YEAR B: PENTECOST 23
November 8, 2009
Psalm 127 is another of the ‘Psalms of Ascents’, Psalms 120-134. We looked at a few of these psalms earlier in the year (Psalm 126, Advent 3; Psalm 130, Pentecost 4 and 10; Psalm 125, Pentecost 14; Psalm 124, Pentecost 17). We will look at Psalm 132 on the Feast of Christ the King. See the comments on Pentecost 4, 14 or 17 for some general remarks on the collection of ‘Psalms of Ascents’.
Psalm 127 belongs in the middle set of psalms (Psalms 125-129) within the larger collection of ‘Psalms of Ascents’. This middle set relates to a time when Israel has settled in the promised land and faces new difficulties there. While Psalm 125 is a psalm of trust, Psalm 126 considers the time ‘when Yahweh restored the fortunes of Zion’ (v. 1), although the Hebrew could be translated more directly in terms of the return of the exiles to Zion. The psalmist longs for further restoration and looks to a time of great blessing and fertility (cf. Ps. 107.33-42).
The psalm set for this week lies at the centre of this set. Psalm 127 is connected to King Solomon. The reference to ‘building the house’ (v. 1) suggests this but it also implies that the ‘house’ is the temple. Without the Lord’s aid, this task especially is in vain (v. 1). But this is also a dictum that applies to all of life (v. 2). The psalm goes on to speak of the blessings of the Lord in terms of children declaring the man who has lots of sons ‘happy’ (v. 5). The large number of children is also relevant to Solomon in a number of ways but it could refer to the Davidic dynasty which ran through him, i.e. lots of sons in terms of descendants on the throne. The allusion to David’s line in the psalm is what makes the connection to the reading from Ruth.
This psalm may not sit neatly in our own thinking about faith in the 21st century. The connection with David sets the psalm in an ancient time. The reference to having many children is at odds with most modern family situations, especially when what lies behind the sentiment of the psalm is the fact that the economic survival of the family was dependant on having many children. The emphasis on ‘sons’ in v. 3 and on the happiness of the man in the family (v. 5) gives the psalm a very male oriented character. Finally, the military imagery in v. 4 brings a tone uncomfortable to many.
All of the above may make the psalm a distant text and one which promises little for the preacher. But we should not forget the basic point at the start of the psalm, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (v. 1) The psalm invites this principle to be applied to a wide range of circumstances. Verse 2 certainly rings true in our modern context. The vanity of ‘anxious toil’ is something we all experience in a work and goal oriented world. But just what does it mean that ‘the Lord builds the house’? And what would it mean to wait upon the Lord as another Psalm of Ascent puts it (Ps 130:5-6). These are matters which the preacher could explore with the congregation in their context. Another line might be for the preacher to link the psalm more closely with the reading from Ruth. This week’s story about Ruth and Naomi, their survival in what is a foreign place for Ruth, their deception of Boaz, and the Lord’s final blessing of the situation, raises many questions about the relation of human activity, even what might be deceptive activity, to ‘the Lord’s building the house’. The preacher could explore in some depth the relation of divine activity in the world and human endeavour. The story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz suggests that human planning and forethought can be important in times of hardship etc. But at what point does that planning turn into ‘anxious toil’ that becomes vain? And what are the limits of relating human activity to divine work when the former may not always seem ‘acceptable’? There is plenty here to delve into.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
The options for the use of this short psalm in worship, especially with its seeming antiquated attitudes to family etc., are limited. However, the use of v. 1 in both the call to worship and as part of the final blessing is a timely call to faith for the congregation. In the former the verse could simply be recited followed by ‘Let us worship God’. In the latter it could be adapted slightly as follows:
Unless the LORD builds the house,Old Testament Reading: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
And now may the blessing of the one
who builds for us and who guards us,
of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be upon you now and forever.
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