“The pursuit of happiness” is a well-known phrase in the Constitution of the United States. It is also the name of an excellent movie (stylised as The Pursuit of Happyness), based on a true story and starring Will Smith. But more to the point, it is the desire of most sane people.
We want to be happy. We want our lives to be full and fulfilling, to be free of crisis, and even to have a good degree of fun. There is nothing wrong with this pursuit. These are worthy goals. I would maintain that they are even biblical goals. After all, Psalm 128 begins with the words, literally translated, “Happy is.” And it does not stand alone in Scripture. It is an invitation to the blessed life; it is an articulation of the blessed, happy life. And what it describes is what “every one” (v. 1) is invited to.
In this study, we will spend our time together being coached from this psalm towards an effective pursuit of happiness; towards the pursuit of the blessed life as revealed here.
But before we begin, a couple of caveats are necessary.
First, this psalm of ascent is describing a particular set of blessings that attends the person who is biblically blessed. It does not fit every situation, though the undergirding principles most certainly do.
You will notice that the writer has in mind a family man; someone who is married and who has children.
It is important from the start that we observe that marriage and the bearing of children is the norm for most—but not for all. This psalm is not in any way teaching that, if you are not married, or do not have children, you are somehow cut off from the blessed life. Nothing could be further from the truth (see 1 Corinthians 7). By emphasising the family, the author is not minimising other lifestyles. But like so much of the Bible, and like so much of the community of faith, the spotlight of truth sometimes shines for a while on one particular aspect of life, and then at other times on other aspects. And since we are a community of faith, we need to learn truth together, even though sometimes it may not seem particularly relevant. The fact is, all truth is important for all of us if we will help one another in our pilgrimage, in our journey of faith.
Second, it is helpful for us to note that there is another underlying theme here as well. In the progression of the psalm, we note that the focus moves from the blessed individual to the blessed family to the blessed city and then to the blessed nation. This is significant.
As we are often reminded, the Christian life is not an individualistic pursuit. No person lives as is island to himself, and especially the Christian person. There is a connection between who we are and how we live and its effects on others. This psalm makes this particularly clear. So, as we study these short six stanzas, we will want to keep in mind that our pursuit of true happiness will affect the happiness of others as well.
We will seek to understand this psalm under four broad headings.
The Blessed Life is the Fearful (Reverent) Life
The psalmist begins, “Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD” (v. 1). These opening words, of course, set the stage for the pursuit of happiness.
We might translate this, “Happy are the reverent.” Or perhaps, “Happy are those who have the correct fear object.”
My father-in-law once said to me, “The objective of the Christian life is to reduce our fear objects to just one: the Lord.” That is a very helpful statement. Jesus made this same point:
Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Note that, in the same breath, Jesus speaks of fearing the Lord and resting in His care. The fear of the Lord is not a dread—at least not for the Christian—but rather it is the attitude that speaks of being deeply moved by who God is. Jerry Bridges describes the fear of God as “respect, admiration, amazement all mixed together to create a sense of awe…. A profound sense of awe before God.”1
We should pause here to make a couple of observations.
First, the happy person has a right view of self and of God.
Second, the happy person knows the Lord and this is their pursuit. As Solomon wrote, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but be zealous for the fear of the Lord all the day” (Proverbs 23:17).
Third, this offer of happiness is made to anyone and everyone who has ears to hear: “Blessed is every one who…” If you are not happy, if you are not blessed, stop blaming others. Stop blaming the Lord. Rather, stop fearing (being controlled by) others and other things and begin to fear the Lord.
The Blessed Life is the Faithful (Righteous) Life
The psalmist further pronounces blessing on everyone “who walks in His ways” (v. 1). This highlights human responsibility. “Whereas Ps. 127 showed how all blessings are attributable to God alone, this psalm shows what responsibility rests upon man if he would share in God’s rich blessings.”2
John Murray wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the soul of godliness.” He was emphasising the biblical truth that the fear of the Lord is the feeling or attitude that changes lives. The fear of the Lord is not merely a theoretical theological truth disconnected from the blood, sweat and tears of everyday life, but is rather very, very practical. The fear of the Lord is an animating, invigorating principle moving us to obedient action.
If you are not walking with and after and for God, then you are not worshipping Him. If you are not faithfully following His ways, then you do not fear Him.
The fear of the Lord produces faith in the Lord, and faith is never separated from works (James 2; Ephesians 2:8–10).
Those who revere God respond compliantly and repentantly to God. As Luther said, Christian life is one of continual repentance. Or in the words of Jesus, we must daily take up our cross, deny ourself, and follow Him.
Psalm 112 highlights this by pronouncing blessing on those who delight greatly in Hid commandments (v. 1). The writer of Psalm 119 also highlights this truth:
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart! They also do no iniquity; they walk in His ways…. How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!
(Psalm 119:1–3, 9–10; cf. v. 63)
If there is no pursuit of godliness then there is no pursuit of God. But be encouraged: When the heart cry is to keep His precepts, the fear of the Lord is in your soul and blessedness—happiness—is there for the experiencing. Regardless of circumstances.
Joseph was a man whose testimony was that the Lord was “with him” (Genesis 39:2–3, 21, 23). The key was that he was committed to obedience (v. 9). Because he obeyed God’s Word, he was blessed by God. Daniel and his friends had the same testimony, as did the apostle Paul.
In sum, if you will pursue happiness, then you must pursue holiness.
Everyone wants to be happy, to be blessed. Too many people are wilfully refusing to pay attention to the one who wills our happiness and ignorantly supposing that the Christian way is a harder way to get what they want than doing it on their own. But they are wrong. God’s ways and God’s presence are where we experience the happiness that lasts. Do it the easy way: “Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!”3
But if you go against the grain of the universe, you get splinters.4
The Blessed Life is the Fruitful (Rewarded) Life
In vv. 2–4, we see that the blessed life is the fruitful life: “When you eat the labour of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table.”
The writer identifies two areas where the person who fears the Lord will experience particular blessings: in the workplace, and in the home. He highlights the practical nature of the Christian faith. There is no secular/sacred dichotomy. The truth of God is applicable for all of life. Our relationship with the Lord is not restricted to “religious” spheres. Our relationship with the Lord is related to all of life. So, if you want to be happy in all of life, then pursue being happy in the source of your life.
Fulfilment in the Workplace
Verse 2 speaks to fulfilment in the workplace. “The labour of your hands,” of course, speaks of our employment, of our efforts for produce that we can “eat.” The psalmist is saying that the person who fears the Lord will take pleasure in the outcome of his labours; he or she will find satisfaction at the end of the day knowing that the Lord provides his or her daily bread (Matthew 6:11). “Hard work (2a) is taken for granted, but this psalm makes it as clear as Psalm 127 that enjoyment of its fruits is a gift from God.”5
But I think he is saying more. The person who fears the Lord will approach his vocation with the sense of God’s presence and so, whatever the outcome, whatever the challenges, he will find satisfaction. God is in control. God will provide. God will take care of us. God will use us in our vocation for His purposes and for His glory. As Michael Horton recently tweeted, “Worried about your future? Just be who God has called you to be right where you are with the people He has called you to serve.”
The fundamental thought here is that of contentment. The New Testament likewise speaks to the issue of contentment:
Hebrews 13:5–6—Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we may boldly say: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”
Philippians 4:11–13, 19—Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…. And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.
Perhaps rather than happiness in the workplace we should speak of happiness with the workplace. Those who fear the Lord serve the Lord in every sphere of life, and this gives every sphere of life significance and opportunity to experience and to express our satisfaction with the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Fulfilment in the Home
In vv. 3–4, the psalmist speaks of fulfilment in the home: “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.” The writer moves from the commercial world back home.
The words “fruitful vine” and “olive plants” are used in the Bible to depict prosperity from God, to depict God’s favour (Deuteronomy 6:11; Psalm 52:8; etc.). They are blessings often associated with the Messianic era (Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10; Isaiah 32:12). As used here, they depict domestic blessing from God—a happy because a holy home. “As a rule the person who is God-fearing and tries to obey God will be blessed with a God-fearing and obedient family. The psalmist uses two colourful images to describe this fruitful family.”6
The psalmist is not saying that those who fear the Lord will necessarily be married and be given children. Rather, he is saying that those who are married, and those who are married and who have children, will be blessed in these spheres. The happiness of the happy man will flow to others. This is a helpful observation. Whether you are married or not, whether you have children or not, if you fear the Lord and therefore are happy in the Lord, you can be a means of making others happy as well.
Note, further, that the man who fears the Lord can find great fulfilment even in the midst of great difficulty. VanGemeren helpfully comments, “Even when the country faces adversity, the man who fears the Lord is insulated against adversity by wife and children as the blessings of the Lord are found under the roof of his house.”7
A Fruitful Marriage
“Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house” (v. 3). The picture of a “fruitful vine” is not necessarily of her being fertile. It is rather probably a picture of her being “fearful,” that is, reverent. Proverbs 31 speaks of a woman who fears the Lord as being fruitful: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30–31).
Boice notes appropriately, “To come home to a good wife is somewhat like coming home to harvest. It is a time to forget the hard summer work and enjoy God’s bounty.”8
A reverent man and a reverent wife are inextricably bound. The reverent man will pursue a reverent wife. Reverence will be a quality he looks for in a woman.
The reverent man will “produce” a reverent wife. If your wife is not godly, if she is not holy, if she is not walking in the fear of the Lord, then perhaps you should examine yourself under v. 1 (cf. Ephesians 5:25–27).
The reverent man will be a happy person to live with. Reverence will manifest itself in the emotional, relational, and spiritual temperature of your home.
Husbands, are you so living in the home that your wife can blossom like a vine in the heart of the home? Do you treat her with respect? Do you lead her spiritually? Do you give her security? Do you lead her wisely?
The psalmist next moves to the children in the marriage: “your children like olive plants all around your table” (v. 3). Again, this is not necessarily a promise that the person who fears the Lord will be fertile. Rather it serves as a wonderful encouragement that those who fear the Lord, and who have been given children (Psalm 127:3), will find great delight in them. And I believe the implication is that they will be a source of delight as they too fear the Lord.
Olive trees are known for a couple of things. For one thing, they are known to produce many new shoots at their base. This is perhaps the picture here. The children that arise from a godly, fearful man will have the same destiny as the root. Parenting is not a coin toss. There are great promises in Scripture for those who deliberately raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (see Ephesians 6:1–4).
Second, olive trees can have a lifespan of hundreds of years and in many cases an olive tree will not reproduce until some forty years later. Boice notes, “Olive trees take a long time to mature and become profitable. Patiently cultivated, they become quite valuable and continue to produce a profitable crop for centuries.”8
Be encouraged: The fruit of your adorning the gospel will probably take some time. But keep at it. Olive trees can take a long time to bud, but it is worth it in the end.
Some observations at this point may prove helpful.
Those who fear the Lord, who pursue true happiness, are to be encouraged that they can raise children who will bless them. Scripture is clear about this:
Psalm 103:17—But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children.
Proverbs 20:7—The righteous man walks in his integrity; his children are blessed after him.
Proverbs 17:6—Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children is their father.
Proverbs 14:26—In the fear of the LORD is strong confidence and his children will have a place of refuge.
Raise your children to fear the Lord and they and you will be joyful. John had no greater joy than to see his (spiritual) children walking in the truth (3 John 4). Christian parents share that joy.
An Encouraging Conclusion
The psalmist brings it to an encouraging conclusion in v. 4: “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.” “It is as if the psalmist wants to say, ‘You most certainly will be blessed,’ so as to leave not the slightest doubt that the fear of the Lord has its appropriate rewards.”10
Can you think of a more practical and powerful motivation for the fear of the Lord than these blessings? Take God at His Word! You can have a happy home and we can be a happy church!
The Blessed Life is the Flourishing (Expansive) Life
Finally, we see in vv. 5–6 that the blessed life is the flourishing life: “The LORD bless you out of Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. Yes, may you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel.” These closing verses are a benediction upon the reader.
The Flourishing of the Church
The psalmist writes, “The LORD bless you out of Zion” (v. 5). Those who fear the Lord and who therefore pursue true happiness have a special regard for the city of God. This is where we learn to fear the Lord.
The pilgrim would learn about the Lord at Mount Zion. The church is God’s place where we will learn to fear Him. And we do so in community. The psalmist has already spoken of the reader’s vocation and family, but here we learn that the church is in many ways the key to these things.
The church is key to the Christian life. My wife was recently speaking to a woman who was telling her of the many things that the Lord had told her. Eventually, my wife asked her where she goes to church. She replied that she does not go to church, but continued speaking about what the Lord was telling her. My wife soon said to her, “The Lord is telling me something: You need to find a good church where the Bible is taught!” She explained how central the local church is to New Testament Christianity and urged this woman to find a church home. It was good counsel.
We will flourish in our fear of the Lord and enjoy the consequence of happiness to the degree that we are connected to the church. But we can only be connected to the church if we are connected to the Head of the church—the Lord Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 12:22ff).
To the degree that we are blessed by and at Mount Zion, so the “city” is blessed: “And may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. Yes, may you see your children’s children” (vv. 5b–6a).
As you are blessed, so the church will be blessed. The happiness of the local church is on your—on our—shoulders. What a blessing to see God’s goodness on BBC all the days of our life! In fact, may we see this for the next generation (v. 6a).
The Flourishing of the Nation
The psalmist closes: “Peace be upon Israel” (v. 6b).
The psalm closes with a desire for a blessed nation, not merely for a blessed family or for a blessed city. As Leupold notes, “to be content with one’s own family’s happiness and live for no more than that could, indeed, become an ingrown tendency that promotes selfishness.”11 After all, the characteristic of blessing is to multiply.
I understand that Israel was a theocracy and we are not. Nevertheless, should our desire not be that God’s shalom will rest upon our country? In other words, should we not be concerned and committed to seeing our own land under God’s rule? “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
Boice summarises this psalm well:
God must be taken seriously. He must not be trifled with. He must be, as he actually is, the center of everything we are, think, or aspire to do. He must be our starting point for every project, the strength we seek for every valuable endeavor, the one we earnestly desire to please and honor as our goal.
May we so live in the fear of the Lord (“all the day”) that God’s blessings upon us, our families and our church(es) will expand to the nation and to the nations. What a blessing this will be.
May the number of people and families and nations increase who can say, “We are blessed of God.” May the number of individuals, families, churches and nations increase that are rightly and therefore righteously in the pursuit of happiness.
- Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2009), Kindle edition. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 895. ↩
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 107. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 107. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 443. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1127. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:796. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1128. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1128. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:796. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 897. ↩