31/05/2017: Psalm 127: Labour in Vain Tim Rist

Psalm 127 (NRSVA)

God’s Blessings in the Home

A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA) New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This Psalm is difficult to preach and teach as it does not follow the traditional pattern of “call” and “promises” of so many of the other Psalms, and in fact seems a lot more like Ecclesiastes or Proverbs. This is often why some scholars attribute the authorship of the Psalm to Solomon[1].

There is debate as to the authorship of this Psalm. There is a view that the title “Of Solomon” is an allusion to the words “his beloved” (vs 2) as a reference to Solomon’s name “Jedidiah” (‘beloved of Yahweh’ – 2 Sam.12:25)[2]. This view contributes to the debate that Solomon wrote the Psalm.

The Psalm falls into two parts which appear to be quite unrelated in their content, for example (vs 1,2) point out the significance of God’s presence in human life, while verses (3-5) praise God for his blessings shown in the great number of children. Both these parts are in the form of an enlarged “Wisdom saying” and have been combined here into one a single Psalm. [e.g. (vs.1) with Proverbs 10:22][3]. Solomon is regarded as the author of the Old Testament Wisdom sayings and therefore this view supports his authorship of this Psalm (Psalm 72 is another that supports this type of analysis of authorship).

In the Wisdom sayings, the author makes a statement to illustrate a general truth by making use of examples. Think again of the style of Proverbs. This Psalm follows this pattern; the truth is that God rewards and expects hard work from his people; but he must never be excluded from the process of work itself! God is involved in all the actions of everyday life, and people are not to exclude him. Going it alone each day, excluding God from the process is to “labour in vain!” The poet is determined to get this point home.

This week we will examine (vs.1-2) with the emphasis being on “Vain Labour”.


Psalm 127 teaches a fundamental human dependence on God for life’s most basic tasks. It speaks of the futility of human activity without God’s accompanying blessing. Unless, the poet writes, God builds a house, construction workers do their work in vain. Recall here Jesus’ words about wise and foolish homebuilders (Matth 7:24ff.).

There is also a view that “the house” of (vs.1) could refer to the building of the Temple (this is the Rabbinical view). The general terms used in the language however, imply that building a house may have wider application. For example: Some point to Ruth 4’s reference to Rachel and Leah who, by making a family, “built up” the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). With a New Testament view in mind too, the house of (vs.1) could also refer to Christ’s Church, or in our times – local churches. The consensus is that God must be part of the building process – any process of “building” while excluding God is useless and in vain (remember the Tower of Babel – Gen.11:1-9).

The poet also notes that unless God watches over a city, its night watchmen might as well sleep! Eugene Peterson’s vivid imagery, “If God doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap”[4]. Security makes no sense without God’s involvement. God is the ultimate protector safety of the home and the city cannot be left to human endeavour alone.


The psalmist goes on to add that unless God blesses the work of gathering food, it too is “in vain” [remember Genesis 3:17’s “curse” on the ground].

The judgement “in vain” is mentioned three times; and is done to emphasise human-kinds “God-less” activities – this approach is both “sinister and shattering”[5]. This is to renounce an attitude of mind “which is so absorbed in work and worries that it loses sight of God’s providence and his effect on life”.[6]

Remember, the Psalmist is not saying that hard work is wrong, we are expected to work hard; rather all work that “leaves God out of the process” is wrong and therefore sinful!

Sinful behaviour and actions are destructive. Think of the obsession with work and the accumulating of wealth and possessions in our modern times, without God, and the subsequent cost to family health, marriages, the decline of ethics and morals within society etc. A society (nation) that works hard to build itself – without God’s involvement – “labours in vain”.

Leaving our thoughts here – would be to do the Psalm an injustice. The Hebrew way of debate was to present the argument and encourage to alternate view as being the one to engage. For example, if hard work excluding God, is in vain…then hard work including God, is the blessing! The right attitude according to the Psalmist is to get human-kind to acknowledge their weakness in the presence of God, to prevent the pride of self-sufficiency based on an independence of God’s involvement in life.

Without God, work becomes hardship and care becomes anxious worry – or stress!! This way of life has no ultimate meaning or purpose. Living in a way that trust’s God’s involvement, that acknowledges God’s involvement in all spheres of work and family life – “grants sleep to those he loves”!

Time to pray it!

[1] Doug Bratt: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-27b/?type=the_lectionary_psalms

[2] G.W. Anderson: Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (pg.440):1962: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

[3] Weiser: The Psalms: (pg.764): 1962: SCM Press

[4] Psalm 127:vs 1b: The Message: Eugene Peterson: 2002

[5] Weiser: (pg.765): 1962: SCM Press

[6] Ibid.