Unless the Lord builds the house….
Journalist Bernard Levin once observed, “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with non-material blessings like a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet and, at times, noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact there is a hole inside them, and that however much food or drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many children and friends they parade around the edges of it…IT ACHES.”
Out of his own personal experience with such an ache, King Solomon wrote the opening verses of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives sleep to His beloved.”
It seems that the “you” in verse 2 is not so much aimed at the reader as at himself, for in Ecclesiastes 2:11 Solomon confides, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Solomon started off well. He began his reign by seeking the leading of God for his life and for his kingdom. But over time, he became more and more enamored with foreign wives and with the international clout they brought him. Over the years, he took 1000 wives and had 300 concubines. He became less and less faithful to God, and more and more welcoming of foreign gods. His kingdom ceased to be a kingdom built by God and filled with the goodness of God. It became a nation driven by his self-absorbed heart, and consumed with displays of his power and prominence.
As this went on, Solomon became increasingly and painfully aware of the truth that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” And he became increasingly and painfully conscious of the reality that his self-absorbed life was “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
The movement in this psalm from verses 1-2 to verses 3-5 is significant. Don’t be misled, though, by a fantasized perspective of what verses 3-5 seems to say. The mere production of sons is not always a blessing. Solomon knew this well from his own family of origin: One of Solomon’s brothers raped a half-sister. Another brother killed the rapist. That same brother staged a rebellion against their father. Another brother tried to steal away Solomon’s crown. Then, at Solomon’s death, his own son broke apart the kingdom of Israel by trying to exploit even greater personal wealth from his subjects.
It is not simply that the production of sons and/or daughters creates happiness, but we learn two vital lessons from raising children:
1: Children teach us that life is not about what we toil after.
Bob Deffinbaugh points out, “Some scholars have suggested that this Psalm was originally two separate psalms. They propose this because the connection between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3-5 is an enigma to them. I personally am convinced that there is a very clear sequence and progression of thought. Children provide an excellent conclusion to the argument of verses 1 and 2…. The provision of children differs from that for which men toil. When men work they are striving for wages, not a gift. Wages are what we produce with the work of our hands. Gifts are those things generously and graciously given to us by another. Children, verse 3 informs us, are a gift from God….
“Isn’t it interesting that children, while given by God, are conceived when we are at rest, not when we toil. Children are normally conceived in bed. What a beautiful illustration, then, of what we are told in verse 2, that God gives to His beloved in his sleep.”
2: Raising children teaches us that contentment comes from the giving of love rather than the amassing of fortune or power.
I want to be careful with my words here, because verses 3-5 can stomp painfully on those who have longed for children but not received such a blessing, or who have lost a child, or who are estranged from a child. But the general principle of verses 3-5 is vital: satisfaction in life comes not from what we amass for ourselves but from the love we give to others.
The Holy Spirit is busy growing Christ’s character in us. At the very core of who Christ is is the giving of Himself to those whom He loves. Children are natural recipients of a parent’s self-giving love, but even without children the principle holds true: We are most Christ-like and most content when we are giving of ourselves to another in love. May we focus more on giving love than on toiling for ourselves.