Except the Lord build the house ; rather, a house ; i . e . any house whatsoever. They labor in vain that build it. They will effect nothing—no house will be built. Except the Lord keep the city; rather, a city. The watchman waketh but in vain . Human watching is of no use unless accompanied by Divine watching.
The blessing of God.
The psalm is in keeping with that prevalent piety which led the devout Israelite to trace God's hand in everything, and ascribe both good and evil, both joy and sorrow, to his directing power.
I. UNBLESSED LABOR .
1. We can do nothing at all without the Divine co-operation. We constantly depend on the presence of his material, on the action of his laws, on the activity of the forces he keeps in play. We all recognize this in agriculture; that it is vain for the husbandman to sow his seed, unless God sends his rain and wind and sunshine, etc. It is also true of our other occupations. The sailor and the builder depend on the constancy and regularity of Divine laws and forces. We are always assuming their existence, though we may think nothing of their Author.
2. We can effect nothing without the Divine permission. If God means that the guilty city shall fall, the watchman will wake and the soldier will fight in vain. If God intends to humble a man whose pride needs to be brought down, his utmost exertions in his trade or in his profession will not bring success. Many a man has found, as he at first thought to his cost , but as he afterwards knew to his great advantage , that when God's wise and faithful providence is against his prosperity, he wakes early and works hard in vain. But how much more blessed is he in a corrective adversity, than he would be in a hardening prosperity! We do well to ask that God's blessing may wait upon and crown all our activities; we do well, also, to remember that it may happen that, for our own sake, God will not grant us our desire in the form of temporal success.
3. We find no blessedness in a prosperity which is not hallowed by devotion. It is a vain thing for a man to strive hard and to attain the immediate object of his pursuit, if he is not making his life a life of holy service. Even if the bread he eats is not "bread of sorrows" in the sense that it is scanty, yet it will be such in the sense that it yields no abiding joy; for it is abundantly clear that a life of even prosperous labor, apart from the service and without the friendship of God, selfish and earthbound, is a life of dissatisfaction and practical defeat. The springs of pure and lasting joy do not rise on that lower ground.
II. NEEDLESS ANXIETY . "It is vain that ye rise up early," etc.; "for he giveth to his beloved in sleep and without labor, 'so,' i . e . just as, even as to those who vainly harass themselves with labor and think not of him" ('Speaker's Commentary'). To those who serve God and are beloved of him he will grant sufficiency, though they do not turn labor into hard toil, but take the rest they need. It is not godless struggle, but reverent activity, that attains the goal and receives the prize of happy life. The two elements of success are
III. THE FULNESS AND OVERFLOW OF DIVINE BLESSING . "So he giveth to his beloved in sleep."
1. What great things God does for our bodily well-being in sleep! Every night he lays his restoring hand upon us, refreshes us, renews our muscular and mental powers, gives back to us the vitality and strength which had been exhausted. Every morning we owe to him a "new song" of praise.
2. What great things God does for us in the outside world during our unconsciousness! Our Lord reminds us that, while we are otherwise occupied, " night and day," the seed we have sown springs and grows, we "know not how." Many things God does for us when we are as unconscious of his action as if we were "in sleep." It is an unseen hand, working with such silence that no ear hears the sound, that is carrying on those wonderful operations by which he " satisfies the wants of every living thing."
3. What great things he does for us in the human world in which we take no part! His hand was working and overruling in all the toil and strife of the nations of the earth, leading the world up to, and making it ready for, the great advent of the Redeemer. Unknown to us, while we are practically "in sleep," he is directing all our strife and all our labor to a beneficent result.
4. We are hoping that God will make our past life effective for good in many hearts and through many generations when we "fall on sleep." When our body rests in the grave, the influences he enabled us to exert in life will, under his gracious guidance, be telling and bearing fruit. To those who love and serve him now he will give the blessing of the workman whose labor is producing and reproducing long after he has left the field.
IV. THE BLESSING OF PARENTAGE . (See next psalm.)
The builder's psalm.
Our ignorance of the exact reference of this psalm enables us to apply it, as perhaps otherwise we might not be able, to all builders whatsoever. Four such seem to be pointed at here.
I. THE TEMPLE - BUILDERS .
1. We know that this was one of the solicitudes of the returned exiles—to uprear again the temple of the Lord. And in the books written after the return from Babylon we read about this and the difficulties they had to encounter, and the success they at length achieved. Continually they needed to remember that "except the Lord build," etc.
2. And in the gathering together the living stones which are to form the Church of God , how we need to remember this same truth! Her builders are perpetually tempted, and some are all too prone, to try other methods in this work than those the Lord employs. We are apt to rely on wealth, eloquence, learning, talent, and all other such things, and to forget that it is the Lord alone can really make our work successful.
II. THOSE OF THE CITY . ( Psalms 127:1 .) Jerusalem is doubtless meant, and, surrounded as she was by relentless and ever-watchful foes, the sentinels and guards needed ever to be on the alert. But again the same reminder comes in. And it does so still. This is the age of great towns and cities, of municipal corporations who naturally and properly take pride in the cities over which they are placed. They cannot but know how much depends upon wise administration and rule, on the sagacity and wisdom which the citizens can supply. And they who know the history of municipalities know how eager corruption and vice are to assert their power. And often it seems that to pander to them would help on the city's prosperity. But the city-builders need to recollect the truth of this psalm. What is all man's wisdom apart from God?
III. THE BUSINESS . ( Psalms 127:2 .) "Our house," "our firm,"—these are well-known expressions for business associations—how many are hard at work to build such houses? And in the keen competition of the day, how difficult this often is I what temptations are on every hand, by tricks of trade, by what is called smartness, to get on, it matters not much by what means. How many succumb to such temptations, and try to keep one conscience for Sundays and quite another for weekdays! They have little faith in what this psalm says, "Except the Lord," etc. Their faith is in strenuous hard work, rising early, sitting up late, eating the bread of toil, and so to win rest and repose for themselves. But it is not so, the psalmist declares; for all that toiling and moiling is "vain;" the Lord giveth to his beloved that which they need without all that restlessness and anxiety; their souls repose in him; he keeps them in perfect peace. Let the Lord, then, be the predominant partner in every firm; so shall the house be built.
IV. THE HOME . ( Psalms 127:3-5 .) People marry, and then begins the upbuilding of the family. What strenuous exertion does many a father put forth for the sake of his family! If the children be numerous, the parents are often very slow to appreciate the congratulations of these verses (3-5). The reason is that they are counting most precious for their children what the Lord scarcely counts precious at all. Of course, only a fool would despise secular advantages for his children, if they may be had; but infinitely more important for them is the grace of God possessing their hearts. Then no real ill can come to them, but eternal good shall be their portion.—S.C.
The God of the family life.
"These pictures are mild and bright; humanizing are they in the best sense: they retain certain elements of Paradise, and yet more the elements of the patriarchal era, with the addition of that patriotism and of that concentration in which the patriarchal life was wanting. The happy religious man, after the Hebrew pattern, possessed those feelings and habitudes which, if they greatly prevail in a community, impart to it the strength of a combination which is stronger than any other; uniting the force of domestic virtue, of rural, yeoman like, agricultural occupations, of unaggressive, defensive valor; and of a religious animation which is national as well as authentic and true" (Isaac Taylor). It is well to note that the very first associations of human beings over which God presided took the form of family life. Of Adam it is said, "which was the son of God," so the first relation of humanity was a family relation. When Adam and Eve had a child, earth held its model relationship—it had a family group. The patriarchs were but heads of families. The nation of Israel was Jehovah's family. And Christ came to restore for humanity its Divine family relationships. Man organized for himself fictitious social and citizen relations. Man made towns, governments, kings. All who are concerned in the welfare of humanity realize that everything depends on the healthy maintenance of family life. Napoleon was asked what could be done to restore the prestige of France. At once he replied, "Give us better mothers."
I. GOD INTERESTED IN FAMILY LIFE . The "God of the families of his people," he is called. The interest belongs to his own paternity; and we can partly realize it as we think of our interest in our children's children. It is possible to exaggerate in presenting God's interest in the individual . The plea for a family religion and a family altar is based on God ' s family care and blessing.
II. GOD WORKING IN FAMILY LIFE . Using its associations, cares, and mutual services for his work of character-culture. The commonplaces of family life only gain their dignity when God is seen to be using them; and the anxieties of family life become endurable when we feel sure that God is overruling. The Divine training of character for the life that is coming, by sanctifying family experiences, needs to be much more fully considered than it is.
III. GOD WORKING THROUGH FAMILY LIFE . That is, working his great work for humanity through the witness of family life. There is no mightier force used by God for securing the redemption of the race.—R.T.
The true city watchman.
"Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." This would come home very forcibly to the restored exiles if, as we may well assume, the psalm was written before Nehemiah restored the walls of the holy city. Then the only protection of the city must have been the vigilance of the night-watchmen, which never could be depended on. And yet the city containing God's people was absolutely secure; and would have been as secure if no watchmen had ever paced their ordered rounds. Their God was their defense. In older days, foes gathered round, but they never broke in, unless God gave them a commission of discipline or judgment. The restored exiles were surrounded by active enemies, and exposed on every side. But it did not matter. The fiat of Divine love and power held them in strictest restraint. Scheme they might, but they could not overpass Jehovah's limits, "Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further." The truth may be illustrated in all those human arrangements for mutual safety which have for their type the city watchman, and which we call national and local government. So elaborate is man's device for securing the liberty of the person, the safety of property, and the health of the family, that there is grave danger of losing all sense of needing God. Indeed, God in city life is but a sentiment. And yet we remove his direct relation from the various forms of human association at our peril. Be it government, or socialistic self-government, "unless the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." Very remarkable is the way in which man's civilization brings mischief as well as good; and his seemingly perfect schemes leave loop-holes for the entrance of desolating evils. This may be illustrated from city sanitary schemes, and from the prevalence of particular types of diseases, and from the masterful spread of epidemics such as' influenza. It may be shown that the true preservation of a city is an immaterial matter as well as a material ; it is as closely related to morals and religion as to safety for property, healthy houses, and pure water. And if it could be so—which it cannot—that we succeed in separating God from the material, no one can delude himself with the idea that God is not concerned with the moral and religious. So, after all, it must be God who "keeps the city."—R.T.
The Divine Builder.
(For the opening or reopening of a church.) "Except the Lord build the house," etc.
I. OUR DEPENDENCE UPON GOD FOR ALL REAL PROSPERITY .
1. Consider the material of the house we are building . "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" "Ye also as living stones , are built up a spiritual house," etc. The spiritual temple dwarfs the most magnificent material cathedrals.
2. The Divine implements employed on the building . Spiritual men working with Divine truths—the gospel—to build up a spiritual edifice. But some conditions to be remembered.
II. HOW DEPENDENCE UPON GOD MAY BEST BE PROMOTED .
1. By the most strenuous spiritual effort on our part . This no paradox; for the more we aim to do for God, the more shall we feel the need of God to give us true success.
2. By constantly thinking of the greatness of his work , and the littleness of our faculties in relation to it . Men succeed in grand material enterprises and intellectual achievements—construct mighty bridges and steam-engines—and write magnificent books and poems; but to win men to Christ a good life is the most arduous work in life, demanding the highest inspirations of the mind.
3. We must realize the spirit of dependence by the constant help of prayer . To know the value of work we must put ourselves forth in constantly renewed endeavor; but our highest work can be sustained only by the help of the devoutest prayer.—S.