Unless the Lord builds the House… – Psalm 127
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”Psalm 127:1
Take a moment and read Psalm 127.
This psalm appears to be two separate wisdom psalms that have been bound together. That was not an uncommon practice in Biblical times. But the two parts are tied closely together by a common theme. In the midst of coming into the devastated land of Judah the returnees may have wanted to take up their tools and get to work, trusting in their skills and talents. The Psalmist, though, is reminding them in his Song of Ascent, that without the Lord’s blessing all human toil is worthless and will account for nothing. The psalmist then lists four common human endeavors which cannot be successfully completed if God is not the one who champions the cause, and provides the means. Let us look at these.
First, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” There is a double meaning here for the returnees. They were building their houses, but the Lord exhorted them through the prophets, especially Haggai, that unless the Lord’s house was established in their midst, their labors on their own homes would be fruitless. He said, “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house” (1:9). And secondly, unless the Lord builds the “house”—that is the family of each individual—their home and family will not prosper.
Second, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” The walls of Jerusalem had been breached and torn down by the Babylonians when they overran the city in 597 BC. The returnees, therefore, felt very vulnerable. They wanted to restore the walls first, before the Temple, but Zechariah, gave this word of prophetic encouragement: “I will be to [Jerusalem] a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst” (2:5). The Lord is our watchman.
Third, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” We are reminded in this verse what St. Paul said to the church at Corinth: “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). And Jesus also exhorts the faithful in Luke 12:22-31, saying in part, “But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”
And fourth, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” This was prefigured in the first verse. It is God who builds the family. Whether you have children or not, the homes of the faithful must be grounded in the worship of the Lord. There will be more about this tomorrow.
What the Psalmist is declaring in this Song of Ascent as an encouragement for the newly arrived Jews is that faithfulness in everyday life and vitality in worship go together. Without the Lord on our side we will fail. Therefore, “seek first His Kingdom and righteousness,” and all the other things we need will be provided by His all-encompassing love.