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 127:1-3 ESV)
Sometimes even in the pursuit of God, we can completely miss the point. This psalm reminds us of that: that even if we work our hardest, and even if that is to glorify God, without Him actually doing the work, it is all in vain.
Psalm 127 is contributed to Solomon. Solomon, the son of David, was instructed to build a temple for the Lord. This all starts with David in 2 Samuel 7 when David declares that he will build the Lord a house. He wants to do this because he feels that it’s wrong that he should have rest from his enemies and live in a nice cedar abode while the Lord dwells in a tent.
However, Yahweh tells his prophet, Nathan to relay this message to David: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ (2 Samuel 7:5-7 ESV)
Rather than David building God a house, it will be God who builds David a home, an everlasting kingdom through one of his descendants.
And so here we are, David’s son, Solomon, is building the temple that his father had wanted to erect for Yahweh. It will become a splendid creation, one that is remembered through the ages. And it is done to honor and glorify Yahweh. But as this Psalm reflects, even good work like this can go terribly wrong if done with “anxious toil.”
As a divinity student (and really as just a human being living in this fast paced Western culture), this psalm hit close to home. While I feel called to Beeson and know that my studies are a way in which to worship and glorify God, they can too easily become an idol. It is a steep and slippery slope from working diligently to working anxiously. Many of my fellow seminarians can attest to the early mornings and late nights and exhaustion seems to be the norm. I’ve had plenty of conversations with classmates about how sleep is low on the priority list during the semester.
However, this psalm declares that God “gives to his beloved sleep.” How is this? Come on, God, don’t you know that I have exams and papers and that I am doing this all for you? But are we really doing it for him if it is something which brings us anxiety? (Let me clarify I am speaking of general anxiety, not clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders). Are we trusting him to do the work? Are we trusting him that our identity is in him and not in whether or not we make all A’s or are the top of our class?
While I do not believe this psalm is saying that waking up early or going to bed late is inherently wrong, I do believe that it reminds us that if we do that trying to rely on our own strength, we will fail. We can only do the work through the power of the One who has created us. And we can remember that the need for rest, for sleep, is not a failing, but is a gift and a command from our Father. It is a beautiful and humble reminder of our limited nature that “it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100).
So as we go forth in the current vocations in which God has called us–whether that is as a student, a nurse, a mother, or even as a pastor–let us remember that is He who will build his own house, it is He who will accomplish his will through us. And let us embrace that he gives his beloved sleep and in Him we can find our rest.