Psalms Lecture 14: Psalm 127

THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

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A song of ascents. Of Solomon.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to[a] those he loves.
Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court.
Psalm 127 is a lesson, a wisdom psalm, and a song of ascents as we were talking about last week. Written by Solomon it makes sense that it contains wisdom about life and God’s place in our lives, but it has been suggested that his own wisdom was lost on his own life: his kingdom became a ruin of what it once was (1 Kings 11:11 “So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.”) and his marriages allowed him to stray into denying God altogether and following other gods (1 Kings 11:1-5). Even so, just because a person acts unwisely doesn’t mean they don’t come out with some good advice every once in a while.
This is an instruction/lesson about the Lord as security and praising children as a gift. You could see the whole psalm as two types of houses: that of an actual house, or work in general, and that of a household, or the family around us. There are some that believe that this psalm actually consists of two separate poems, but this ignores the obvious links between the two.
It is by Solomon – he was a master builder, he built houses, cities and temples (some to the gods of his wives). House here can mean building: house of the Lord, a dwelling, or a human household/family unit. Either way, human labors to build structures (of either kind) are useless without God.Does this remind you of anything particularly?
– Babel: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11
– Man who built his house on the rock, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7:24
– Jubilee and Sabbath, given to us by God so we might never depend completely on ourselves, but on the God who gave us everything, he gave us rest and cleared our debts.God grants us success and prosperity, it is not something we can earn with just hardwork. Our sleep, our chances to rest in God, is the honor, the prosperity the Lord has given us.  “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
When the psalm says we labor “in vain” it implies a connection to Ecclesiastes, connecting to the vanity that takes pleasure out of worldly success. Working harder and harder is just a new enslavement, they have been made slaves again despite God saving Israel from Egypt. Kidner asks the question, even if the houses and buildings do survive (unlike Solomon’s) were they worth building?
God did not intend this for us, and we are his beloved/those He loves, which commonly refers to the people of Israel. These first two verses present the alternative: the Lord watching over the city, and the Lord building the House – which here links to the family of Israel, the lineage, the plan for the future in the line of David – ultimately Jesus, and his brothers, sisters and children with the New Testament. The word-play, which is common in the Old Testament, here is striking as the similarity between the word builders (bonim) and sons (banim) again links the house image to the family.
Children were not just loved offspring. They meant protection and security, particularly when protecting against enemies. “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” Genesis 9:7 shows that family was important. Abraham was blessed with children, Jacob was blessed with many sons, even Job received twice as many children as were taken from him. In a way children were living assets and a way of securing a future safety net. But however hard you might work to create this for yourself, if the aim is worldly glory, it will come to nothing. As Genesis 11 sees God works in miraculous ways: as I have already mentioned, Genesis 11 first mentions Babel – man striving to build his own glory, only to be landed with chaos. On the other hand God provided three sons to the briefly mentioned man called Terah, whose son Abram would become one of the greatest known names in our faith. God gave a family which would last, whilst men tried to build a tower that fell. The values in this psalm are similar.
A funny reminder about children was made by Kidner though about children: the greater their promise, the more likely that sons become a handful before they are a quiverful. When thinking about Jacobs many sons I can’t help but think how much of a handful 12 sons were, I mean they did end up selling Joseph.
Ultimately it is about our dependance on God. This does not mean that we are to be lazy, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are pretty clear that although our lives may seem fleeting and pointless, we are to enjoy them and show glory to God: “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and turmoil with it. Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred.” Proverbs 15:16-17.
Any questions or comments?
  • Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Book III, IV and V of the Psalms (Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1973).
  • Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David, Volume II, Psalm LVIII to CX (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts).
  • Society of Biblical Literature. The Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
  • Walton, John H. Chronolgical and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Zondervan, Michigan, 1978).
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