Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Song of degrees for Solomon. 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.Psalm 127:1-5THIS pure expression of conscious dependence on God’s blessing for all well-being may possibly have special reference to the Israel of the Restoration. The instances of vain human effort and care would then have special force, when the ruins of many generations had to be rebuilt and the city to be guarded. But there is no need to seek for specific occasion, so general is this psalm. It sings in a spirit of happy trust the commonplace of all true religion, that God’s blessing prospers all things, and that effort is vain without it. There is no sweeter utterance of that truth anywhere, till we come to our Lord’s parallel teaching, lovelier still than that of our psalm, when He points us to the flowers of the field and the fowls of the air, as our teachers of the joyous, fair lives that can be lived, when no carking care mars their beauty.
In Psalm 127:1 the examples chosen by the singer are naturally connected. The house when built is one in the many that make the city. The owner’s troubles are not over when it is built, since it has to be watched. It is as hard to keep as to acquire earthly goods. The psalmist uses the past tenses in describing the vanity of building and watching unblessed by God. "They" have built in vain, and watched in vain. He, as it were, places us at the point of time when the failure is developed, -the half-built house a ruin, the city sacked and in flames.
Psalm 127:2 deals with domestic life within the built house and guarded city. It is vain to eke out the laborious day by early beginning and late ending. Long hours do not mean prosperous work. The evening meal may be put off till a late hour; and when the toil-worn man sits down to it, he may eat bread made bitter by labour. But all is in vain without God’s blessing. The last clause of the verse must be taken as presenting a contrast to the futile labour reprehended in the former clauses; and therefore the beautiful rendering of the A.V. must be abandoned, though it has given many sweet thoughts to trustful souls, and none sweeter than in Mrs. Browning’s pathetic lines. But clearly the contrast is between labour which effects nothing, but is like spinning ropes out of sea sand, and God’s gift of the good which the vain toil had aimed at, and which He gives to His beloved in their sleep. "So" seems here to be equivalent to "Even so," and the thought intended is probably that God’s gift to His beloved secures to them the same result as is ineffectually sought by godless struggles.
This is no preaching of laziness masquerading as religious trust. The psalmist insists on one side of the truth. Not work, but self-torturing care and work, without seeking God’s blessing, are pronounced vanity.
The remainder of the psalm dwells on one special instance of God’s gifts, that of a numerous family, which in accordance with the Hebrew sentiment, is regarded as a special blessing. But the psalmist is carried beyond his immediate purpose of pointing out that that chief earthly blessing, as he and his contemporaries accounted it, is God’s gift, and he lingers on the picture of a father surrounded in his old age by a band of stalwart sons born unto him in his vigorous youth, and so now able to surround him with a ring of strong protectors of his declining days. "They shall speak with their enemies in the gate." Probably "they" refers to the whole band, the father in the midst and his sons about him. The gate was the place where justice was administered, and where was the chief place of concourse. It is therefore improbable that actual warfare is meant; rather, in the disputes which might arise with neighbours, and in the intercourse of city life, which would breed enmities enough, the man with his sons about him could hold his own. And such blessing is God’s gift.
The lesson of the psalm is one that needs to be ever repeated. It is so obvious that it is unseen by many, and apt to be unnoticed by all. There are two ways of going to work in reference to earthly good. One is that of struggling and toiling, pushing and snatching, fighting and envying, and that way comes to no successful issue; for if it nets what it has wriggled and wrestled for, it generally gets in some way or other an incapacity to enjoy the good won, which makes it far less than the good pursued. The other way is the way of looking to God and doing the appointed tasks with quiet dependence on Him, and that way always succeeds; for, with its modest or large outward results, there is given likewise a quiet heart set on God, and therefore capable of finding water in the desert and extracting honey from the rock. The one way is that of "young lions," who, for all their claws and strength, "do lack and suffer hunger"; the other is that of "them that seek the Lord," who "shall not want any good."