Unless our labours are directed by the Lord, our work is in vain, but if our labours are built by the Lord, many blessings will follow. This central psalm in the Songs of Ascents concerns building a house and building a household. Many ascribe this psalm to Solomon and others David. Numerous medieval Jewish commentators including the likes of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Radak assumed David authored this psalm regarding Solomon.[i] Solomon’s other name, given to him by Nathan was ‘Jedidiah’ meaning ‘beloved of the Lord’ (2 Samuel 12:25) and is likely alluded to in verse 2.[ii]
Building a house
In 2 Samuel 7, the Lord had given David a rest from his enemies all around. David considered the house of cedar in which he resided and thought of the ark of God dwelling inside tent curtains and desired to build a house for the Lord. Nathan the prophet initially encouraged him in his pursuit but later, on hearing from the Lord, explained that his son, Solomon, would build the temple. Solomon recognised that his appointed task to build the temple was ordained by the Lord (1 Kings 5:4-5; 8:14-21). Sadly even Solomon’s building, both literal and figurative became reckless (1 Kings 11:1-13),[iii]since he loved foreign women and built the high places for false gods.
There is a sobering warning given in this psalm, even when we labour for the Lord with good intentions. We may be involved in much spiritual activity and give ourselves to serving others through noble desires, but unless our labours are directed by the Lord and pleasing to Him, then our labour is in vain. Busyness, productivity, impressive statistics, and a full programme of events if engineered merely by human means is of no eternal benefit. This reminds us of how we should serve the Lord, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).”
Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. We must bear in mind the setting (the Songs of Ascent) and the immediate context is Jerusalem. Isaiah 62:6 reminds us, “I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; They shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the Lord, do not keep silent,”. Similarly Jeremiah 6:17 states, “Also, I set watchmen over you, saying, listen to the sound of the trumpet!” Again to Ezekiel, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me (Ezekiel 3:17).”
It is clear from the three examples above that it is the Lord that appoints watchmen. If we were to assume the role of a watchman having not been appointed by the Lord for that purpose, then our labour would be in vain. The Apostle Paul explains about how believers in the Lord should work unto Him. The judgement is with reference to the Bema Judgement (cf. Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10), note, this is not the Great White Throne judgement referred to in Revelation 20:11-15).
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).”
It is vain to burn the candle at both ends and eat the bread of sorrows (toil hard in labour, cf. Genesis 3:17, 19), for the Lord gives His beloved sleep. In Ecclesiastes 1:18, Solomon writes of much wisdom accompanied by much grief and increased knowledge with increased grief. He mentioned that much study is wearisome to the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). However he also delineated between things under the sun and things under heaven, pertaining to earthly wisdom and godly wisdom. Hence we should not use this as an excuse for slothfulness or a refusal to study, but ensure we pursue heavenly wisdom and work in obedience to the Lord. We should not get caught up in restless activity but labour in the Lord’s everlasting rest.
The first section closes with “For so He gives His beloved sleep”. Williams helpfully comments, “The argument of verse 2 is that God gives to His loved-one in sleep, treasures that men toil for early and late in vain. Thus he gave to Adam; when sleeping a bride, to Abraham a covenant, to Jacob a promise, to Solomon wisdom, and to Daniel the substance and interpretation of the dream which the Chaldean magicians toiled in vain to discover.”[iv]
Building a household
How are the two sections of this psalm connected? Radak thought that since ‘house’ may be a metaphor for family (2 Samuel 7:11) then the ‘quiver’ in verse 5 is probably a metaphor for the ‘house’ that is filled with arrows.[v] This seems to be fair interpretation considering that the godly midwives who spared the Hebrew boys had ‘households’ provided for them (Exodus 1:21). The Lord would set up a house and a kingdom through David (2 Samuel 7:16), which included His greater Son, Jesus the Messiah. In 1 Peter 2:5, Peter writes to the dispersion as believers and living stones, built up as a spiritual house. A tremendous blessing from the Lord are children which ultimately are given to us from Him.
In our labours for the Lord it is vital that we encourage our children and raise them in the ways of the Lord. Jacob recognised his children were a blessing from the Lord saying to Esau, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”. In Joshua 24:4, the Lord stated, “To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau”. A blessing to the Israelites was found in Deuteronomy 28:4 if they were obedient, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your body”. Are we teaching our children not only at the congregation but also at home in the ‘household’?
Children are compared with arrows in the hand of a warrior. Again we must consider the context. From the outset when David first desired to build the Lord a house (temple) he was given a rest from his enemies by the Lord. Children are a reward from the Lord and in that context they would have been useful in time for defending against their enemies, responding to enemies at the gate and building the city. Think of Nehemiah, who laboured bearing sword with one hand and working on construction with the other, so his men were simultaneously ready for battle and building.
Psalm 78 speaks of the Lord’s kindness to Israel even when they rebelled against Him. The Israelites were to tell the next generation of the wonderful works of the Lord so that in time that generation might come to know them and declare the same to the next generation. That would help to ensure that they would set their hope in the Lord and not forget Him (Psalm 78:1-8). Paul wrote to Timothy imploring him to commit what Paul had taught him to commit and teach what he had learnt to faithful men that they might in turn teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).
The psalmist declares, “Happy is the man who has a quiver full of them”. Happy means more than just content but ‘blessed’ and reminds us that children are a heritage and blessing from the Lord. Do we consider our children a blessing from the Lord and are we teaching and admonishing them in the ways of the Lord? Wiersbe writes insightfully. “It does no good to build a house and guard our houses and cities if there are no future generations to inherit them and keep the family, city and nation going.[vi]
[i] The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh (JPS, 2004; Oxford University Press), p1428
[ii] J. Flanigan What the Bible Teaches Psalms (John Ritchie Ltd, 2001; Kilmarnock), p560
[iii] Derek Kidner Psalms 73-150 Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1976; Leicester), p440
[iv] George Williams Williams’ Complete Bible Commentary (Kregel, 1994; Grand Rapids), p402
[v] Radak, cited in The Jewish Study Bible, p1428
[vi] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament in one volume(David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p1028