07 June 2017: Psalm 127 (Part 2) | “God’s Blessing in the Home” | Tim Rist
God’s Blessings in the Home
A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
1 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.
2 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.
3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 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.
“Psalm 127 centers on our relationship with God, and in the lived wisdom of the author, the psalm advocates that without God at its center – our family life; our place in the community; and in our daily work are an exercise in futility!” (Joan Stott: The Timeless Psalms – Prayers and Meditations: 2015).
Psalm 127 belongs in the middle set of psalms (Psalms 125-129) within the larger collection of ‘Psalms of Ascents’. This middle set relates to a time when Israel has settled in the promised land and faces new difficulties there.
To recap: verses 1-2 the focus was on “vain labour”.
The theme for today is “A heritage from the Lord” (vs.3-5) – our second Wisdom saying.
The heritage here is family, and children are the wealth, strength, of the family unit [deep cultural significance during the time of the Psalmist i.e. children were a sign of God’s blessing, barrenness a sign of judgement see Gen 17.15 ff. The Davidic dynasty in general, and Solomon’s reign, were both blessed with many sons – it was both a sign of God’s blessing on their household and the military strength of the dynasty. However, beware – patriarchal focus in OT. The strength of the nation lies in the family. The family is a heritage from Yahweh, and this is the same language used to describe the blessing of the promised land – which is a “heritage from Yahweh”:
1 Kings 8:53 (NRSVA)
“For you have separated them from among all the peoples of the earth, to be your heritage, just as you promised through Moses, your servant, when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt, O Lord God.’”
Children are part of the inheritance, the heritage, Israel will receive from the Lord.
And in verses 3-5 the poet at least implies that those who try to have children will fail unless God blesses their efforts. Children are not, in other words, just the product of sexual intimacy. The poet refers to them as a “reward” from the Lord.
In fact, in vivid if puzzling language, verses 4 and 5 refer to children, especially sons, as a form of parental protection. The Psalmist says they’re like “arrows in the hands of a warrior.” In the Psalmist’s day God’s gift of sons brought their parents a form of security. The sons are compared with the arrows in the hand of a warrior (perhaps this military imagery is uncomfortable?). The sons will be able to defend him like a weapon when he is getting old and needs support. The larger a family, the less it was subject to, for example, that misfortune that comes from not having enough workers to help feed the family. What’s more, if a father had to go to court at the city gate, a large number of sons would serve as a large pool of potential witnesses, and secure victory from the challenges he might face from enemies and those who give false testimony against him! (Deut 17:5).
A sobering reminder: if God is not part of the heritage then the heritage itself is “in vain” (1 Kings 11:1-13).
So, what does all of this mean for us?
It serves as a vivid reminder that while work is a central human activity, even the hardest work doesn’t guarantee its success. Even the most vigorous, sustained work doesn’t always provide what’s needed. Think of people who try to hold down two or three jobs just to make ends meet for their families. Think too of those who try to scratch out a living out of dry, infertile soil. Wealth or even comfortable living is not the automatic result of hard work. Productive work is a blessing from God [People trapped in poverty?]
In fact, while Psalm 127 refers to a limited number of activities that are meaningless unless God blesses them, an Old Testament Scholar, Van Leeuwen, points out that those activities are symbolic of all human cultural efforts that are made in service to the Lord. When, after all, we build houses, we use materials such as wood and stone that God created. What’s more, we fill our homes with things from throughout God’s creation. The city to which verse 1 refers also symbolizes the ways we organize our world and people. Those cities have political, social, and economic elements, as well as cultural activities. Psalm 127’s symbolism offers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kinds of activities that fail, “are in vain”, without God’s accompanying blessing.
Interesting questions to consider:
If the various houses we build, whether they’re homes, families, churches, or some other human organization somehow fail, does that mean God has failed to bless them?
If all our hard work fails to provide the food our families and loved ones need, does that mean that God has withheld God’s blessing from us?
And, perhaps most poignantly, what about people who don’t have the “arrow” that is even one child, much less a “quiver full of” children? Has God turned God’s face away from them?
It is for this reason some scholars translate what the NIV translates as “blessed” in verse 7 as “happy.” “Blessed,” after all, implies a kind of divine favour or even reward. “Happy” speaks of an emotional state, a response to the kind of circumstance that many children can produce. Verse 7 doesn’t imply those who don’t have children are the objects of God’s disfavour. Instead the psalmist suggests they are, at least sometimes, simply “less happy”.
The central message of Psalm 127 is what we must emphasize: any blessing we experience in our family, community and cultural lives is not the product of our hard work, careful planning, or righteous living – alone. It’s the result of God’s rich blessing. Success in any of those areas, focused in the correct way on God, doesn’t allow any kind of arrogance or smugness to breed. It breeds, instead, by the work of the Holy Spirit, a life of humble thanksgiving to the Lord, the giver of life and all good things.
[Prayer for families]
The Psalms: Artur Weiser: pg. 763-767: 1962: SCM Press
Stepping Up: Beth Moore: pg. 92-96: 2007: Lifeway Press
Howard Wallace: http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au
Bob Deffinbaugh: https://bible.org/seriespage/15-psalm-127-word-workaholics