Psalm 127 is one of the most practical passages in the Bible. It deals with two areas of our life that demand most of our time and cause us the most trouble. They are also the two areas which often compete with each other for our attention and energy. The two areas are those of our work and our family.
In our “workaholic” society Christian men often have misplaced priorities with respect to these responsibilities. The workaholic pursues his career at the expense of his family. He is often oblivious to the implications of his conduct. Minirth and Meier, two Christian psychiatrists, give us a picture of the workaholic’s true nature and its results:
“… the selfishness of the perfectionist (workaholic) is much more subtle. While he is out in society saving humanity at a work pace of eighty to a hundred hours a week, he is selfishly ignoring his wife and children. He is burying his emotions and working like a computerized robot. He helps mankind partially out of love and compassion, but mostly as an unconscious compensation for his insecurity, and as a means of fulfilling both his strong need for society’s approval and his driving urge to be perfect. He is self-critical and deep within himself feels inferior. He feels like a nobody, and spends the bulk of his life working at a frantic pace to prove to himself that he is really not (as he suspects deep within) a nobody. In his own eyes, and in the eyes of society, he is the epitome of human dedication. … He becomes angry when his wife and children place demands on him. He can’t understand how they could have the nerve to call such an unselfish, dedicated servant a selfish husband and father. … In reality, his wife and children are correct, and they are suffering severely because of his subtle selfishness.”219
I do not know of a father listening to me who does not agonize about his priorities in the areas of work and family. If there is such a person who isn’t concerned with them, he should be. Psalm 127 will instruct us how to correctly arrange our priorities in these most important responsibilities.
1 A Song of Ascents, of Solomon. Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. 2 It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. (NASB)
This Psalm has nothing to say about the need for work. Solomon, the author of this Psalm, is also a contributor of much of the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs. In Proverbs he has many words for the sluggard. The sluggard is described as one who avoids work as much as possible. He delays starting a task and seldom finishes the few things he starts. He always has an excuse for his indolence, no matter how contrived (“There’s a lion in the road …” Prov. 26:13). Solomon’s advice is simple: “Get to work!”
In Psalm 127 Solomon deals with the one who cannot seem to stop working. Here he addresses the workaholic, showing him the circumstances in which work is worthless because it is futile. We should understand that what we are considering is a very specialized study on the subject of work. It does not seek to say everything which could be said but speaks to the one who over-indulges in work, to the detriment of more important matters.
Verse 1 describes two instances in which work is vain or futile. Notice that neither endeavor is considered improper. Building houses and seeking to preserve the security of a city are both acceptable enterprises. But there is a time when either task can be futile. In each case our work is in vain when we engage in the activity alone, without God’s involvement.
Solomon begins by telling us that unless God builds our house, our efforts in building it are vain. Who would ever have thought God would stoop to house-building? Hasn’t He better things to do? And, after all, isn’t this something we can do for ourselves? It is simply a matter of making a plan, gathering materials, and putting them all together. Why does God need to be a part of house building?
The first answer is a general one. God makes no distinctions between what is sacred and what is secular. We are told in the New Testament, “And whatever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23). God is interested in every kind of work. There is no work from which we should exclude God. You may ask “Why does God care about house-building?” Let us think of what concerns God about houses.
God is concerned with how high a priority we place on our houses. For some people, having a house of their own is a goal which is absolutely consuming. The husband and wife may both work to earn the needed money. They may, in the process, neglect their marriage and their family. I know of numerous instances where striving for a lovely home has destroyed the marriage. God is not in any venture which is a reversal of biblical priorities. The Lord has a very clear word as to our priorities in this matter.
“Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).
God also cares about our motives in building a house. A house is a symbol of status in our society. We want the best and biggest house we can buy in the “right” part of town. If our security is somehow intertwined with earthly possessions, then we are trusting in material things and not in God.
Now we can answer the question, “When is house-building vain?” House building is vain when we engage in it without God. And when does God not build our house with us? When we have the wrong priorities, the wrong motives, or the wrong methods. God cares about what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. God is concerned about the building of houses because so many of us are preoccupied with just such efforts. It may destroy us as a family; it may keep us from fellowshipping with God and our fellow-saints, and it may divert our energies from seeking His kingdom to building one of our own. Such misdirected or mismotivated effort is futile, for it seeks to trade off the eternal in preference for what is temporal. It is vain because our hearts are wrong before God. It is worthless because we are serving the wrong master.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Verse 1 also informs us that a watchman’s task to insure the security of a city can be vain. Security has always been a priority to men. In ancient times huge walls were built around cities. At various points along the wall were elevated towers. Watchmen were stationed there at all hours of the day and night. They prevented unwanted persons from entering into the city. They warned the people of the city of imminent attacks. Today we have security guards, watchdogs and sophisticated electronic devices, all designed to provide the same security sought by the ancients.
It is not as difficult to envision God as being concerned with our security as it is with our building of houses. After all, God cares about us and our well-being. But when is God not a part of our efforts to maintain security? I would say there are two principle occasions in biblical history when God removed Himself from the business of security. The first instance is when safety is sought in the midst of sin. The sinner is never secure in sin. The people of Babel sought their security in a city and in the building of a tower. However God had commanded men to disperse and to populate the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1,7). Sodom and Gomorrah were defenseless because God judges sin. We are most secure when we are obedient to the will of God (e.g. 2 Kings 6). Conversely, we are least secure when we persist in our sin.
Second, man is vulnerable when he strives for security in his own strength. Man’s safety is only in God. When our efforts to be secure distract us from our devotion to God, we have no protection. Lot chose Sodom and Gomorrah, I suspect, because he felt living there would give him security. He chose the best land and left the rest to Abraham. Lot was kidnapped, but Abraham rescued him. Lot lost everything, including his wife and his honor, but Abraham was exalted. The nation Israel sought to establish security by making alliances with other nations. They relied on the “arm of the flesh,” but security depends upon God alone (2 Chron. 32:7,8; Ps. 44:2-3; Isa. 51:5; Jer. 17:5). When we seek to be secure in our own efforts, it is an exercise of futility.
Verse 1 describes the futility of work which arises from improper motives and self-endeavor. Verse 2 seeks to show us another misuse of work. Work is vain whenever it goes beyond the limits God has set for it. Any labor is wrong when it is excessive. Work becomes vain when it is concerned with the wrong activity, so too, it becomes vain by going beyond reasonable limits of time. In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 we are told that there is a time for everything. When our work totally consumes us we do not have time for other vitally important responsibilities.220 Too much work is counterproductive.
Verse 2 tells us that when our work causes us to get up very early and retire very late, it is vain. Now all of us know that occasionally it is necessary to “burn the midnight oil.” In fact in Proverbs 31 the virtuous woman is praised for doing this (verses 15,18). There she is commended for being hard-working, not slothful. Solomon is not contradicting Proverbs 31; he is putting this in perspective. While everyone finds occasions which require extra effort and longer time commitments, the workaholic is the man who has made this a pattern.
The last phrase of verse 2 explains the reason why extending our working day is wrong. I see two possible meanings, and while only one may be intended, it is also possible that both are taught simultaneously. The interpretation of this statement hinges on the translation we choose for the final clause of verse 2. The NIV renders it, “For he grants sleep to those he loves.” The NASB renders it, “For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.”
Let’s consider first the sense of the passage as the translators of the NIV have understood it. The reason why the workaholic toils in vain is because he has failed to appreciate the delicate balance between the need for work and the necessity of rest. When you stop to think about it, work was a part of the curse pronounced upon Adam as a result of his sin.221 But from the very beginning God had established the principle of rest, even prior to the fall. God made the heavens and the earth in six days and in the seventh day He rested (Gen. 2:1-3). Later, when He gave the Law through Moses, God established the Sabbath as a day of rest (Deut. 5:12-15). I believe the Sabbath was intended to accomplish several things. First, it was a gracious provision for man to rest and recover. While work was a consequence of sin, God graciously put limits on man’s labor. Six days are sufficient toil (Deut. 5:13-14). Second, God established the Sabbath as a time for spiritual reflection and worship. Man needs time to worship God (cf. Deut. 5:12). Finally, the Sabbath was given as an opportunity for men to learn to trust God and strengthen their faith. Why was it that the Israelites found it so difficult to cease their labors on the Sabbath (cf. Neh. 13:15-18)? It was due either to greed or to unbelief. Greed made men discontent with the earnings of only six days. Wouldn’t working on the Sabbath increase profits? Unbelief also tempted men to work on the Sabbath. The farmer who had just cut his crop of grain feared that it might rain. “I can’t stop now,” he reasoned, “my crops may be ruined.” The Sabbath was a gracious provision for men, but they were tempted not to use it as God had directed.
The workaholic therefore chooses to capitalize on the curse and to avoid the blessings. The workaholic has lost his perspective on what is a necessary evil and what is a gracious good. By working day and night men cannot give diligent attention to more important matters such as study and meditation in the Scriptures, worship and devotion, and attention to family, the subject of the next three verses.
There is another way in which we may view the statement of verse 2. Prolonging our labor is vain because it violates a basic spiritual principle: God gives to those who have learned to rest in Him, not to those who strive in their own strength. In the words of the Psalmist as translated by the NASB, “For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (emphasis mine). Put in its simplest terms, the blessings of God are never gained by self-effort, no matter how fervent or how prolonged. God’s blessings are the product of His grace, appropriated by faith, not works. Work is futile when we strive, by means of it, to gain God’s blessings.
Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).
God not only gives sleep to His children, He also gives to His children “in sleep,” that is when there is no toiling and striving, only resting in His goodness and faithfulness.
3 Behold, children are a gift of the LORD; The fruit of the womb is a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. 5 How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They shall not be ashamed, When they speak with their enemies in the gate. (NASB)
Some scholars have suggested that this Psalm was originally two separate psalms. They propose this because the connection between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3-5 is an enigma to them. I personally am convinced that there is a very clear sequence and progression of thought. Children provide an excellent conclusion to the argument of verses 1 and 2. Children illustrate and apply positively the truths previously taught from a somewhat negative perspective. The provision of children differs from that for which men toil. When men work they are striving for wages, not a gift. Wages are what we produce with the work of our hands. Gifts are those things generously and graciously given to us by another. Children, verse 3 informs us, are a gift from God. They are a great reward.
Isn’t it interesting that children, while given by God, are conceived when we are at rest, not when we toil. Children are normally conceived in bed. What a beautiful illustration, then, of what we are told in verse 2, that God gives to His beloved in his sleep.
In verses 4 and 5 we are taught that children, a gift from God, provide us with the very thing for which men strive in vain. A man may toil to build a house, but by giving us children God builds our home. The watchman stands guard to provide security and protection, but the children God gives provide a greater security. Solomon poetically describes them as arrows in the hand of a warrior (v. 4). The children born in a man’s youth are strong and well established by the time he has reached old age. His quiver full of children will look after the aged man and his wife. The city gate (v. 5) was the place of business. It was also the place where justice was administered (cf. Gen. 19:1; 34:20-21; Deut. 17:5). The Scriptures assume that the widows and the orphans were more vulnerable and in need of greater protection since they had no one (but God) to safe-guard their interests (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; 14:29; Ps. 94:6; Isa. 1:23). The parents of many children had no such worry. Their children saw to it that their parents were treated with respect and with honesty and justice. Let their enemies try to take advantage of them!
Do you see the point of the Psalm? The man who puts too much stock in his labor is the man who has failed to understand the grace of God. In His grace God has provided man with a time of rest and relaxation. And in His grace God has made provision for many of our needs through the gift of children. Contrary to the thinking of the workaholic, God’s gifts are not acquired by feverish efforts, burning the candle at both ends, but by resting in His grace.
In my estimation this Psalm is the Old Testament counterpart of John 15:1-11. Jesus teaches us that the key to being fruitful is abiding in Him, not in frantic efforts. I do not mean to suggest that abiding in Christ precludes activity, but I do think it should govern our work. We need not strive to the point that God’s priorities are reversed. We dare not strive beyond the limits God has given. Our activity should leave room for important concerns, like raising children, and having time for rest, reflection, and worship.
We, sadly enough, have reversed our priorities from that given in this Psalm. Many have come to view children as a curse and work as the means of finding fulfillment and security. This is evident in the trend of the women’s movement. They are seeking to be released from the “slavery and drudgery of homemaking.” Instead, they are pursuing careers to find “fulfillment.” This is demonstrated by two observations: at worst, many women prefer abortions to relinquishing their occupations. At best, other women are willing for their children to be raised by institutions rather than to rear their own children at home.
Do you remember how it was with the first family, with Adam and Eve? Work was a part of the curse, and children were an essential part of the promise. How was Eve to be fulfilled as a woman and to play a role in the salvation of mankind? By having a child. It was through her seed that Satan would be crushed (Gen. 3:15).
Now I know full well that women today do not anticipate being the mother of Messiah, as women of old did. Nevertheless it still must be maintained that God’s grace is not to be seen in toil, but in the gift of children. Just as women of old anticipated the birth of the Savior to deliver them from the curse, so women today should regard childbearing as a gift of God to deliver them from the continuing effects of the curse (Gen. 3:16). Because of Eve’s sin, God has required women to remain silent in church meetings (1 Tim. 2:11-14). However, God has graciously provided women a voice in the assembly of believers through their children. The Lord’s gracious gift allows women to speak in church meetings through their children if “they” (the children) continue to reflect mature Christian character in accordance with the biblical instruction of their parents (1 Tim. 2:15).
Many may wonder about the implications of this psalm regarding birth control. I do not wish to be understood as saying more than I am. I am not here advocating that we should never practice birth control. I am suggesting that we should seriously evaluate our motives (and even our methods) for preventing children. In a previous series on Genesis it was noted in chapter 38 that Onan’s action of “spilling his seed on the ground” (v. 9) to prevent Tamar from conceiving was wrong because it was an “unnatural” action. He rejected a clear command to raise up a seed for his brother and he put his own financial interests first. Thus we can conclude that birth control is evil if it is motivated by selfish interests and if it is clearly an act of disobedience. Are we not having children to preserve our freedom? Is it that we don’t trust God to provide for our material and emotional needs? Psalm 127 emphasizes that “children are a gift of the Lord” (v. 3). Therefore, we should carefully evaluate our real reasons for birth control and place a high value on having children. Yet it is just as possible to want children for the wrong reasons as it is to wish to prevent their conception. We should test our motives by the principle: “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Methods of birth control which are abortive rather than preventative are clearly wrong. Beyond this, the Bible does not have a proof text for condemning or condoning birth control for everyone; it is a matter of personal conviction.
Do not misunderstand me with regard to the employment of women. I am not implying that a woman should never work. I am emphasizing that we must recognize the liabilities of labor and the benefits of rest. I am asserting that we should never allow our work to become the ruin of our family.
Incidentally, I feel that my emphasis may be misinterpreted. I am not speaking primarily to women. This Psalm was written by a man and primarily to men. Many of our wives are much more sensitive and much more concerned about this matter than their husbands. They know that we are allowing our jobs to rob them and our children of the time they need. They know that our work has crossed over the line of God’s limitations and has therefore become vain. If you really want to know if this is true or not, ask your wife.
Finally, this Psalm contains a principle which relates to those who may never have come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter how much you labor to earn a righteousness which you hope God will accept, your efforts will always be futile. Your works will never be acceptable to God. God has chosen to save men by His grace, not by their works. To be saved you must recognize yourself as a sinner, and your efforts to be righteous apart from God are worthless. You can be saved simply by resting in Him. He has sent His Son to be punished for your sins on Calvary. Jesus Christ is the One whose righteousness can be yours, simply by trusting in Him and receiving salvation as God’s gift of grace. In Him alone you will find the security which God gives for eternity.
221 I am not saying that labor is only a curse. I believe that Adam had a work to do in the garden before the fall. I do not think that heaven is a place of inactivity. But the toil of our task is to be related to the fall. That is the force of God’s words in Genesis 3:17-19.