“Unless The Lord Builds The House” Psalm 127 April 10, 2011
I preached on Psalm127 seven and a half years ago.
In some ways that doesn’t seem that a long time—
but seven and a half years ago I was still in my thirties, now I’m in my mid-40s,
my oldest child was eleven, now she’s graduating from high school,
none of my children were teenagers, now they all are,
And the truths of this Psalm seem even more weighty to me now than they did then.
There’s a power and a poignancy in this Psalm that causes you to look at your life,
and the passing years, and the things you have worked for,
and realize just how much you need Jesus Christ.
INTRO: I want to briefly tell you about two men, two Americans,
who lived during the same time, who are both geniuses in their fields,
who were both tremendously successful—
but had very different views of their lives and successes.
You may remember me telling their stories when I preached on this Psalm last.
First was Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. Of course you recognize his name.
He was one of the most brilliant physicists
of all time. Born 1904,
And from earliest days distinguished himself by his intelligence.
He was the leader of the Los Alamos Project that developed atomic bomb.
Went on to lead the Institute for Advanced
which lead the world in the study of nuclear physics.
Oppenheimer was Jewish by birth, but in his personal religious faith he was an
agnostic and he found inspiration in the ancient writings of Hinduism.
In fact, he learned Sanskrit so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original.
In 1966, one year before he died, he said, “I am a complete failure.”
When asked about all his achievements he said:
“They leave on the tongue only the taste of ashes.”
Second man was another Robert, Robert Gilmour LeTorneau—R.G. LeTorneau
He was an inventor and engineering genius. Born in 1888, died in 1969.
He designed numerous heavy-duty earth moving machines,
the off-shore oil drilling platform, and the electric drive wheel.
He had patents on over 300 different inventions. His earth moving company
built huge projects all over the world. He made millions and millions of dollars.
And he gave it all away to missions.
For 30 years shared his testimony about the satisfaction and joy of serving Christ.
Every time he spoke he began by saying,
“Friends, I’m just a sinner saved by grace. Just a mechanic that the Lord has blessed.”
He and his wife are buried side by side on the campus of the school he started:
LeTourneau Technical Institute in
These two stories illustrate two different approaches to life presented in Psalm 127.
Psalm talks about building a house, about watching over a city.
That’s poetic shorthand for all endeavors of private life and public life
Building a house means everything in private life:
getting married, having children, work, finances, plans of household
Watching over a city means everything in public life:
work and plans in marketplace, in government, in school, in church
Psalm is about any endeavor of life in which a person says—
this is what I’m going to do, this is what I want to accomplish—
I want to get married, I want to have a baby, I want to get this degree,
build this business, achieve these financial goals, grow this church, anything.
Psalm says two ways all endeavors of life can be approached—
the Lord can build these things and watch over them,
or you can try to build these things and watch over them by yourself.
When the Lord builds, then things last for eternity.
When the Lord builds a family, or wealth, or a business, it brings Him glory.
And because it brings Him glory, it has eternal significance.
As a person cooperates with Lord’s building, and trusts the Lord,
and acknowledges his blessing, the Psalm says he blesses that person with sleep.
Sleep is a poetic way of saying—satisfaction, fulfillment, peacefulness.
But Psalm also talks about the house the Lord does not build,
and the city He doesn’t watch over.
It’s possible to pursue all the endeavors of life without acknowledging
any need for the Lord, without trying to bring Him glory.
A person who builds without God might accomplish great things
by the standards of this world, but nothing he builds lasts for eternity—
all his endeavors, private and public are vain, they are empty.
And the pursuit of these things—rising up early, staying up late, is also vain.
It’s the picture of person not sleeping, burning candle at both ends,
full of discontent, frustration, and anxiety.
Which will it be for you? A life of fulfillment or of frustration?
Do you want to be part of something that will last forever
or do you want to be part of things that are vain and empty?
Do you want to cooperate with the Lord as He builds and watches over
the endeavors of your life?
Or do you want to build and watch over things by yourself?
Do you want to look at your achievements and say:
“They Leave on my tongue taste of ashes.”
Or would you rather say: “I’m just a mechanic that the Lord has blessed.”
This is one of those Psalms that is easy to outline, just two points.
1. Building by yourself.
2. Building with the Lord. Which one will it be for you?
MP#1 Building by yourself
The preface says that this Psalm was written by Solomon.
There are only two Psalms that bear his name, the other is Psalm 72.
If you read commentaries written by modern scholars who are critical of the Bible,
they all say that Solomon didn’t write this Psalm. They argue Psalms 120-134,
the Psalms of Ascents, were written after the Babylonian captivity.
But there are three good arguments that this was written by Solomon.
First, the preface says so.
Second, there seems to be a concealed signature by Solomon in verse 2
where it says “He grants sleep to those he loves.”
It says literally, God grants sleep to “his beloved.”
“Beloved of the Lord,” Jedediah, was the personal name God gave Solomon.
Then the third reason, and the one I want us to look at in more detail,
is that this sounds like something Solomon would have written.
What book of the Bible does Psalm 127 sound like?
It sounds like Ecclesiastes. There is this repetition of the phrase “in vain.”
All building and watching and getting up early and going to bed late
without the Lord is “in vain.”
What’s the key word in Ecclesiastes? Vanity. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
It’s not the same Hebrew word, but the meaning is synonymous.
Both have the sense of doing something that is unsubstantial, passing, worthless.
These words have been translated—meaningless, empty, and a breath or vapor.
The book of Ecclesiastes is like Psalm 127 expanded.
In it Solomon explores what life is like if you write God out of the equation.
Solomon calls it “life under the sun.” Life limited to this world.
His conclusion is that no matter what you accomplish, no matter what you build
and achieve, if Lord is not in it, then it is vain—it’s empty and worthless.
If there ever was a man who could have found satisfaction through his own plans
and endeavors, it was Solomon. There was almost nothing to frustrate his plans.
He was not limited by money.
He was incredibly wealthy, not financially hindered in carrying out his plans.
He was not limited by intelligence.
He smartest man of his age. He had no lack of sophistication for grasping,
and understanding and enjoying things.
He was not limited by the civil law.
He was an absolute monarch. So he could virtually do as he pleased, and he did.
And he inherited a kingdom from his father that was strong and peaceful.
So he was not limited by having to focus on internal and external threats.
He didn’t have to spend his time, money and energies fighting for his throne.
Although, if you remember his story, the last decade of his life was full of
turmoil because of the bad decisions he had made.
But throughout the building decades of his life—we’ll say his 30s, 40s, and 50s—
there was nothing to stand in his way and he tried everything.
He planned and carried out great building projects.
It took him 13 years to build his palace. You can read details in 2 Chronicles.
He fortified a number of key cities. To this day archaeologists identify the
Solomonic gate as a unique design for city defense that appeared during his time
He planned business ventures with trade and shipping that brought goods
He pursued learning and expertise in every area that interested him.
He was conversant in all the ideas of the ancient near eastern world.
He did not deny himself any pleasure or luxury.
He had 300 wives, 700 concubines, numerous stables, the finest horses.
He achieved great power and popularity.
Chronicles says that rulers from all over the ancient world made their way
to his court to seek his counsel. The most famous was the Queen of Sheba
who came and sought his advice and said before she left that not even half of the
greatness of his kingdom and wisdom had been told her.
But when Solomon stepped back and looked at everything he had done and
accomplished, this was his verdict—“Vanity” “Meaningless” “Unsatisfying”
Solomon is a hard person to figure out. Because early in his life, he sought the
Lord’s guidance and help in everything he did. He prayed a lot.
He very publically gave God glory for the successes he achieved.
And he found great purpose in his early
work, especially building the
But it seems that as the years passed, and as Solomon became more and more
wealthy and powerful and successful, he began to build things without seeking
God’s wisdom, blessing, and glory.
He still knew all the right things about the Lord,
but he built his life and accomplishments by himself and without God.
But we also know, from 1 Kings 11, that his many foreign wives led him astray.
They worshipped the idols of the surrounding nations, and he loved them
and wanted to please them, so he built his wives shrines for their gods.
And he would go with them to their services. That had to be part of his problem.
In Psalm 127 Solomon echoes the verdict of Ecclesiastes.
If God is not watching and building, then everything is vain.
There is nothing lasting—so no true satisfaction and fulfillment.
One commentator put it this way:
“Like much of Solomon’s wisdom, the lessons of this Psalm,
relevant as they were to his situation, were mostly lost on him.”
That’s so sobering! Because it’s so easy to read this Psalm and think that the vanity
part only applies to unbelievers—only to the Robert Oppenheimers of the world.
That it only applies to people who have rejected Christ and embraced agnosticism
or materialism and who taste the bitter fruit of their godless philosophies.
And while that’s certainly true, don’t forget, this is a hymn of the church.
And it was written by a man who grew up in the faith and who early on
had a lively walk with God and then lost his way.
And after decades of pouring his energy into various projects he looked up
and said—I’ve been so wrong. I’ve left the Lord out of my work.
That’s exactly what 1 Corinthians 3 is about. Paul is specifically talking about
building a church. He says that you can build a church with gold, silver, and
costly stones, or out of wood, hay and stubble.
Your church work can be Christ-centered or you-centered, pastor-centered.
On the day of testing, the one will last and the other will be vanity.
That scares me. Because a great many of my works as a pastor I do in my own
strength and without prayer for God’s wisdom and glory.
But this doesn’t just apply to me. It applies to all of you whatever your calling.
How are you building? A great many of you are in the building decades of life.
Building your business, your practice, your wealth, your families, your homes.
At some point you are going to ask yourself—What have I built?
Be careful not to build in vain. Don’t go on year after year and then look back
with regrets and say—it’s so much wood, hay, and stubble.
And yes, I know I’m still saved, but what a disappointment that I built
on my own strength and without the Lord. It tastes a bit like ashes.
lovely Psalm is first a warning. Heed
the warning. Fear it.
Solomon doesn’t stop here, contrasts it with radically different way of life.
MP#2 Building with the Lord
That’s probably not the best heading for this point.
The way Solomon really puts it is being built by the Lord.
It means having God at work in every endeavor of your life, private and public.
Lord builds your house, watches over your city.
What exactly does this mean? What does it look like?
Let me give you four short statements to remember and ponder:
Trust Jesus, work hard, celebrate calling, love people—let’s consider each.
1. Trust Jesus
The Christian life starts with trusting Jesus for your salvation.
You know that already. You know that you can’t be forgive and know God
and have eternal life without putting your faith in Jesus and believing it’s all
his work and not your own.
A few weeks ago after the Wild Game Supper, some of the shrimp shells didn’t
make it in the dumpster, they were dumped beside one of the buildings.
And you know how fish and shellfish smells after sitting out overnight.
Yvonne came to me and said: Something smells awful. Who did this?
I think that most of you in this church are attuned to legalism.
It smells rotten to you when people start adding things to the Gospel.
When they say: You have to believe and do this or that to be right with God.
You push back against that and say: No, it’s all grace and faith in Jesus.
But remember that the default setting of your heart is works righteousness.
We are all recovering Pharisees as one well-known minister put it.
Here’s the question you have to ask yourself.
Am I trusting Jesus just as much for the endeavors of my life as I am for salvation?
Am I depending on the Lord for my marriage, family, work, school, finances,
for my education plans, my business plans, as much as I depend on him for
forgiveness and heaven?
Of course you aren’t trusting him as much as you should be.
Success and American lifestyle and busyness keep you from him.
Don’t fall into that trap. Trust him in everything.
At most basic level, it means you pray for his help in all your work.
Pray for your children, for your business.
2. Work hard
Trust the Lord.
Then work as hard as you can and do the best you can in the endeavors of life.
Once again, this is mirrored in our salvation. True faith is working faith.
If you are really a Christian, it means you will work hard to obey Jesus.
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in us
to will and to do according to his good pleasure.”
Then you have to bring this same approach to all the endeavors of your life.
To your workplace, your family. Am I trusting the Lord?
Am I making diligent use of all the talents, gifts, opportunities God has given me?
And notice something else in this Psalm.
God is a working God. He builds your house. He keeps your city.
He gives you children. He rested from creation, but ever since then he has
continued to work by his Providence.
There is a curse related to work because of the fall. Curse of work being toil.
But through Christ our work is redeemed. By working we glorify God.
Leads perfectly to the next point.
3. Celebrate calling
Notice what this Psalm celebrates. Not work in the Temple.
Not full-time church work. There are Psalms that celebrate that.
“Praise the Lord you who minister by night in the house of the Lord.”
There is a special honor to work in the worship ministry of God’s people.
But this Psalm celebrates building cities and raising families.
This is a glorious affirmation of the biblical doctrine of calling.
That means that in one sense, there is not a sacred part of your life and a secular.
All of your work, all your endeavors, are callings from the Lord to serve him.
That’s a glorious part of our heritage as Protestants.
The Medieval Catholic Church carved up life into two parts, two classes Christians
The spiritual estate/temporal estate, Christians divided into religious and laity.
Those Christians who were in the spiritual estate, referred to as religious,
priests and all those who had taken monastic orders (monks, nuns).
this spiritual estate was considered the high road of Christian life.
All other Christians were in the temporal estate, earthly, bound by time
these Christians referred to as laity, the temporal estate a low road
So, if a person really wanted to please God, live a spiritual life,
build things that would have eternal significance—only one way, become monk.
And many, many did—left ordinary lives, entered monasteries.
Luther, other Reformers rediscovered biblical teaching about callings.
All callings are from the Lord, all opportunities to glorify Christ.
Luther’s Christmas sermon, “Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God”
These shepherds do not run away into the desert, they do not don monk's garb, they do not
shave their heads, neither do they change their clothing, schedule, food, drink, nor any
external work. They return to their place in the fields to serve God there.
A great theme of Reformation, over and over. William Perkins, Puritan:
The work of a shepherd tending sheep is as good a work before God as is the action
of a judge giving a sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister preaching.
William Tyndale—burned at the stake, for translating Bible into English wrote:
In God’s eyes, there is no difference between washing dishes and preaching the Gospel.
What got into these men? What caused them to say such things?
extraordinary statements that it is not just preachers who have callings,
but all Christians do—dishwashers, laborers, housewives, judge, magistrates.
Rediscovered doctrine of calling.
Serve Christ in holiness in every place that he has called you to serve.
Part of being built by Lord, to be able to look at life and say—Lord is building.
Through callings as husband, father, church member, coach, business man—
I am bringing glory to Jesus Christ.
4. Love people
This is the point of the second half of the psalm—full quiver part.
A life that is built by the Lord will not so much be shaped by
accomplishments and possessions as it will be by relationships with people.
You will particularly be used to encourage and nurture fellow believers.
The primary example of this is the birth of children.
Solomon first points out that like every other opportunity in life, gift from Lord.
Then paints a poetic picture of children of believers as a quiver full of arrows.
Warrior sharpens them, makes them ready, so that when battle comes,
able to contend with enemies at the gate of the city.
Through calling of parenting that Lord uses to raise the next generation of believers
so that they become useful servants in Christ’s kingdom,
able to defend the cause of Christ with faith and love.
Parents, are you ministering to your children?
Not just physical, emotional needs, spiritual ones as well?
Utterly dependent on Christ to provide everything children need?
Are you diligent doing all Lord has called you to do regarding your children?
Do you pray with and for them? Teach them doctrines of holy religion?
Strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring up in nurture?
Life and example commend Jesus Christ to them?
Obviously, many Christians don’t have children.
Jesus himself did not have children, Paul didn’t.
As I said a moment ago, Solomon is illustrating a broader principle—
if your life is being built by Lord, it will always result in ministry to people.
Jesus did not have children—but twelve men poured self into, three of twelve.
Paul did not have children—but one man, Timothy carried on Paul’s legacy.
Consider the man I mentioned at the beginning, RG LeTorneau.
Greatest impact of life not earthmoving equipment, lives touched
directly through his generosity and indirectly through his example.
Is the Lord building your life? Who is feeling the impact of your ministry?
For many here hope you can say—my children.
Hope goes beyond that—through other callings—workplace, school, church—
there are people whose lives are touched by Christ in you.
CONC: JC Penny was a man devoted to building wealth.
“When I worked for six dollar
a week at Joslin’s Dry Goods Store back in
it was my ambition to be worth one hundred thousand dollars.
When I reached that goal I felt a certain temporary satisfaction,
but it soon wore off and my sights were set on becoming worth a million dollars.”
He and his wife worked hard to expand his business—she died of pneumonia.
“When she died, my world crashed about me. To build a business, to make a success in the eyes of men, to accumulate money—what was the purpose of life? What had money meant to my wife? I felt mocked by life, even by God himself.”
After wife’s death, number of setbacks until he was financially ruined.
In the depth of that valley, Lord dealt with JC Penny’s ambition,
self-righteous nature and love for money, came to faith in Christ.
“When I was brought to humility and the knowledge of dependence on God,
sincerely and earnestly seeking God’s aid, it was forthcoming, and a light illumined my being.
I cannot otherwise describe it than to say that it changed me as a man.”
Two ways of life, two ways to pursue all the endeavors of life—
to build for yourself and by yourself,
and to come to the terrible realization—it is all worthless.
Or to say—I want to build with the Lord and be built by the Lord.
Want Jesus Christ not only to save me, but to work through me,
touch every endeavor of my life—private and public,
all my plans, all my efforts—use them for eternal purposes,
to bring Him glory, and to minister to other people.
Though details of your life story will be completely different from
RG LeTorneau, JC Penny—essence will be the same,
satisfaction of knowing that you are doing work—
home, school, workplace, church that will last forever.