I preached on Psalm 127 yesterday evening. Preparation was a real struggle. I was not happy with any of the ‘traditional’ understandings of the psalm – so I needed to review them, explain the issues and explain my take on what the Psalm is about.
Most commonly the Psalm is treated as two completely unrelated halves. vv1-2 are about working/toil whereas vv3-5 are about children. The commentators will tell you that Solomon (?) just randomly stuck two wisdom saying together which have absolutely no connection with one another. This is popular interpretation of the psalm – as evidence by the amount of sermons claiming to be on Psalm 127 – but which are usually only about one half of the psalm – either about work, or about family. Psalm 127 would be a very exceptional part of scripture if it had no unity or cohesion whatsoever! Why didn’t the psalmist simple write two separate psalms?
Alternatively, some will tell you that the psalm does have unity – it is all about family. This is fine for v1a and vv3-5 – the image of building a house can be easily related to ‘building’ a family. However the image of protecting a city is not a recognisable metaphor for family life. Neither is the toil for food (v1b) nor the tranquillity of sleep (v2)
So in my thinking, I have come to the conclusion that Psalm 127 is united, it does have cohesion, but the theme is not family, rather the theme of the psalm is security. This fits well with the context (cf. Psalm 125 and the general idea of trust and security that permeates the Songs of Ascent).
So I take v1 not as talking generally about toiling (“It doesn’t matter how hard I work, if God is not in it, it is in vain.”) Rather I think more attention needs to be paid to the actual images that are used:
- building houses is primary an act of seeking security – from the elements, from attack, for my property or my family).
- guarding a city is primarily an act of security – guarding against attack from enemies.
- toiling for food could be seen as a quest for safety, provision – an idea not a million miles away from seeking security
This idea of security also relates to vv3-5 as well. Again, these verses are not just a general praise of how great it is to have children (which is how they are often treated), but more specifically, the images that are used here all relate to security.
- children are a “heritage” that is, a provision for the future, an inheritance providing stability and security
- they are like arrows for an archer – an equipped archer is protected, he is safe, he is secure
- a man with a family (esp. sons) can take them with him to the city gates (court) and ensure that he gets a fair trial from the town elders against his opponent. Once again, the children provide safety, security, well-being for their parents (true today, but even more so in ANE culture where there were no savings, pensions, ISAs, lawyers – your children provided all those services rolled into one).
So, I think the imagery and details of Psalm 127 all unite around the idea of security – and it is a security which comes only from God.
- any attempt to build a protective home is vain unless God provides the security.
- a city guarded with tanks, Rambo and Jack Bauer is not secure unless God makes it so
- the safety and provision that comes from a family is one that is only given by God.
A lack of security produces anxious toil, building, guarding etc – but for God’s special chosen people – those he loves – he provides sleep: a confident relaxation that comes from knowing that they are not solely responsible for their security – it is something which God has a hand in.
In term of application, I would say that the promises and concerns of the OT are much more physically focussed than for NT Xians. So our security is not a guarentee of not having to toil, not having opponents and not going to the courts; rather it is a security that only God promised, and he provides it for his loved ones in the death and resurrection of Christ.
In summary: Psalm 127 is not just about a general attitude of knowing that my effort is not the determining factor in the outcome. Rather the psalm is more specific and speak about our efforts to secure ourselves which are vain because it is only God who can do such.