Literary Classification, Outline, Historical Background or Setting
Psalm 127 is classified as a Wisdom Psalm, which usually teaches a moral or spiritual lesson, or both, about a life well-lived in communion with God.1 In particular, Psalm 127 teaches that, ultimately, “the Lord is responsible” for every successful activity or undertaking of human beings and that, whether they are aware of it or not, they are dependent on him ‘in every phase of life.”2 It takes the humility of wisdom to realize that in life itself, nothing worthwhile is accomplished by human effort alone. Whatever human activity is of value is due, ultimately, to the grace of God.3 In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “all that we have accomplished you [God] have done for us” (Isaiah 26:12b, NIV).
The psalm may be outlined as follows: The Value of Labor or Human Work, verses 1-2, and the Value of Family-Life, verses 3-5.4 The content or subject-matter of Psalm 127 is not connected with any kind of concrete, historical setting, but rather with a general lesson about life, labor, family and living in spiritual communion with God.5
The Value of Labor or Human Work (verses 1-2)
What the Psalmist Does Not Mean by “Vain”
Sacred Scripture teaches that there are two kinds of meaning. The first kind is secular, that is, of or related to the world. In other words, there is a daily, here-and-now, temporal meaning to life. There is also a sacred kind of meaning; one that belongs to religion. That is to say, there is an Ultimate Meaning to life, which is related to an Ultimate Being, namely, God.
The psalmist mentions three kinds of labor in verses 1 and 2: Building a house, guarding a city and tilling a field.6 The poet has in mind, though, any kind of undertaking or building, any human endeavor. By “vain”, the biblical poet does not mean nihilism. As Viktor Frankl, the “philosopher” of meaning, writes, “Nihilism … states that everything is meaningless;”7 that existence or “being has no meaning;”8 that, ultimately, life is nihil, “nothing.” Nor is the poet teaching that for a person who does not believe in God, life is meaningless. The non-believer still lives in God’s world, which is invested with all kinds of meaning by God the Creator. Life itself is a gift from God, whether a person believes in God or not.9
Therefore, in verses 1 and 2, the psalmist is not saying that having a job to provide an income for oneself or one’s family is useless, a waste of time, without any value whatsoever.10 On the contrary, work or human labor is a gift from God. For example, from the very beginning of human existence, even before the Fall – the sin of the first human couple and its negative consequences on the world – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). Work, therefore, is willed by God for human beings. As Koheleth or the author of Ecclesiastes says,
“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This, too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, NIV).11
Therefore, work, human labor, fulfills a person, giving his or her life meaning, even if that person does not attribute such meaning to God’s design. That is to say, humans, even without believing in God, can know the value of the effect, namely, labor or work, without believing in its cause, namely, God.
The Meaning of “Vain”
What, then, does the psalmist mean by “vain?” Two things. First, apart from a personal relationship with God, daily living by faith in the Creator, work, as good or as wonderful as it may be, leaves a person with the sense that something is incomplete, lacking in his or her life. Second, without God, that is, without his blessings to “crown” human activities, no kind of work could ever succeed.
The God-Invested Value of Family-Life (verses 3-5)
The psalmist teaches that children and family-life have meaning. They are good in themselves, being gifts from God. As the poet says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (127:3, NASB). For instance, when Joseph’s father, Israel, saw Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “‘Who are these?’” (Genesis 48:8b, NIV). Then Joseph answered his father, “They are the sons God has given me” (Genesis 48:9a, NIV). Similarly, when Boaz had conjugal relations with Ruth, the Moabitess, Sacred Scripture says, “the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13b, NIV). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah says to his people, “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me” (Isaiah 8:18a, NIV). Thus, for the psalmist, children are not merely biological material; nor are they things, objects, that their parents possess. Rather, children are human beings, sacred persons.
The family is God’s creation. The poet teaches that as parents become old, children are to parents what arrows are to a soldier in war, providing protection to the family (verses 4-5).12 God designed the family to be a community of persons, loving and being loved, supported and being supported, by each other. That is why family-life can be meaningful. As with work or human labor, even if such meaning is not ascribed to God, nevertheless, it comes, ultimately, from him.
Therefore, the psalmist, while recognizing the value of temporal, here-and-now or day-to-day meanings of a person’s life, such as work and family-life, presupposes that there is a meaning that is even higher than the temporal meanings of life, namely, an Ultimate Meaning. It is a meaning which gives greater meaning to all other finite meanings in life.13 Such a meaning is related to religion or faith in an Ultimate Being, namely, God. Of course, life itself is a great good. But life in spiritual communion with God is even a greater good. It is the summum bonum, because a person is spiritually related to God, the “Highest Good.”
1 Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one book in two volumes, Vol. I., p. 599.
2 John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol. 3, in The Way of Life Series, no. 133, ed. J. D. Thomas (Abilene, TX.: Biblical Research Press, 1974), p. 93.
3 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms (Nashville, TN.: Miller Publications, 1976), p. 64.
5 William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), p. 793.
6 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms, op. cit., p. 64.
7 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152.
8 Ibid., p. 131.
9 Cf. Ronald Allen, “Living Life to the Full,” Moody Magazine, January-February, 1998, pp. 29, 30.
10 William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, op. cit., p. 794.
11 For the theme of the value and enjoyment of human life, cf. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.
12 John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol. 3, op. cit., p. 93.
13 Cf. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 47. “Ultimate Meaning” is similar to Tillich’s “ultimate concern.”