THE FIRST VERSE OF Psalm 127 is often quoted today: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” In an age of overpopulation, we less often cite verse 3: “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” We may gain some helpful perspective by observing four things.
First, in Hebrew the psalm deploys a couple of word plays that are lost in English, and these plays give pointers as to how to read the psalm. The word house (Ps. 127:1) can refer to a building. By extension, this is then applied to the city in a metaphorical sense (Ps. 127:1b -3). More importantly, house can also refer to a household, built up in this case by the blessing of children (Ps. 127:3-5). Moreover, builders and sons sound very similar in Hebrew.
Second, this suggests that the unifying theme through the superficially disparate parts of the psalm is that in every sphere of life only the blessing and provision of God can bring about a successful outcome. At the most mechanical level of building a house, this is true. God gives strength to the workers; he sustains them in life; he restrains himself from sending a catastrophic storm that would tear the structure down; countless surprises may be avoided (unsafe concrete, a quagmire under the topsoil, “accidents” that take out workers, and countless more).
The same principle is true in the basic defensive operation of watching over a city wall, or defending a nation with a radar system: if God sustains you, your defense will suffice, and if he does not, then no matter how professional and expensive it is, it will prove inadequate. In the home, procreation is a “natural” function, but in a providentially ordered world, children are an inheritance from the Lord. The lesson to be learned is not passivity, but trust and rest, a godly lowering of frenzied labor (Ps. 127:2).
Third, Psalm 127 stands among the songs of ascent precisely because the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in observance of the covenantally prescribed feasts provides an excellent occasion to reflect on God’s gracious provision in every area of life (compare also Ps. 128).
Fourth, alone among the songs of ascent this one is ascribed to Solomon. Sadly, Solomon is a figure whose great wisdom was sometimes not followed in his own life: his own building program, both physical and metaphorical, became foolish (1 Kings 9:10-19), his kingdom a ruin (1 Kings 11:11-13; see the October 8 meditation), and his household — not least his multiplied pagan marriages — a systematic denial of the claims of the living God (1 Kings 11:1-9). How important to ask God for the grace to live up to what we understand!