PSALM 127 OVERVIEW.
Title. A Song of Degrees for Solomon. It was meet that the builder of the holy house should be remembered by the pilgrims to its sacred shrine. The title probably indicates that David wrote it for his wise son, in whom he so greatly rejoiced, and whose name Jedidiah, or "beloved of the Lord", is introduced into the second verse. The spirit of his name, "Solomon, or peaceable", breathes through the whole of this most charming song. If Solomon himself was the author, it comes fitly from him who reared the house of the Lord. Observe how in each of these songs the heart is fixed upon Jehovah only. Read the first verses of these Psalms, from Psalm 120 to the present song, and they run thus: "I cried unto the Lord", "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills", "Let us go unto the house of the Lord." "Unto thee will I lift up mine eyes", "If it had not been the Lord", "They that trust in the Lord." "When the Lord turned again the captivity." The Lord and the Lord alone is thus lauded at each step of these songs of the ascents. O for a life whose every halting place shall suggest a new song unto the Lord!
Subject. God's blessing on his people as their one great necessity and privilege is here spoken of. We are here taught that builders of houses and cities, systems and fortunes, empires and churches all labour in vain without the Lord; but under the divine favour they enjoy perfect rest. Sons, who are in the Hebrew called "builders", are set forth as building up families under the same divine blessing, to the great honour and happiness of their parents. It is THE BUILDER'S PSALM. "Every house is builded by some man, but he that built all things is God", and unto God be praise.
Verse 1. Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it. The word vain is the keynote here, and we hear it ring out clearly three times. Men desiring to build know that they must labour, and accordingly they put forth all their skill and strength; but let them remember that if Jehovah is not with them their designs will prove failures. So was it with the Babel builders; they said, "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower"; and the Lord returned their words into their own bosoms, saying, "Go to, let us go down and there confound their language." In vain they toiled, for the Lord's face was against them. When Solomon resolved to build a house for the Lord, matters were very different, for all things united under God to aid him in his great undertaking: even the heathen were at his beck and call that he might erect a temple for the Lord his God. In the same manner God blessed him in the erection of his own palace; for this verse evidently refers to all sorts of house building. Without God we are nothing. Great houses have been erected by ambitious men; but like the baseless fabric of a vision they have passed away, and scarce a stone remains to tell where once they stood. The wealthy builder of a Non such Palace, could he revisit the glimpses of the moon, would be perplexed to find a relic of his former pride: he laboured in vain, for the place of his travail knows not a trace of his handiwork. The like may be said of the builders of castles and abbeys: when the mode of life indicated by these piles ceased to be endurable by the Lord, the massive walls of ancient architects crumbled into ruins, and their toil melted like the froth of vanity. Not only do we now spend our strength for nought without Jehovah, but all who have ever laboured apart from him come under the same sentence. Trowel and hammer, saw and plane are instruments of vanity unless the Lord be the Master builder.
Except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Around the wall the sentinels pace with constant step; but yet the city is betrayed unless the alert Watcher is with them. We are not safe because of watchmen if Jehovah refuses to watch over us. Even if the guards are wakeful, and do their duty, still the place may be surprised if God be not there. "I, the Lord, do keep it", is better than an army of sleepless guards. Note that the Psalmist does not bid the builder cease from labouring, nor suggest that watchmen should neglect their duty, nor that men should show their trust in God by doing nothing: nay, he supposes that they will do all that they can do, and then he forbids their fixing their trust in what they have done, and assures them that all creature effort will be in vain unless the Creator puts forth his power, to render second causes effectual. Holy Scripture endorses the order of Cromwell -- "Trust in God, and keep your powder dry": only here the sense is varied, and we are told that the dried powder will not win the victory unless we trust in God. Happy is the man who hits the golden mean by so working as to believe in God, and so believing in God as to work without fear.
In Scriptural phrase a dispensation or system is called a house. Moses was faithful as a servant over all his house; and as long as the Lord was with that house it stood and prospered; but when he left it, the builders of it became foolish and their labour was lost. They sought to maintain the walls of Judaism, but sought in vain: they watched around every ceremony and tradition, but their care was idle. Of every church, and every system of religious thought, this is equally true: unless the Lord is in it, and is honoured by it, the whole structure must sooner or later fall in hopeless ruin. Much can be done by man; he can both labour and watch; but without the Lord he has accomplished nothing, and his wakefulness has not warded off evil.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Title. "A Song of Degrees for Solomon." This Psalm has Solomon's name prefixed to the title, for the purpose that the very builder of the Temple may teach us that he availed nothing to build it without the help of the Lord. --The Venerable Bede (672-3-735), in Neale and Littledale.
Whole Psalm. Viewed as one of the "Degrees" in Christian virtue, the ninth, the Psalm is directed against self reliance. --H. T. Armfield.
Whole Psalm. The steps or degrees in this Psalm, though distinctly marked, are not so regular as in some others.
The twice repeated "in vain" of Psalms 127:1 may be regarded as the motto or "degree" for Psalms 127:2 . The correspondence between the two clauses in Psalms 127:1 is also very striking. It is as if, on entering on some spiritual undertaking, or even in referring to the present state of matters, the Psalmist emphatically disclaimed as vain every other interposition or help than that of Jehovah. And of this "in vain" it is well constantly to remind ourselves, especially in seasons of activity and in times of peace; for then we are most liable to fall into the snare of this vanity.
The next "degree" is that of success and prosperity ( Psalms 127:3-4 ), which is ascribed to the same Jehovah whose help and protection constituted the commencement and continuance, as now the completion of our well being. Hence also Psalms 127:5 goes not beyond this, but contemplates the highest symbol of full security, influence, and power, in the figurative language of the Old Testament, which St. Augustine refers to "spiritual children, shot forth like arrows into all the world." --Alfred Edersheim, in "The Golden Diary of Heart Converse with Jesus in the Book of Psalms", 1877.
Whole Psalm. Solomon, the wisest and richest of kings, after having proved, both from experience and careful observation, that there was nothing but vanity in the life and labours of man, comes to this conclusion, that there is nothing better for a man in this life than that he should moderate his cares and labours, enjoy what he has, and fear God and keep his commandments: to this end he directs all that is debated in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Very similar are the argument and intention of the Psalm; the authorship of which is ascribed to Solomon in the Inscription, and which there is no reason to doubt. Nor would it be safe, either to call in doubt any inscription without an urgent reason, or to give any other sense to the letter l than that of authorship, unless it be meant that all the inscriptions are uncertain. Again, if the collectors of the Psalms added titles according to their own opinion and judgment, there would be no reason why they should have left so many Psalms without any title. This Psalm, therefore, is Solomon's, with whose genius and condition it well agrees, as is clear from Ecclesiastes, with which it may be compared, and from many proverbs on the same subject ... The design is, to draw men away from excessive labours and anxious cares; and to excite godliness and faith in Jehovah. To this the Psalm manifestly tends: for since men, desirous of the happiness and stability of their houses, are unable to secure this by their own endeavours, but need the blessing of God, who gives prosperity with even lighter labours to those that fear him; it is their duty to put a limit to their labours and cares, and to seek the favour of God, by conforming their life and conduct to his will, and confiding in him. --Hermalt Venema, 1697-1787.
Verse 1. Except the LORD build. It is a fact that !b, ben, a son, and tk, bath, a daughter, and tyb, beith, a house, come from the same root, tnk, banah, to build; because sons and daughters build up a household, or constitute a family, as much and as really as stones and timber constitute a building. Now it is true that unless the good hand of God be upon us we cannot prosperously build a place of worship for his name. Unless we have his blessing, a dwelling house cannot be comfortably erected. And if his blessing be not on our children, the house (the family) may be built up; but instead of its being the house of God, it will be the synagogue of Satan. All marriages that are not under God's blessing will be a private and public curse. --Adam Clarke.
Verse 1. Except the LORD build the house, etc. He does not say, Unless the Lord consents and is willing that the house should be built and the city kept: but, "Unless the Lord build; unless he keep." Hence, in order that the building and keeping may be prosperous and successful, there is necessary, not only the consent of God, but also his working is required: and that working without which nothing can be accomplished, that may be attempted by man. He does not say, Unless the Lord help; but unless the Lord build, unless he keep; i.e., Unless he do all himself. He does not say, To little purpose he labours and watches; but to no purpose he labours, both the builder and the keeper. Therefore, all the efficacy of labours and cares is dependent on the operation and providence of God; and all human strength, care, and industry is in itself vain.
It should be noticed, that he does not say, Because the Lord builds the house he labours in vain who builds it, and, because the Lord keeps the city the watchman waketh in vain: but, If the Lord do not build the house, if he do not keep the city; he labours in vain who builds the house; lie waketh in vain who keeps the city. He is far from thinking that the care and human labour, which is employed in the building of houses and keeping of cities, is to be regarded as useless, because the Lord builds and keeps; since it is then the more especially useful and effectual when the Lord himself is the builder and keeper. The Holy Spirit is not the patron of lazy and inert men; but he directs the minds of those who labour to the providence and power of God. --Wolfgang Musculus, 1497-1563.
Verse 1. Except the LORD build the house. On the lintel of the door in many an old English house, we may still read the words, Nisi Dominus frustra -- the Latin version of the opening words of the Psalm. Let us also trust in him, and inscribe these words over the portal of "the house of our pilgrimage"; and beyond a doubt all will be well with us, both in this world and in that which is to come. -- Samuel Cox, in "The Pilgrim Psalms", 1874.
Verse 1. Except the LORD build the house, etc. In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten this powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need his assistance? I have lived for a long time 81 years; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall proceed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: we shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests; our prospects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, or conquest. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business; and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service. --Benjamin Franklin: Speech in Convention for forming a Constitution for the United States, 1787.
Verse 1. Note, how he puts first the building of the house, and then subjoins the keeping of the city. He advances from the part to the whole; for the city consists of houses. -- Wolfgang Musculus.
Verse 1. Except the LORD keep the city, etc. Fires may break out in spite of the watchmen; a tempest may sweep over it; bands of armed men may assail it; or the pestilence may suddenly come into it, and spread desolation through its dwellings. -- Albert Barnes (1798-1870), in "Notes on the Psalms."
Verse 1. One important lesson which Madame Guyon learned from her temptations and follies was that of her entire dependence on Divine grace. "I became", she says, "deeply assured of what the prophet hath said, "Except the Loud keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." When I looked to thee, O my Lord? thou wast my faithful keeper; thou didst continually defend my heart against all kinds of enemies. But, alas! when left to myself, I was all weakness. How easily did my enemies prevail over me! Let others ascribe their victories to their own fidelity: as for myself, I shall never attribute them to anything else than thy paternal care. I have too often experienced, to my cost, what I should be without thee, to presume in the least on any wisdom or efforts of my own. It is to thee, O God, my Deliverer, that I owe everything! And it is a source of infinite satisfaction, that I am thus indebted to thee." --From the Life of Jeanne Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon, 1648-1717.
Verse 1. If God build not the house, and lay The groundwork sure -- whoever build, It cannot stand one stormy day. If God be not the city's shield, If he be not their bars and wall, In vain is watchtower, men, and all.
Though then thou wak'st when others rest,
Though rising thou prevent'st the sun,
Though with lean care thou daily feast,
Thy labour's lost, and thou undone;
But God his child will feed and keep,
And draw the curtains to his sleep. --Phineas Fletcher, 1584-1650.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
- The human hand without the hand of God is in vain.
- The human eye without the eye of God is in vain. Or,
- God is to be acknowledged in all our works.
- By seeking his direction before them.
- By depending upon his help in them.
- By giving him the glory of them.
- In all our cares.
- By owning our short sight.
- By trusting to his foresight. --G. R.
Verse 1. (first part). -- Illustrate the principles:
- In building up character.
- In constructing plans of life and of work.
- In framing schemes of happiness.
- In rearing a hope of eternal life.
- In raising and enlarging the church. --J. F.
- What we may not expect: namely, God to work without our building, watching, etc.
- What we may expect: Failure if we are without God.
- What we should not do: Fret, worry, etc.
- What we may do: So trust as to rest in peace.