9. Psalm 128. The Blessings of Trusting in the Lord


Audio (14:51)

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Olive Trees' (1889), oil on canvas, 36 x 29 in, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Olive Trees' (1889), oil on canvas, 36 x 29 in, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We fret about the struggles of trying to live an authentic Christian life. But when we try to be circumspect and obedient, we're criticized for being holier-than-thou. People around us -- sometimes our own families -- don't understand or care about our deeply-held values.

This psalm is designed to remind us that walking with the Lord is not all hardship. Yes, we experience those patches, but there are wonderful rewards for intimacy with our Maker. A life of following Jesus is sprinkled with blessing..

"Blessed is the one who ..." sounds like it might be out of the Proverbs or the Beatitudes. Indeed, some scholars classify Psalm 128 as a "wisdom psalm."

"A Song of Ascents

1  Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, 
who walks in his ways! 
2  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; 
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. 
3  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; 
your children will be like olive shoots around your table. 
4  Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD. 
5  The LORD bless you from Zion! 
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! 
6  May you see your children's children! 
Peace be upon Israel!" (Psalm 128:1-6, ESV)

This short psalm has a clear structure. The first lines lay out the conditions for blessing (verse 1). The next verses give examples of blessing (verses 2-4). And the psalm concludes with a strong prayer for continued blessings (verses 5-6).

Walking on the Lord's Pathways (Psalm 128:1)

"Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,  who walks in his ways!" (Psalm 128:1)

If you follow Jesus, then you're a candidate to be blessed. Yes! That's great news. While others may misunderstand this kind of life, God pours out blessings. In this case, the Hebrew for "blessed" could be rendered, "fortunate, blessed," or "O the happiness of" the person who fears the Lord.110

Verse one is a great example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism, mentioned in the Introduction, where the second line is similar to the first and often carries the thought a bit further. Here, God's people are described in two ways:

1. "Fearing the Lord" means having a healthy respect for God and what he says. This isn't abject terror in the face of an all-powerful Deity, but a recognition that he is great and we are small and thereby in no place to be rebellious. The Hebrew word can mean both "to fear" and "to revere."111 More on this on Day 11 (Psalm 130:4).

When I lived in Los Angeles, negotiating traffic was difficult. When I was downtown, trying to make a left turn was especially hard. I would edge out, constantly trying to judge whether opposing traffic would slow down for me. If I could see a car begin to hesitate, I would pull out smartly and complete my turn. But I had a rule: never turn left in front of a bus or a big truck. Why? Obviously, if one of them were to hit me, it would flatten me. This isn't terror, but healthy respect. Fearing the Lord means that I care what the Lord thinks of me. I don't ignore him, but listen and try to do what is right.

2. "Walking in his ways" means conforming my life to learning how God wants me to "walk" or live. The image here is a way or a road, a path worn by constant walking.112 It's a very common metaphor for a believer, found in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, David prays:

"Teach me your way, O LORD, 
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name." (Psalm 86:11)

The Lord commands

"Stand at the crossroads and look; 
ask for the ancient paths
ask where the good way is,
and walk in it, 
and you will find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16a)

Jesus cautions:

"The gate is narrow 
and the way is hard 
that leads to life, 
and those who find it are few." (Matthew 7:14)

For those who live with awed respect for the Lord, who will diligently seek out his paths to walk in them, there is wonderful blessing. They are blessed people, because God's way is superior to man's way.

Enjoying the Results of Your Labors (Psalm 128:2)

Now, the psalmist gives some examples of God's blessing.

"You shall eat the fruit of the labor113 of your hands; 
you shall be blessed,
and it shall be well with you." (Psalm 128:2)

Fools might take great pride in being a "self-made man," but Scripture reminds us that it isn't all up to us. As we saw on Day 8, God gives us the ability to get wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17-18a).

The prophet Haggai reminds the returnees from the Exile that, because they were diligent to build their own houses but failed to build the house of the Lord, the temple, they were seeing much of their labors wasted.

"You have sown much, and harvested little.... 
You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. 
And when you brought it home, I blew it away." (Haggai 1:6, 9)

When they disobeyed, God didn't bless them; when they obeyed, God's blessing came. In Malachi, for example, we read one of the blessings of obedience in tithing:

"I will rebuke the devourer for you, 
so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, 
and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, 
says the LORD of hosts." (Malachi 3:11)

Domestic calamities can easily wipe out any gains we make. But God's blessing can allow us to "eat the fruit of our labors." God's blessing can mean that "it will be well with you," that is "good, pleasant, delightful."114

"They shall not build and another inhabit; 
they shall not plant and another eat... 
my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands." (Isaiah 65:21-22)

The Blessing of Children (Psalm 128:3-4)

Another example of blessing is having children.

"3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; 
your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
4  Behold, thus shall the man be blessed115 who fears the LORD." (Psalm 128:3-4)

Wine and olive oil were two of Israel's most valued crops. The phrase "fruitful vine" evokes the picture of a grapevine heavy with fragrant, sweet, succulent grapes. Around an olive tree will grow up many young shoots that germinate from fallen olives. So young olive shoots are the promise of more fruitful trees in days to come.116  

You might be foolish enough to ask a mother of four little ones on a bad day if her children are a blessing to her. She might bite your head off! But as the children grow, move past the traumas of adolescence, and then bring grandchildren to enjoy, most parents and grandparents would agree that children are our greatest blessing. No, not all are blessed with children. They may experience other blessings. But surely, children can be a blessing!

A Prayer for Yahweh's Blessing (Psalm 128:5-6)

The psalm concludes with a benediction, a prayer for blessing.

"5  The LORD bless117 you from Zion! 
May you see the prosperity118 of Jerusalem all the days of your life! 
6  May you see your children's children! 
Peace119 be upon Israel!" (Psalm 128:5-6)

This Song of Ascent, sung by pilgrims on their journey up the hills to a high feast in the Holy City, brings our thoughts to Jerusalem, to Zion. It is a benediction not only upon you for a long life (to "see your children's children"), but also for peace and prosperity for Israel and for its capital of Jerusalem. As we saw on Day 3, we are to, "pray for the peace of Jerusalem!" (Psalm 122:6).

How Can My Hardships Be God's Blessing?

Does this psalm promise non-stop blessings? Does it promise wealth to all followers? Does it promise that no believers will be barren? No. It gives examples of some of the ways God may bless us as we follow him.

Sometimes you complain to God about how poorly things are going in your life. Something happens to the plumbing and you have a huge bill to pay. You say, "I don't deserve this!" What kind of blessing is this, God?

We need to look at this carefully! God can bless us, but that doesn't mean that life will always be easy. Consider David's life. He had times of blessing but also reversals and times of great hardship. God didn't put you on earth to pamper you but to form you into Christ's image.

"Endure hardship as discipline;  God is treating you as sons." (Hebrews 12:7a, NIV)

When I was a young pastor, we would call a workday and ask the men of the church to come out to help maintain the property. I can remember one day when only a single man, Les Beyea, one of our deacons, was present. Since I was the pastor I had to be there. I was fuming. Why can't others come and help with this? Why do I have to be here? At that moment, God spoke rather sharply to my heart, something like: "Shut up and let me bless you!" I didn't understand then, but I did stop my complaining. Through Les Beyea instructing me for several years on how to hang doors and fix plumbing, I became equipped to maintain my own house, and even build a new one. I didn't realize this until years later when God reminded me of his promise to bless me. He had indeed! God's blessings weren't immediately obvious, but became abundant!

A football team doesn't win by the coach being easy on the players. Practice is grueling. It toughens the players, hardens them so they are able to endure the battle on the field. This is where the Prosperity Gospel falls down. Financial prosperity is one sign of blessing. But the converse is not necessarily true. Lack of financial prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God's curse..

If Paul had more faith, would he have avoided being flogged, beat up, jailed and stoned? Of course not! Struggle is part of our lives as disciples. But I think you would agree that Paul's life was blessed and brought blessings to many.

God is preparing you, molding you, toughening you. God didn't create you to put you on a soft couch and feed you snacks in front of some celestial television. No, he is calling you to a Kingdom that is at war with a very real enemy, and he is preparing you for that battle.

Will God bless you? Absolutely! Does he bless you now? Yes. But just realize that not all blessing seems like blessing at the time.

"For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,  but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness  to those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:11, NIV)

So the next time something bad happens to you, don't instinctively call out, "I didn't need this!" What do you know? Maybe you did need this very thing for God to mold you into the person he has created you to be. There's a 1970 country song that says it well.

"I beg your pardon.

I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There's gotta be a little rain some time."120

We focus on the essentials of survival and struggle with those. But Jesus calls us to look beyond physical blessings to the world of God's kingdom.

"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, 
and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:31)

God will take care of you! You have Jesus' word on it!

Prayer

Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in PDF, and Kindle formats only US $2.99.

Father, thank you for your blessings. And thank you also for the stormy days that mold us and equip us for your purposes for our lives. Teach us to trust you, so that we won't grasp for blessings, but receive them from your gracious hand, in your own time. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Meditation

Day 9 Meditation (Psalm 128). What does it mean to "fear the Lord"? What kinds of blessings has God showered over your life? Why does he allow remaining struggles? Does faith always result in prosperity? How do you define prosperity? http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1908-9-blessings/

Endnotes

Abbreviations and References

[110] "Blessed" is the interjection ʾashērî, "fortunate, blessed is (he who)" (Holladay, p. 31),  usually understood as the masculine plural construct of the noun ʾesher. It has the idea of "O the happiness(es) of." The verb ʾāshar in the Piel stem means "to bless," a synonym of bārak with some differences. Bārak is the word usually used when God blesses, whereas ʾāshar is reserved for man and a word of envious desire, "to be envied with desire is the man who trusts in the Lord." God never pronounces a man "blessed" (ʾashrê). With bārak, the initiative comes from God; man doesn't have to deserve it. To be blessed (ʾashrê), man has to do something. Finally, bārak is a benediction, ʾāshar more of a congratulation (Victor P. Hamilton, ʾāshar, TWOT #183a).

[111] "Fears" is yārēʾ, "fearing, afraid," from the verb yārēʾ, "fear, be afraid, revere." Bowling discerns five categories of meaning for this word: 1) the emotion of fear, 2) the intellectual anticipation of evil without emphasis upon the emotional reaction, 3) reverence or awe, 4) righteous behavior or piety, and 5) formal religious worship. He notes that in several passages, "fearing" and proper living are so closely related as to be virtually synonymous ideas (Leviticus 19:14; Leviticus 25:17; 2 Kings 17:34; Deuteronomy 17:19). It is plausible that this usage of 'to fear' as a virtual synonym for righteous living or piety grew out of viewing 'fear' in any of the senses above as the motivation which produced righteous living. I think Psalm 128:1 is in this category.

[112] "Ways" is the plural of derek, "way, road," which refers first to a path worn by constant walking (from dārak "to tread, trample"). Metaphorically, derek often refers to the actions and behavior of men, who either follow the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Herbert Wolf, TWOT #453a).

[113] "Labor" is yegîaʿ, "toil." The primary meaning of the root verb yāgēaʿ is "to work until one is tired and exhausted" (TWOT #842e).

[114] "Be/go well" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "prosperity" (NIV), "prosperous" (NJB) is ṭôb, "good," which can cover quite a range -- "good, pleasant, beautiful, delightful, glad, joyful, precious, correct, righteous." (TWOT #793a).

[115] "Blessed" is the Pual stem of bārak, "to bless."

[116] "Shoots" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "plants" (KJV) is shātîl. Allen (Psalms 101-150, p. 185) sees these as "suckers springing up around the old olive tree." The lexicons see this as a cutting or transplanted shoot. But in all of the Old Testament, this word only occurs here, and derives from shātal, "to plant, transplant." So I think the noun in our verse means simply "plants" (TWOT #2480a; Holladay, p. 385; BDB 1060).

[117] "Bless" is the Piel stem of bārak, "to bless." In the Piel stem it  means, "bestow power for success, prosperity, fertility" (Holladay, p. 49). This is similar to bārak in verse 4, but a different word than "blessed" (ʾashērî) in verse 1. (See the footnote on Psalm 128:1.)

[118] "Prosperity" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "good" (KJV) is ṭûb, "good things, goodness." It probably refers here to economic, material good to desirability, pleasantness, beauty, as well as peace (shālôm), that is specified in verse 6 (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #793b).

[119] "Peace" is shālôm, not only an absence of conflict, but "peace, prosperity, well, health, completeness, safety" -- wholeness (G. Lloyd Carr, TWOT #2401a).

[120] "Rose Garden" was written by Joe South in 1968 and popularized by Lynn Anderson in a 1970 hit recording.

Copyright © 2020, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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