Summary: The opening line of Psalm 127 emphasizes a theme that runs through both Psalm 127 and 128 – without God’s direct and crucial involvement in its building and protection, no house, city, or family will survive.
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“UNLESS THE LORD BUILDS THE HOUSE”
I. Psalm 127 and 128
Psalms is a book of poetry with a musical character.
For instance, some contain directions to the choir or choir-master:
• “To the chief musician” (Psalms 11, 13, etc.).
• or the name of a musician or designation of a group of musicians (Psalms 62, 77)
• To this is sometimes added the kind of instruments to be used (Psalms 5, 6, 54, &c.),.
“Song of ascents” appears at the beginning of these Psalms. A total of 15 Psalms are so designated (Psalms 120-134).
The “Psalms of ascents” as a group:
A. Are thought to have been sung by priests (and the people) as the priests ascended the 15 steps at the Nicanor gate to perform the priestly services.
B. Possibly were sung by the people on their approach to Jerusalem to celebrate the regular feasts such the feast of tabernacles, unleavened bread, firstfruits, ingathering, and Passover.
C. Some suggest these Psalms had to do with raising the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time, several centuries after most of the Psalms were written, specifically (“Unless the Lord watches over the city (Jerusalem), the watchman stays awake in vain. ”).
Read Psalms 127 & 128
(David is thought to be the author of Psalm 127 in reference to the task of building the temple.)
The opening line of Psalm 127 emphasizes a theme that runs through both Psalms – Without God’s direct and crucial involvement in its building and protection, no house or city will survive.
Psalm 127:1 – Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
God must build it; God must guard it, or it will be unbuilt and unguarded.
II. Meaning of Psalm 127
I have seen the opening lines of this Psalm on church bulletins and correspondence about a building program that was being planned or in progress.
The thought conveyed is that we must build what we believe to be what the Lord wants us to build—conforming to his judgment as to curbing extravagance, blending our own tastes and preferences with honest functionality and good stewardship.
It would be hard to deny that the principle in the psalm applies to church building programs.
In all such building efforts, the Lord must be the builder, or we build in vain.
As a young man attending a meeting where the church was considering tearing down its meeting place and building a new one (some were for the project, some were against it), I heard an elder in the church declare – “I've built two church buildings in my life and I’m going to build one more before I die.”
(I vividly remember cringing at his leaving the Lord out, and the arrogance of the “I, I, I – I have built,..I am going to build,” “Before I die” attitude.)
The new building was built, finer than the one it replaced. But internal strife and hard times fell on that church and after a few years it no longer existed, having fractured and scattered to other local venues.
But I am convinced this passage of scripture is not primarily about church buildings, none of which existed for more than a thousand years after it was written--not even in the early years of the New Testament church.
The Psalmist says, unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.
Firstly, what does the Psalmist mean by “vain?” That it would fade from existence, as the church of my youth did?
Solomon gives us a variety of things he found to be vanity in Ecclesiastes, where he uses the word “vanity” 30 times.
Ecc 1:2 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Ecc 12:8 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!"
One meaning of “vain” describes something that is, although useless, is also harmless.
We might be considered vain if we are overly concerned with physical appearances, or have “vanity” license plates on our vehicles.
Or we might be laboring in vain if we are concerned with some good deed done or some worthwhile accomplishment accruing to our personal credit and recognition.
But the meaning of “vain” in Psalm 127 is more insidious than that.
It includes the aspect of being not just empty of effect, but evil.
e.g., idolatry was (and is) vain worship – useless because idols are nothing – but as strongly disapproved by God as anything we can imagine; and therefore destructive to our relationship with him.