Summary: Work is given to us by God, is done in vain apart from Him, and can be a means of worship--because God calls us to trust Him so that we do not find ourselves eating the bread of "anxious toil."
The reality of work
Just imagine—it’s the end of a morning or afternoon or evening of hard work, and you’re very, very tired. But you look around your house, and the floors are swept and clean, the dishes are done, the laundry folded and put away, and even the bathroom fixtures are sparkling; and for those of you who have kids, you can even imagine that the scattered mess of toys that normally covers the floor in every room and hallway has disappeared. Everything is in its place. You feel this enormous sense of accomplishment and relief. You put on some tea or coffee and light music, and slip slowly into that cozy chair with a good book, the one you’ve been waiting to read, or maybe you pick up the newspaper or turn on your favourite TV show. Whatever you do, you can now relax and enjoy the result of your labour: a clean and tidy home. Ah, the satisfaction of work!
Isn’t that a great image? But how long does this last? Isn’t this a cycle that we all repeat several times a week? We all know what it’s like to get all our work done only to have more work waiting for us. While the saying goes that the two most certain things are death and taxes, we will always have work to do: housework, yard work, homework, church work, volunteer work, office-work, busywork. Work, work, work.
We even see our experience of work reflected in popular music. There have even been lots of songs over the years that have complained about the drudgery and toil of work: The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” where they complain to have been “working like a dog.” Dolly Parton’s “Working 9 to 5”, and what a way to make a living that is! There’s also Huey Lewis’s “Workin’ for a Livin’,” and “Couple Days Off,” not to mention a Canadian favourite, Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.” And no doubt we’ve all shared the sentiments expressed in these songs on more than a few occasions—even if we like our work! Having worked in a few secular workplaces I know that lots of people are literally ‘working for the weekend’ and for those ‘couple days off.’ Most people work in order to make enough of a living to enjoy the days that they don’t have to work. Vacation, days off, and leisure time are all an escape from work—sadly, some escape in even more pathetic ways, through drugs, alcohol, and addictive gambling. But is work supposed to be like this? Is this what work is meant to be like? You see, even our attitude toward work is a part of our relationship with God, because however we approach our work says something about what we believe about God.
Our work is given to us by God
It seems fitting that Psalm 127 is about work—about how we should see our work and labour in this life—since work never goes away. But before we get to this Psalm I want to look at Genesis, where we find the beginning of work. In Genesis 2: 2 we read these words: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done.” So here we see that God works. God is the ultimate worker—and note that God also rested. And God also made work a part of His creation. Look at what it says in Genesis 2: 15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” This is before the fall when things went wrong with creation. Work is a part of God’s purpose and intention for us. He created us for work, and like everything else God made, when He made it, “it was good.” Work was not meant to be punishment, but vocation—what we are called to do. So what happened?
Well, to make a long story short, we happened. We believed a lie. We believed what Satan told us. If you look at Genesis you see that we decided that we could be like God and get our work, our salvation, our lives done on our own strength—rather than center our work, our lives, in God’s work and in God’s hands, we put ourselves at the center. We wanted to be like gods. Psalm 127: 1 says “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” and we decided not to believe this warning and, just like our psalm says, we’ve been “eating the bread of anxious toil” ever since. When human beings fell into sin and disobedience, God cursed work.
Genesis 3: 17 – 19 puts the curse this way: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Human labour would now be more tedious and difficult.