Unless the Lord the house shall build,
The weary builders toil in vain;
Unless the Lord the city shield,
The guards a useless watch maintain.
Within the group of Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), Psalms 127 and 128 form a sub-category of what might be called “household songs,” panting a beautiful picture of a family that fears the LORD and walks in his ways.
Psalm 127 opens with three mighty declarations that fly in the face of all the world’s priorities:
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.
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.
–Psalm 127:1,2 (ESV)
Busyness seems to be such a prominent characteristic in modern American families. School, sports, jobs, vacations, and a host of other activities keep us on our toes almost every waking moment of the week. But a household built on busyness will ultimately crumble—because no amount of everyday “stuff” can give meaning to life.
Further, we often use busyness to keep ourselves distracted from fear and worry. As pictures of our ever-present anxiety the psalmist describes a city watchman staying awake in vain and a busy family member “eating the bread of anxious toil.” This too cannot create a healthy family.
In this context, the psalmist’s three big statements are incredibly refreshing. The LORD builds the house. The LORD watches over his people. The LORD gives us rest from fear. Like the writers of our Catechism, the psalmist declares that a believing family can have true comfort if their trust is in God.
Psalm 127 then transitions to a description of the most significant blessing that the LORD bestows upon the righteous family—children.
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
Throughout the Scriptures we see examples of the godly rejoicing in their children as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to them. Indeed, procreation is part of the creation mandate of Genesis 1—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” What a blessing to fulfill this promise and behold God’s provision!
269, “Unless the Lord the House Shall Build”
The Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 127 is excellent, with a balanced blend of accuracy and poetic liberty. If I were assigned the task of revising this version I might be tempted to substitute another two-syllable adjective for “stalwart sons” in the fourth stanza, to avoid any possible misconceptions of this word choice. The only oddity in this setting occurs in the very last line, where “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” is versified as “No enemies by him are feared,/No lack of love, no want of care.” Merely reworking that line, nevertheless, would make this a nearly immaculate text.
ILLA, the tune, is a typical (and solid) Lowell Mason offering reminiscent of other tunes like HAMBURG (“When I Survey”). It requires no extraordinary vocal or instrumental feats; indeed, the only thing that needs attention is the speed—I like a tempo just a bit faster than 60 beats per minute.
Perhaps the most obvious use of number 269 in worship would be as a response to a baptism. But don’t be afraid to use it in other settings as well, especially when focusing on the ever-present problems of busyness and anxiety. How comforting it is to be reminded that “God gives to His beloved sleep.”