Don’t labour in vain


Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.
Psalm 127:1 (NIV)

Read:  Psalm 127:1-5

Consider: Who would have thought that God could cram so much into this very short psalm?  While it is only five verses, it teaches us about God’s place in building a career, development of business,  setting up a home and raising a family.

Interestingly I live in Edinburgh, Scotland and the city’s motto is NISA DOMINUS FRUSTRA, roughly meaning ‘Without the Lord, all is in vain’.  This is a heraldic contraction of Psalm 127:1.

The very first verse of today’s reading contextualises the remainder of the psalm.  It teaches us that without God, everything in life is meaningless.  This is also the message of Ecclesiastes, where the author relates their search for meaning and happiness in life through going after the world’s pleasures.  This all proves meaningless and the conclusion is that mankind can only find true happiness in God.

While businesses and cities around the world may vie with each other to be the best at some activity, this psalm tells us: Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain (127:1).  The phrase ‘builds the house’ could perhaps be taken to mean a home, or even a business.  God wants to be and deserves to be at the centre of a Christian home.  Likewise with a business, putting God first (even before profit) will have a dramatic effect on the perception of that business in society.

Notice that the writer of the psalm speaks of ‘… toiling for food to eat …’ (127:2).  The ESV renders this ‘… eating the bread of anxious toil’.  While it is important to enjoy the fruits of our labour, it should not be our primary motivation in life.  The image used by the psalmist is of someone spending a long day working (rising early and staying up late), not realising that sleep and rest are a blessing from God.  With the advent of things like the internet, e-mail and video conferencing software, some people find it hard to switch off and enjoy their time away from work.  Over the last few years and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were able to work from home, resulting in the time for work and rest being blurred.

The second part of the psalm (verses 3-5) concerns the perception we should have of children and how they fit into our lives.  The psalmist says: Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him (127:3).  This does not mean that those couples who are childless, have somehow not been deserving of this blessing from God.  The verse is aimed at those who have children, but yet do not value them correctly.  Link this to the earlier verse about working excessive hours (127:2), it gives a picture of a man or woman who puts career first, to the detriment of their relationship with their children.  It is often said: “You will never see written on a tombstone: I wish I’d spent more time at the office”.  

This short psalm is asking each of us to evaluate the key priorities in our lives.  Is God at the centre of our life (career, business, city or nation)?  Are we so bound up with achieving success, that our relationship with God suffers?  Do we value the time we spend with family more highly than time spent at work?  By all means enjoy the fruits of your labour, but don’t make worldly trappings of success your goal in life.

But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:20-21).

Pray: Father, we thank you for reminding us of what is important in life.  May we willingly devote time to you, seeking to put you first.  Help us also to value our families, seeking to show them what it means to be a Christ-like man or woman.  Amen

Every blessing

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