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Father in heaven, what a privilege that we can be Your children. As we come now to the reading and preaching of Your Holy Word, we ask that You give us eyes to see Your truth, ears to hear Your voice, hearts to believe Your Word, and feet to walk in Your ways. In Christ we pray. Amen.
We’ve already heard it sung and we’ve sung it ourselves, but let me read to you now Psalm 127. Psalm 127. A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake 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 to his beloved sleep.
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”
I was baptized as an infant in First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, the south side of Chicago. If you’ve ever driven through that part of the country on Interstate 80, there’s a South Holland plaza, oasis, over the highway. I lived not far from there. Or if you ever have gone through there and you remember on either side of the interstate, however many lanes it is, there’s a deep limestone quarry.
Our church was not too far from there. In fact, it was a beautiful limestone building, as a lot of the buildings in that area were. I was there as a little kid, so I’m sure if I went back now and I probably haven’t been in there for decades, if I went back now it would probably seem a fraction of the size of this place, but when I was a wee little kid it seemed like just a huge church. Traditional layout, center aisle, pews, and I remember sitting there, however old I was, 4, 5, 6, 7, listening to sermons, and I’m sure none of you do this, and any kids here, you never do this, but sometimes I got a little distracted and I wasn’t paying very close attention, and I would start to look at the things behind the pulpit of the preacher.
You’ve counted the crosses, there’s seven of them, okay? Nothing left to do. Look at the stained glass. Well, there were hanging up on the walls different banners, and sometimes they’d be mentioning something in the church or they’d have a little cursive scripture verse, and there was one that caught my eye. This is a really terrible visual aid because you can’t see it from here, most of you, but this is what it looked like. A very stately crest, a colorful coat of arms. It was the RCA crest, Reformed Church in America, and they’ve since come up with a different logo, which I think is far inferior to this stately piece of work, but this is derived from the coat of arms from William the Silent, William of Orange, which its background is a Dutch Reformed church, that makes sense.
I remember staring at that, trying to figure out what was going on. There were colors, of course, there was some orange, and there was a shield and there were pillars on either side, and there was a soldier’s helmet and there was a sort of plume coming out, and there were two banners, one on the top and one on the bottom. Neither of the banners are in English, so I would like and stare at that and try to figure out what this was about. The banner on the bottom of this crest is in Dutch: Eendracht maakt macht, which means Unity (eendracht) makes might, unity makes strength.
Many have used that slogan. It was a phrase used by the Dutch Republic, Eendracht maakt macht. And on the top was a more familiar phrase, this one in Latin, and it says Nisi Dominus Frustra. Nisi, without, Dominus, the Lord, Frustra, frustration. Without the Lord, all is in vain. It was a quotation from Psalm 127 verse 1. The Latin saying is popular in many places. It’s used as a banner or a motto. It’s written on the coat of arms for Edinburgh in Scotland and is said to be the motto for the city of Edinburgh, though you can ask our few Scottish friends here in our church. I doubt many people in Edinburgh today have heard of that, or if they have would want to claim it for their motto. Nisi Dominus Frustra. Unless the Lord, vanity. Unless the Lord, frustration.
You could do worse than to hang a banner somewhere in your house that says “nisi Dominus frustra.” I did a quick check yesterday on Amazon, I didn’t see anything quickly turn up there, but it’s got to exist somewhere. We could do worse than to make that, though it may not fly as a literal banner, a banner in our hearts for Christ Covenant Church. Nisi Dominus frustra.
It’s easy to say, easier at least to say than it is to live out. Easier to believe than actually to live as if we believe it. Unless the Lord. Unless the Lord shows up, unless the Lord’s involved, unless the Lord does something, it’s all empty. Vanity. Nothing. Frustration.
This psalm applies that saying, nisi Dominus frustra. Of course, the Bible’s written in Hebrew before it was ever translated into Latin, but to use that Latin phrase, that’s what this psalm is about.
And the psalm looks at it in particular with three, you might call building blocks of any society. Do you notice the three building blocks of society here in this psalm? Buildings, or houses, houses, cities, and families. Houses, cities, families, and how the Lord is essential to the well-being of each.
I want to look at those three entities, houses, cities, families, and look at them on three different levels. So, yes, you can do the math, that’s like a 9-point sermon, but it’s going to go quickly. Because you can read this psalm on a general principial level – What does this have to say in general about houses, cities, and families – and then you can look at it on a specific Old Testament level – What is Solomon, notice here he’s the author, it’s one of only two psalms that are attributed to Solomon, so why is Solomon of all people praying this prayer, singing this psalm, writing this hymn. So we’ll look at it in its Old Testament context and then finally in its New Testament promise and fulfillment. We’ll spend most of the time on this first level.
So in a general principial way, houses, cities, families. You see verse 1. Very plainly, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
Now you can almost get the impression from verses 1 and 2 that work is a colossal waste of time. This could be a great verse for any teenager jostled in the morning, “Mom, Dad, Psalm 127 verse 2, vain you’re getting me up so early in the morning.”
Well, of course, we know that work itself is a good thing. In the beginning, God worked. In the beginning, He’s a creator God. So this isn’t about the utter futility of all work. John 5, Jesus says the Son has been working from the beginning since the Father… But the way we work can be useless, unless the Lord is building the house, all of our best laid plans are frustration.
Now let’s be honest. It doesn’t always seem like that, does it? We know that on a spiritual level, but most of us live our lives as if we were in some control, and if we were to build a physical house, we would labor very hard to get the right architect and pull the right permits and get the right construction crew and make sure that you get the town or the township and the city and the state, you have to get everybody on board and you want to make sure that everything is up to code. We would be very careful, very meticulous, and we would feel that as we do so, the building will be a success.
And it’s true. We know how to do things. We have the modern ingenuity, we have the training, we have the tools, we know how to put things together.
But the psalmist is talking about more than just building physical objects. You do have to remember that the building of physical objects was quite a bit more dangerous in the ancient world and still we have accidents today, but in the ancient world it was rife with possibilities of things falling on you, or you falling off of things. It was a great danger to be working on any significant building or construction project, and so you can understand verse 1 – we need the Lord’s help as we undertake this task.
But surely the psalmist has something in mind more than just bricks and mortar. He’s using “house” in a more metaphorical sense. He’s talking not just about building a domicile, but building a life, about building shelter, about a house as a symbol of stability and provision. The psalmist doesn’t say that every house, if it’s not bathed in prayer, is somehow going to fall down. But he says in the truest, richest sense it will be empty. The work will be in vain. It will not satisfy.
You’ve all heard that little saying, “it’s love that makes a house a home.” Every one of us has probably had opportunity to visit or see extravagant places where people life. Maybe you’ve been to the Biltmore. Or you’ve gone to a place and people have labored and they’ve poured in money and resources and years and decades of planning. Sometimes those places are a great opportunity to love other people, to welcome in, to bless people, to have families gather for games and laughter and feasting. But so often the effort goes in to all of the saving and all of the building and all of the resources, and it can’t change the hearts of the people that are going to dwell there.
Better, the proverb says, better is to have a little morsel of food with laughter than to have great feasting with conflict, that you can build the most exquisite home, you can save and save for the greatest vacation… We’ve all had those experiences. Sometimes the things that we didn’t plan for and we just ended up with family and friends and some off the beaten path place and you know what? We just spent the night talking and sharing and laughing and who knew a Waffle House could be so joyful?
Then there are other times we plan out every little detail and everyone is tense and anxious and you go and we need to have the greatest time of our life. We’ve been planning for 50 years. Unless the Lord builds the house, unless the Lord builds the trip, unless the Lord is in the vacation, it’s all for naught.
He moves from houses to cities. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. So he’s moved from provision, the sort of provision you receive in your place of shelter and dwelling, to protection. This is especially true in the ancient world, to be out in the countryside was to be in a place of danger. To be in a city at least afforded you walls, protection. Marauding bands of vigilantes couldn’t get in and there would be somebody who would be staked to watch the watchmen on the walls, to tell you when trouble is coming, and different people would have to take turns for the first and second and third watch of the night.
The psalmist reminds us, well, if the Lord isn’t in it, that watchman, however vigilant he be, stays awake in vain. Again, he’s not saying that you shouldn’t care about security. We’re grateful for security guards. We’re grateful for police officers. We’re grateful for those in our day who watch over the city, but the psalmist is talking about more than the physical prevention of harm. He’s talking about all that can befall us as human beings. He’s reminding us no amount of planning, no amount of money, no sophisticated home security system, can keep you from disappointment, from illness, from betrayal, from accidents.
There is no amount of money, there is no earthly security system that can prevent your life from experiencing the brokenness of human existence, sadness, of people who let you down, of times you let yourself down. The only sure provision, the only sure protection, is to rest in God’s providence. The only sure provision and sure protection is to rest in God’s providence.
Don’t you love verse 2? “It is vain that you rise up early.” That’s the teenager’s part of the verse, and then here’s the mom and dad’s, “and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Now don’t take this as a sign of the Lord’s curse if you can’t sleep. We know people have trouble sleeping and it happens as you get older. You often have more difficulty sleeping. Let that remind us what a gift it really is when we simply can lay down and we can sleep.
But the point here is to remind us that we are not in control. The watchman can take all the caffeine he wants to stay awake, and yet someone may sneak in through the back gate. He may doze off for a moment. There may be some pestilence that can enter the city, however vigilant he would be. Unless the Lord watches over the city.
Have you ever wondered, I have, why did God create us to sleep? He didn’t have to do it that way. Couldn’t he have just given us energy and maybe we just plug in a little bit for a few moments each day? Why can’t we just work for 24 hours a day? We could get a lot more done. We could have the leisure and we could have the career advancement. We could get everything done if we had 24 hours. Or Lord, if you only wanted us to work for 16, 17 waking hours, You could have just given us that. Why did the Lord create us to need sleep? Surely this is one of the reasons – every day the Lord gives you and I an opportunity to embrace finitude. Every day He gives you and I an opportunity to trust Him.
You know what it’s like, sometimes when you lay down and that’s when you thought you were doing fine and then a thousand troubles come into your head, everything that could happen to you or to your spouse or to your kids, and it rushes upon you. It’s hard to sleep in those moments.
What Psalm 127 means to remind us is that though there is a very natural fear, that’s part of being human. You do worry about bad things happening, natural fear prevents us from doing dumb things. You see cars moving quickly and it gives you a sense of “I shouldn’t pull out into traffic, I don’t know what this berry from the tree is going to do so I better not eat it.” Natural fear is not a problem, but that natural fear can too easily give way to sinful worry, to sinful fear, and the sort of fear and the sort of anxiety that leads us to constantly wonder if the Lord really knows what He is doing.
I have to think that Jesus, among the many other things He was trying to do, wanted to give the disciples a literal picture of Psalm 127. You know what story I’m talking about. When the storm is raging, “Where’s Jesus?” Sleeping, in the back of the boat. “Master, Master, don’t you know what’s happening out here?” It’s a picture for our life, with all of the storms, all of the worry, everything that can come crushing upon you – medical, financial, emotional, relational, familial, political. Look to our Lord, asleep in the midst of the storm. He gives to His beloved sleep. It’s vain. You almost wonder if Jesus said at some point, of course we’re not told this but speculating, if at some point He said to the disciples, “Friends, don’t you know it is vain that you rise early and go late to rest? And eat the bread of anxious toil? Don’t you know that He would give to His beloved Son sleep?”
Buildings, houses, cities, families. We see families in the second half of this psalm, described in three ways – a heritage, a reward, and most memorably, arrows.
Children are a heritage, that is, a legacy. It’s a way to send your life into the future. A reward. Don’t hear reward as something, well, if you have kids then you have deserved it. Or easy for you say, Pastor. But it means just more broadly, it’s a gift, something that God gives, it’s a blessing.
Arrows. Why arrows? Well, arrows are for defense. Arrows are to shoot out into the world your effectiveness. Think of Psalm 8:2 – “He has ordained from the mouth of infants to silence the foe and the avenger.” Quite literally your children, in particular your sons in the ancient world, were your strong defense. They were arrows to silence the avenger. To meet with your enemies at the gate it was a great help to have a quiverful of children.
The over-arching point is more important than the individual metaphors. The over-arching point is that children are a gift and a blessing.
I wrote an article, it came out a week ago in a journal called First Things, the article is called The Case for Kids. I’m not going to read it, it’s about a half-hour long, but some of you may have read it and may hear some of the same themes that I wrote about in this article. It used to be that the gift of children was considered the supreme gift one could receive. Now I know whenever you start talking about Psalm 127 and the blessing of children it gets very dicey because there’s all sorts of people who wanted to have children and couldn’t, or wanted more and were unable, or who had medical problems or who had stillbirths or miscarriages. There’s all sorts of pain and difficulties and personal difficult decisions that come around this issue whenever you talk about children.
So trying to navigate all of that, and just deal with the over-arching picture in the Bible, which is this – you never find anywhere in the Bible where children are considered anything but a blessing to those who receive them. And if there is one value which is so diametrically opposed to that of the Scriptures, perhaps it is that one value that children are increasingly seen as a burden more than they are a blessing.
You may have read, it’s been lots of different articles and think pieces over the past few years, that the total fertility rate (TFR) has been plummeting, not only in this country but around the world. In 1968, maybe some of you remember this, before I was born, Paul Ehrlich, a famous economist, wrote this book called The Population Bomb about how we were going to overpopulate the planet, and it turned out that that bomb was a bust. Yes, we have increasing numbers of people, 7, 8 billion, but now demographers are worrying about not a population bomb but that the bomb never went off. In most countries in the world that fertility rate, and scholars say you need to be at 2.1, that’s 2.1 children per woman to make up for children that die or don’t make it, 2.1 births per woman in order to replace, that’s called the replacement rate. So do you replace yourself on the planet, 2.1 is that magic number.
The only countries, virtually the only countries today that have a fertility rate above 2.1, are in Africa, and those are all declining. In some places, in Europe and the Far East, they are well below the replacement rate – Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Spain, have a fertility rate of 1.5. Italy’s future, Italy, the seats for the Roman Catholic church, of all places, has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, just 1.22. The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, all have a fertility rate below 1.8. Only France comes close with 2.03. If you want even worse numbers, you go to East Asia, where the worst, lowest numbers in the world exist. Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, have a fertility rate around 1.0. South Korea, the home of so many Presbyterians, is at 0.81. Those countries make shrinking Japan, with a fertility rate of 1.37, almost look vibrant. China, which had its notorious one-child policy and then changed to two-child and to three-child and now in the last decade Chinese officials have tried to incentivize people to have children. Their own Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences estimates that in 2021, for the first time since the Great Famine of the 50s and 60s, the Chinese population shrunk.
Demographers look at the very bad things that happen when people stop having children. This was a book from 2013. It has a very clever title, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. The author, Jonathan Last, gives a long and depressing list. Your country gets an aging population, a shrinking workforce, a declining tax base, a decrease in technological and industrial dynamism, difficulty in finding a spouse, empty buildings, crumbling infrastructure, unfunded entitlements, general disquiet, more and more people get older and sicker and there are fewer people to care for them.
Have you ever noticed how the picture of the new heavens given in Isaiah 65 is surprisingly familial, domestic? The picture of the good life, that is the eschatological age to come, includes peace, prosperity, protection… All people want those things. But it’s also surprisingly centered on the home. We hear in Isaiah 65 of children no longer dying in infancy, of children born for blessing instead of calamity. We read of building houses and inhabiting them, of planting vineyards and eating their fruit. The picture is familial and generational. There’s an old man, a young man, an infant, descendants together with their parents.
It is striking because most of us, and we’re affected more than we realize, our version of the good life is often individualistic, consumeristic, and in fact so many movies operate on that assumption that the good life has migrated from the home to the market place to the place of entertainment, to the inner recesses of the self, so that real blessing is found in escaping the home, in travel, in consumption, in freedom from the bonds of domestic life.
Psalm 127 points us in a different direction. Let me just read to you, if you will forbear my last paragraph here in this long piece, because it relates to Psalm 127:
“We must believe what the Scriptures tell us, that children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Having children is not for the faint of heart. Kids are expensive. They are messy and exhausting. They take your time and they can break your heart. They probably will never love you as much as you love them. Let’s not be romantic about it: Children are a burden. But they are also one of life’s greatest earthly blessings. Have we turned Rachel’s cry of desperation on its head, asking God to keep children from us lest we die to ourselves? The promise to Abraham of progeny was not a curse, and neither is it ours. A man like a warrior with arrows in his hand, a wife like a fruitful vine, and children like olive shoots around the table—these are the Lord’s blessings from Zion.”
None of that is to tell you just how many children you should have, but I often tell people perhaps one more than you think you can handle. We were there at about five and you can see where we ended up.
Are we at least, as people who know the Scriptures, open, and whatever sorts of decisions you come to and I am not a fertility maximalist that you must try to have as many children as you can have or any sort of planning. There are all sorts of variables to consider. But surely it is one of the idols of our age to say, “I must always get everything in order and just having everything just so and I’ll wait until I’m 30, I’ll get here, I’ll get there, and then I’ll have one, I’ll have, it’ll be perfect, then I’ll get the dogs and it will all be lined up,” and we have chosen for ourselves and perhaps missed out for ourselves a life of great chaos and greater blessing that the Lord would give should He open to us the womb, should He give to us children as a heritage from the Lord.
That is the promise that He makes to us. From a building to security to raising a family. You see the progression. God builds the house, God watches over the city, and it is the gift of God to provide a family to inhabit the building and to live in that city.
I said we’d spend most of our time on this first level, and I will be true to that. So here’s the second level. The Old Testament context. Look up at the beginning, “A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.” Now when you read these psalms, when you see that superscription there in the all caps/lower caps letters, that’s part of the original Hebrew, that’s inspired. Now the heading in bold italics, that’s what the translator gives, that’s not inspired, but this is inspired, this is a part of the psalm. God wants us to know this is of Solomon.
There’s a clue even to his authorship in verse 2 – he gives to his beloved sleep. When Solomon’s birth was announced in 2 Samuel 12, it said his name shall be Solomon and he shall be my beloved.
This is, then, as Solomon writes it, thinking not only about in general homes and buildings, but thinking about that house that Solomon would build. He’s speaking about a house of the Lord. He’s thinking about the establishment of the temple. Lord, you are going to need to be in the building of this temple, or all will be in vain. And as he’s thinking about the temple, he’s also thinking about Jerusalem, so the house and then the city. The exiles have returned, if that’s the setting for some of these psalms, or as we’ve been arguing at least it’s the pilgrims on their way to Zion. The pilgrims on their way to Zion, the Lord promises that as you reach the holy city, God will guard His house, He will watch over His city. Jerusalem will have walls, the Lord will protect it.
Then as we move from the house to the city to the family. Surely, Solomon is thinking of the promise that will be made to, has been made to him, and first of all to David, that David would never fail to have a man, one of his own sons, to sit on the throne. There was a promise that the family line of David would never be snuffed out.
And that promise goes all the way back to the garden, that a seed of the woman would come to crush the head of the serpent.
So the promise here is not only in a general sense for houses and cities and families, but it’s very specifically in this Old Testament context that Solomon is thinking of the temple that he’s building, or has built, and Jerusalem, the great city of the King, and then the promise that children will come from him and that those sons will forever inhabit the throne of David.
The two halves of this psalm, and you can see them even marked off in the ESV with a break between verse 2 and verse 3, the two halves of this psalm mirror almost exactly the two halves of Genesis chapter 11. You remember what’s in Genesis chapter 11? The first part is about the tower of Babel, and what is that but the effort to build a house and to build a city without the Lord. That is the quintessential example of building a great tower into the heavens and the Lord looks down and He scatters them and wipes them out. Unless the Lord builds the house, unless the Lord watches over the city, you great men of the earth, you do your labors in vain.
Then you remember the end of Genesis 11. Of course, Genesis 12 is where Abram is called and the promise, but the end, seemingly insignificant unless you know the rest of the Bible, is that this man Terah has three sons, and one of them is Abram. The quiet announcement of another arrow in Terah’s quiver, and which has proved to be of more earthly and eternal consequence. The great city to be built in Babel, it’s no more. Or this one child to be born, who we now know is Father Abraham.
So there’s a general way, there’s the Old Testament way, and then finally we can see the same progression in terms of the New Testament promise. The house… Well, the New Testament tells us we are being built into God’s holy temple, 1 Peter 2:5 – we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 3:16 – we are that household of God and Christ promises in Matthew 16 that He will build His church.
And the city. Hebrews says we look forward to the heavenly city whose builder and architect is God. The city, whose foundations cannot be shaken, whose gates are always secure, whose fortifications never can be breached. We are the household of God. We look forward to the city to come.
And we, belonging to the only begotten Son, now are called the family of God. John 1:12-13, not natural but by adoption. We are a family with Christ as our older brother, and we trust therefore in the child who was born of the woman, that son of David, that child of Abraham, that chosen offspring, that He will be the deliverer.
So what is, Psalm 127, in its most immediate context, a psalm for pilgrims marching to the city of David. It’s also for us in 2022 a song as we march on our pilgrimage to our heavenly Zion. You can read the psalm, and you ought to read the psalm, through New Testament eyes. Unless Christ builds His church, those who build it labor in vain. Unless Christ goes ahead and prepares a place for us. Unless Christ is the Lord our righteousness, our safety, and surety, then all of our striving and working are in vain.
Behold the Christ, the little child is the promised One of the Lord, the fruit of His tree will be for the healing of the nations. Blessed is the one who belongs to the family of God, to the household of faith, to the one who has Christ in his heart, for he shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for so glorious a word to remind us of all the gifts You have given us. Forgive us for when we strive with our earthly homes, with our work, with our provision, with the church, with our family, to do things in our time and our way and our strength. We look to You for all that we are incapable of doing ourselves. How close is the parallel even between this and what with saw this morning, the Laodiceans saying before You, “I need nothing,” and this psalm telling us we need everything. Nisi Dominus frustra. May it be forever the cry and commitment of our hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.