Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134
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Vincent Van Gogh, 'Noon Rest from Work (after Millet)' (1889-90), oil on canvas, 73 x 91 cm., Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Psalm 127 is alive with images -- house building, town security, anxious toil, and quivers of arrows. It's a psalm about putting your trust in the Lord, rather than acting as if it all depends upon you. It is about the all-important work-rest balance.
"A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake 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 to his beloved sleep.
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate." (Psalm 127:1-5, ESV)
Psalm 127 is ascribed to Solomon. Many scholars classify this as a "wisdom psalm," similar to other Wisdom literature of the Old Testament -- Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Since Solomon collected most of the Proverbs and authored Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, it's not surprising that this psalm falls into this category.
Psalm 127 can be divided into two parts. Verses 1 and 2 talk about diligence in everyday affairs of life, and verses 3 to 5 discuss the blessing of children. As we study the psalm we begin to discern what ties these two parts together.
"Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain." (Psalm 127:1a)
The first task the psalmist describes is building93 a house -- construction. Back in Bible days, building a house wasn't so technical that only experts could be involved. In a rocky land like Israel, you might send the children out to find appropriately sized rocks or boulders and then haul them to the site. If not, you'd make mud-dried bricks. You'd begin construction by carefully laying the foundations, so the house could withstand both earthquakes and the sometimes heavy winter rains. Then you'd meticulously stack boulders on top of the foundation to build the walls up to about six feet or so (a bit under 2 meters).
You'd need at least one timber for a beam to span the width of the house for the flat roof supported by a post or two. Then you'd cut smaller branches to form joists that would span between the walls and the central beam. You'd cover this with brushwood, then coat the top with a mixture of mud and straw that was rolled to compact it and avoid too many leaks. Finally, you might plaster the walls both within and without with mud and give them a good coat of whitewash.94
Doors and windows required greater skill with woodworking. Perhaps you'd get some help from the village carpenter to assist with these openings and closures, as well as with a bar on the inside to prevent the door from being forced open at night.
All this was hard work. The Hebrew word suggests the drudgery of toil.95 We work hard to create a home for our families. Now the wisdom:
"Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain." (Psalm 127:1a)
If we rely only on our own efforts and not God's help, it's silly. The Hebrew word denotes "emptiness, vanity," anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally.96 We might say that building our house without relying on the Lord is a waste of time. And that doesn't just apply to our physical houses; the Hebrew word for "house" also denotes one's "household, family,"97 as we'll see in verses 4 and 5.
Moses warns the Israelites about an attitude that takes undue credit for one's success:
"Beware lest you say in your heart,
'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.'
You shall remember the LORD your God,
for it is he who gives you power to get wealth." (Deuteronomy 8:17-18a)
The second common task is providing security for our families. That's why an Israelite would bar the wooden door at night to keep out robbers. Many houses would be built behind city walls secured at night by heavy gates to provide further safety. Watchmen would be posted on the city walls and perhaps in the streets to watch for attacks or night raids. (More about watchmen on Day 11, Psalm 130:6.) From earliest times, security has been important. But the psalmist warns us:
Even though we are responsible to provide for family and community security, we must put our trust in the Lord, not just in our preparations. The psalmist doesn't tell us not to build houses nor ensure security. We must! But we must not trust in them, so that we rely only on ourselves and not on God. Locks and keys, walls and gates and surveillance video may have their place in your security preparations. Police and fire departments are vital to safe communities. But the best security possible is no substitute for trusting in the Lord. For unless the Lord watches over us, none of our human protection efforts will be enough.
Notice that the psalmist doesn't say not to build houses and not to provide security. We must. But we do this in tandem with faith. Taking necessary precautions doesn't show lack of faith; it is part of the outworking of our faith.
These two important areas of life -- housing and security -- represent all the needs of our lives. We aren't adequate to make a life without reliance on Yahweh.
Now the psalmist turns to fretful, fear-driven habits of constant work that imagine our livelihood depends only on us.
"It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep." (Psalm 127:2)
I don't know about you, but one of my success mechanisms has always been to work hard -- harder than anyone else would be willing to work. It hasn't always been a healthy balance.
Yes, having a good work ethic is important. And certainly, many of the Bible proverbs applaud hard work (Proverbs 6:6-11; 18:9 etc.). But our psalmist is talking about food brought through hardship and pain. The ESV's "anxious toil" captures the kind of fearful desperation that sometimes motivates our labors.100 There is a time to work and a time to sleep, a balance gained from trusting the Lord to meet our needs, rather than thinking it all depends on us.
The psalmist has been talking about trusting God when building, guarding, and earning a living. Part of building a "house" involves building a "household" or "family." The Hebrew word for "house" is used in both ways.
Some couples struggle with having children -- fertility problems. Barrenness was a struggle for some families in Bible days. But we may forget that before birth control became widely available, people also worried about having too many children -- more than they could feed. Women complained about being mere baby-machines. The psalmist reminds us to trust the Lord in this area of our lives too.
"Behold, children101 are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward." (Psalm 127:3)
More children in an already-full household can seem overwhelming. So we're told to see children as part of our spiritual heritage,102 little people whom God gives us. They are also to be thought of as a "reward," a valued remuneration from God himself.103
But we can barely provide for the children we have! some parents might protest. Kidner says helpfully:
"It is not untypical of God's gifts that first they are liabilities, or at least responsibilities, before they become obvious assets. The greater their promise, the more likely that these sons will be a handful before they are a quiverful."104
And so the psalmist reminds us of how valuable the children will be to us as they grow and mature.
"4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior105 are the children of one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!" (Psalm 127:4-5a)
The psalmist is using military terms here: "warrior" and "arrow." He also hints at the help of your family when it comes to enemies trying to take advantage of you in court proceedings.
In an ancient Hebrew city, "the gate" refers to the whole gate complex, built for security and defense, and the open area on either side of it. The gate was the location where the elders gathered to discuss civil matters concerning the city, as well as to decide court cases, both criminal and civil. The open area around the city gate was a place where people congregated and encompassed the marketplace.108
So when your enemies accuse you "at the gate," in front of the city elders who will judge your case, decisions are not governed by law only, but are subject to political and social influences as well. As in Jesus' parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), the widow, orphan, or foreigner is at a human disadvantage due to a lack of social clout.109 But with a band of grown children at your side, your enemies aren't likely to prevail over you "at the gate."
As we have seen, this psalm is about learning to trust God and, thus, rest in him, rather than working ourselves to death, being fearful of people breaking into our houses, or having too many children.
Jesus talks about this balance of work and trust in the Sermon on the Mount.
"Do not be anxious about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
nor about your body, what you will put on.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
... Do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?'
or 'What shall we drink?'
or 'What shall we wear?'
For the Gentiles seek after all these things,
and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:25, 31-33)
If we can get the faith part right, then we can live without losing our joy. And sleep at night. Perhaps one line encompasses the fruit of the trust that Jesus calls us to:
"He gives to his beloved sleep." (Psalm 127:2b)
May God help you balance trust with diligence, so that you can enjoy the Lord in your life.
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Lord, as I look back, so much of my activity was self-effort, long on hard work and short on prayer. Help me, help us to achieve the balance of hard work with trust so that we can be co-workers with you. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Day 8 Meditation (Psalm 127). Why is work without trust inadequate? Why is trust without work an illusion? How can we achieve the kind of balance that affords us good rest? Why do you think the psalmist stresses that children are both a "heritage" and a "reward"? http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1907-8-resting/
 "Build" (which occurs twice in verse 1) is bānâ, "build, rebuild," of construction to houses, cities, towers, altars, etc., and idiomatically, to bring about increase in offspring (Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #255).
 Adrianus Van Selms, "Build," ISBE 1:554; Archibald Campbell Dickie and J. Barton Payne, "House," ISBE 2:770-772.
 "Labor" is ʿāmal, "labor, work, toil." Other major terms include ʿābad "to work, serve," and ʿāśâ "to make, do, work." ʿāmal is used less often than those two verbs, and is employed often with the nuance of the drudgery of toil rather than the nobility of labor (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1639).
 Victor P. Hamilton, shāwʾ, TWOT #2388a.
 "House" is bayit, "house, household, home, place, temple, et al." (TWOT #241).
 "Watches" (ESV, NIV), "guards" (NRSV), "keep" (KJV) is shāmar, "keep, guard, observe." The basic idea of the root is "to exercise great care over." Here it has the idea, "take care of, guard" (TWOT #2414).
 Shāqad, "watch, wake," with an emphasis on alertness (Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2451).
 "Eating the bread of anxious toil" (ESV, NRSV), "toiling for food to eat" (NIV), "eat the bread of sorrows" (KJV), "eat the bread of painful labors" (NASB), "sweating to make a living" (NJB), includes leḥem, "bread, food," and the plural of ʿeṣeb, "sorrow, labor," from ʿaṣab, "grieve, displease, vex," relating to physical pain as well as to emotional sorrow (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1666a). "Hardship, pain" (Holladay, 280, 1). The same word is used in Genesis 3:16 -- "In pain shall you bring forth children."
 "Sons" is probably better read as "children," since the plural of bēn, "son," can refer more generally to children as well as descendants. "It is basically but not exclusively a reference to the male offspring of human parents. It is also used idiomatically for children generally, for descendants (Elmer A. Martens, TWOT #54).
 "Heritage" (ESV, NRSV, NIV, KJV), "gift" (NASB), "birthright" (NJB) is naḥalâ, "inheritance, heritage, possession," from the verb nāḥal that basically signifies giving or receiving property which is part of a permanent possession and as a result of succession. The noun basically connotes that which is or may be passed on as an inheritance, that which is one's by virtue of ancient right, and that which is one's permanently (Leonard J. Copps, TWOT #1342a).
 "Reward" is śākār, "hire, wages." The basic idea of the word is engaging the services of a person in return for pay (Cleon Rogers, TWOT #2264.1b).
 Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 442.
 "Warrior" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "mighty man" (KJV) is gibbôr, "mighty man," from gābar, "be mighty, have strength, be great" (TWOT #310b). "Man" in verse 5 is geber, "man" also derives from this verb (TWOT #310a).
 "Be ashamed" is bôsh, "be ashamed, put to shame, disconcerted, disappointed." The primary meaning of this root is "to fall into disgrace, normally through failure, either of self or of an object of trust" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #222).
 "Speaks" (ESV, NRV, KJV, NASB), "contend with" (NIV), "in dispute with" (NJB) is the extremely common verb dābar, "speak, declare," but the word has a wide breadth and can be used in many contexts, such as "warn, threaten, dispute with," etc. (Earl S. Kalland, TWOT #399).
 "Gate" is shaʿar. The city gate was extremely important in the life of the people, for social, administrative, and business intercourse took place there (Genesis 23:10, 18; Deuteronomy 21:19; Joshua 20:4; Ruth 4:1; 2; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Kings 7:1; Proverbs 31:23; Nehemiah 8:1, 3). The square (often a threshing floor) in front of the gate was the most natural congregating place. Court decisions took place there (Amos 5:15; Proverbs 22:22; Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2437a).
 Deuteronomy 10:18; 27:19; Psalm 82:3-4; Proverbs 31:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; 8:16; etc.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ