“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.”
Filled with rich and powerful images, Psalm 127 is one of the most familiar of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120—134), functioning for the community of faith in a variety of ways from the happy celebration of the birth of a child as the gift of God (v. 3), to reassurance and comfort in the face of grief and death (v. 2), to the instruction and guidance of civic or political leaders (v. 1). It is no wonder—and singularly appropriate —that Benjamin Franklin set these words before Congress as it began to draft a constitution for the United States of America1 or that John F. Kennedy in one of his addresses reminded the nation that without God's aid his labors were in vain and the nation could not be built or secured.
There is fairly widespread consensus that Psalm 127 is composed of two sayings of a wisdom character, one having to do with the vanity of building a house, protecting a city, and human toil without the Lord's power, the other affirming the blessing of God's gift of children. while some interpreters have regarded these two parts as originally separate and only artificially unified, the two sections are clearly held together in a unity that transcends the apparently different subject matter. At a surface level, they are bound together by their beginning with key words that have different meanings but the same sounds: bānāh, “build,” and bānîm, “sons,” “children.” Even more important, the “house” that is built in v. 1 must be related to the sons or children that are the heritage of the Lord in vv. 3-5. That can be seen by looking closely at the Psalm
1. R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (London: John Murray, 1904), 232.