A Blessed Life

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 1, 2023.

            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.

            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 (Psalm 127).[1]

Upon first reading this psalm, it may seem that Solomon has joined two unrelated topics into one. We are first warned of the vanity of our work and its resulting anxiety, followed by the described blessing of having children early and often. Why has Solomon combined these two topics into one psalm? The answer is found in Genesis.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gn. 1:1), and everything in them. There was a Word-spoken process on each day of creation, but the pinnacle of creation was neither the heavens nor earth but man. Creation was not geocentric nor biocentric but anthropocentric. Out of all of creation, it was only the human species of whom God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gn. 1:26):

            So God created man in his own image,

                        in the image of God he created him;

                        male and female he created them (Gn. 1:27).

But God did not create man without purpose or responsibility. He gave man the creation mandates of procreativity and productivity. God said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over [it] … (Gn. 1:28-30); and, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it” (Gn. 2:15). And so, the blessing of work and children was from the beginning.

It should not surprise us then that both were affected by the Fall. To the woman, through whom the earth would be populated, would come the pains of childbirth (Gn. 3:16). To the man, by whom the earth would be worked and kept, would come bread by the sweat of his brow (Gn. 3:17-19). So, the creation mandates of productivity and procreativity were impacted by the Fall, but it did not negate their continuation nor their intrinsic blessing.

The Blessing of Work

Genesis recounts, “on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested …” (Gn. 2:2), concluding creation but not his ongoing work. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (Jn. 5:17 NIV). In fact, his work includes sustaining even this very moment (Hb. 1:3). So, God works, and as we are made in his image, we were created to work too. Work then is a blessing from God. But sometimes work can feel like a curse.

Part of the problem can be the drudge of mindless and meaningless work that never engages our God-given talents. Work that engages our skill, intelligence, and knowledge can be satisfying. Like God’s gifting and commissioning of Bezalel and Oholiab to construct the tabernacle (Ex. 35:30-36:1), what we have, we received, and what we have received, God uses. Yet, even work that uses our gifts, even work we love, can weigh us down to the point of misery.

Consider the significance of the lyrically beautiful metaphor “the bread of anxious toil” (127:2). We pray to our heavenly Father for our “daily bread” (Mt. 6:11), and he provides. How? Of course, he could rain it down from heaven as he did for the ancient Israelites, but typically he provides through the blessing of work. But when the blessing becomes worrisome work, even bread can taste like a burden.

Some believe, like the Thessalonians did, that the answer is to give up, drop out, freeload, until the Lord calls us home. Paul’s words to those slackers were not subtle: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” (2 Th. 3:10). No, the answer to the problem of anxious toil is not sloth but glory, not ours but God’s.

Rightly does our Shorter Catechism begin, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[2] If the chief end of our work is our glory, whether justified as ambition, personal fulfillment, responsibility, or the like, it is in opposition to God’s design and will inevitably be accompanied by anxiety-ridden days and sleepless nights. This is not God’s gift for his beloved. On the contrary, Jesus tells us, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” And, he teaches us, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Mt. 6:25-33). What we see in both the birds of the air and the lilies of the field is dependence, not upon our own but the Lord’s provision. God is most glorified in us, when we are most dependent upon him.

For this reason, Solomon begins this psalm with the areas we are often prone to self-dependence: provision and protection.

            Unless the LORD builds the house,

                        those who build it labor in vain.

Has your work led you to believe that you are your own provider, the builder of your house. If so, you are sure to be worrisome and weary. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. Has your wealth led you to believe that you are your own protector, staying up all night guarding your world? The sage says,

When your eyes light on [wealth], it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven (Pr. 23:5).

If your sense of security is rooted in what you have accumulated, what will save you when it’s gone?

When we put our trust in the Lord as our provider, and depend upon him as our protector, it reorients our work. Admittedly, this isn’t easy in a world that rewards Godless self-reliance. As one pastor explains,

[As Christians] We really do believe that [God] is the central reality of all existence. We really do pay attention to what he is and what he does. We really do order our lives in response to that reality and not to some other. Paying attention to God involves a realization that he works.[3]

And because he works, we can too, casting all our cares upon him (1 Pt. 5:7). He works in our work that we may trust in his provision and protection. And in his provision and protection, we may truly rest, “for he gives to his beloved sleep” (127:2).

The Blessing of Children

The creation mandate gives the command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the purpose, “fill the earth,” and implies blessing. Solomon elaborates on this blessing: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD” (127:3). We are commanded to reproduce, but what God commands he gives, and what God gives is good, “the fruit of the womb” is not a curse but “a reward.” Solomon uses the word “heritage” or “inheritance,” conveying not only the immeasurable value of children but also the undeserved gift that they are, not to be taken for granted. No one merits or deserves children, just as no one merits or deserves an inheritance, but God gives them, or rather gifts them, according to his purpose.

This of course does not mean that a family is not a family without children. For reasons known only to God, a husband and wife may be unable to have children, often inexplicably, and this calls for wisdom. As one pastor cautions, “Fertility is not a matter of merit … [nor is God] punishing you if you can’t have children. Infertility is not a matter of demerit. God gives as he chooses, and fertility and infertility are in his hands.”[4] In the unknown, as in all things, we must trust the Lord as he gives or withholds.

But that the Lord gives doesn’t mean it’s easy. Just as God gives the blessing of work and work is often hard, so God gives the blessing of children, and as every parent knows, kids can be difficult. Raising children can often feel less like an inheritance and more like anxious toil (without sleep). This too requires wisdom, teaching us that duty and delight are two sides of the same coin. As one commentator observes, “it is not untypical of God’s gifts that they are liabilities, or at least responsibilities, before they become obvious assets. The greater their promise, the more likely that [children] will be a handful before they are a quiverful.”[5] Having children is hard work, expensive, can leave your house a mess and you exhausted, and make you wonder if they’re worth it. They are, but knowing it takes perspective and patience, both in short supply when we and our children are young.

Solomon teaches us to look beyond their childhood, curiously employing the imagery of warfare weaponry and a ready defense: Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth (127:4). How are children like arrows, and notably those of our younger years? It’s really quite practical: Having children when young means that they will be grown and helpful when you are old. As you age, your vulnerabilities increase, but by God’s design, there stand your children, like sharpened arrows. And Solomon says, the more arrows the better, a blessed quiver full.

This is of course so counter-cultural it may sound foreign even to some of us. As comedian (and father of five) Jim Gaffigan says, “Big families are like waterbed stores. They used to be everywhere; now they’re just weird.”[6] In a culture that is increasingly finding the Christian faith and the truth of Scripture just weird, the church must respond with resounding support of families, not only because children are God’s blessing but also because it’s his design. God created marriage as one man and one woman in covenant union before God for life. Within that union of marriage, the man and woman, if possible, will have children.

Often deleted today (I guess because it sounds offensive to modern ears), in the historic wedding ceremony of The Book of Common Prayer, the first reason for marriage is stated: “[Marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.”[7] How about that setting the tone for a wedding? (Dearly beloved, we are gathered together today so these kids can have kids!) Procreation within the bond of marriage is by God’s design, and it is both beautiful and a blessing. But when we reject God’s design, it has a ripple affect well beyond the family.

For example, consider not only the blessing but the necessity of having children. While the rallying cry for abortion was once the fear of overpopulation, according to the World Health Organization the threat today is underpopulation. In 2019, columnist Wajahat Ali gave a TED Talk titled “the case for having kids.”[8] The video went viral. It was as if few moderns had contemplated the interconnectedness of generations and the necessity of children for ongoing civilization. But he who wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ec. 1:9) also wrote,

            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 (127:5).

As it turns out, we didn’t need a TED Talk to tell us we need kids.

The city gate was the ancient locale for settling disputes. Should someone bring a charge against you, it would be dealt with at the gate, but at the gate stands behind you a quiver full of arrows, ready to defend and protect. Today, our enemies are often those unseen or overlooked, lurking just outside the gate, so to speak. In his book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last provides a few of these potential enemies: “an aging population, a shrinking workforce, a declining tax base, a decrease in technological and industrial dynamism, difficulty in finding a spouse, empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure, unfunded entitlements, and a general disquiet as more and more people get older and sicker with fewer people to care for them.”[9] Our enemy, as it were, is approaching the gate, and our defense is a quiver full of kids.

But the importance of children is not merely social—it’s spiritual. In a recent article, Kevin DeYoung argues,

Though individuals make their choices for many reasons, as a species we are suffering from a profound spiritual sickness—a metaphysical malaise in which children seem a burden on our time and a drag on our pursuit of happiness. Our malady is a lack of faith, and nowhere is the disbelief more startling than in the countries that once made up Christendom. “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven,” God promised a delighted Abraham (Gen. 26:4). Today, in the lands of Abraham’s offspring, that blessing strikes most as a curse.[10]

As the offspring of Abraham and as the church, we need to wake up to how the world easily deceives us, and we need to rally behind our young families, praying for them, encouraging them, and supporting them. Perhaps you could pray right now about how you could help our young families in our church? In what ways can you help care for our children? A truth that seems lost on many modern Christians, the biblical model for healthy church growth is not marketing but babies. We need to encourage our children to get married, to raise their children in the church, and to enjoy lifelong marriage and the blessing of children “so long as ye both shall live.”

The Blessing of God

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14). The analogy runs as an undercurrent through this psalm. We come not to the Lord as workers of anxious toil who have merited God’s favor but as children who bring nothing but need. He who is always working, worked on our behalf, becoming our eternal provision and protection through his life, death, and resurrection. And because of the work of Christ, we become children of God by grace through faith, gifts from our Father not our works (Ep. 2:8-9). And it is by God’s grace that we live out our faith in the blessed life he gives, working as unto the Lord, raising our children for his glory, and trusting always in his provision.

            Unless the LORD builds the house,

Those who build it labor in vain.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 1, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 355.

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 102.

[4] Rhett P. Dodson, Marching to Zion: Ancient Psalms for Modern Pilgrims (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 125.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 478.

[6] Quoted in Kevin DeYoung, “The Case for Kids,” First Things, no. 327 (2022): 32.

[7] “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” The Book of Common Prayer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 302.

[8] Wajahat Ali, “The Case for Having Kids,” TED, accessed December 28, 2022, https://www.ted.com/talks/wajahat_ali_the_case_for_having_kids.

[9] Quoted in Kevin DeYoung, “The Case for Kids,” First Things, no. 327 (2022): 30.


[10] Ibid.

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