A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
This psalm is known as a wisdom Psalm, along with the next Psalm. The Rabbis say, “The Psalmist offers his advice on how to succeed in these important endeavors” (the endeavors spoken about are those that tend to building a home, earning a living, raising a family).
1 Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain. 2 It is vain for you to rise up early, To sit up late, To eat the bread of sorrows; For so He gives His beloved sleep.
The thrust of these two verses focuses on the Lord’s protection over the house built. Taking the physical matters into account, the psalmist (Solomon) transfers the application to the family. Thus, the house built is not a physical structure, but of a family. Man will make his plans relative to the environment in which he lives. He considers the ground, the building material that will be used in the structure built and the tools to accomplish his task at building. No matter his effort, if the Lord stands opposed to him, that which he wants to build will not be built (cf. Genesis 11). We see, however, that the physical structures that are all around us stand tall and, at the same time, we are very much aware that those who built these structures have little to no interest in the Lord’s way of righteousness. Is this, then, a contradiction to what the psalmist is saying? If one interprets it exclusively as a matter pertaining to the physical environment, then perhaps one can so conclude. On the other hand, if there is a deeper meaning (and there is as the Psalm unfolds), then there is no contradiction, but a point of application. Another point to not miss is the psalmist’s words having direct application to the nation of Israel because that was his own environment. In other words, the psalmist wrote about his own community and its relationship with the Lord and His covenant. The Rabbis highlight the failings of Solomon at this point. With all the effort expended to instruct him in the right ways, when Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh, he sowed the seeds of his own destruction. In fact, David was the man who penned this Psalm and gave it to Solomon when he learned of this impending marriage, trying to dissuade him from it (Artscroll 1542). Thus, looking at 127:1, the primary emphasis is on the Lord’s involvement in the building of that which is important. One can build, but the structure won’t stand; one can guard, but the structure won’t be protected. In verse 2, the vanity is related to the hard work put into the building up of one’s house. By analogy, one can get up early and go to bed late, but as the home is built without the Lord, the one working hard will fail to rest in his sleep. The “psalmist decries this [approach] as an inferior way of life if the hard work is only for the purpose of providing daily food and clothing for oneself and the family” (EBC-Revised 913). The NET offers this thought: “Hard work by itself is not what counts, but one’s relationship to God, for God is able to bless an individual even while he sleeps.”
Strangely, the Rabbis interpret verse 2 in allegory to refer to Absalom (rise up early) and Adonijah (sit up late). In other words, the Lord’s anointed (Solomon) was not going to be thwarted by to “upstarts” when the lord set the foundation in place with David, then Solomon.
Leupold calls the break between verse 2 and 3 more incidental than real (891).
3 Behold, children are a heritage from 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 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed, But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.
The NIV, Young’s Literal and the NET use the word “sons” rather than “children.” The NET has this translator note “Some prefer to translate this term with the gender neutral “children,” but “sons” are plainly in view here, as the following verses make clear.” Most translations render the Hebrew word “children” but it is worth notice how others render it. In his commentary, L. C. Allen renders the word “sons” (Word Biblical Commentary); Keil and Delitzsch said the Hebrew word includes daughters, thus indicating that the word is understood as “sons.” “The concern of the Israelite was not only that he would have children but particularly that he would have sons, who in that patriarchal society held the right of inheritance…” (EBC-Revised 914). Ash/Miller writes, “Sons may be understood here of male children only (cf. the NEB), if emphasis is placed on their hunting prowess (vs. 4), or if they are thought of as defenders of the family (vs. 5)” (407).
Not sure much can be made of this. If the children are to be understood as a warrior protecting his home, then “sons” would be the idea. On the other hand, if the comparison is only for the benefit of showing that a childless man is like a warrior going to battle without arrows, then “children” seems to be the idea.
The word “heritage” (NKJV) is “gift” in the NET and NLT. Since children are a gift from God, they are the fruit of the womb, God’s reward to the one who has built his house on the Lord’s foundation and not his own. Leupold cautions that ‘reward” is to be understood in relation to verse 1.
What good is a warrior going into battle without the arrows to serve as a weapon, a help in battle? What good will it be for parents to have no children when those children could be of great help as the parents grow older? This seems to be the idea behind the verse. In 4b, the NKJV reads, “the children of one’s youth” and the NLT reads, “Children born to a young man.” the sense is that parents are to have children early on in their marriage “for there will be situations when he needs support, times when he cannot stand alone…who are ready to stand by a father in all manner of situations is a happy state of affairs” (Leupold 893).
Verse 5 is an expression of one’s emotion (psychology) and status. The status has more to do with justice than with one’s particular wealth. The man who has a houseful of children not only has one to help in time of physical need, but also help in the time of false accusations. Spurgeon writes, “They can meet foes both in law and in fight. Nobody cares to meddle with a man who can gather a clan of brave sons about him. He speaks to purpose whose own sons make his words emphatic by the resolve to carry out their father’s wishes.”
- Do not make doctrine out of poetic language. “…we must not expect figurative (nonliteral) and exaggerated language, which, if taken literally, would be wrongly understood” (Plummer 244). Is it a physical house that is in view? Is your house a city? Will you as a watchman stay awake continually?
- The principle of the Lord’s guidance relative to the family will hold sway regardless of the time in which man lives. On the other hand, to take the circumstances of the time and stringently apply them to today’s environment or family, when there is much difference between the two, is to be guilty of #1.
- What about having as many children, then, as one can – filling up one’s quiver, if you will? The number of children in one’s family is a subjective matter; it is strictly up to those involved within the family. Wisdom and prudence would tell us that we should have only as many children for which one can provide. “The Lord will provide a way,” someone might say. This is certainly true, but is this in regards to the number of children and the necessary means to provide for them? What if your occupation is a $17 an hour job? Based on a forty hour week, this amounts to $680 a week, $2720 a month, $32, 640 annually. In today’s environment, the likelihood of providing for a family of four could be difficult at this amount; what if you had six family members, or ten? Is it proper to live off the government when one chooses to believe and accept the idea that God will provide me the means to provide for the family? “I will just work more hours” comes the reply. Forty hours turns into fifty or sixty ($40,800 and $48,900 respectively). Where then is the father of the house? He is working and can’t be home. The mother, then, is a “single” parent.
- FROM BIBLICAL ILLUSTRATOR: a) No house stands that God does not build, whether the house signify the home, the business, the character, or the church; for human sufficiency is a foundation of sand (Prov. 14:11). b) No city is safe that God does not keep, whether interpreted politically as belonging to the State, or religiously as being that of the heart: for the arm of flesh is a bulwark of mud (Prov. 11:11; 29:8). c) No labour is profitable that He does not bless, whether it be manual or mental: for without grace it increases sorrow or multiplies wickedness (Prov. 10:16). d) No sleep is peaceful that He does not give, being broken by searing dreams or prevented by devising schemes (Prov. 4:16). e) No family is blessed that is not a heritage of Him (Prov. 3:33). ( O. Keen, D. D.)