Psalm 127

Psalm 127 is the only Song of Ascents attributed to Solomon. As such, it invites the reader to interpret the psalm in relationship to Solomon, the son of David, the one with whom Yhwh has made a covenant. As Psalm 132 makes clear, the Songs of Ascents are concerned with the welfare of the land, people, nation within the context of the promises made to David, and in the context of the Psalter (e.g. Psalm 72) and the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Kings). Here, Solomon complements David in portraying the messianic hope of the writers of the Hebrew Bible. As such, when Solomon speaks of the house, city, and sons, the Solomonic context is important.

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Like other Songs of Ascents that have been discussed, the author of Psalm 127 uses varying degrees of repetition and parallelism to highlight the theme of his song. Consider the repetition of the first two lines:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Verse 1 demonstrates not only repetition of vocabulary (“if Yhwh does not” and “in vain”) but also repetition of grammatical structures. Even though he shifts from “builds the house” to “watches over the city,” the poet still uses the same verbal forms complemented with a direct object. Similarly in the second half of both lines, the term for “in vain”—which is placed first in the Hebrew text—is followed by the same verbal tense and a participle. As such, v. 1 serves as a great example of the way the psalmists employ different types of poetic parallelism. But the important interpretive question is why the parallelism is used.

On the one hand, the repetition of vocabulary highlights an important element, which is the vanity of being part of a house or city that Yhwh has not had a part in building. Interpreted in light of the author, Solomon, the theological importance of this strategy comes clearly to bear, namely that the building of David’s house by any other means than with Yhwh’s help is useless.

On the other hand, the author also focuses on the one who builds and watches in vain. Even well-meaning efforts to build a house and watch a city are done in vain if done without the presence and power of the Lord. Yet, by bringing attention to those who build and watch, even though with vanity, the author prepares the reader for the next verses, which begin by returning to the same term “in vain.” As such, v. 2 demonstrates clearly what it means to live in this house in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Without the security of a house that Yhwh builds and a city that he oversees, Yhwh’s beloved is left with nothing but anxiety. But in contrast to the anxious toil of the one who has no recourse to Yhwh, Yhwh’s “beloved” sleeps well and with purpose. Yet, the hope of the beloved one is provided by Yhwh, the one who builds and protects the house. This is similar to the hope that David expresses in Psalms 3 and 4. Moreover, it is also similar to the hope of the Priestly Blessing that is echoed in v. 1 with the phrase “watch over” (literally, “keep,” as in “Yhwh bless you and keep you”). So again, Numbers 6 is being expounded upon within the context of the Davidic household. Recognizing the significance of Solomonic authorship and its impact on the theological interpretation of the psalm makes the difficult task of reconciling the rest of the psalm with its first two verses slightly easier.

The psalms transitions in v. 3 with “behold,” which is used several other times in the Songs of Ascents (121:4; 123:2; 128:4; 132:6). In each case, this small element intends to draw the attention of the reader. In this case, it also functions as a transitioning element to a new topic, namely the sons that populate the household. The importance and blessing of sons will be painted in several images.

Beginning in v. 3, leveraging poetic parallelism, the writer turns to the description of “sons” or in parallel “fruit of the womb” as “a heritage from the Lord” and “a reward.” The first image is that of an inheritance (or heritage), which is used often in the OT to describe the land that Yhwh gives to Israel. As such, children are something that are deeded over to the parents by Yhwh himself.

But at the same time, they are described as a “reward,” which is used of Abraham (Gn 15:1) and in the explanation by Leah of the name for Issachar (Gn 30:18). On the one hand, the term can refer to a payment or wage that is earned as a servant (Gn 30:28) or soldier (Ezek 29:18); on the other hand, the term insinuates more of a reward for faithfulness. Placed in parallel to heritage, the implication is that sons are a gift from Yhwh but at the same time are a reward for faithfulness. Thus, the inheritance imagery fits, for the land of Canaan was given over to the people as a gift by Yhwh while at the same time there was a level of faithfulness that was expected.

In relationship to the household of Solomon, this psalm implies that the children of the Davidic household are gifts from Yhwh within the context of a faithful household (as in the story of Ruth).

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Employing another analogy, the author describes in v. 4 the usefulness of these sons when they are described as “arrows in the hand of a warrior.” The sons of one’s youth are like implements of war that are wielded in battle. With such usefulness, the psalmist encourages the reader with the note that blessing is found when the quiver is filled with these arrows. A household of children brings blessing and a good reputation. Granted, the psalmist does not address the complexities of raising children. As was apparent even within the household of David, sons sin, rebel, and cause great commotion at times within even the kings household. Yet, Solomon is convinced that children are a source of great blessing and reputation.

As earlier, the psalm continues the connections to the Priestly Blessing by interpreting blessing (“Yhwh bless you and keep you”) within the context of the household, particularly within the auspices of the house of David/Solomon. Psalm 128 continues this pattern.

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