Digging into the Text:
Just offhand, I thought that the title of a sermon on Psalm 127 might be “The Cure for insomnia,” inspired by that delightful line: “the Lord gives his beloved sleep.” Of course, that’s a gross reduction of the breadth of the Psalm, but it does point to its multi-level meaning.
One level of the Psalm is hinted at by its title. We don’t often pay attention to the titles given in our Bibles, but in this case it’s helpful to notice that this is another of the Psalms of Ascent, of which we have had several in this season. Recalling that they were pilgrimage songs singled out as especially helpful for use on the great pilgrimage feasts of Israel, the final stage of which was the ascent to Zion.
The title also tells us that that it’s “Of Solomon.” Solomon, of course, was the builder of the great First Temple in Jerusalem. He was given the task when the Lord refused to let his father David build it because his hands were soaked in blood.
So the word “house” takes on special meaning here. The people are on their way to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, the house of the Lord. Solomon, and later the returning exiles, took great care to build the Temple as a beautiful place of worship. It was a stunningly impressive piece of architecture based on the original plans given to Israel in the Wilderness. And Israel took great pride in it.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” There’s an implicit warning here to the pilgrims on their way to the house of the Lord. They must be careful not to place too much stock in the beautiful building they have erected. Not that it’s wrong to have such a Temple; after all, God had given directions for it.
The Temple is a symbol, a sacrament, if you will, of something much more real and important. The true house of the Lord is the people of God themselves. “I will dwell with them….” (Ex. 29:45, Lev. 26:12, Rev. 21: 3) At this level of the Psalm, “Unless the Lord builds the house” calls Israel to remember that they are God’s people, God’s house, and that unless they reflect the architecture of God’s own will and purpose, the building of the Temple is in vain.
Taken at this level, the Psalm is also a word for the church today. So much of the chatter in pastoral circles is about how we build the church. We are awash in ideas about the techniques of church planting, church leadership, and church growth. Pastoral entrepreneurs build mega-churches, often using the techniques borrowed from the media and entertainment culture.
In all this building activity, the Psalmist reminds us that “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That is not to say that nothing good can come from our church building efforts, or that God’s Spirit is absent from it. But it is a solemn reminder that building the church is ultimately God’s work. Unless it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit through the Word, it is in vain.
So, in this sermon we might well ask, who is building the church? What is our foundation? Are we open to the energy, guidance, movement of the Holy Spirit?
The next verses of the Psalm open to another level of meaning.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.
This can also relate to the work of Temple/church building, of course. What pastor or church leader hasn’t lost some sleep by “eating the bread of anxious toil over the plans, tensions, and worries that come from hard work of church building. But on a larger plane, this verse relates to all of us in the toil and work of everyday life.
We live in a time of great change. A technological revolution is bulldozing the landscape of our lives, and we are frantically trying to keep up with it. There are always new techniques to be learned, new threats to our livelihood that upset our plans, social upheavals that challenge our ways of thinking and living. And we are inundated in it minute by minute by being always “connected” via the media. We don’t even have the blessed peace of ignorance since we can now know everything that’s happening around us.
One of the results of this connectedness is that, we’re told, an epidemic of sleeplessness. The more connected we are the less we sleep. We are constantly wired, which is not conducive to slumber. Some people even brag about how little they sleep. We see Tweets and posts that carry a time stamp in the middle of the night.
The Lord “gives sleep to his beloved.” That doesn’t mean that God is like a Xanax that calms our nerves. One way the Lord gives his beloved sleep is by living in his creation as he has given it to us. One of the gifts of creation is the rhythm of time– day and night, weekday and Sabbath, work and rest. But we fight against that rhythm rather than live comfortably in it, trying to grab more time for our work and to remain connected. A wired person does not sleep well.
Another way God gives sleep is by living in that constant refrain of the Psalms to trust in the Lord, or “wait upon the Lord.” The wired world, the connected self is living as though they must somehow be on top of it all, always trying to be in control. When we are wired into God and his creation, we give up control to the one who has the world in his hands. That brings on a blessed drowsiness, as we drift into the deep sleep of those who do not have the world on their shoulders.
The last verses of the Psalm seem disconnected with the rest. “Children are a heritage from the Lord.” These verses are also more culturally embedded in the life of ancient Israel. It talks about appearing at the gate of the city, the place where disputes were handled, backed up by a “platoon of strapping boys.” (James L. Mays in “Psalms”, a book also in the list on this website: https://cepreaching.org/resources/books/#ot-recommended-commentaries-psalms.
How does the preacher bridge the cultural gap here? Carefully, for one thing. There is a movement of Evangelical Christians who have adopted the term “Quiverfull” after this Psalm. They want to populate the world with more “Bible-believing” Christians who will take over society for God’s kingdom. They take seriously the creational command to ” be fruitful and multiply.” I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant when he called us to make disciples.
Yet, there may be something here that speaks to our time. I’ve read recently that fertility in the western world is way down, to the point that in many advanced countries the population is not replacing itself. Now, this has been used as a xenophobic scare tactic to make sure that our race, ethnicity, or national identity is being threatened. But maybe there’s more in the text than that.
If children are a heritage from the Lord, then why do we have less of them? We can discern several reasons:
Children cost money and time, and in that way they may be a burden or a drag on our individual plans and goals.
What will become of the next generation? I’ve heard people say something like, “I’m not sure I want to bring more children into a world like this.”
Fewer people today are willing to enter the covenant of marriage which entails a commitment to one’s spouse and the responsibility of having children.
This cultural phenomenon also seems related to the main theme of this Psalm. When we turn away from trust in God, and do not live by the patterns of his creation children become a problem rather than a gift and a “heritage from the Lord.”
And perhaps the “Quiverfulls” are not entirely wrong in their approach. God does, in fact, work through his covenant with future generations. One of the main ways (certainly not the only way) which his church grows is through God’s covenant blessing to “be God to you and your children after you (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39). That’s why the tradition of the church going back almost to the beginning is to baptize children.
Again, we see that God works his purpose through his creation, not in spite of it. The creation is good, and children are a “heritage from the Lord.” This is not an argument against birth control or family planning, as some Christians would allege. This is a recognition that trust in God and in the gifts of his creation is essential for a flourishing of life in the world.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
Preaching the Text:
1). On the idea of building the house of God, or the church today, the recent passing of Eugene Peterson brings to mind his deeply challenging and often cogent warnings against the ways we live as Christians today.
- The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at the …moment.
Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, p.150, InterVarsity Press
- This is the Americanization of congregations. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques and organizational flow charts, and then energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.”
Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson. p. 23-24
2). On living in the rhythms of God’s creation, Peterson was a great admirer of the work of Wendell Berry. In this passage from Berry’s novel, Jaber Crow, Jaber, the main character and town barber, is reflecting on what he thinks is missing in his preacher’s sermons. He would constantly say that:
We must lay up treasures in Heaven and not be lured and seduced by this world’s pretty and tasty things that do not last but are like the flower that is cut down [the preachers taught]…They [had] a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of his works – although they could tell you that this world had been made by God himself.
What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, mystery. To them, the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world.
…This religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I don’t think anyone believed it. I still don’t think so. Those world condemning sermons were prettiest clothes. Even the old widows in their dark dresses would be pleasing to look at. By dressing up on the one day when most of them had leisure to do it, they signified their wish to present who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of their children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. Jaber Crow, p. 160-162
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 11, 2018
Psalm 127 Commentary