Empty and Full: Psalm 127
The following article is taken from chapter eight of Rhett P. Dodson‘s new book, Marching to Zion; BANNER OF TRUTH
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Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
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.
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes going to work, caring for the kids, or studying at school worth it? What motivates you? Sure, you’ve got bills to pay, meals to cook, and exams to take, but what is it in your heart that gets you going?
Greed motivates some people. ‘I want all I can get and then some!’ Guilt drives others. ‘I’ll feel like a failure if I don’t do what I think I’m supposed to do.’ And glory motivates others. ‘Perhaps today someone will finally notice how wonderful I really am. Maybe today I will get the promotion or the compliments I deserve.’
Motivations pull back the curtains to let you see into your heart. If you’re motivated by greed, you worship money. If it’s guilt, you’re idolizing your desire to be in control. If it’s self-glory that gets you moving in the mornings, you’re bowing at the altar of pride.
Living with these kinds of motivations is like chasing the wind, the kind of empty life Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes (see 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17). No one ever caught the wind and found it worth the effort, because it’s impossible to catch what you’re chasing. It’s wasted effort, vanity, the kind of life this psalm describes.
Solomon wrote this wisdom psalm not to focus on praise or thanksgiving, not to lament sin or distress, and not to recount Israel’s history, but to help us see how life is or how it should be. He draws from common, everyday experiences to focus the light of truth so that we may see the glory of God.
At first, you may wonder how and where this message fits with the Songs of Ascents. Why would a pilgrim headed to Jerusalem sing this song? For this reason: to remind him- or herself that most of life is not spent on the road to Zion but at work and at home. The Christian pilgrimage is much the same. Never underestimate the role of Scripture, the sacraments, and the Sabbath for the Christian life. Each week, we gather under the means of grace to re-energize and reorient ourselves spiritually. We do not, however, spend most of our life at church. Being a Christian pilgrim involves much more than just showing up for worship on the Lord’s Day. The Christian pilgrimage encompasses all life, and what Solomon wants you to learn from this psalm is that life without the Lord is empty.
Psalm 127 has two main divisions. At first glance, these two sections seem to have nothing to do with each other. But this psalm finds its unity in its description of the main arenas where we live out our faith. This psalm is about life at work and life at home.
LIFE AT WORK
Work without the Lord is empty. That’s the point that the first two verses of this psalm clearly make. What’s the key word in these verses? ‘Vain’. It echoes three times, reminding us that work without God is meaningless. We hear it twice in verse 1, where Solomon gives us two reminders. The first is about a builder. ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain’ (verse 1). What’s the significance of the word ‘house’? Is this the Davidic dynasty? Is he referring to any house as a place filled with children (verses 3-5)? Is this the temple? The last was the house that Solomon built. Whether it’s Solomon’s house, David’s house, the Lord’s house, your house, or my house, if God isn’t in the work, it’s empty. Those who build it labour and toil. The work is gruelling. But hard work is no substitute for the divine presence.
The second reminder focuses on the city watchman. The ancient world had no satellites and no advanced warning systems, so sentries stood guard on the city wall. This was a very important job because the city’s security depended upon their vigilance. But the watchman’s alertness was no guarantee of security if the Lord did not watch over the city. Alert lookouts are no substitute for God.
Let’s be careful, however, to note what the text doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that builders shouldn’t build and watchmen shouldn’t watch. Solomon stresses our God-given responsibility, but he unites it with complete dependence on the Lord. Houses don’t get built without builders. Cities aren’t secure without watchmen. But neither builders nor watchmen can adequately fulfil their responsibilities without reliance upon the Lord, because the building and the keeping ultimately depend upon him.
Flowing from these two reminders, verse 2 offers a charge. If you believe that work is vain without God’s activity, you should put that into practice in your own life. Verse 1 describes the construction worker and the security guard, but verse 2 describes the workaholic. What does he do? He works himself to exhaustion by getting up early and going to bed late. This kind of relentless activity is a recipe for disaster, but it’s also an indication of idolatry. The people described in this verse work themselves to exhaustion and starve themselves of any true satisfaction because they are looking for their jobs or what they can buy with their pay cheques to give meaning to life.
These people end up eating ‘the bread of anxious toil’. This could be the food they earned from all their overwork. But I think there’s more here. Bread is what you fill yourself with. You eat bread to satisfy your appetite. Yet, if you try to find your satisfaction in work, you will only be filling yourself with nervous, worried, fearful work. If you give yourself too much to your work, if it becomes your idol, you will never be able to enjoy it. You can’t delight in it. It becomes worrisome labour rather than an enjoyable calling. The word for ‘toil’ used here is also used in the curse on Eve. She would bear her children in painful labour (Gen. 3:16). This is not good, hard work at an honest job; this is curse-filled, painful toil. If you work like this, you may attain the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but you’d really be living the life of the ragged and famished.
A few years ago, Business Week magazine ran an article entitled ‘The Confessions of a Workaholic’. In the article, a man named Ron said, ‘The workaholism issue is a real one for me. I am never more than a couple steps—mentally—from the computer. What keeps me tethered is the fear that if I stop, my whole world will come crashing in on me. It’s hard to get out of that mindset for even a few minutes.’1 What is this fellow saying? If I do not obsess about my work, my life will fall apart. Why is he fearful? Because he isn’t trusting God with his work. He believes he has to be in control, he has to be the god of his work. This man is eating the bread of anxious toil.
It’s worthless to live a workaholic life because God ‘gives to his beloved sleep’ (verse 2). When Solomon writes ‘his beloved’, he may very well be referring to himself. He is called the ‘beloved of the Lord’ or ‘Jedidiah’ in 2 Samuel 12:25. But every Christian is ‘Jedidiah’. Every believer is beloved in Christ, chosen in Christ, loved with an everlasting, never-ending, never-failing love. And God gives sleep to his beloved children. Sleep is the Father’s good gift. The workaholic sees sleep as a necessary evil, the means to give him or her energy to earn more money. We need to see sleep as a gift from God, not an intrusion into our schedules or a waste of time. ‘Sweet is the sleep of a labourer’ (Eccles. 5:12). Sleep is the time God gives us to rejuvenate our bodies. If we are diligent in doing our work, there will be enough time to accomplish what the Lord wants us to do and to rest properly as well. Most of us are tired because we are too occupied with pursuing what we want, we waste time with things that are inconsequential, or we fail to keep God’s Sabbath.
If we recognize sleep as God’s good gift, sleep becomes an act of faith. When we lie down at night, we are saying, ‘I am not God. I am not in control, and that’s OK. I’m going to lie down, go to sleep, and become as helpless as a baby. Everything will be all right because my heavenly Father is in charge. He’s working so I can rest.’ ‘He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psa. 121:3b-4). God never sleeps, so you and I can.
If we don’t have God in our work, our work is meaningless. This is why we need the gospel at the office and the gospel at the factory. Christ came to redeem us from meaningless jobs. He came to set us free from worshipping work, achievements, or pay cheques. He came to free our hearts from the snare of idols like success and ease. Christ’s death on the cross releases us from the bondage of living for anything or anyone other than him. Christ died and rose again so that you and I might have a calling from God, first, to faith and salvation, and, second, to a vocation, a way of living out our faith in the world so that others can see through our work just how marvellous the Lord is.
Christ came to fill all life with his presence and glory. He is the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:23). That means that he came to fill your work as well. How do you fill your work with Christ? Realize that your occupation is a calling from God, not a calling to be God. If you try to be the lord of your work, you will find your job drudgery. Ask yourself this question: ‘Do I define my work by the tasks I do, by the money I make, by the status I achieve, or by the God I serve?’ Realize that your job is not just a job; it’s a divine commission. Then pray and work, and work and pray. Don’t expect prayer by itself to build a house, keep a city, deliver an order, balance an account, or advise a customer. But don’t expect God to be in any of those activities without prayer. Don’t expect to be able to glorify God in these tasks without prayer. Pray for the ability to do your job, do it reflecting the principles of a biblical work ethic (like honesty, integrity, and justice), then praise God for the work he allows you to accomplish. If you do that, you can be a janitor or a captain of industry and magnify the name of Jesus!
LIFE AT HOME
What Solomon states clearly in the first two verses, he implies in the last three. As we transition into the second half of this psalm, we move from emptiness to fullness, from empty work to a full quiver. This is the contrast that ties together the two halves of the psalm. Though empty is the opposite of full, both parts of this psalm teach essentially the same truth. Life at work is pointless without God, but so is life at home.
When it comes to life at home, God wants you to know that children are his gift. The make-up of your home depends upon the graciousness of God. ‘Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward’ (verse 3). If you’ve read the early books of the Old Testament, you’ve come across this word ‘heritage’ a number of times translated as ‘inheritance’. Often in Scripture, the promised land is called the inheritance which Yahweh gives (Exod. 32:13; see also Josh. 21:43; Isa. 49:8; 57:13). But someone must occupy this land. So children are another inheritance or heritage that he gives. I should point out at this point that the text is specific here in talking about sons: ‘sons are a heritage from the Lord’. The sons of a family played the important public roles in ancient Israel. But as we move further in the text, I think you will see that while ‘sons’ is the culture-specific translation, the broader term ‘children’ captures the force of the application. Children are God’s heritage.
Children are also the Lord’s reward. This is a further explanation of the inheritance that sons are to a family. The two are parallel in the text. This bounty comes from the Lord. Like the inheritance, it is his free gift. Children are the gracious blessing of God. Jacob understood this point. Though estranged from his brother Esau, the two met after many years. Jacob by this time had a large family. ‘And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”’ (Gen. 33:5).
If all this is true, then no one deserves to have children. God doesn’t give you children because he sees what a wonderful parent you will be. Fertility is not a matter of merit. That also means that God isn’t punishing you if you can’t have children. Infertility is not a matter of demerit. God gives as he chooses, and fertility and infertility are in his hands.
If you have this wonderful gift from the Lord, you will discover that your children are like arrows. The text does not say that sons are arrows in the hands of a warrior, only that they are like arrows. The Bible doesn’t say they are arrows in God’s army or weapons against Satan. The question to ask, then, is ‘How are children like arrows?’
Let’s break this down. First, we’re talking about the children that you have when you are young (again, this is literally ‘sons’ because of their importance in Israelite society). Second, sons born when you are young are like a warrior’s arrows. Now, third, how is this true? What is the point of similarity between the two? It’s simply this: arrows are the warrior’s means of protection and defence, and that’s what children can become to their parents. You see this benefit in verse 5. Time has passed from the man’s youth. He’s now middle-aged or older, but he’s blessed to have a full quiver of sons. And with this quiver full, ‘he shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate’ (verse 5). The sons go to the city gate, where disputes and other legal issues are settled, and there they defend their father. They seek justice for him. They protect him and do what is right for him.
This is what children are supposed to do. The law of God calls for us to honour our father and mother (Exod. 20:12). We are to care for and seek the security and protection of our parents. This is a duty that we must not neglect. But that is not where the text finally leads us. It leads us ultimately to God.
We are to fill our work with God, otherwise it will be empty and meaningless; the same is true for our homes. The security children provide should be a reflection—a small indication—of the security God provides. God intends for your children to point you to him. How do they do that? First, by reminding you that they are his gift. God has created us in his image, and these little creations reflect that image in your home. Second, by reminding you that the one who gives children is the one who gave his Son. God is a Father too. ‘To us a child is born, to us a son is given’ (Isa. 9:6; see John 3:16). By giving children for protection and security, the Lord intends for you to look to the Child he gave as the ultimate source of refuge and safety.
Your home is empty without Christ. If you don’t have Christ, don’t expect your spouse or your children to give you the satisfaction and joy that only Jesus can give. If you look for your satisfaction and joy in your family, you will be deeply disappointed. Can you see how unfair that would be? ‘Son/Daughter/ Wife/Husband, I would like you to be my god. Please me in every way. Make my life complete and fulfilling. Bring me ultimate happiness and delight that will never end.’ This kind of attitude can be found even in Christian homes. We’re all too orthodox to say these kinds of things, but we’re not too sanctified to act them out. Parents and grandparents worship at the altar of their little ones. But if you put your children on the throne of your heart or the throne of your home, how will you ever teach them to treasure Christ? How will you ever teach them that Christ fills all in all and that he is all in all?
You could be like the old woman who lived in a shoe and who had so many children that she didn’t know what to do, but your home will be empty unless you fill it with Christ. Fill your home with his Word. Fill it with prayer. Cultivate family worship. But don’t just go through the motions. Seek to develop with your children a hunger for God himself. Ask the Lord to incline your heart to him, so that family worship nurtures a spiritual frame of mind.
A day is coming when the Lord Jesus will return. Our work will be over; our families will be swallowed up in the family of God that is heaven. What will matter on that great day is that we find everything in Christ. Your life at work and your life at home should lead you to seek the Saviour. Empty labour and a full quiver—both should drive you to God.
REFLECT ON THESE POINTS
1. Are you a workaholic or a worryaholic? What lesson can you take from Psalm 127 to help you trust in the Lord?
2. Augustine prayed, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in you.’2 In what ways does Augustine’s statement reflect this psalm?
3. Do you have children? How have they taught you to trust in the Lord?
4. Are you unable to have children? How has infertility taught you to trust in the Lord?
5. The ultimate blessing is in God’s gift of his Son. ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isa. 9:6).
- Ron Scheer in Azriela Jaffe, ‘The Confessions of a Workaholic’ June 16, 1999, at http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/news/coladvice/jaffe/jf990616.htm (accessed February 7, 2012).
- Augustine, The Confessions, tr. Philip Burton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), p. 5.