Unless the LORD Builds the House | Psalm 127

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.
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.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
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 ESV

 

Being the eighth of fifteen psalms, we are now midway through the Songs of Ascents. Establishing that these psalms can generally be divided into five groups of three, we discussed previously that these center three psalms are concerned with how our pilgrimage to New Jerusalem will shape and transform our ordinary day-to-day lives, and within Psalm 127, Solomon provides us with a thought-provoking song about work and family. The psalm is clearly divided into two main sections (verses 1-2 and 3-5), so we will address each separately before attempting to connect them together at the end.

IN VAIN YOU STRIVE

Work’s vanity without the LORD is the thesis of our first stanza. Verse 1 gives two paralleling images that form one united truth. Building a house is futile labor unless God Himself is its builder, and a watchman’s vigilant guard is worthless unless God is the city’s true protector. Solomon is clearly emphasizing our dire need for God’s support and protection above all else.

But is that really true?

Surely many homes built long ago by someone with no concern for the LORD endured long years or even still stand today. Although not a home, my wife visited a Buddhist temple in East Asia that was 3000 years old. That shrine to idols was built before this psalm was written and is still standing today. Their labor does not seem to be in vain.

Furthermore, how many wickedly corrupt cities and nations have triumphed brutally over lesser ones throughout history. Why did God allow the terroristic warfare of the Assyrians to spread so wide across the globe? Why did He permit the Christian city of Constantinople to fall to the Turks? Why does He today tolerate the beatings and beheadings of His church in lands that were once predominately Christian?

How are we then to understand this verse? We should first note the careful wording. Solomon does not say that without the LORD’s intervention a house cannot be built nor can a city be guarded. Both are certainly possible. Instead, he is claiming that doing so is in vain, which is a fitting word for Solomon to use when he is traditionally held as the author of Ecclesiastes. Building a house and guarding a city without the LORD is vanity because there is no lasting meaning without God. The truth that Ecclesiastes bombards us with is that even the greatest human achievements are a vapor in the air. In the span of eternity, our supreme efforts are worthless and futile. Of the wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids of Egypt still stand, and even then, of what use are they? Majestic they may be, but ultimately their grandeur is no more than a requiem to fallen kingdom, a mere reminder of the once-great.

Nevertheless, the episode of Babel is stuck on repeat. We build monuments to our excellence, attempting to prove our independence from God, yet in the end He stoops down to each one, asking, “Is that all?” Even the glories of a 3000-year-old stronghold of demons is a blink of eye in the light of eternity, when only God’s glory will remain.

Yet the fleeting nature of a house or city does not mean that we should forsake building and guarding them. Solomon is not calling us to the monastic lifestyle of striving to live without physical comforts and securities. We are dust animated by God’s own breath. We are of the earth by the Creator’s design; therefore, we need shelter, a place to call home. Further, we need the shelter of each other, so we congregate into cities. We gather as communities for friendship and protection. Building a house is good. Guarding our city, likewise, is good. They cannot, however, be ends unto themselves. Life’s vanity is only transcended by living for and according to God’s design.

How is this so?

Only the works of God can endure forever. As C. T. Studd wrote, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” His kingdom alone will stand throughout eternity, while every other monument, temple, and edifice will crumple into dirt. 10 billion years from now the 3000-year demonic rule over a stretch of land will seem to have passed by in the blink of an eye. Jesus’ command to seek God’s kingdom first, therefore, is unabashedly practical. Even as we do such mundane tasks like building a house or looking out for the good of our city, we must submit that very labor to the LORD, for the good of His reign, so that He works through us as we work. As He then supplies the strength for the work, He receives the glory for its completion. And because His kingdom is of first importance, our work will never prove unfruitful (even if it may appear so for a length of time).

Verse 2 then describes how this truth should affect our work in the day-to-day. Anxious toil is not befitting of God’s laborers. Work is good. In Eden, God issued jobs to Adam and Eve. They were to be God’s managers over the earth, cultivating the earth to reflect the garden and multiplying to spread God’s image across the planet. The LORD made us for work; sin has simply corrupted it, making it more difficult. We, therefore, must not shirk labor but, rather, meet it head on. To not work, after all, would be to go against God’s created order.

Yet even in working, we have opportunity to sin. Even though our work is meant to imitate God’s creation further into the world, we often use our very reflection of His character to assert ourselves as the creators, as gods who fashion the world as we see fit. Thus, by the very act for echoing God we aim to rid ourselves of Him. In other words, we frequently tend to be come self-reliant as we work.

Such self-reliance is idolatry, a declaration of self as divinity. Solomon describes the symptoms of this disease: getting up early to work, going to bed late from work, anxious toil becoming one’s daily bread. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with waking up early or going to bed late; the crux is in the reasoning. If we are burning the candle at both ends in a desperate bid to earn our own security, our work has become sinful. We are trusting in the steadfastness of our own hands, not in the faithfulness of the LORD.

God’s people are contrasted as receiving sleep as God’s gift. Sleep and rest are necessary components to a proper theology of work precisely because they keep us humble. While ceasing from work, we are forced to face the reality that we are not God. The universe is not upheld by our power, and it will survive our inactivity. Death exemplifies this idea even further. After a loved one passes, we grieve and mourn, but life moves on. For the doctor, it’s another pronouncement. For the funeral home, it’s another client. For the acquaintances, it’s a “he/she will be missed.” Eventually, even for those closest, an altered normal begins. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). If the world will survive our final passing, how much more can it bear our rest? As God’s people, we know that we can sleep and rest from our labors because our trust is not upon our own ability but upon God’s. May we, thereby, give glory to God with both our work and our rest.

CHILDREN ARE A REWARD

The blessing of children is the grand theme of verses 3-5. The images are overwhelmingly positive. Children are an inheritance from the LORD. Children are a reward. Children are like arrows for a warrior. Children are a blessing. Children guard us from being shamed by enemies. Why such exuberance over children? They demand your time, energy, and money. You become fully responsible for the life and care of fellow human beings during their most vulnerable stage of life. They drastically cut into your free and alone time. They will defy you, rebel against you, and fight against you, often in the simplest of things. They’re messy and destructive, loud and unpredictable. In less than two weeks, my wife and I will take an anniversary trip without our daughter. A few nights ago, my wife mentioned that we would be able to sleep in during this trip. I almost began to cry. Such is life with children.

Yet despite the difficulties of childrearing, the Scriptures fully regard them as a blessing. To bring children into the world is to fulfill the cultural mandate of God, the First Commission. As a new human is born, God’s image is further seen. Sin, of course, makes it so that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15), but that does not negate the goodness of propagating life. God’s image upon mankind may be marred by sin, but we each still bear it. The growth and spreading of humanity are the good designs of the LORD.

Unfortunately, not many believe such things any longer. The increasingly influential Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said,

There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead, I think young people, to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children? And I mean, not just financially, because people are graduating with $20, $30, $100,000 dollars of student loan debt, so they can’t even afford to have children in the house. But also just a basic moral question, what do we do. And even if you don’t have kids, there are still children here in the world, and we have a moral obligation to them. To leave a better world for them.

From people like Ocasio-Cortez who are entertaining childlessness on the grounds of “morality” to the rise of anti-natalism[1] as a philosophical worldview, western society is becoming increasingly anti-children. As Christians, it can become easy to fixate upon certain elements of this ideology (i.e. abortion), yet they are simply individual heads of the hydra. Granted, some of the beast’s heads are deadlier and more grotesque than others (certainly like abortion or pedophilia), but we must never lose sight of the whole monster. The general negative attitude toward the very idea of children, the denigration of childrearing as a primary calling, and the idolatry of comfort provide the well fertilized ground for seeds like abortion to grow.

Even the change in wording, from childrearing to parenting, reflects our “modern” mentality. The linguistic shift reveals the primacy of the parent. Someone might interject with the opinion that children have never been more carefully raised as they are today. Yet the root of much “helicopter parenting” is, I believe, ultimately parent-centered. The notion of childrearing, however, implicitly sets our focus toward the growth[2] of the child.

For all the value that secular humanism claims to place upon humankind, statistics reflect the reality, and as birth rates continue to plummet, anti-natalism increasingly comes to the forefront. The Bible opposed to such thoughts. Yes, our children will require our time, attention, and patience. Yes, they will experience the pain and suffering of life. No, we are not promised that they will not stray from the LORD. Yet even so, the simple reality that children are a blessing still stands.

If nothing else (although there certainly is much more), raising a child helps us understand the character of God better, while also enabling us to better reflect His nature. Every time I begin to lose patience with my daughter I quickly remind myself of God’s endless and fatherly grace toward me. How can I not be loving, even in my discipline, toward her when God is so loving to me? Furthermore, how can we claim the moral high ground for not having children because of pain, suffering, or anything else when God chose to create us, even knowing that we would sin against Him and that He would die to save us? Perhaps there is no greater argument for the blessing of children than this: selflessly pouring out our love upon those who can never pay us back is a blessing because in doing so, we reflect and become like our Father. The gospel should be clearly visible to the world around us through our love for our children.

There is plenty more that we could say regarding the blessedness of children, yet for the sake of time, I will simply ask this question: Do you believe it?

BUILDING A HOME IN BABYLON

Before diving into Psalm 126, we spent time reading Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles and considering how we too are living as exiles. We then discussed how the Indigenous Principle is at tension with the Pilgrim Principle in the life of Christ’s followers. As we now briefly attempt to view this psalm as whole, I want us to return to that very conversation.

In Jeremiah’s letter, God told the exiles to spend their time in Babylon building houses, planting gardens, and having children. In the midst of these things, He told them to seek the welfare of the city. He commanded them to live their lives and do good to the Babylonians around them. Through these ordinary actions, God would bless them and use them to bless those around them. This is God’s normal mode of operations. Many look for God to work through burning bushes, fire falling from heaven, and treatises nailed to doors, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Consider Rome’s view on infanticide. Rome’s founder, Romulus, issued the generous law that no child under three could be killed unless he was deformed. So the practice of leaving unwanted infants to die of exposure in trash heaps became a common fixture of Roman life. The advent of Christianity, however, inserted a wrench into infanticide’s wheels, and within a few centuries, the practice was virtually eliminated in the western world.

How did Christians achieve such a feat, such a dramatic shifting of cultural norms? They did it by regularly visiting garbage dumps to rescue and adopt abandoned babies. Yet that practice cost more than just having another mouth to feed. Tertullian wrote against a pervasive rumor that Christians were “accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it” (Apology, 7.1). The spread of this conspiracy theory gave a further degree of credibility to the official waves of persecution.

Yet one baby, one family, one generation at a time, the early Christians methodically created a culture of life that swallowed up the culture of death. For more than a millennium, we have walked in the fruit of their labors, fruit that we now watch being burned. Like our brothers and sisters before us, it is not enough for us to be anti-abortion or even pro-life; we must fundamentally be pro-children. We must not merely defend the abstract concept of life; we must spread it.

As alluded to in both sections, this psalm is in many ways a poetic meditation upon the First Commission. Work and have children. That was the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve. By doing so, they would act as God’s steward over the earth, cultivating the earth and filling it with His image. As Christians, we’ve been given another commission, to make disciples of all the nations. The Great Commission is the cultural mandate of the new creation, of the God’s kingdom. As we make disciples, we cultivate the earth into the kingdom of heaven by filling the earth with God’s children, followers of Christ.

Even still, the Great Commission does not negate the First Commission. Not everyone will have children for various reasons, and not everyone will be physically able to work. Nevertheless, the cultural mandate still stands. Often, both commissions will be filled together. We win the inhabitants of Babylon for Christ, one child, one family, one generation at a time.

Of course, this isn’t to say that missions into unreached lands is not important. It absolutely is! Yet still, the goal of these mission endeavors is still to establish local churches made up of believing households that reach other households with the gospel and plant more churches.

If we view ourselves as the protagonist in our walk with Christ, we will easily become disheartened that we cannot do enough for God’s kingdom. If, however, we place ourselves within the scope of God’s unfolding hand in history, we quickly understand that we are standing upon the shoulders of the millions and millions of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, and by God’s grace, we will help prepare the way for those who will follow after us. Collectively, His kingdom advances further than any one of us can do alone, and it advances primarily through the ordinary and daily faithfulness of His followers.

May we, therefore, build houses and do good to the Babylon around us, praying for the LORD to advance His kingdom through our work and rest.

May we have children and not decrease, both physical and spiritual, discipling the nations by first discipling our households.

May the LORD bless the ordinary work of our hands and use it for the extraordinary proclamation of the name of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.


[1] Anti-natalism is essentially an extension of hedonism that believes the greatest path to avoiding pain would be to simply stop having children altogether. David Benatar’s book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is an introduction to this philosophy.

[2] Not primarily the protection of and provision for the child. It seems that there also exists a lack of intentionality in modern-day parenting as expressed through a failure to continuously shepherd a child toward adulthood.

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