Psalm 127 – “Wisdom Homily”

lt354Hebrew-English Text

I. Summary
Psalm 127 contains two pieces of wisdom: the first communicates the necessity of God’s cooperation in order for human endeavors to succeed, and the second extols the benefits of having male children.

II. Photo

V. 1 says that “unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it.”

III. Outline
1a. Superscription
1bc. Didactic statement
2. Exhortation
3. Didactic statement
4. Simile
5. Beatitude

IV. Comment
Psalm 127, which is found amongst the 15 shir hama’alot psalms, is one of the two psalms attributed to Solomon (cf. Ps 72:1). The reason for this unusual superscription might be the fact that Solomon is credited with building the first temple in 1 Kings 5-6;8, and v. 1 mentions “building a house.” Yet, scholars such as Gerstenberger view the superscription as a “late theological interpretation”; the “house” mentioned in v. 1 refers to building a family, not the temple. Let us now see why.

Verse 1 speaks of both a house and a city. While there are many places in Tanach where the words “house” and “city” serve as synonyms for the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Jer 26:6,9,12; 1 Kings 8:44,48), all those occurrences have the definite article hey. This means that they speak of “the house” and “the city” as opposed to “a house” and “a city.” It seems unlikely that verse 1, which lacks the definite article, would be speaking of the house (i.e. the temple) or the city (i.e. Jerusalem). Rather, it is likely speaking about a regular house and a regular city, and its message is simple: human endeavors can only succeed with God’s approval.

What does the first part of the psalm have to do with vv. 3-5 which praises those who have male children? It is possible that the “house” in v. 1 refers to a “family,” much like the references to “houses” and “building” in Gen 16:2; 30:3; Ps. 113:9 and possibly Ex. 1:21. Thus, the psalm’s second lesson is intertwined with the first: the benefits of progeny can only come about with God’s blessing. The theology behind this lesson can be seen in Gen. 30:1-2: ”When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” This passage shows how children were viewed to be God’s gift.

The form and meaning of psalm 127 is closely related the genre of “Wisdom.” For instance, the message and vocabulary of vv. 1-2 can be found in Prov. 10:22, “It is the blessing of the LORD that enriches, and no toil [‘etzev, as in our v. 2] can increase it..” The basic structure of v. 1 is also related to Eccl. 10:10-11. Yet, the question arises, “what is wisdom literature doing in the psalter?” While Allen considers this psalm somewhat of an anomaly, Gerstenberger points out that “didactic instruction” can be found interspersed throughout other genres, especially hymns (e.g Ps 33: 16-19). It therefore seems likely that Psalm 127 had a cultic setting like most – if not all – of the psalms. It was probably recited by a leader in a congregational setting.

The beatitude in v. 5 requires explanation: “Happy is the man who fills his quiver with them [i.e. sons]; they shall not be put to shame when they contend with the enemy in the gate.” While the quarrel at the gate might be a militaristic reference (which would fit well with “defending a city” in v. 1), it is most probably referencing a local dispute (we know from elsewhere that the city gate was a place where judicial disputes were settled ). It likely means, “the man who has many sons is less likely to be taken advantage of,” as opposed to the widow or orphan who had no family to protect him (cf. Isa 1:23).

V. Important Verses
v. 1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain.”