Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2015
Psalm 127 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Few psalms are arguably more challenging to preach and teach than this somewhat quirky one. After all, it contains neither the vows nor calls to praise that characterize so many other psalms. Psalm 127, in fact, more closely resembles the kind of wisdom literature we find more commonly in books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. It’s no wonder some people ascribe it to Solomon. Nor is it surprising that worshipers sometimes find it hard to use it as a prayer (without some clever editing) the way we often do with other psalms.
Psalm 127 alludes to God’s indispensable role in cultural, familial and community life. Old Testament scholar Ray Van Leeuwen says the idea of “double agency” is central to it. By that he refers to our tendency to think of God and nature as well as God and people in terms of either divine or created, but not both.
Yet this, Van Leeuwen reminds us, is an unbiblical dichotomy. God the Creator and Sustainer often works out God’s purposes in part through people. God even sovereignly sometimes uses evil human intentions for God’s good purposes, as Joseph affirmed about his own brothers’ wicked plans for him. In fact, says Van Leeuwen, God’s work is often miraculous, not in the sense of disrupting the laws of nature, but in the way God works in and through naturally sinful and flawed people.
Psalm 127 teaches a fundamental human dependence on God for life’s most basic tasks. It speaks three times explicitly and once implicitly of the futility of human activity without God’s accompanying blessing. Unless, the poet writes in verse 1, God builds a house, construction workers do their work in vain. Here worshipers hear echoes of Jesus’ words about wise and foolish homebuilders. In fact, as one worshiper noted, one can hardly read all of Psalm 127 without hearing echoes of Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
Other worshipers have noted that building a house may have wider application. Some point to Ruth 4:1’s reference to Rachel and Leah who, by making a family, “built up” the house of Israel. Others suggest that the house of verse 1 might also refer to Christ’s Church, as well as local churches.
In verse 1 the poet also notes that unless God watches over a city, its night watchmen, in Eugene Peterson’s vivid imagery, might as well take a nap. In verse 2 the psalmist goes on to add that unless God blesses the work of gathering food, it too is useless. This assertion may echo Genesis 3:16-17’s curse on the ground. And in verses 3-5 the poet at least implies that those who try to have children will fail unless God blesses their efforts. Children are not, in other words, just the product of sexual intimacy. The poet refers to them as a “reward” from the Lord.
In fact, in vivid if puzzling language, verses 4 and 5 refer to children, especially sons, as a form of parental protection. She says they’re like “arrows in the hands of a warrior.” In the psalmist’s day God’s gift of sons brought their parents a form of security. The larger a family, the less it was subject to, for example, that misfortune that comes from not having enough workers to help feed the family. What’s more, if a father had to go to court at the city gate, a large number of sons would serve as a large pool of potential witnesses to his good character.
So what does all of this mean for 21st century worshipers? It serves as a vivid reminder that while work is a central human activity, even the hardest work doesn’t guarantee its success. Even the most vigorous, sustained work doesn’t always provide what’s needed. Think of people who try to hold down two or three jobs just to make ends meet for their families. Think too of those who try scratch out a living out of dry, infertile soil. Wealth or even comfortable living is not the automatic result of hard work. Productive work is a blessing from God.
In fact, while Psalm 127 refers to a limited number of activities that are meaningless unless God blesses them, Van Leeuwen points out that those activities are symbolic of all human cultural efforts that are made in service to the Lord. When, after all, we build houses, we use materials such as wood and stone that God created. What’s more, we fill our homes with things from throughout God’s creation. The city to which verse 1 refers also symbolizes the ways we organize our world and people. Those cities have political, social and economic elements, as well as cultural activities. Psalm 127’s symbolism offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kinds of activities that flounder without God’s accompanying blessing.
Yet such preachers and teachers want to be very sensitive to the kind of question a worshiper recently raised. If the various houses we build, whether they’re homes, families, churches or some other human organization somehow fail, does that mean God has failed to bless them? If all our hard work fails to provide the food our families and loved ones need, does that mean that God has withheld God’s blessing from us? And, perhaps most poignantly, what about people who don’t have the “arrow” that is even one child, much less a “quiver full of” children? Has God turned God’s face away from them?
That’s one reason some scholars translate what the NIV translates as “blessed” in verse 7 as “happy.” “Blessed,” after all, connotes a kind of divine favor or even reward. “Happy” speaks of an emotional state, a response to the kind of circumstance that many children can produce. Verse 7 doesn’t imply those who don’t have children are the objects of God’s disfavor. Instead the psalmist suggests they are, at least sometimes, simply less happy.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 127 must do so carefully. After all, it easily leads to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. So preachers and teachers may want to emphasize this central message: any blessing we experience in our family, community and cultural lives is not the product of our hard work, careful planning or virtuous lives. It’s the result of God’s rich blessing. Success in any of those areas doesn’t breed any kind of arrogance or smugness. It breeds, instead, by the work of the Holy Spirit, humble thanksgiving to the Lord, the giver of life and all good things.
Few American families that have a “quiver-full” of children are more famous than the Duggars. As of this writing Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have 19 children. What’s more, until recently the Duggars also had their own reality television show.
On their official website they address the issue of why they have so many children. The Duggars believe “every life is sacred, even the life of the unborn.” After wife and mom Michelle had a miscarriage, they decided to “stop using any form of birth control and let God decide how many children we would have.”
The Duggars’ style of family planning (or lack thereof) as well as self-promotion can certainly be debated, even among God’s people. Certainly allegations of abuse and the ways they’ve chosen to deal with it have tarnished their witness. Yet their view of children reflects a literal reading of Psalm 127. After all, on their website they write, “God considered children a gift, a blessing, and a reward.” Perhaps the Duggars’ story and use of Psalm 127 may even serve as a kind of warning to interpret it carefully and wisely.
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