To Love Psalm 127

After our third child was born we thought our family had found its natural limit. That was before we discovered there were ways to have children AFTER the wife has a total hysterectomy.

After the fifth was born and hauled home in our VW Vanagon, I joked that the proper translation of Psalm 127:5 was ‘blessed is the man whose Vanagon is full of them’. And suddenly, there was a sixth and an eight passenger van.

I joked. For many, this verse is no joking matter. It us the centerpiece of disappointing controversy and deep sorrow. And it is the psalm I preached on this past Sunday.

Psalm 127 can be dicey territory for a preacher. A friend knowing that I was heading into ‘quiver-full’ territory emailed me, “I hate that quiver-full verse. I cringe every time I read it.” It’s no wonder she would. An entire industry of guilt has arisen around it.

In the sermon (which you can hear here when it is posted) I did not address directly the ‘have-as-many-babies-as-you-can’ corruption of the psalm that some have made popular. I was not avoiding it. It’s just that this is NOT what the psalm is about. The psalm is about the rest that comes to those who belong to God, which makes the guilt inducing application of the psalm particularly troublesome to me. Along the way, I made these interpretive points:

  1. Just because a text mentions a thing does not mean that the text is about that thing.
  2. This psalm is about blessing, not command.
  3. This psalm is not about how we do a thing, but how we view a thing.

The application of the psalm is in verse 2: God grants rest. He grants rest through his justifying us in Christ. In Christ, we are blessed. In him we find sleep without restlessness because what matters most to the wandering soul is to know he has a home and that he is at peace with God.

The fallen human impulse is to seek to justify ourselves, to seek to make ourselves somehow worthy in the eyes of those who matter to us: parents, employers, friends, the world, God. We find what matters to those we wish to please, and we try to provide the success, talent, looks, money, houses, children, or whatever else is the currency of justification in order to gain the acceptance we crave. But that is all vain – for what matters is not what we do but who we are, and we are, through Christ, his. Rest only comes when we embrace that. That is what the psalm is about.

The reference to children in this psalm is not the application of it, but an illustration of the point that the things we think we produce to earn favor we can never produce. They, like success, security, and whatever else we crave, are a gift from his hand. This passage is NOT about children. It is about rest, relief from the agony of self-justification.

We are told that children are a blessing and that it is therefore imperative that genuinely godly people not do anything that would limit the blessing of God. That is the guilt trip mapped out for couples who consider limiting the size of their families.

Of course children are a blessing. So are, in this psalm, houses and security. So are, elsewhere, food on the table and crops in the field. We set limits on blessings all the time. We are not animals acting upon impulse and bound by biology. We are men and women created in the image of God. We have wisdom; we understand prudence.

A large or small family is not an emblem of godliness in either direction. Every couple must exercise wisdom and prudence in these decisions, and they are best made with good counsel in a healthy community. I will in fact remind couples who are making these decisions to think carefully about the anti-child bias of our culture that we as Christians easily imbibe. But there is no biblical mandate commanding every or any couple to have as many kids as the wife’s body can produce.

To impose one vision of ‘the good-life’ and to invoke spurious biblical justification for it is deeply irresponsible. It causes people who love Jesus and who want with every fiber of their being to glorify him in every area of their lives, like my friend, to battle a guilt they need never feel.

That a psalm written to encourage rest becomes ‘cringe-full’ multiplies the tragedy. I want to reclaim this psalm for the exhausted who need rest. That would be just about all of us.

The Psalm in the Middle

Many psalms enter the brokenness of life and give vent to human anguish and confusion. And these usually, somewhere, all breathe a final breath of hope. There is always hope. In every psalm, that is, except Psalm 88.

Psalm 88 knows nothing but despair, the pain of rejection, the darkness of the unknown. It is the black hole of the psalter, sucking into itself everything that is dark and refusing the emission of light.

The psalm is so dark that some read it with no pleasure. It is a strange world to them. But to others, it is a place of refuge because it gives expression to emotions previously unspoken. To these, Psalm 88 feels like the world in which they live. It is a bleak world, stripped of hope and light, but it is familiar because it is their world. Here is just a taste of that world:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88:14, 18)

With such unrelenting words the psalm becomes the friend who can say for us what we dare not say ourselves. It says what we might be shocked to find that we are feeling, and assures us we are not alone. There is comfort in that.

Psalm 88 therefore joins us in the dark and gives us a voice. But Psalm 88 never shows up alone.

To get to Psalm 88, we have to trip over Psalm 87.

Glorious things of you are spoken,
O city of God.
(Psalm 87:3)

And from Psalm 88 we can glimpse Psalm 89 on the far side.

I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever;
with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalm 89:1)

The question “Why” is the question of the heart that is so battered it cannot imagine enduring another blow. It is the question of Psalm 88 that receives no answer. But those unanswered questions are asked of a God whose favor, obscured, invisible, questioned, and doubted, is no less real. The inexplicable pain of life in the valley of death’s shadow exists in the context of the ineradicable promises of God’s favor and life.

Psalm 88 leaves us with no hope, and for that I’m grateful, for it feels much more real. But hope is still here, standing guard, on either side, for this is the psalm in the middle. And someday, those who feel at home in the darkness will lift up their eyes to see what lies on either side. And that will be a good day.