my heart. The sin that Adam, our federal head, imputed to all would vex our will to do what God wants—both personally and relationally. And what does God want? He wants his first fruits—men and women—to cherish and triumph under his creation ordinance. Even as I railed against Psalm 113, some deep part of me recognized God’s Word as good—truly, uniquely good. God’s Word was real as rain. And his Word made clear that a wife’s submission in the Lord to her godly husband is part of the creation order, like it or not. (And I didn’t).

Psalm 113 did more than make me reflect on culture. It pressed me to see my lesbianism in the light of Scripture. To me, lesbianism was my identity and my preference. But lesbianism in light of Scripture is a rejection of men in general and the creation ordinance in particular. While meditating on Psalm 113, I considered how my indwelling sin of homosexuality was tightly woven into predispositions that, while not sinful in themselves, served me well as a lesbian. I exuded boldness and strength rather than gentleness and kindness. Christians are, of course, called to be bold and strong, but the ease with which I applied these attributes became something of a set-up for me, a set-up for sin and not submission. Again, sisters in the Lord were there at my side, reminding me that the fruit of the Spirit calls for “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). I was starting to see that battling the indwelling sin of homosexuality required embracing God’s intent for me to live out all of the attributes of the fruit of the Spirit, not just the ones that came easily to me. Godly womanhood started to appear not as a cookie-cutter recipe, but a particular application of God’s grace to me, with the word of truth molding the clay of my heart.

And so it was that Psalm 113 changed my life. I looked into its mirror and I saw how short I had fallen from God’s will.

But then a few years later, Psalm 113 changed my life again.

A few years after my conversion, the Lord had both changed the affections of my heart and beckoned me to embrace my role as a godly woman. And after I had poured out my heart to God, begging him to make me a godly woman, he gave me another desire: to be a godly wife to a godly husband, to submit to him as a helper to him in his work, and, if God willed, to be a mother to our children. Years fraught with strife and turmoil followed, and then I met Kent Butterfield. The Lord knitted our hearts together, and Kent proposed marriage.

Almost immediately, the world provided three divergent paths, three opposing life directions, and three mutually exclusive options that would unmistakably shape me. I could return to Syracuse University as a tenured professor of English. I could stay at Geneva College and apply for a position in administrative leadership. Or I could marry Kent Butterfield and become a church planter’s wife.

The first path was familiar. The second path was recognizable. The third path was unimaginable.

Immediately, well-intended people—Christian brothers and sisters—started to weigh in. How could a smart woman like me turn away from the work the Lord had already prepared for me? Isn’t it sinful not to use my gifts? What about the books I would never (presumably) write? One brother asked, “Why can’t you be a professor or dean or president and Kent be the stay-at-home dad?” Another one sister put it, “Do you really need a PhD to change diapers?”

The Lord led me to marry Kent and become a church planter’s wife. Kent and I have now been married for 18 years. Kent’s work moved from the church plant, to secular work, to the pastor of a small Reformed Presbyterian church. Unable to bear children of our own, the Lord allowed us to adopt four, two out of foster care at the age of 17. Today, the ages of my children span 13 to 31. I spend my days teaching my two youngest children at home, being a helper to Kent, teaching high school English in my homeschool co-op, and taking care of my three-year-old grandson on weekends or whenever my son and daughter-in-law need. God has also allowed me to write books and speak to a hostile culture about our powerful and gracious God. My hands and heart are full and overflowing.

Psalm 113 has carried me full circle. Twenty-one years ago, I railed against patriarchy, seeing submission of any kind as violence and a recipe for abuse. Today, I believe with all of my heart and mind that the only safe place in the world for a woman is as a member of a Bible-believing church, protected and covered by God through the means of faithful elders and pastors and, if God wills, a godly husband. Unimaginable joy is at the center of God’s will. Psalm 113 has been my good and faithful compass in a world filled with confusion about men, women, and family.

The inspired words of Psalm 113 are meant to be a comforting salve for the poor and barren with its call to praise the Lord in every and any circumstance. But for the unconverted, these words are folly and it completely wrecked me. And I can’t praise God enough for that.

By:
Rosaria Butterfield

Rosaria Butterfield is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University and author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown & Covenant, 2012) and Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown & Covenant, 2015).