Psalm 128: The Prosperity of Jerusalem

Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.

– Psalm 128:4 (ESV)

As Michael commented last week, Psalms 127 and 128 form a duo of “household songs” within the Psalms of Ascent.  Psalm 128 is a short song celebrating the blessedness of “everyone who fears the LORD” (verse 1), focusing especially on how that blessedness shows itself in covenant family life.

Psalm 128 progresses simply from a brief statement of truth (verse 1) through colorful illustrations (verses 2-4) until it crescendos into an explosive coda (verses 5-6)… taking us from beatitude to blessing.

The first part, verses 1-4 could be classified as wisdom literature, much like the book of Proverbs.  It simply states facts: everyone who fears the LORD is blessed… and here’s how.

The second part, verses 5-6, is a prayer that these matter-of-fact blessings of verses 1-4 would be specifically applied to “you.”  I like to imagine the Hebrew pilgrims heading to Jerusalem for the feast gleefully singing the words of verses 5-6 to each other in the midst of their families.

Psalm 128 encapsulates what it looks like to live a blessed life.  It follows the typical chronological progression of a life lived within God’s covenant: vocational blessing (verse 2), marital blessing (verse 3a), filial blessing (verse 3b), all the way unto generational blessing (verse 5).

A few exegetical comments to add flavor:

  • Describing a wife as “a fruitful vine” (verse 3a) not only brings to mind fertility and sexual blessings, but also the joy of marriage and companionship, which gladdens the heart like wine.
  • Describing children as “olive shoots” (verse 3b) brings to mind the need for cultivation (they’re just shoots) but also the potential and excitement in watching them grow before you into strong and fruitful trees.

This is a picture of life with the right priorities.  The blessings don’t center on wealth, power, or fame.  There’s no promise of easy money or an early retirement (if any retirement at all); rather, there’s a promise of laboring with your hands (verse 2).  Yet this is the blessed life, for it is a life lived with God at the center.  The fear of the LORD (the reverent attitude that focuses on His glory) guides the blessed man’s life.

Someone who lives thus, with the fear of the LORD as his guide, has two great prayers that prompt the closing benediction: the prosperity of Jerusalem (verse 5) and to see his children’s children (verse 6).  Everyone who fears the LORD wants to see God’s Church thriving – and his own progeny thriving with and in it.

This is a positive psalm to read and sing at weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, at any family event.  But it also contains a challenge: what are your greatest desires?  How do you define a blessed life?  The answer isn’t money, ease, or high living.  Psalm 128 radically confronts our culture’s view of “the blessed life” and redefines it with an eye to worship and work, the Church and the family.  That’s the life of true peace and blessedness.

270, “Blest the Man that Fears Jehovah”

Overall, number 270 is a solid entry in the Psalter Hymnal.  The rousing and familiar tune (GALILEE/JUDE) well reflects the joy and contentment of Psalm 128.

It takes some liberties with the text.  For instance, verse 3a, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” becomes stanza 2,

In thy wife thou shalt have gladness,
she shall fill thy home with good,
happy in her loving service
and the joys of motherhood.

Talk about poetic license!  Not only is any “vine” imagery missing, but there’s whole clauses of interpretation and commentary added!  On the other hand, it is a beautiful thought and reflects the application (if not the words) of the text decently.  With selections like this, I wish that we could have two selections for Psalm 128: one that faithfully represents the text of Psalm 128, and one like number 270, that is perhaps more whimsical in its paraphrasing.

One other sticking point is the awkward changing of “Blessed is everyone” to “Blest the man.”  Number 270 individualizes the application of the psalm to one representative man, whereas the text of Psalm 128 combines both a corporate and an individual sense.

Other than its excursus on motherhood in stanza 2, number 270 does stay quite faithful to the text of Psalm 128, even admirably keeping the “olive plants” imagery extant in stanza 3.  It really is an excellent selection overall, one that is well-loved by many and is quite suitable as a reminder and blessing for many occasions within the life and worship of the church and within the life and worship of our families.


1 Response to “Psalm 128: The Prosperity of Jerusalem”

  1. 1 Psalm 134: Two-Way Blessings « URC Psalmody Trackback on January 28, 2013 at 7:05 am

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