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A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
2 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.
3 Sons* are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
*Note on v.3: : while the NRSV (above) translates this word as “sons,” many other translations read it as “children.”
Background and Context
This psalm is one of the fifteen known as the “Songs of Ascents”; they are Pss. 120-134, or about ten percent of the Psalter. Nobody knows for sure what “Ascents” refers to, but maybe it was about ascending the steps of the Jerusalem Temple in a liturgical procession, or maybe about ascending the mountain slope in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the “city on a hill,” for the annual festivals.
In the fifteen psalms of Ascent (and elsewhere), “house” can symbolize the Temple, “sons” the line of Davidic kings, and “city” Jerusalem; so they can be read on more than one level. The first seven of the psalms stress trusting Yahweh in a hostile world, while the last seven take joy in the good things of life; Psalm 127, in the middle of the sequence, has elements of both.
Psalm 127 can also be categorized as a “Wisdom Psalm,” that is, a kind of writing that has something in common with the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament, namely Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Whereas most of the Old Testament is concerned with telling the story of God and his people Israel (i.e. salvation history), the wisdom literature has little or none of this. (Wisdom literature is common elsewhere in the ancient Near East too, not just in the Bible.) Instead, wisdom literature is often not set in a specific time or place, or even concerned with specific named people (like Moses or Abraham). Wisdom literature, rather, tries to reflect in a philosophical way on questions like “How does life work; what are the principles that order this life” (in Proverbs), or, “Why does life work out the way it does; in fact, why does life often not work out as it should?” (in Job and Ecclesiastes).
Solomon’s reputation for great wisdom helps explain why this psalm is associated with him. There is no consensus list of “wisdom psalms” as such, but several others are commonly cited in this category, for example Psalms 1 (link), 37 (link), 49 (link), 73 (link), and 112 (link).
Along with his great wisdom, Solomon was famous for one other thing: building the Temple in Jerusalem. And here in Psalm 127, the concern with the “house” (i.e. temple) also explains the association with Solomon. Of course, “house” (bêṯ) can refer to many things, not just the house of David’s lineage or of Solomon’s temple, but when it occurs in the Old Testament, the word often has connotations of both a building and a lineage. Jacob journeyed to Succoth and “built himself a house” (Gen. 33:17); in Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the Israelites who will “build fine houses and live in them” (Deut. 8:12), as well as God’s promise to King David that “he shall build a house for my name” (2 Sam 7:13; links). The word has similar connotations in English, if we think of the kings and queens who belonged to the Houses of Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart (or Pain…)
Here, the “house” is a concept that links the first and second parts of the psalm: in verses 1-2, the physical house, and in verses 3-5, the “heritage” or “reward” of a family line (Emerton).
The first two verses of the psalm help save us from two opposite errors, if we’re thinking about building our own “houses.” The first mistake would be to think: Well, it’s all up to God. Nothing I do really matters all that much. I’ll go take a nap. And the second mistake would be: Unless I perform perfectly, there’s going to be a catastrophe, and it’s all my fault.
Verses 1-2 express in poetic form a real truth about God’s sovereignty and our responsibility: although we’re prone to think of the relation between these two as being 50/50, or 60/40, or 100/0, in fact it’s more like 100/100 (Keller). God is totally in control, and we are called to be responsible. Or as the psalm puts it, “the builders labor” and “The Lord builds the house.” You need both, which should mean that it’s possible to work hard all day, and sleep well at night, regardless of how many daunting odds we face.
Or, as Jesus put it, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing“ (John 15:5) or “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear” (Luke 12:22).
Similarly, Paul: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16) or “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Paul certainly had plenty of will and exertion — he definitely did plenty of planting and watering — but he could sleep well at night, knowing the kingdom of God was not dependent on his success.
What kind of “houses” are we most concerned with — institutions embodied in people? Our own children, of course. Our extended families? What about our kids’s schools? Or Saint James? Our neighborhood, or alumni group, or fraternal organization? Or belonging to a particular group of people… Dallasites, Texans, Americans?
In verse 2, the “bread of toil” is an image going all the way back to Genesis, and familiar to anyone who has to work for a living. Toil is Adam’s curse for eating the apple: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you… By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Gen 3:17-19), and a few generations later, Noah’s father names him with the hope: “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Gen 5:29). Work is cursed. Toil is cursed. But we know that’s not the end of the story…
In verse 3, children are called a “heritage,” using a word that can mean “possession, property, or inheritance,” and also, a “reward,” using the word for “wages.” When the psalm describes children as good things in very tangible, material ways, we have to remember that in those days, children did not come with all the expenses that Americans take for granted (house in a good school district, college tuition), and with no Social Security, having children was literally a retirement plan — the difference between comfortable life and impoverished death in old age. (Now things are somewhat different.. 1 2 3)
But in the Bible, the promise of the reward of children is not just about mundane but important things, like not starving to death in old age. Rather, the promise of descendants is precisely what God gives to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3); what, in God’s covenant with Abraham, he confirms, “your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1), and this promise is exactly what the New Testament writers were convinced had been fulfilled in Christ, as Peter tells the first converts, “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away [i.e. gentiles/pagans], everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39), and Paul assures the Galatians that in and through the work Christ, they too can count on the fulfillment of God’s promises, because they too can be counted as children of Abraham: “The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring… that is, to one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:15-16).
So, while in the mundane sense, children (or back then, sons) were the means to build and maintain a “house,” a “name,” or worldly fame and “immortality,” Christians can read this psalm while confident of an infinitely greater promise and reward…
In verses 4 and 5, the military imagery of the quiver of arrows, in the context of conflict, could be referring to a generic dispute, or to a legal case, or literally to military combat. One commentary quotes S. R. Hirsch:
“The arrow shot from a strong hand bears within itself the strength of the sharpshooter long after it has left his hand, and thus follows unswervingly and unhesitatingly the direction given it by the hand of the ‘mighty man.’ So, too, children raised by parents of youthful vigor will remain unwaveringly and unerringly true to the direction and goal set them by the guiding hand of father and mother, even long after they will have matured and left the immediate sphere of their parents’ guidance.”
Indeed, in traditional societies, the bigger and more powerful family usually wins (1, 2). In biblical times, the gate was the focal point of the town or village. Anyone doing business, or working the fields, would pass through the gate; and the local elders would gather there to hear and arbitrate disputes. (We might think of the beautiful historic downtown courthouse squares in Waxahachie, Granbury or Georgetown as serving essentially the same purpose.)
Here again, we might circle back to the same point about children as promise and reward in verse 3, above. Yes, it’s true that in the normal way of the world (remember this is a wisdom psalm), the larger, more powerful family usually wins. But we know that’s not the end of the story…
Video: the Shira Choir singing Psalm 127.
Video above: Andreas Scholl performing from the Nisi Dominus by Vivaldi (1678-1741): “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum” [He gives sleep to his beloved]. As seen in the 2015 Bond film Spectre.
Audio above (from 11:05): “Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet,” [where the Lord does not build the house], text by Martin Luther, music by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672),from Symphoniae sacrae III, recorded 2004 by Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel, Eglise St. Osdag, Neustadt-Mandelsloh, Germany.
It is not the will of the Lord that we should be like blocks of wood, or that we should keep our arms folded without doing anything; but that we should apply to use all the talents and advantages which he has conferred upon us. It is indeed true that the greatest part of our labors proceeds from the curse of God; and yet although men had still retained the integrity of their primitive state, God would have had us to be employed, even as we see how Adam was placed in the garden of Eden to dress it.
Since the minds of men are commonly possessed with such headstrong arrogance as leads them to despise God, and to magnify beyond measure their own means and advantages, nothing is of more importance than to humble them, in order to their being made to perceive that whatever they undertake it shall dissolve into smoke, unless God in the exercise of pure grace cause it to prosper.
The meaning then is, that, children are not the fruit of chance, but that God, as it seems good to him, distributes to every man his share of them. Moreover, as the Prophet repeats the same thing twice, heritage and reward are to be understood as equivalent; for both these terms are set in opposition to fortune, or the strength of men. The stronger a man is he seems so much the better fitted for procreation. Solomon declares on the contrary, that those become fathers to whom God vouchsafes that honor.
As the majority of children are not always a source of joy to their parents, a second favor of God is added, which is his forming the minds of children, and adorning them with an excellent disposition, and all kinds of virtues. Aristotle in his Politics very properly discusses the question whether πολυτεκνια, that is, the having of many children, ought to be accounted among good things or no; and he decides it in the negative, unless there is added εὐγενεια, that is, generosity or goodness of nature in the children themselves. And assuredly it would be a far happier lot for many to be without children, or barren, than to have a numerous offspring, proving to them only the cause of tears and groans.
It is also to be added, that unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring. Farther, he who thus reflects upon the goodness of God in giving him children, will readily and with a settled mind look for the continuance of God’s grace; and although he may have but a small inheritance to leave them, he will not be unduly careful on that account.
In the book of Psalms—in the Songs of Degrees, which are ascribed to Solomon—the following statement occurs: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” By which words he does not indeed indicate that we should cease from building or watching over the safe keeping of that city which is within us; but what he points out is this, that whatever is built without God, and whatever is guarded without him, is built in vain, and guarded to no purpose. For in all things that are well built and well protected, the Lord is held to be the cause either of the building or of its protection. As if, e.g., we were to behold some magnificent structure and mass of splendid building reared with beauteous architectural skill, would we not justly and deservedly say that such was built not by human power, but by divine help and might? And yet from such a statement it will not be meant that the labour and industry of human effort were inactive, and effected nothing at all.
Or again, if we were to see some city surrounded by a severe blockade of the enemy, in which threatening engines were brought against the walls, and the place hard pressed by a vallum, and weapons, and fire, and all the instruments of war, by which destruction is prepared, would we not rightly and deservedly say, if the enemy were repelled and put to flight, that the deliverance had been wrought for the liberated city by God? And yet we would not mean, by so speaking, that either the vigilance of the sentinels, or the alertness of the young men, or the protection of the guards, had been wanting. And the apostle also must be understood in a similar manner, because the human will alone is not sufficient to obtain salvation; nor is any mortal running able to win the heavenly (rewards), and to obtain the prize of our high calling of God in Christ Jesus, unless this very good will of ours, and ready purpose, and whatever that diligence within us may be, be aided or furnished with divine help.
And therefore most logically did the apostle say, that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy;” in the same manner as if we were to say of agriculture what is actually written: “I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” As, therefore, when a field has brought good and rich crops to perfect maturity, no one would piously and logically assert that the husbandman had made those fruits, but would acknowledge that they had been produced by God; so also is our own perfection brought about, not indeed by our remaining inactive and idle, (but by some activity on our part): and yet the consummation of it will not be ascribed to us, but to God, who is the first and chief cause of the work.
So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labour on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favouring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbour in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, “I have saved the ship,” but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labour to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labour, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.
So also in the race of our life we ourselves must expend labour, and bring diligence and zeal to bear; but it is from God that salvation is to be hoped for as the fruit of our labour. Otherwise, if God demand none of our labour, His commandments will appear to be superfluous. In vain, also, does Paul blame some for having fallen from the truth, and praise others for abiding in the faith; and to no purpose does he deliver certain precepts and institutions to the Churches: in vain, also, do we ourselves either desire or run after what is good. But it is certain that these things are not done in vain; and it is certain that neither do the apostles give instructions in vain, nor the Lord enact laws without a reason. It follows, therefore, that we declare it to be in vain, rather, for the heretics to speak evil of these good declarations.
The sleep of the body is the gift of God. So said Homer of old, when he described it as descending from the clouds and resting on the tents of the warriors around old Troy. And so sang Virgil, when he spoke of Palinurus falling asleep upon the prow of his ship. Sleep is the gift of God. We think that we lay our heads upon our pillows, and compose our bodies in a peaceful posture, and that, therefore we naturally and necessarily sleep. But it is not so. Sleep is the gift of God; and not a man would close his eyes, did not God put his fingers on his eyelids; did not the Almighty send a soft and balmy influence over his frame which lulled his thoughts into quiescence, making him enter into that blissful state of rest which we call sleep.
References (by date)
- Origen (185-254), “On the Freedom of the Will.”
- Augustine of Hippo (354-430), “Exposition on Psalm 127.” Trans. J.E. Tweed (1888), edited by Kevin Knight for newadvent.org.
- John Calvin (1509-1564), “Psalm 127” intro, vv. 1-2, vv. 3-5 from Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, trans. John King, [1847-50], CCEL.org.
- Charles Spurgeon, “The Peculiar Sleep of the Beloved” (1855)
- J. A. Emerton, “The Meaning of šēnā’ in Psalm CXXVII” (1974)
- Patrick D. Miller, “Psalm 127 – the House That Yahweh Builds” (1982)
- Bruce K. Dahlberg, “An Exegetical Study of Psalm 127” (1984)
- Daniel E. Fleming, “‘House’/’City’: An Unrecognized Parallel Word Pair” (1986)
- Daniel J. Estes, “Like Arrows in the Hand of a Warrior (Psalm CXXVII)” (1991)
- Daniel E. Fleming, “Psalm 127: Sleep for the Fearful, and Security in Sons” (1995)
- Michael Patrick Barber, Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (2001)
- Daniel J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (2010)
- Jamie Viands, I Will Surely Multiply Your Offspring: An Old Testament Theology of the Blessing of Progeny with Special Attention to the Latter Prophets (2013)
- John McKeown, God’s Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America (2014)
- Gerard McLarney, St. Augustine’s Interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent (2014)
- Douglas Vos, “Songs for a Hard Road – The Resurgence of Psalm Singing by God’s People” (2016)
- Resources page
- Wikipedia: Psalm 127, Nisi dominus frustra, Inscriptions referencing Psalm 127, Coat of Arms of Edinburgh