Useless, Unless … (Psalm 127:1–5)

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Each of us is called to work in this world. We each have various responsibilities. We also, therefore, have various concerns: our property, our security, our employment, our family, etc. These are legitimate concerns and legitimate pursuits.

But, if we are not careful, rather than being fruitful opportunities, they can become futile obstacles, even obsessions. They can become useless—unless we pursue these things in dependence upon the Lord. This is the theme of Psalm 127: fighting and overcoming futility.

“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 they all amount to, and to whom we owe them.”1

This is one of the psalms of ascent. It emphasises dependent discipleship. Jesus similarly spoke of dependent discipleship in Luke 14:25–33, where He said that God calls us to be willing to forsake all in order to follow Christ. Our psalm tells us that the disciple builds (v. 1a), battles (v. 1b), labours (v. 2) and “births” (vv. 3–5)—and rightly so—but that he does so with an eye to heaven. Our vocations are therefore fruitful and fulfilling rather than fruitless and futile.

According to the superscript of the psalm it is one of only two inspired psalms authored by Solomon (see also Psalm 72). Some commentators say that Solomon could not possibly have authored the psalm, but I see no reason to doubt it. The writer speaks of building a house, a possible allusion to Solomon’s construction of the temple, and to his many other building projects. In vv. 1–2, he thrice uses the word “vain,” which is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon time and again describes life under the sun as “vain.” Some have suggested that the use of the word “beloved” in v. 2 may be a reference to Solomon’s other name (2 Samuel 12:24–25). For the purposes of our study, I will not call Solomonic authorship into question.

We are not given any detailed background to the writing of the psalm, but that seems to be the case for all the psalms of ascent. It may well be that the writers were deliberately ambiguous because they wanted their readers to be able to apply the principles learned to their specific situations even if they did not experience the particular historical events leading to the writing of the psalms.

Whatever specific historical circumstances surrounded the writing of this psalm, the underlying theme is that of security versus futility. We can divide the psalm, for the purposes of our study, into four broad sections.

Unless the Lord Builds the House

The first section has to do with a picture of building: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labour in vain who build it” (v. 1). A “house” in Scripture can refer to a number of things: a temple, a personal dwelling place, a kingdom, or a household. Although Solomon built the Jewish temple, and personal dwelling places, and a kingdom, the context perhaps leans most toward the interpretation of building a household (see vv. 3–5).

Regardless, the principle remains the same: God works, and we work. But if our work ignores God’s work, then what we achieve is ultimately useless. “Effort, even if religious effort (perhaps especially if religious effort) does not in itself justify anything.”2

Consider the tower of Babel. It was an impressive structure by human standards, but it was built by men and not by the Lord and therefore it meant nothing.

In 1787, the American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, delivered a speech in Philadelphia as an appeal to form a constitution for the United States. In it, Franklin said,

In the beginning of the contest with Britain when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence. To that kind Providence we owe this opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten this powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived for a long time (81 years), and the longer I live the more convincing proof I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall proceed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.3

Though he was a deist, Franklin understood the futility of attempting to build without God’s “concurring aid.” Yes, labour was necessary—consider Paul’s rebuke of those who refused to work in Thessalonica—but, labour must be attended by God’s blessing if it will bear fruit. This psalm strongly highlights “the futility of human effort without Divine blessing.”4

If our labours are not attended by God’s blessing, they will ultimately prove useless. I am a strong proponent of education, but we can educate ourselves to the best of our ability and it will mean nothing apart from God’s blessing. We can seek to build a career, wealth, friendships, marriage, family and ministry, but our labour will mean nothing if it is not attended by God’s “concurring aid.” We must do all we can to ensure that God is building our house. And how can we do that? By following His building plans. We must submit to His lordship, for all our labours will prove useless unless He builds with us. Our only hope of success is from the Lord. As Leupold rightly notes, “Success depends on more than hard work and honest endeavor. The unseen but all-important factor is that God must bless what man does.”5

Unless the Lord Guards the City

The second image has to do with the guarding of a city: “Unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (v. 1b). The emphasis here is that, as our success comes only from the Lord, so does our security.

I am actively involved in our local neighbourhood watch program, and I think it is important to be. I am generally very security conscious. At the same time, I am painfully aware that my efforts will ultimately prove futile apart from God’s watch-care. Even if we build the house with the Lord, we must remember at all times that we need His continued favour. Neighbourhood watch and armed response are useless unless the Lord watches over us. We are in His hands at all times.

We need this awareness. As with the previous point, our efforts are not inconsequential. We must assume responsibility, but we must at the same time recognise divine sovereignty. As one British military commander once said, “Pray and keep your gunpowder dry.”

Unless the Lord takes care of us, our security schemes—financial security, job security, relational security, home security—are useless.

Unless the Lord Gives You Sleep

In v. 2, Solomon moves the imagery to that of sleep: “It is vain for you to rise early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so He gives His beloved sleep” (v. 2). This may seem somewhat obscure at first blush. It is ironic that I found myself awake recently at 1:16 AM thinking about this verse. As I looked at my clock, I thought, “He gives His beloved sleep,” and prayed that God would allow me to fall back to sleep. I was up till at least 3:45 AM mulling over the implications of this verse!

The scene is that of our gainful employment—the process of labouring to put bread on the table. Solomon portrays a person frantically working without any consideration to God’s laws of rest, and concludes that it is foolish to work so. We need rest—God has ordained it to be so. Spending every waking hour working is ultimately futile; we must trust the Lord as we take our rest.

We live in a day in which many Christians do not take seriously God’s mandated rest—particularly His Sabbath rest. Many treat the Sabbath principle as more of a burden than a blessing. But J. C. Ryle is correct: “Sabbaths are a foretaste and a fragment of heaven. The man who finds them a burden and not a privilege, may be sure that his heart stands in need of a mighty change.”

Our labours for supply are, in the end, useless unless we find our rest in God. We live in an age of frenetic and frantic activity. There are inherent dangers in this lifestyle because we can come to trust in our own labours rather than in the Lord. And one evidence that we are so trusting is that we do not cease when God tells us to cease; we do not accept His gracious gift of rest.

Unless the Lord gives you sleep, your struggle for supply is useless. Why? Because the Lord gives His beloved sleep. This is worth far more than any harvest.

So, yes, work hard. Work hard—and then rest. Jesus taught this quite clearly: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how” (Mark 4:26–27). We labour, but it is ultimate God who gives the increase (see 1 Corinthians 3:5–6).

Unless the Lord Makes You Fruitful

The last image, in vv. 3–5, is that of fruitfulness, particularly as it pertains to children: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with their enemies in the gate.”

What is the connection here? Why does he move from building and working and resting to children?

Some suggest that a contrast is intended. That is, while the previous pictures all required work of some sort, conceiving children requires comparatively little effort. (This, by the way, is a problem in our fatherless society.)

But we should note that, in a sense, the entire psalm has been building to these verses. IN the ancient world, a house was built for a family. A city needed to be guarded because that’s where families lived. Labour was performed in order to provide bread for a family. In the light of all the above, “behold.” Here is what you need to pay attention to. Verses 4–5 speak to the security of the family and, as with the rest of the psalm, security is provided only by the Lord.

If a contrast is not intended between vv. 1–2 and vv. 3–5, why does Solomon seem to change gears so drastically? Let’s consider a couple of possible interpretations.

First, he might be saying, “Behold—as an example of what God can do without your labour and fretting, He can give children. And those children can prove to be a great blessing.”

Obviously, as before, God accomplishes His ends by using means, but in this instance the “burden” to bear surely lies more on the Lord than on us. If He can sovereignly give children, He can do the rest. When Abram heeded the voice of Sarai and slept with Hagar, he failed to trust the Lord, who gives children (Genesis 16:2). On the other hand, the midwives in Egypt were blessed by God with children precisely because they did trust the Lord (Exodus 1:21). Obviously, the midwives were not entirely passive in the act of conceiving, but it was God who provided households for them.

A second possible interpretation is that Solomon is here promising that the Lord will take care of your family and your children. Build, guard, and labour, but ultimately know that your children are in the hands of God. “God gives a sense of security and protection in the godly family.”6 Or as Leupold puts it, “The psalm at once turns to the chief purpose of establishing a home—children—and stresses the fact that the having of them is dependent on divine blessing. Such unity of the whole is not difficult to see.”7

There is much discussion today in South Africa about emigration. Of course, it is not always wrong to emigrate. God moves His servants as He sees fit. I’m afraid, however, that much of the discussion—even amongst Christians—takes God out of the picture. Much of the current discussion in South Africa surrounds the issue of safety, as if moving out of South Africa is automatically safer than staying in South Africa. But God is sovereign over our safety regardless of where we live.

A third possible interpretation is that Solomon is saying that those who raise children who are godly (“arrows”) are blessed. At his deathbed, John Howard Hinton’s daughter said to him, “There is no greater blessing than for children to have godly parents.” He immediately replied, “The next greatest blessing is for parents to have godly children.”

Taking your children to heaven is far more important than being able to give them a car. I recently attended a university graduation for one of my daughters. As I sat there, I watched the many parents who no doubt felt rewarded at seeing their children graduate after sacrificing so much for them. How much more rewarding, I thought, must it be when our children are ultimately graduated to glory.

Fourth, Solomon might be suggesting that children, who are graciously given, will, if raised in a godly, trusting home (vv. 1–2) prove to be arrows for the Lord. Children raised in an environment where they are taught to trust God ultimately grow to serve God. Such children are raised as believers and are able to fortify their parents in the face of enemies.

But, again, raising such children requires the grace of God. “If it is a vain act to build a house without God or watch over a city without depending on God to preserve it, then it is even greater folly to try to raise a family without God.”8

Perhaps a natural question at this point is, what if you don’t have children? Is your existence then futile? By no means! This psalm is intended (as is Psalm 128) for a particular obedience. There are other psalms that are written for the childless.

At the same time, we must recognise that there is much here for all believers.

Those with no biological children can still have children—both in a spiritual sense and in a physical sense (by means of adoption). Even if you have no children of your own, you can minister effectively to children for God’s glory in the context of your local church. You can, as it were, be part of the village that it takes to raise a child.

Those with no biological children can also still be a part of a family—a supernatural one. The Bible speaks quite clearly to the reality of the church being a family, and every believer—whether a parent or not—can be an active member in a local church.

But, as we have said time and again, in each of these cases, our efforts are useless unless the Lord blesses.

Finally, a word to parents: Children should be raised in home that reflect the convictions of vv. 1–2: God’s sovereignty, our responsibility, our dependence, and God’s loving sufficiency. All of this works to produce a secure home. And secure homes produce children who, in turn, give security to their parents.

So, will you believe—and behave as though you believe—that all our best efforts are useless, unless …

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 440.
  2. Eugene Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), ??.
  3. Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 3:1118.
  4. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 751.
  5. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 892.
  6. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:794.
  7. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 891.
  8. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 3:1121.