George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 127

1. Structure

The first three verses appear, on the face of things, to be about three different topics. Not so! The psalm is quite homogeneous. All of it is on one theme: Children — a gift from God. See the notes on v. 1.

2. Title

For Solomon hardly seems right. The prepositional prefix l’ is the same as in the phrase of David in 124. The first verse reads very much like one of the proverbs of Solomon (cp. Prov. 8:15; 16:9; 21:30,31); hence this title. Solomon built the Lord’s house at Jerusalem (v. 1), yet he acknowledged that the Most High needed not men’s houses in which to dwell (1 Kings 8:27; cp. Acts 7:47-50) — the reason being that God is building His own “house”, a spiritual one, as this psalm and the following one testify.

It is possible that, after v. 1, the rest of the psalm was added in Hezekiah’s time. It is extremely difficult to fit vv. 2-5 into the reign of Solomon.

3. A psalm of Hezekiah

Hezekiah had all that a natural man could wish — physical strength and health, the wealth and power of a monarch. But then he was stripped of his health and placed under sentence of death — a grievous disease gnawed at his body. And at the same time the Assyrian threatened to seize his lands and his wealth, to erase his name from the pages of history. Finally, the worst blow: with a shock came the realization that he, Hezekiah, was to die childless, the dynasty of David left in disarray and the throne of God’s promise under threat of seizure. Where could the distraught king turn?

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Those intent on assigning the Songs of Degrees to a Captivity or post-Captivity date, fasten on this verse with eagerness. But what can they make of the rest of the psalm in such a context?

The root word banah (to build) has begotten a whole family of Hebrew words: ben (son), eben (stone), bath (daughter), beth (house). Sons and daughters build up the spiritual “house” as surely as stones and timbers build up a physical building. In Scripture, the physical house or temple is the symbol of the spiritual, which consists of “living stones”, or sons and daughters (1 Pet. 2:4-6; Rev. 3:12; Heb. 3:6).

So here is Hezekiah’s answer to Sennacherib’s challenge (cp. also Psa. 121:2-8; 124:1-3,6): ‘Unlike those other cities you have left in dust and rubble, this city is kept by the Almighty God, in whom we trust. He is the Watchman upon the walls, and His host is the defending army.’
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late. It is not industry that is discouraged here, but anxious labor without dependence upon God. While the “Gentiles” fret and worry and “burn the midnight oil”, juggling accounts to find the funds to build “bigger barns”, and to protect the ones they already own, the believer may lay himself down in peace, and sleep.

“For thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Psa. 4:8).

“He that keepeth thee will not slumber” (121:3-5).

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life... do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matt. 6:25, 34, RSV).

It is vain... to eat the bread of sorrows. This phrase harks back to Gen. 3:16,17 — where the same and similar words are translated “sorrow”. A part of the curse upon our first parents was the difficulty with which bread would thenceforth be wrested from the thorny soil. But this labor was a burden to be shouldered, if not joyfully, then at least from a sense of duty:

“If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10,12).

And yet, though honorable, though commanded by God, this labor for daily bread is nevertheless in the highest sense “vain”. It can at best postpone the day when the “grinders” are finally silenced and the frame of dust shall return to the ground (Eccl. 12:3,4,7).

For so he giveth his beloved sleep. This phrase echoes Solomon’s other name, Jedidiah (‘beloved of Yahweh’), given him by God (2 Sam. 12:25). Solomon was the gift of God to David His beloved (the same root word again), by which David’s dynasty was perpetuated after he fell asleep in death. And so God would continue to perpetuate that same dynasty through Hezekiah and his son yet to be born.
Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. A reward — for what? For the remarkable faith shown by Hezekiah in God’s deliverance and in His faithfulness to the great promise made to David of an endless dynasty.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man: so are children of the youth. Naturally speaking, as arrows exceed a man’s own reach, so children exceed the span of his life — projecting into the future the father’s influence either for good or ill, long after his death. At the same time, they are both a reassurance of a sort of “immortality” and a responsibility to the future.

Children of a man’s youth are even more a blessing than those of old age, in that the father may reasonably expect to have more years to influence their development. Though Hezekiah was not particularly young when his son Manasseh was born, he must have felt some of the joys of youth in his miraculous deliverance from death. Consequently he must have also valued his remaining years more than most, having had such a close escape; thus he would see those years as a wonderful opportunity to bring up his child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. (But why then does his work seem to have been so fruitless? Or was it?)
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate. When the haughty Rabshakeh stood before the walls of Jerusalem and uttered his blasphemous boasts, “they held their peace and answered him not a word: for the king’s commandment was, saying, ‘Answer him not’ ” (2 Kings 18:36; Isa. 36:21). Significantly, Hezekiah had no children at this time to rebuke the enemies in the gate, and he himself was beset by a fatal disease; so at that time, no such challenge could be offered. But the king and the prophet cast themselves upon the Lord, and the threat was answered by His Angel. And Hezekiah survived his illness and begat a son to continue the Davidic line through him.

It is possible that a more figurative reading of these verses may explain the references to “children” who would “speak with the enemies in the gate”: Here “children” is really sons, which can be taken metaphorically as “officers” or “disciples”, i.e., those emulating the faith of their master (as in Isa. 8:18; Heb. 2:13). The helpers of Hezekiah, who spoke with the enemies in the gate, are specified in Isa. 37:2 and Psa. 45:5 (in v. 4 teach is closely connected in Hebrew with to fire arrows). If this reading is correct, the quiver is the king’s cabinet. But if the passage is read with reference only to a natural family, it is difficult to assign any specific meaning to “quiver” here.

4. Messianic reference

Again and again, the historical picture of Hezekiah’s times fades away, and we see with new clarity the antitypical substance in the life and death of Christ. Here is the epitome of human experience, the reason and meaning of human life. Look at the cross! Behold the man! Stripped of all worldly wealth, even his simple clothes. Placed under sentence of cruel death, cut off at the zenith of his years. And dying without seed, a “eunuch” for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. Has there ever been a greater “failure”, by all the yardsticks of this world’s ambition and desires? And yet... look again, in the eyes of God this man is the only perfect success. The glory of God attains, in this man of ignominy, unrivalled heights. His “house” is yet to be innumerable; his “city” the most glorious ever imagined; his “dynasty” uninterrupted to the end of human time; and the peace of his kingdom a blessing to all men. And his name will eclipse the names of every world ruler since Nimrod built his tower.

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. This is completely appropriate to modern political Zionism. The Lord has not built their city; they have! And they know it! For this reason, they “watch” over their own safety in vain (Zech. 14:1,2; Ezek. 35:12; etc.).
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep. Yet the city will be saved through the repentance (not any “work”) of the faithful remnant. When there appears to be only the “sleep” of death (i.e., Ezek. 37), then God will give... His Beloved!

Or... the phrase might also be read: “God gives blessings to His beloved ones even as they sleep”. Examples: While asleep Adam received Eve (Gen. 2:21,22), Abraham a great promise (15:12,13), Jacob a great assurance (28:10-15), Samuel a vision (1 Sam. 3:3,4), and Solomon the gift of wisdom (1 Kings 3:5-15). But the greater sleep is the sleep of death; while Jesus the beloved “slept” in the tomb his Father was building his “house”. Jesus awoke from sleep to see his seed, the travail of his soul, a great harvest which no man can number.
Lo, children are an heritage of (or from) the Lord: And the fruit of the womb is his reward. Hezekiah’s joy at the birth of a son and heir was very real to him. But this joy is but the faintest echo when compared to that which Christ will experience when he receives his inheritance of “children” (Isa. 8:18; 53:10; Psa. 22:30, 31), born from “wombs” of stone and earth in the great resurrection day.
As arrows are in the hands of a mighty man: so are children of the youth. Symbolically, Christ is the gibbor, the mighty man or warrior (RSV), who holds his “seed” as arrows in his hand (cp. Zech. 9:13,14; Rev. 6:2; 19:11-15). They will be his lieutenants by which his judgments (both of sword and word) are executed in the earth, the extensions of his own will. They will be “children of his youth”, for Christ will be eternally “young” (as will they).
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate. His body broken and ready for the cross, Christ stood before his enemies in the “gate” (the traditional place of judicial proceedings: Deut. 21:19; 25:7; Ruth 4:1,2). “Answerest thou nothing? What is it which these witness against thee?” But Jesus held his peace (Matt. 26:62,63). His disciples had fled; there remained none to speak on his behalf (cp. Job’s plight in Job 5:4). He stood alone and cast himself upon the Father. The Father spoke for him in thunder and earthquake, and the stone was rolled away. His “children”, born again through the power of his own resurrection — men such as Peter — brought the answer to his adversaries:

“This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses... Let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32,36).

Christ had overcome the greatest enemy, Death. As God had promised Abraham, his seed had possessed the gate of his enemies (Gen. 22:17). The gate which no man can open, the gate of death, was opened by Christ:

“I am he that liveth and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of Hades and of death” (Rev. 1:18).

So now his “children” are no longer ashamed; they may stand face to face with “the enemy in the gate”, and repeat the words of Paul:

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:55,57,58).
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