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Psalm 127

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.

In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. 

They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.

Before going to university, and then throughout my years in university and post-grad study – during the summers and on weekends, I worked as a framer and carpenter. I spent the first two years building subdivision homes, and then building custom homes, and then moved more and more into renovations and fine wood working. I can’t be precise but in those years I probably framed close to (or over) 100 houses and did renovations in that many or more. It was a busy time with long hours and hard work.

And I will never forget – it happened in the subdivisions with the housing firms overseeing the developments and it happened with the homeowners when we built custom homes… When talking with the homeowners or the people in charge, they would always say, “We are building a home.” “I am building this house for my kids.” “We are building this neighbourhood so families have a safe, fun place to live.” And I would always think: “I’ve never seen you lift a hammer around here. If anyone is building a home here, it’s me and my framing crew; it’s the labourers who show up before 7 every morning (rain, snow, or shine) to bang walls together.”

Now, to be clear, I get that it is an idiomatic use of language to say, “We are building a house” when what you really mean is, “We are paying to have a house built.” I get that it is a similar idiomatic usage when husbands and fathers say, “We are having a baby.” We all know that she is having the baby; she has the due date; she will have to labour and deliver.

And yet, I also know – from personal experience and anthropological, theological study (but mostly of personal [self-reflective] experience) – that human beings have a strong tendency to overestimate our ability, and to overstate our importance in the operations of the things of this world.

That’s where Psalm 127 comes as a helpful corrective and reminder. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Through each stanza the theme is dependence on God; what we have in life comes at the hand of the Lord, who is the source of every good gift (cf. James 1:17). It is all too easy to presume that it is our labours, our work, our excellences that bring accomplishment and status. And from that flows the cause of our overworking, our worry, and our fears about the future. This overinflated sense of self is in direct conflict with the true impact of the sovereignty of God and his providential rule and reign in the universe. 

I love the language of the Heidelberg Catechism’s summary teaching on God’s providence in Lord’s Day 10. It asks:

Q. What do you understand
by the providence of God?

A. The almighty and ever present power of God
by which God upholds, as with his hand,
and earth
and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty—
all things, in fact,
come to us
not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

Because the Lord builds the house, protects the city, provides the sleep, and gives the family our stress in these areas is mitigated, if not altogether removed. Now, of course, the Lord calls us to work, he instructs us not to be idle, and he fills our days with responsibilities; but responsible concern is never the same as worry or overfunctioning. In the first, we are exercising God’s mandate to fill and subdue the earth, to work for his glory and purpose; in the second, however, we are taking responsibility for the things of God; and in its more insidious forms, we are suggesting that either God isn’t in control or that his control isn’t good enough – the implication of course being that we, (I), have a better idea.

Instead, when we see God like Psalm 127 calls us to we can live in constant reliance on him. We can rest and sleep well. When you know the one who is ultimately in control of all things – and when you know that he is in control of your life too – you don’t have to overwork, you can be content to work the right amount; when you know the sovereign God at work in the world, you don’t have to worry or fear – even if you don’t see him at work – instead, you can trust. The truth is, unless we labor in the Lord, we labour in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:58).

And this goes down through every aspect of your life and ministry:
Unless the Lord adds to the church, we evangelize in vain.
Unless the Lord teaches the class, we prepare in vain.
Unless the Lord guides the ministry, we serve in vain.
Unless the Lord restores the family, we counsel in vain.
Unless the Lord blesses the writing project, we compose in vain.
Unless the Lord expands the business, we market in vain.
Unless the Lord protects us on the mission field, we travel in vain. 
Unless the Lord guards the urban centers, we secure ourselves in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over our children, we care for them in vain.
Unless the Lord looks after the church, we pastor in vain.[1]

I might be tempted to think I am the one who builds the house, but Jesus speaks it true when he says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Lord, everything I have and do is from you and for you. That is easy to forget. Help me to remember and forgive me for my arrogance. As I work hard in life for your glory, bless the work of my hands as your work in the world through your church. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] From Akin, et al. Exalting in Jesus in Psalms 101-150, Christ-Centered Exposition, 216.