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Psalm 127

Some passages of Scripture are complicated. They don’t seem to make any sense, or, if they do, the sense they appear to make goes against what we think God is like or what our life with God is to be about. Other passages of Scripture come across as rather straightforward and simple. Psalm 127 is a little bit of both.

The first verse in particular is pretty clear. “Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the builders’ work is pointless. Unless it is the Lord who protects the city, the guard on duty is pointless (v. 1, CEB).” Or as the KJV more famously translates it, their labor is “in vain.” Why work for that which ultimately can only come from God?

This is a lesson the Church has taught from its earliest days. Saint John Chrysostom, writing in the latter part of the 4th century, wrote in his Homilies on 2 Timothy 3 that this truth is “our wall, this our castle, this our refuge.” God, by the Holy Spirit at work within us, is sufficient for all our needs.

However, such dependency upon God does not mean we have no responsibility to walk in line with God. A Wesleyan understanding of humanity and God is a synergistic one. Years before John Wesley and even Jacobus Arminius before him the Church also had mothers and fathers who spoke of our need to partner with God in how we live our lives. Roughly 150 years or so before Chrysostom, Origen of Alexandria wrote regarding this Psalm that God “does not indicate that we should stop building or watching over the safekeeping of that city which is within us.” Rather, “whatever is built without God, and whatever is guarded without [God], is built in vain, and is guarded to no purpose.”

Verses 1 and 2, then, warn against self-sufficiency and urge the reader to trust all the more in the goodness of our sovereign God. We need to draw close to God, and walk in line with God, and ensure that all we do is done in accordance with our understanding of the will of God. Otherwise “it is pointless”.

The clarity of these first few sentences gets muddled as we move into verses 3 through 5. Why, now, this talk of children? What is to be learned from assurance while confronting enemies at the gate?

Unlike many other wisdom psalms, Psalm 127 does not put ethical standards and virtues front and center. There is no discussion about righteous behavior, nor condemnation of wicked thought or action. Rather, the psalmist consistently in these few verses presses the need to trust in God. God is the focus of the psalm. God has established order over human endeavors. God is the agent of human flourishing. God is the Lord of the house, of the family, of the community. It’s all about God.

That’s worth remembering, and it certainly will preach! It somewhat anticipates what Saint Paul will write in Ephesians 2:8-10 regarding faith and our good works. It would readily have been called to mind by Paul’s earliest readers of 1 Corinthians 15:10 and 58. “I am what I am by God’s grace.” We all are. And because of that grace we can know that our “labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.” It’s walking and living with our Lord on a daily basis, trusting and following. As Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.”

Psalm 127 would heartily agree.