Today’s reading: Psalms 120-132.
If this psalm were titled, “Home building for Dummies,” you would have to wonder what’s going on when all of a sudden the writer shifts gears and starts talking about children.
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves. Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. Psalm 127:1-3
Here’s the reason it isn’t so strange. The Hebrew word for sons or children comes from the same word as “build.” This psalm is all about building. A Hebrew woman was said to be built up when she had many children. Children were, and are, an important way to build up your home – perhaps even more important than the structure.
More than houses or children, though, this psalm is about the vanity of self-reliance. In Old Testament terms, when you say vanity you’re talking about emptiness or worthlessness. Americans are big on self-reliance, but the Bible says it’s pointless to leave God out and try to do it all yourself. It will accomplish nothing. The result will be worthless. Run your home without God? The result will be emptiness. Try to run a city or country without God? Worthless. Work your fingers to the bone and leave no time in your life for God? You will end up with nothing. Have babies and raise children without God? Futility.
Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking now. “I’ve known families who raised good children without being religious.” I believe that does happen, but I think the Psalmist is stressing the principle that without God the outcome will usually be poorer rather than better. The other point would be the eternal one: without God the home or family will have no impact for God’s kingdom and risks losing its members to Hell.
Solomon will explore this theme fully in Ecclesiastes, but here the writer sums it up neatly. Work without God when you build, and you’ll end up empty-handed. Work for God when you build, and your work will stand for eternity.
I have lived for a long time, 81 years; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall proceed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: we shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests; our prospects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, or conquest. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business; and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.—Benjamin Franklin: Speech in Convention for forming a Constitution for the United States, 1787.