Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
As we continue our journey through the Songs of Ascents, we now arrive at the conclusion of the center “trilogy” within the collection. Although these Pilgrim Songs largely meditate upon the pilgrimage of life, these psalms explore how everyday life is a part of that journey.
YOU SHALL BE BLESSED
The predominate theme of Psalm 128 is the promise of being blessed. The word itself occurs four times within these six verses, and the verses that do not contain it (verses 3 and 6) describe the condition of being blessed. It would seem, therefore, most fitting for us to begin by defining what it means to be blessed.
It’s not hard to find people who are blessed. The secular world is obsessed with blessedness, as evidenced by the popularity of #blessed. Within these circumstances, the word takes on malleable connotation that seems to indicate an overall feeling of happiness. Date night with my spouse: #blessed. Kid pooped in the toilet: #blessed. One cookie with two fortunes: #blessed. The Bible can even seem to support this impression. The NASB, KJV, NKJV, CSB, and RSV all translate blessed in verse 2 as happy. But is the feeling of happiness what the Bible means by being blessed?
Happiness is certainly a crucial element of being blessed, yet blessedness is not identical to happiness. I can be quite glad that the latest Marvel movie is finally on Netflix, but that doesn’t mean that I am blessed in the biblical sense of the word. Instead, the Bible’s concept of being blessed is a joyful gladness that stems from experiencing God’s favor. We are blessed because God looks upon us with grace and kindness. He freely establishes us as His people, becoming our God. The God who made heaven and earth unites Himself to us, intending to promote our welfare. What can be more blessed than that?
Verses 2-3 and 6 provide practical implications of this, which form a natural continuity with Psalm 127. You will enjoy the benefits of your work. Your wife will flourish like a vine that bears a lot of grapes, and you will have many children sitting around your table.
These blessings certainly fit with the overall picture in the rest of the Old Testament as well. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He promised to bless him. An integral piece of that blessing was the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac (not to mention his descendants who would number like the stars in the sky). Even though he lived a nomadic life, the peoples near Abraham viewed his material wealth as sign that he was blessed by God.
Furthermore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses, He spells out the blessings for keeping the covenant and the curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28. In verse 11, God promises: “And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.” Sounds familiar, right? God promises fruit of the ground and livestock (work) and of the womb (children) as their blessings.
Jesus’ disciples also presumed that material prosperity signaled the LORD’s favor. In Mark 10, Jesus encountered a rich, young man who was seeking eternal life. After Jesus lists out some of the ten commandments, the young ruler claims to have obeyed them all. Jesus then tells him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow Him, but the young man cannot. He walks away in sorrow, and Jesus comments to His disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. They respond with a telling question: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). They assumed that the rich had more favor with God, making salvation easier for them. Jesus declares wealth to be an obstacle in the path to eternal life, which was obviously a startling concept.
Does the Old Testament in general and this psalm in particular disagree with Jesus? Should we again to prosperity as the barometer for measuring our position with God? In a word, no (to both questions). If you look within the account of Abraham, we find that God blesses Abraham, so that Abraham’s lineage would become a blessing to the entire world. In Deuteronomy 28:10, God speaks these words: “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.” Their physical blessings were a sign to the rest of the nations that their God was the one true God. Their prosperity was a witness of God’s glory to the world, God’s light shining in the darkness.
The LORD has by no means deviated from this principle under the New Covenant, but its appearance does shift. When Jesus entered humanity as the God-man to solve the problem of sin with His life, death, and resurrection, He brought to us blessedness in its purest form. He delivered to us the supreme blessing of peace with God, of our adoption by God. He paid once for all the debt of our sins and signed over the account of His righteous into our name. We are made co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We have “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Indeed, we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).
Yet this superior blessing comes with a caveat:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17)
Our blessedness in Christ requires our willingness to suffer with Christ. Don’t miss the importance of that particular wording. To say that we must suffer for Christ is not inaccurate, yet here Paul states that our suffering must be with Christ. He suffered for us; now we must suffer with Him. Soon, though, we will be glorified with Him, but even now, we are blessed when we suffer with Christ. Jesus said so Himself (Matthew 5:10-12).
Throughout history, Christians have known and displayed this truth. They have displayed to the world a vast blessedness that cannot be contained in this life, a blessedness of which the world is not worthy. Tertullian affirms this with his beloved declaration to the Romans:
The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood?
I recently came across this quotation: “no assessment of the early days and subsequent success of Christianity can ignore the fact that in their own ways the rise and persistence of both Judaism and Islam are equally remarkable and equally ‘miraculous’” (Introducing Jesus, loc. 553). First, as Christians, we certainly assert the statements validity with Judaism, to which we are necessarily attached. But Islam did not experience an equally remarkable and miraculous growth. Muhammed preached peace until he was able to assemble an army. Islam spread by force of the sword; Christianity conquered even when killed by the sword. Tertullian’s assessment still stands today. The blood of Christian martyrs is seed because it displays to the world our blessed hope. As they rejoice in a hope beyond this world, their faith becomes visible evidence of that eternal life.
None of this, however, is to discount how the LORD may still use physical blessings to give evidence of His love. We simply no longer stake of primary hope in them. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even if the fruit of our labor is taken from us. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even when barrenness strikes our family. The physical blessings of this psalm are shadows of Christ’s reality, and our blessedness in Jesus is meant to serve as a beacon of hope for those walking toward the gate of destruction.
Fear the LORD
If now we have a better conception of blessedness, how it achieved? The psalmist declares that those who fear the LORD are blessed. How then does the fear of God relate to our blessedness in Christ? If God has adopted us as His children in Christ, is there no longer any need to fear Him?
The fatherhood of God and fear of God do not stand in opposition to one another. If anything, our adoption in Christ gives greater clarity to how we are called to fear Him. In a healthy relationship, a child ought to have a healthy fear of his or her father because the father is always prepared to use corrective discipline. The child fears the father’s rod of correction. Yet (once again in a healthy relationship), the father also leaves the child without any doubt of his love toward them. Indeed, fatherly love must include discipline. If I do not correct my toddler’s tantrums now, they will lead to greater “tantrums” in the future that will be destructive to herself and those around her. If I do not force her to sleep in some kind of schedule, she quickly becomes fatigued, which thrusts chaos upon herself and those around her. Both are acts of discipline. She is rarely pleased with either. Announcing bed time can even cause her to run from me. But I discipline her for her own good.
The fatherhood of God is so much better than my own. He is perfectly right in all His ways, and His discipline is never too hard or soft. Even still, we are right to fear His hand. We are right to fear His correction, even though in Christ we need not question His love. If we do not know this fear of God, we do not know God at all. To use the psalm’s language, we are not blessed. C. S. Lewis’s poignant observation still rings true:
We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction. (Problem of Pain, 31-32)
God is both love and to be feared. Any theology that cannot cling to both realities is false. True blessedness comes from knowing that God is God, fearing Him, and being loved by Him. Such an understanding can only lead us, then, to walk in His ways. A failure to obey God proves that we do not love nor fear Him. Such a claim isn’t legalism. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). A stubborn refusal to walk in God’s ways and obey His commands is evidence of failing to love Christ. It is also a rejection of blessedness. Our refusal to fear and obey God separates us from Himself, the Source of all blessings. We choose, like Satan in Paradise Lost, to attempt reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven. Trying to be gods, we flee from the only God. To sin, therefore, is to forsake blessedness.
Is that how you view your sin? Do you see it as luring you away from God’s presence and the blessings therein?
Or perhaps even more basic: is your concept of blessedness fundamentally connected to God, or do you look for other streams of blessings?
THE LORD BLESS YOU FROM ZION
Verses 5-6 add another crucial detail to our understanding of blessedness: community is an essential aspect of God’s blessing. Verse 5 both prays that our blessing would come from Zion and that we would be so blessed as to see the thriving of Jerusalem all our days. As we have noted previously, Jerusalem and Zion are often symbolic for the gathered people of God for worship, and the Bible assumes that those who fear God will long to worship with God’s people.
Interestingly, the prayer for the LORD to bless from Zion, therefore, indicates Zion as an instrument for God’s blessings. And why would God’s gathered people not be a channel for receiving the blessedness of the LORD?
Is that how you view church? Do you eagerly anticipate gathering with other brothers and sisters in Christ, believing that the LORD’s blessing will be found there? It is tragic how gathering together on Sunday is increasingly viewed as a chore rather than a blessing, as a work instead of a grace. The author of Hebrews, after all, teaches that our gathering for worship should be a time of encouraging “one another to love and good works” (10:24), which is another way of saying to walk in the LORD’s ways. We bless one another by encouraging each other to continue walking in God’s blessedness. If we neglect to meet together, we essentially forsake the LORD’s blessing from Zion, while also denying how God might have used us as instrument of His blessing to others. As the body of Christ, we are meant to build one another up in the LORD. We are members of one another. We are Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place. Therefore, the prosperity and blessedness of Jerusalem is our prosperity and blessedness. The peace of Israel is our peace. The maturity of the church is our maturity.
Returning a final time to Jeremiah 29, God commanded the captives to seek the welfare (which in Hebrew is a variant of the word for peace) of their new city, Babylon, and through that action they would find their own welfare. Since we’ve discussed that Babylon is often used to represent the unbelieving world, our welfare is secured as we seek the welfare, the peace, of the world around us. According to Merriam-Webster, a blessing can be defined “a thing conducive to happiness or welfare.” We are blessed whenever we seek to bless those around us.
Yet Psalm 128 is longing for the blessing of Jerusalem, not Babylon. How then do these ideas connect? The greatest peace, the greatest welfare, the greatest blessing that could come upon those who do not follow Christ would be for them to start following Christ. Even as we live in Babylon, we are still exiled citizens of Jerusalem, and we long to take citizens of Babylon with us as we return. Our blessedness must a sign and beacon, a testament to the goodness of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Jesus told His disciples how the world come to recognize this in them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). A love for God’s people reveals our love for God Himself. As we experience the blessings of this holy community together, we fervently invite those around us to pull up a seat at the family meal and join us.
This isn’t, of course, to say that a church should be primarily inward focused. We must be outward focused, seeking to care for the orphans, widows, and other vulnerable members. Yet we can never forget that our love for one another that provide solid ground for our missions and evangelism.
Have you experienced the blessedness of Christ? If not, come to Him today.
More specifically, have you experienced the blessedness of Christ’s people? Poor, sinful, and broken as we are, the church is Christ’s body and His bride.
May we long to see the prosperity of Jerusalem, to see the flourishing of God’s kingdom as it advances.
May we see our children’s children, the generational fruit of our discipleship as we obey the Great Commission.
May peace, welfare, and blessedness be upon God’s people.