Family Matters Psalm 127

Psalm 127

A grandfather relates how at a basketball game his grandkids asked for some money to buy candy: I gave them $5 and they returned with some candy.  I asked for a piece and their answer was “no.” Here is what they don’t realize. First – I could take the candy away and eat it all myself. Second, I paid for the candy so really it is mine. Third, I could have bought so much candy that they couldn’t have possibly eaten all of it.

Now look at this from God’s view when He blesses us with gifts and success. First, He has the power to take it all away if/when He wants. Second, He gives us everything. Third, He can supply endlessly. (Ed Young in sermoncentral.com 10/16/13)

Psalm 127: reads,  Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. 2 It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. 3 Behold, children are a gift of 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 How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed When they speak with their enemies in the gate

Though some writers suggest that David may have written this psalm for, or to his son, Solomon, there is no compelling reason to reject the traditional view of Solomon's authorship. This may be one of the 1005 songs written by Solomon referred to in I Kings 4:32. It is almost ironic that this wonderful poem was written by a man who made a mess of his life in the very areas he wrote so eloquently about. Thankfully, the truth of the poem is not dependent on the model of the author!

The great theme of this psalm is the truth that every endeavor of life depends on the blessing of God. As such, the psalm is a call to absolute trust in God. It is perhaps a restatement of one of Solomon's proverbs, Proverbs 10:22, It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it.

The psalm divides readily into two sections. The first section, verses1-2, convey the broad truth of absolute dependence upon God for success in life. The second section, verses 3-5, cite the family as an example of this broad truth. Though these two sections could stand separately on their own, they are to be taken as one unified song.

The Human Condition: The All-encompassing Truth of Our Total Dependence on God for Success in Life 1-2

The writer introduces the whole question of success in life by asserting that success is totally measured by God rather than standards established by societies, organizations, or individuals. Two conditional statements (אִם) suggest that unless God acts our actions can’t possibly bring success. So, the statement “if (“unless” in NAU) Jehovah…” implies that even though it is about our action, it is all about our dependence on God’s action.

Examples of Areas of Life Requiring Dependence on God 

Three activities of life are selected as reference points to discuss this principle. These three areas are meant to be representative of every endeavor of life. They are undoubtedly selected because of their commonness to all who might encounter this song.

Constructing of a house (Comfort)

The construction idea is conveyed by (בָּנָה). The term is used extensively in descriptions of building permanent residences such as the temple or fortresses. It is even used in the account of "building" Eve (Genesis 2:22). This literal concept is transferred to figurative instances of establishing a family, a city, or a nation. The central idea is permanency or security. Those who are engaged in constructing this theoretical house are said to be laboring (עמל). The simple idea is hard work which could sometimes be thought of as toil.

Guarding a city (Security)

Here the welfare of others is at stake. An individual, called a "watchman," is tasked to "watch" (שָׁמַר) the city. The term conveys the idea of guarding or keeping as one who observes or exercises oversight. The watchman described here does a good job. He apparently does not fall asleep on the job (שָׁקַד). The key thought is that he provides diligent protection. Ilust: Bob McGehee, a night watchman at IBM who made his rounds between naps. Never missed!

 

It is interesting that some commentators apply this phrase to faithful elders who diligently watch over the church which they identify as the "city of God." Others emphasize "the Lord watching over the city" phrase and draw a parallel with God as the "Father" of nations. Nonetheless, it is best to simply view this as an illustration of the folly of providing protection and security without dependence upon God.

Building a career (Prosperity)

The picture is a man who gets up early and makes an early start (שׁכם) on the activities of his work day. The term is used to describe getting an early start on a journey (Joshua 8:14, Judges 19:9, Genesis 19:2, and so forth). This same person also stays late on the job as (אחר) indicates. However, some commentators believe the reference is only to sitting down late for a meal rather than sitting late at work. This man's wife would often experience a delay in his return because he hadn't yet ceased his work. This man works hard at what he does, but hard work is not enough.

Consequences of Failing to Depend on God

Each of these scenarios is tied together with a common term (שָׁוְא), generally meaning vanity or emptiness. To build a house, guard a city, build a career, or whatever without depending on God is to do so "in vain." It is possible that this is a term of judgment conveying the idea of destruction and desolation such as that created by an earthquake or flood.

If this meaning is to be found in this song, then the idea is that failure to acknowledge and depend on God in life's endeavors is not just a passive way of life, but it is perverse. Because such a way of life is the height of presumption and arrogant autonomy, it deserves God's judgment. And God’s judgment is never more than a heartbeat away.

 

However, as indicated by Brown, Driver, Briggs, this common term generally meaning vain, is used in this song with the primary meaning of nothingness, emptiness, or waste. So, the psalmist laments living life without recognition of dependence on God as meaningless as well. A similar expression is found in Psalm 89:47, "Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!" As one author expresses it, "Long- continued and assiduous effort without a thought of the need of divine blessing is the height of futility." (Leupold, p. 892).

Joys of Depending on God

As an explanation of the conditional statements the first section is concluded with, "for (כֵּן) He gives to His beloved even in his sleep" (NAU). The usage of “for” (best rendered here "in like manner") produces the effect of there being no necessary connection between all of the activity and success. Things which men accomplish by energetic work, toil, or worry God simply gives to whomever He wishes seemingly without consideration of the recipients’ efforts. These persons God chooses to bless are described as "beloved." This term of endearment is a vivid reminder of the history of Israel's relationship to Jehovah. Moses captures the intensity of this whole idea with his deathbed blessing of the patriarchs of Benjamin recorded in Deuteronomy 33:12, "About Benjamin he said: 'Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.'"  So, the psalmist here states that recipients of God’s goodness sleep blissfully through the whole process. There is no necessary connection between restless activity and God’s blessing.  This is a graphic way of summing up the truth that success in life depends ultimately on God's blessing not men's effort. "God does not require us to kill ourselves, or to fret ourselves to death, but only to use lawful industry . . . Divine blessing and not our foresight secures success." (Plumer, p. 1114). Of course the supreme example of this is the spiritual blessing of salvation itself.

 

Have you ever tried to figure God out (his “ways are past finding out” Rom 11:33-36). On the one hand, the farmer who diligently plants his crops but no rain and thus no crops; on the other hand the farmer who is late in getting in his crops but harvests a bumper crop. Or the river town that carefully builds levees but one flood wipes it out compared to the river town that decides to risk it and doesn’t build a levee but the river takes a new course when its waters swell. And then there are the parents who faithfully raise their child only to watch as he/she abandons God while the parents down the street make mistake after mistake only to see their child serve God

We must avoid two extremes. On the one hand are those who attribute their success to their own ingenuity. On the other hand are those who claim to rely on God and neglect the means God normally ordains for success – hard work!

Indeed, God is in control of every endeavor of life. No exceptions. Ultimately, we are not autonomous. Rather, we are dependent on the provident hand of God.

When my three oldest boys were little tikes, they would spend a couple of hours building various structures with Lincoln logs. From a parent’s perspective it was a neat sight to watch.  It was also interesting to watch their reaction when their baby brother would crawl over and destroy their work in an instant.

So, vs 1-2 describe the large concept that we are totally dependent on God for any and all success in life. Now, in vs 3-5 the author cites a case in point of this large truth.

The Human Perspective: Acknowledging our Dependence on God Essential is to Understanding the Family 3-5

The connective “behold” serves as a bridge between the two sections of the poem. Dependence upon God for success is such a universal principle that the author even extends it to the basic unit of society, the family. Undoubtedly children are used here to represent the family unit. In essence, children are what the family is all about. A chief purpose for establishing a home is rearing and enjoying children. Just as in true in all other endeavors of life (the house, city, career of verses 1-2), so God's blessing is essential in order to successfully build a family.
 
Children are gifts from God 3
As with all good gifts, children are given by God as a product of His grace. Three thoughts emphasize this broad principle.
 
Children are God's "heritage" 

The term “gift” (נַחֲלָה) is used frequently to refer to property (Judges 20:6, Isaiah 58:14, Numbers 16:14, and so forth) given or assigned to Israel by God. Besides property the term refers to a share or even an inheritance that is assigned by God's choice. Therefore the concept of an "endowment" from God fits perfectly. We haven't earned the right to have children. In fact, children are privileges granted by God. He assigns children to parents as He wishes. They are “on assignment” from God.
 
Further, this "inheritance" does not come because of any innate or hereditary right of the receiver, but rather, exclusively as a result of the choice of the giver. Jacob's remarkable statement to Esau upon his much delayed return to Canaan captures the spirit of this section, ". . . They are the children God has graciously given your servant." (Genesis 33:5).
 
Children are the natural product of marital sex

Children are also seen as the "fruit" (פְּרִי) of the womb. As fruit comes from the ground or vineyard so children are viewed as offspring of human conception. Here the natural progression of human intercourse is underscored. The underlying thought is that God controls the product. A vivid example is found in Jacob's mild rebuke of Rachel in response to her lament over her barrenness, ". . . so she said to Jacob, 'Give me children, or I'll die.'" Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" (Genesis 30:1-2).

 

We can certainly see how abortion and homosexuality are not compatible with this passage. But does this speak to birth control as well? Is limiting the size of a family acceptable? Or, are Christian couples expected to have as many children as they can naturally conceive? If intentionally limiting family size is unbiblical, the discussion is over. And apparently parents who have large families are more spiritual or more Biblical. On the other hand, if intentionally limiting family size is not a matter of being biblical, then how does a married couple glorify God through consistent sexual intimacy without having a child per year?

We should acknowledge that even many who eschew “unnatural” birth control methods (contraception) commonly practice some form of birth control, be it abstinence during fertility or some form of planning. So generally birth control is not the issue per se. Birth control by artificial means is.

We should also remember that the normal product of marriage is kids.  Genesis 1:28 “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” This means “become many”! So normally, the question is not “if” we should have children; it is “when” and “how many”. I am saddened by how many believing couples do not value children.

However, the purpose of sex is not solely procreation. Children don’t seem to be in mind in the encouragement of sexual pleasure in marriage found in places such as: NAU  Proverbs 5:18 Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love.” (See also 1 Cor 7:4-5). In fact, sexual intercourse itself is valued, not just the product - NAU  Hebrews 13:4 -  Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled…

In fact, there is an instance of birth control called, coitus interuptus, recorded in the Bible in NAU  Genesis 38:9. In this instance, Onan’s act was reprehensible act. But it does demonstrate that birth control was apparently common and that it is not condemned per se.

Understanding the broad purpose of sex is helpful to this discussion. God did make humans as sexual creatures so that they can perpetuate the race. This is a chief purpose of sex. Recall NAU  Genesis 1:28 –“God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth… “ Sex is not solely intended for pleasure. Kids are in view by the command to be fruitful. The normal product of a marriage is kids! This is reinforced by the “multiply” and “fill” commands. Be many! However, this command at the dawn of human history is clearly to mankind, not to every individual couple. Adam and Eve were it! As such they represented their entire human progeny. So, it is possible for some to have many children and others to have none without violation of the command.

But God also designed humans as sexual creatures as a means for developing unity in marriage. Oneness is both the result and purpose of sexual intimacy in marriage. NAU  Genesis 2:24 – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. The one flesh concept encompasses the whole spectrum of dynamics in marriage that produce unity.  And, there can be no doubt that sexual intimacy is one of those powerful dynamics that bond a man and woman together in marriage. Thus sexuality is both physical and non-physical. It is part of the total relationship rather than an end in itself.

So, is it permissible to have as many children as are providentially conceived? Yes. And is it permissible to take steps to limit the number of children? Yes. Each couple must determine if they will use birth control and if so, what methods. I believe the key is mutuality. Couples need to understand one another’s perspective on this.  Begin with when to have children and then answer how many. This will naturally lead to a discussion of birth control. And by all means do not look askew upon those who have chosen a different practice than yours. And please remember, that at the end of the day, regardless of your decisions and actions, God has the last word.

I should mention a related movement that is called by some “Quiverfull”. The website, www.quiverful.com, describes this movement as, “… We exist to serve those believers who trust the Lord for family size, and to answer the questions of those seeking truth in this critical area of marriage… (We are) dedicated to providing encouragement and practical help to those who are striving to raise a large and growing, godly family in today's world!” (www.quiverful.com accessed October 16, 2013). This organization claims Psalm 127:3-5 as it banner. It began to gain to gain traction among evangelicals in 1985 with the publication of “The Way Home…” by Mary Pride.

No birth control whether natural or artificial (leave it to the Lord), reversal of tubal ligations and vasectomies, large families, midwifery, homeschooling, patriarchalism, and  courtship are some of the issues and practices advocated by this group as the more spiritual choices and practices for serious Christians.

However, I suspect John Piper may be onto something when he comments specifically regarding birth control,  "just because something is a gift from the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of A as possible. God has made this a world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one's family and to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive. As Wayne Grudem has said, 'it is okay to place less emphasis on some good activities in order to focus on other good activities.” (Desiring God website).

Children are God’s coveted rewards 

The usage of “rewards” (שָׂכָר) demands that children be understood as tokens of generosity from God.  Further, children must be seen as freely bestowed by God rather than obligatory payments. In light of the primary meaning of hire or wages (as Leah in Genesis 30:18 referring to the birth of Issachar, ". . . God has given me my wages . . ."), it must be concluded that children are sources of wealth. This was particularly true in the agriculturally based society of the psalmist's day.

 

The simple biblical concept of children being sources of tangible and intangible wealth runs counter to societal attitudes and practices. For many, children are viewed as economic liabilities which decrease a desired standard of living.  Kids may mean an older car, visit- the-relatives vacations, a smaller house, turning down a promotion to stay in one place, meals at home, simpler entertainment, and etc.  Abortion is but one consistent yet tragic outgrowth of such an attitude toward children. This simple statement also implies that if children are tokens of God's generosity, then fathers and mothers must treat them accordingly.

Children are blessings from God 4-5

The consequence of children being products of God's grace is now discussed—true happiness. The divine gift of children brings genuine joy to the recipient. The concept of joy is expressed by “blessed” (אֶשֶׁר) of vs 5, the common term for happiness or blessedness that is based on the root meaning of "being straight" or "well-ordered." An interesting aside: disaster often awaits the larger family whose parents are not organized. And the children are usually innocent victims.

In the same way devotedness to God is a key to general happiness in life as taught in the first psalm, so having many children can bring happiness in the family. It is most amazing that many who profess the joy of the Lord pity large families or greet the news of pregnancy with dread. Such an attitude is totally foreign to this passage.

In line with the common Hebrew perspective, the emphasis here is paternal rather than maternal (v 5). The father is expected to be significantly involved in both the joys and responsibilities of parenting. This is not a leave it to Mom deal. It takes teamwork.

Joy is derived from the idea of children and the battlefront 4-5a 

The psalmist uses the picture of a soldier in order to convey the idea of joy resulting from children. The focus is on two distinct items.

The soldier’s arrows are discussed first. The image of a soldier with arrows in his hand is designed to teach two lessons. One is the benefit of having children at a relatively young age (contrary to Joseph who was born in Jacob's ". . . old age . . .” Genesis 37:3). But, the primary lesson is the value of children. A family without children is like a soldier without weapons. This is clearly the underlying thought.

Unfortunately, some Christian circles and leaders use this passage to promote the notion that marriage should happen as early as possible and that children should come immediately. Such a teaching is not a valid application of this passage.

Readiness to defend one's property was an asset enhanced by sons being able to defend (or care for) the family during the father's old age. Sons are seen as the father's weapons.

The second piece of the soldier's equipment focused on by the author is the quiver. The issue for the psalmist is whether or not the soldier had a quiver full of arrows. The quiver (אַשְׁפָּה) was a standard, tactical piece of equipment issued to all infantrymen and charioteers of the day. It is mentioned as such in Job 39:23, Isaiah 22:6 (soldiers of Elam), and Jeremiah 5:16 (enemies of Israel). Even Jehovah goes to war with prophet-arrows in his quiver, NAU  Isaiah 49:2 He has made My mouth like a sharp sword, In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me; And He has also made Me a select arrow, He has hidden Me in His quiver. NAU  Lamentations 3:13 “He made the arrows of His quiver To enter into my inward parts.” The connection is made between happiness and having a quiver full (מָלֵא) of arrows. This common term “full” denotes "abundance" or "plenty." The thought thus moves from the size of the quiver to the fact that it was full. In fact, we can only guess about the size of the quiver. Most would agree that the quiver envisioned here is not a one capacity model. Regardless of the size, happiness comes when the quiver is full!  The picture then is of a soldier with enough arrows to be confident in battle. So, in this Hebrew culture, the father with a house full of children is equipped for life and thus happy. Certainly this passage pictures the delights of a having several children. Illust: Barney Fife with one bullet.

Unfortunately, in some quarters the arrows of the passage are viewed as weapons by which today’s Christian parents can fight against culture. The reasoning is that the more arrows the greater chances of victory over pagan culture. Thus, kids (arrows) are the key to the ultimate triumph of Christianity over the world. Parents are pictured as shooting their arrow-weapon children out into culture for attack. Children are viewed God’s army. So, Kevin Swanson, advocate of the Family Integrated Church (FIC) model,  declares in the video, Divided, that the FIC movement is building the kingdom of God (“227 people in a FIC church of 300” means that they are building “generational leverage”) and that in 20-30 years FIC will be shown to have produced good results. He then boldly concludes that those who disagree with FIC can “have their youth group”.

Safety is derived from the idea of children and the city gate 5b

The closing phrase of the poem shifts attention from the battlefield to the city gate. Here children play an important role by serving as support for their parents. At the gate, accusations were brought by "enemies" (here probably personal enemies varying in kind and approach) and judgments rendered. Several such court scenes at the city gate are recorded in Scripture—Genesis 19:1 (Lot), Ruth 4:11 (Boaz), Isaiah 29:21 (Israel as a whole). Children are seen as being able to successfully deflect accusations against the father. This meant that the father did not need to fear being disappointed or shamed (בּוֹשׁ) on such occasions. And, the family would not be intimidated by unjust judges or crooked witnesses.

The overall emphasis of this last section is on the family functioning as a unit. There is safety, joy, and satisfaction found in the family described by Solomon.

Conclusion

Charles Francis Adams, 19th century political figure and diplomat, kept a diary. One day he entered: "Went fishing with my son today--a day wasted." His son, Brook Adams, also kept a diary, which is still in existence. On that same day, Brook Adams made this entry: "Went fishing with my father--the most wonderful day of my life!" The father thought he was wasting his time while fishing with his son, but his son saw it as an investment of time. The only way to tell the difference between wasting and investing is to know one's ultimate purpose in life and to judge accordingly. (Silas Shotwell, in Homemade, September 1987)

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.