If Psalm 126 was about the Jews return from Babylon, then the truths contained in Psalm 127 would apply to those returning exiles, even though it was written long before that event, just as they do to anyone who is concerned about their dwelling-place and those dwelling within. This psalm deals with principles relating to construction, security, and how they relate to the family.
As Kidner observes, “One of the most telling features of this short poem is that it singles out three of our most universal preoccupations—building, security, raising a family—and makes us ask what it all amounts to, and to whom we owe them.” And with reference to these, it instructs us to approach these matters being God-centred and faith-focused.
Ray Fowler helpfully summarises this psalm:
The main idea of this psalm is that without God it’s not worth it, but when you give God the rightful place in your life, you can rest in his blessing. When you leave the Lord out of your life, all that you do is in vain. The word “vain” shows up three times in this psalm. It means something that has no value or worth. It is an empty achievement.
May God give us wisdom to live a life worth living. And speaking of wisdom, note the author of this psalm: Solomon.
The psalms are considered by most to be in the biblical category of wisdom literature. Wisdom, fundamentally, is the proper application of knowledge. Biblically, wisdom has to do with living out the implications of who God is and our relationship with him. To live wisely is to conduct oneself in a way that life works to the glory of God. This was Moses’ prayer, even at the twilight of his life. He prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
When we think of wisdom and wisdom literature, King Solomon usually comes to mind. He was granted such wisdom from God that he was considered the wisest of all who lived. Until Jesus, of course.
And yet Solomon also perhaps lived the most foolishly of any who have ever lived. He forsook the word, which is God’s revealed wisdom, and chose rather to follow his own heart. He would eventually see his choices lead to a life which could only be described as “vanity of vanities.” He was therefore well qualified to write this psalm of wise exhortation. Consider the following.
Solomon was involved in one of the largest, most majestic building projects in history: God’s temple, which took seven years to build, as well as his own house, which took fourteen years. But it can be argued that these building programs were “reckless” (Kidner). That is, they were over the top and even led to mistreatment of labourers. It seems that Solomon lost sight of the purpose of this work.
Solomon’s kingdom was ruined (1 Kings 11:1ff). He may have built large walls and appointed many able watchmen but, in the end, his kingdom would come to ruin.
Also, when it came to family life, I hardly think Solomon was a credible family counsellor! His marriages resulted in a disastrous denial of God (1 Kings 11:1ff). His son would split the kingdom in two, a split never to be recovered.
It was perhaps out of these failures, and having perhaps already penned Ecclesiastes, that Solomon was able to wisely instruct others. His failures made him all the wiser.
I recently heard of a pastor whose church lost $1 million in a ministry gone bad. An older pastor counselled him to consider it “tuition” paid in order to learn some hard lessons. I’m sure he would rather have retained the money, but the point is taken. Solomon likewise learned a lot of hard lessons, which enabled him to counsel others.
As an interesting aside, v. 2 contains the word ”beloved,” which in Hebrew is Jedidiah, which was Solomon’s birth name (2 Samuel 12:25).
As we take a few moments to work through this psalm, keep in mind that we are listening to a person who knew both the blessedness of embracing these words and the burdens associated with rejecting them.
Solomon begins: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (v. 1). He seemingly plays on two similar words found in vv. 1 and 3. The Hebrew words for “build” in v. 1 and “children” in v. 3 share a common root. The psalm’s two sections (vv. 1–2 and vv. 3-5) are related. There is a common theme. Whether we are working on building a building or building a family, we must do so dependent upon God.
Perhaps we should think in terms of the temple as the house of God and the family as the “household of God.” Unless we build leaning on the LORD, our labours will be “in vain.” The word means “empty” and connotes desolation or destruction. Our work will not be worth the effort.
Consider the return to Jerusalem after exile. A lot of work needed to be done. Much effort was required. But human effort was not enough. To succeed in the project apart from the smile of God would lead to the searching question: “Was it worth it?”
I am reminded of the words of Zechariah, one of the prophets who came alongside beleaguered Jewish labourers who needed to get back to work on the temple. He exhorted them, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The Lord was saying through Zechariah the same thing he was saying here: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who labour build it in vain.”
This highlights the need for unceasing prayer. A. C. Dixon said it well:
When we depend upon our organizations, we get what organizations can do; when we depend upon education, we get what education can do; when we depend upon man, we get what man can do; but when we depend upon prayer, we get what God can do.
Remember this at the beginning of a new year. In the workplace this year, will you work to recapture a biblical concept of vocation? At school this year, will you look to the Lord? In your home and family this year, will the Lord be at the centre? In your ministry, will you yield to the lordship of Yahweh? Or will you foolishly labour as though you are sufficient?
Solomon continues: “Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (v. 1b).
Once construction is completed, conserving what has been accomplished becomes a priority. In South Africa, perhaps we can appreciate this more than in some other cultures. We understand something of the danger of others climbing over our walls. So did the Jews in that day. They therefore set watchmen on the walls, who served as an ancient form of our electric fence.
This was good to do. It was right to do. There was nothing wrong with conserving and protecting one’s property. However, the point being made by the writer is that unless the Lord watches over the city, all our watching for the sake of security is futile. Our security is ultimately found in the Lord. The church in South Africa especially needs to hear and heed this lesson.
Christian, live responsibly. Set your watchmen. But remember the doctrine of God’s providence. He ordains all that takes place. He alone sees beforehand and has planned accordingly.
Build your walls. Construct your palisades. Set your alarms. But commit your ways to the Lord.
Save your money. Invest in your pension. Save for the education of your children. But do so trusting the Lord.
Children, young people, and young adults, study hard. Pay attention in class. Get your rest. But remember that you are in God’s hands.
Older people, don’t become obsessed with retirement. You are in God’s hands. Submit to his way and his work for you.
We can make the most detailed of plans for our security. But we don’t know our future. Be prepared that you may stumble. Look to the Lord.
On Christmas Eve last year, my brother had received an Estes Rocket as a gift. We set the rocket off and watched as the parachute opened and the rocket slowly made its way back to earth. We followed to see where it landed. It ended up in the top of a small tree in the middle of a wooded area. I told my grandchildren that I would retrieve it and everyone watched with bated breath as I successfully secured it from the tree. With my grandchildren cheering, I proudly walked back to the group. As I drew closer, I tripped over a root and fell on the rocket, snapping it in two.
I had a loving motive and exerted zealous effort. Cheering grandchildren boosted me. But, in the end, I fell and broke what I was trying to preserve. Such is life. The best laid plans of men go often awry. So, look in dependence upon the Lord.
The psalm continues: “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” (v. 2).
The Wastefulness of Worry
We are told to work and to watch while waiting on God. All the working and watching we can muster is useless unless we trust the Lord. And we should trust him precisely because he loves us. Though Solomon behaved foolishly, he was the beloved of God. Therefore, God was willing and able to provide him with sleep.
No doubt, God is grieved when his children are restless. Such an ongoing condition is usually a sign of unbelief. We toil and labour and plan and work our fingers to the bone only to end up with bony fingers. Worse, we end up with a barren faith.
Ask yourself, is the anxiety worth what you are living for? Are sleepless nights worth it? Better put, is your quest for autonomy worth living apart from the sleep-giving God?
Sleepless in Joburg
I understand something of what it means to be anxious—of what it means to be sleepless in Johannesburg. I know something of the fight required to live in dependence upon God for the building of the house and watching over what has been constructed. And I am learning. I am learning to speak truth to myself when darkness veils his lovely face. I am learning to read the promises of God, to meditate on the attributes of God. I am learning to cast my care upon him.
I know what it’s like to compare my house with the house of others and to forget that the construction of the church belongs to the Lord. But I also know the rest that comes when I remember what Jesus said: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
I know what it’s like to be extremely burdened for the welfare of others and wrestling with my own sense of failure as a shepherd. But I also know the sleep that comes when I remind myself that the sheep belong to the Chief Shepherd, not to me.
And in all of this, I also know what a waste it is to worry (though I still lean that way!). I have often quoted that man who tired of sleepless nights. One night after reading Psalm 121:4 (“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep”) said to the Lord, “Since you are going to be up all night, there is no sense in both of us being awake.” That is a wonderful response to the temptation to worry (see Psalms 3:4; 4:8).
Brothers and sisters, think on these things while you work and while you watch, and you will not waste away with worry.
To summarise this section: To avoid pointless, restless living, be relentless in your pursuit of God. As Jesus put it, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Do what God has given you to do and leave the results to him (Psalm 90:17; Proverbs 16:1, 3). At the end of the day, we and our church and our nation are in the hands of the Lord. What a great place to be!
Finally, the psalmist writes,
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.
Again, these verses are not disconnected from what has gone before. The house being constructed is where a family dwells and where faithful parents watch over the welfare of the family. And though I don’t believe I have the full explanation of all the connections, certainly a major one is that of parents faithfully fulfilling their responsibility of child-rearing.
Here is the connection: Those who take seriously their stewardship of God’s gift (“heritage”) of children willbe concerned about building the house. They will be concerned about taking care to meet the needs of their household. But these good things can become worrisome things, which highlights the danger of despising these gifts. We might come to view children as a burden who cost us a lot of worry and a lot of sleep.
On the contrary, Solomon exhorts us that that the difficulties are worth it. He knew this from failure—and perhaps from some success. (Remember, we don’t know the whole story of his life.)
The point we need to see is that, as long as we keep centred on the Lord, our families will be in good shape. They will be cared for. In fact, the psalm seems to imply that they will care for us.
Yes, raising a godly seed is difficult work. As Kidner notes, “The greater their promise, the more likely that these children will be a handful before they are a quiversful.”
Keep your eyes on the Lord as you prepare the next generation to keep their eyes on the Lord. We can do this with the assurance that he who has his eye on the sparrow most certainly has his eyes on us (Matthew 10:29–31; see also 6:26).
God had a son who was Jedidiah above all Jedidiahs. He was, in fact, greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42). He worked, he watched, and waited without worry because he trusted completely in his Father—even to the point of death on the cross. The Father who delighted in his son raised him from the dead so that we could become the heritage of God; so we could become his sons—his beloved. When you realise how God sees you, then even if you have failed like Solomon, you can experience God’s grace as you construct a life for his glory.