Reflections on Psalm 127 —
I can experience greater peace when I acknowledge that God controls the outcome of my plans, including plans to help my children prosper.
“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.
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.” — Psalm 127:1-2
Vanity and striving go hand-in-hand. That was the conclusion of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. He was the guy who said, “all is vanity and striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Yet we labor on, always hopeful that we will achieve something. Psalm 127 speaks to this teetering balance between conclusions that are worthwhile and those that end in futility. The word “vain” appears three times in these two verses. The guy in this object lesson is “eat[ing] the bread of painful labors.” He is striving–working hard, stressing out, burning the candle at both ends, desperately trying to accomplish something meaningful.
I can relate. It’s usually when I’m presenting to a large audience or in front of my leadership. I get really nervous. A dull pain develops in my chest. I work excessively long hours without heed to bodily functions. I work myself into a tizzy. All for the sake of looking good in front of people I’m trying to impress.
When I get like that, I wish I could step back, take a deep breath, and grasp the concept of God being interested in the things I’m working on. In fact, He is working on the same projects. As I do my job, He is working too. As I work to raise my kids, He is working too. As I take care of my house or see to the well-being of my community, God is right there, working. Scriptures tell us that believers were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we will walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
I ought to take advantage of that.
God has ordained and is actively involved in projects here on earth. This is just one of many surprising things we learn about God when we read scripture. Here are a few others:
- He declares the end from the beginning — i.e., He knows the outcome of any undertaking before it even starts (Isaiah 46:10)
- Nothing is too difficult for God (Jeremiah 32:17)
- He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3)
- He doesn’t need anything from us, for He owns everything (Psalm 50:9-12)
- He fills the heavens and earth — i.e., He can be anywhere at any time (Jeremiah 23:24)
If God wants something done, anywhere in the world, He can do it with great passion and energy. He can bring it to the conclusion He desires. He can do it without me or my effort. These are good things to keep in mind. Anything I’m striving to accomplish falls clearly under the canopy of God’s sovereignty.
We all have our houses to build, and walls to guard…something we’re trying to achieve or obtain. But Psalm 127 verses 1 and 2 tell us if we exclude the Lord from our effort, we’ll be striving in vain. The lesson of Psalm 127 is that I should never do things out of a panicky, anxious, and fearful heart. Nor should I strive do things to satisfy the cravings of my ego or validate my importance. Things should be done out of peace, rest, and quiet confidence. They should be done out of awe and respect for God, deferring to His sovereign will and His capacity to do things even while I sleep.
I Still Need to Plan
That doesn’t mean I should just throw up my hands. I am to work. Work is good. I am to plan. Planning is good. Solomon says that if I commit my works to the Lord, He will establish my plans (Proverbs 16:3). Works and plans are both valid activities in God’s eyes. I would suggest He implanted that plan in my brain in the first place! As Paul says, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
But in our planning, we should always make allowance for God to blow us this way or that. He ultimately decides the fate of our plan, for, “the plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1). We should be flexible, not rigid in our expectations. James does not speak well of those who are presumptuous enough to plan without any consideration for God’s ultimate sway over their aspirations:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” — James 4:13-16
To presume that my effort alone is sufficient to accomplish my plan is to be grossly mistaken. Even if I “rise early, retire late, and eat the bread of painful labors”, the results are completely out of my control, nestled firmly in the hands of God.
So I will rest as I plan. I will carry out my plan with a blissful sense of adventure, an awareness that things could change at any moment. When they do change, I’ll probably be shocked and discomfited for awhile. That is my natural inclination. But if I’m wise, I’ll hook my anchor back up to God and see where He takes this. That is the lesson of verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 127.
The Connection with Children
Verses 3 through 5 of Psalm 127 take an abrupt turn at this point, and so will this blog.
“Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” — Psalm 127:3
I’ve struggled for a long time wondering why Solomon talks about God’s sovereignty (verses 1 and 2) and the blessings of children (verses 3 through 5) in the same psalm. The two thoughts are good; they just don’t seem to go together.
But as I was thinking of this the other day, a connection occurred to me.
God gives to those He loves even while they sleep. He gives, not because of their effort, but because He just likes giving gifts. One of the gifts He gives is children. Let’s get this straight–children are not earned. I am not a better man if I have one, two, or ten kids. Also, a giver does not have to provide gifts. So, we cannot expect automatic fertility. That’s just the way it goes. I know many godly couples who so far are unsuccessful at bearing children. At the same time, others who probably shouldn’t have children (from our perspective), seem to be prolific at it. God’s method does not always seem fair to us.
But for those who have been blessed to have children, the message of Psalm 127 verses 1 and 2 applies to verses 3 through 5. God is a good house builder. I think we can take that figuratively. He is in the business of helping fathers like me raise a household of children to be what He wants them to be.
A Blessing No Matter What
I spend an awful lot of time worrying about my kids’ spiritual health. I do all kinds of early morning vigils and late night fretting over them. It is a draw on my emotional health, a constant source of worry. I often rehearse my lines I want to say to them, and awkwardly inject “helpful” suggestions they’ve heard thousands of times. I need to remember that unless the Lord builds the house, I am laboring in vain. Perhaps I need to apply a little of verses 1 and 2 to my thinking on verses 3 through 5.
Verses 3 through 5 make kids sound like wonderful little creatures to have around. But children don’t always seem like blessings to me–like when they make mistakes that cause me grief. In my depraved thinking, only good children can be a blessing. But verses 3 through 5 contain no conditional statement. I am not blessed if I have good children. I have children, therefore, I am blessed. Conversely, children are not a blessing if they are good. Children are a blessing…period. It is an important distinction.
If God says my children are a blessing, then I will see them as a blessing no matter what they do. They deserve my contentedness with them.
I don’t need to fret if my kids start to go astray. I know a lot of other parents like me who worry about the spiritual health of their kids. They fight off negative feelings of guilt or shame, wondering what they should have done better…more teaching, more equipping, more preparing, more safeguarding. But the fact that God builds houses and guards walls in my sleep means I can rest assured. God can call into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:17). He can “bring forth” believers as He wills (James 1:18). If a parent plants even a small seed of faith in their child’s heart, God can cause it to grow (I Corinthians 3:7). He can can save each one of them, according to their particular bent, their particular need. Even if my kids wander from the truth, I won’t stress out. I will pray for them out of a sad, yet peaceful heart. I will fight for them with confidence using divinely powerful weapons (II Corinthians 10:5). And if I miss a day, God is still on the job because He is not dependent on my effort.
In fact, a little bit of wandering might be the best thing that ever happened to my kids. The way I see it, kids who go astray represent golden opportunities for God to glorify Himself, the very reason He made this universe in the first place.
It’s a win-win situation if I can relax and trust God with the souls of my kids. They won’t feel the burden of my unmet expectations. And I’ll be less anxious about their future. Win-win.
Opportunities to Grow in Love
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” — Psalm 127:4-5
I need to return to the thought that I am blessed not because I have good children but because I have children. I am blessed by my children because each one is a ready-made “life lesson” God uses to refine my faith and increase the maturity of my love. There is no occupation in life that can teach life-lessons like a child.
I love all my kids, but it is easier to be pleased with some more than others. Some are compliant, always wanting to make me happy. Others fight for every inch. I enjoy the former, but I have learned more from the latter, and that is valuable to me in its own way. The more headstrong kids have taught me to hang my expectations by the door and become less self-concerned. They have forced me to trust more in the God who builds houses. The net result is more peace for me, and less demand on them. It’s a more mature kind of love. In the end, there is an unexpected maturity and confidence that come when I commit my children’s souls to the Lord. With my “quiver full” of kids, I can look any enemy straight in the eye without fear.
A friend consulted me about kids once. He said his wife wanted more kids, but he was reluctant. He knew more kids meant less time for him to pursue his passions. He asked my opinion. I thought of Psalm 127, and I thought about Sarah and Gina–children #5 and #6 in my clan. When we were in the “four and no more” club, my wife and I heard an impassioned speaker give an appeal to proliferate based on Psalm 127. If we had written him off, neither Sarah nor Gina would be with us today. They are beautiful, young women, full of life, character, and vitality. Two beautiful lives full of adventure. Two wonderful people for my wife and I to experience. Sure, I don’t own a boat, and I still drive a 16-year old vehicle. But who cares? My kids have taught me life lessons that lead to peace and maturity. I say, the more, the merrier.
When I was a young father, I had all kinds of plans and ideas for shaping my kids’ spiritual minds. I read them Bible stories every night. I taught their Sunday School stories. I orchestrated object lessons and even some home videos to act out various lessons. Now as they are older and making decisions of their own, I need to stop expecting the results I sought earlier. I need to change my approach. My kids are a blessing, and God is more interested that the house be built and the wall guarded than I will ever be. He loves me, and He loves the kids. He will work with them while I sleep.
Author’s Note: This interpretation relies heavily on the New American Standard Bible’s translation of Psalm 127:2, which states: “…for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” Other translations suggest “He gives sleep to His beloved.” I personally think the NASB has it right. The context of the verse is a person working long, overtime hours, presumably to obtain more money, a secure future, a job promotion–and ultimately, security and happiness. Solomon knows from experience this is vanity. The implication is that one that trusts in God does not need to strive to find contentment, for God gives it freely in unimaginable ways.