Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).
From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.
Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).
Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).
It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.
We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.
Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.
There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).
We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.
Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry