Stop! And Trust! (Psalm 127:1)
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. —Psalm 127:1
We seem to live in a uniquely unstable time. Protests rage around the globe. Climate change threatens our communities and our health. Even in the relative safety of our homes the next conflict on social media is always within arms reach. So much seems to have changed so quickly.
In the midst of all that insecurity, it’s a very human instinct to want to “do” something. One pastor put it this way:
We live in a time when more than ever before we speak and must speak of building and rebuilding. We ask ourselves how we can begin to become once more a rich, trouble-free, happy, and respected people. We work today as perhaps we have never worked before to achieve that goal as soon as possible. We all want to do our best to add our one stone to this building.
And while it wouldn’t surprise us to hear those words spoken from the pulpit last Sunday, they were actually spoken almost 100 years ago by a young German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1926, he looked at his country rebuilding from World War I, and on the threshold of the events that would lead to World War II, and he applied this week’s Fighter Verse.
In Bonhoeffer’s words this Psalm contains “judgment over all times of frantic building and over all times of secure possession.” As we face insecurity, as we are tempted to invest ourselves in frantic building, this psalm screams the warning, “Stop!”
In this verse, the psalmist provides a stern rebuke for those of us who like to act as if we’re in control. He describes two common things that people do—building a home and guarding a city—and says if the Lord is not in that activity, it is “in vain.” In the original language, this word describes lies and falsehoods. It is a lie to build a house or seek security without depending on God.
Theologically, we would agree with that. But in our experience we often see a contradiction. People who trust God lose their homes and see their security destroyed. And those who live lives of direct rebellion against God thrive. Their buildings last. Their cities are preserved.
God confronts this very contradiction in Malachi 3. Some people look at their circumstances and say, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?…Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape” (vv. 14-15b). It is not easy to serve God. It is not easy to act depending on His ultimate power and control.
The next verse in Malachi gives us the reason to live in dependence. When God seems absent, we need to hold our circumstances up to the light of eternity. Those who feared God were remembered by Him “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name” (v. 16b). Then God himself spoke and declared “They shall be mine…in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him” (v. 17). Those who live dependently are God’s special possession. They also receive another comfort earlier in verse 16, they are not alone—“they spoke together” (v. 16a).
As we face the uncertainty of life, as we build and guard, we do it knowing that we are dependent on our great and sovereign God. And even when we don’t see blessing in the moment, we know that we are not alone, that God does not forget and that we belong to Him.
When has it been particularly hard for you to depend on God?
Read the rest of Psalm 127, why do you think the Psalmist chooses sleep as the gift to contrast with “frantic building”?
In verses 3-5 the psalmist adds family to the categories of housing/wealth and security. Which of these areas is hardest for you to depend on God?
What steps can you take this week to depend on God in that area?
Quotes taken from “Sermon to the Preachers’ Seminar Berlin, Psalm 127” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditations on Psalms.