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.
2 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.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
A Psalm for the Journey
This is a psalm of ascent, and all the psalms of ascent are related to pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. In Old Testament days, such a journey of worship required overcoming very real geographical difficulties to arrive at another place. We can hardly imagine the extreme heat and cold, the wind and rain, the moments the dust storm swirled up to slap against their faces. This was nature’s test of the worshiping heart. Although we have never experienced the difficulties of that journey to Jerusalem, those of us on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem also have our faith and worship tested by the reality of our travels.
Whether you are a young person just entering society or a middle-aged person who has experienced the ups and downs of the workplace, this is the perfect Scripture to respond to our current situation. The word “to build” makes us think of perspiring laborers on a construction site, and also of desk jockeys sitting behind their office computers, worried about performance and competition. It is likely that you are in a situation like this.
Once upon a time, I was inspired by inspirational self-help books on the workplace which preached a gospel of professional success. I thought that, as long as I worked hard enough, a rich life and financial freedom were only a matter of time. However, these two verses help us see that this focus is wrong. Scripture tells us, “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)
Look to the True Builder
The meaning of this passage is that your efforts may well be “in vain,” and all your building and labor may be useless in your life. This judgment is a great offense to those who work hard every day! We do not want our serious and diligent work to be proven worthless, even if our work is that of a preacher serving the church. This Scripture, though, is not denying your work or dedication. This Scripture is reminding us that everything we hold in our hands, everything that we believe to be the fruit of our own effort, is built by the Lord and is a result of his guardianship.
The world uses success, pride, busyness, and anxiety to resist or deny our Creator’s gracious and practical mercy and provision. We shape our identity on boasting of our busyness, and use our refusal to rest to show that we can completely rely on ourselves. Yet the Bible tells us all this is in vain, and is in fact a sign of unbelief in the Lord.
This psalm of ascent reminds us that, in our life’s journey of worship, work and the workplace can hinder our worship. Work is good because, in the book of Genesis, the Lord created placed man and woman in the garden of Eden, commanding them to cultivate and guard it. Yet the sad thing is: not only did sin take humans out of the garden, sin also caused people to work in a way that resists God and relies on themselves.
If your work makes you feel more prideful than ever; if your work causes you to feel overwhelming anxiety; if you are unceasingly busy, day and night, and have no time to rest – heed the wisdom of Scripture. Stop immediately, shift your focus, and look to the One who truly builds and maintains. He “gives to his beloved sleep.” In the Lord, you will find true rest.
Nathanael is a pseudonym for a young urban church planter who lives in eastern China.
You created the heavens and the earth, and lead us to rest. We give thanks to you. You are the Lord of work, and you call us into your own work. But sin has torn our relationship, and the attitude we should have toward our work.
We should be faithful and diligent in our work, and serve and worship you faithfully and diligently. Instead, we seek our own value by our own work. We forget to worship you, and work often takes your place in our lives. “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” We are often so worried and troubled. Lord, we ask you to forgive our sins!
Lord, too many young people on this earth have lost their way because of their work, making it their whole life. It has torn apart marriages and families, the intimacy between fathers and sons, and has separated believers from the worship they owe to you. The pandemic and the overall over-prevention of the zero-Covid policy has put the hearts of the people to a severe test of their reliance on self and work. Even still, not all of them can find true rest and rest in the gospel. We pray for you to heal the land through the unhindered proclamation of the gospel. Remove our idolatrous worship of material vanity; remove from us the bondage of comfort and ease so the good news of true rest proclaimed in the gospel may be spread.
We pray for the blessing and encouragement of those who work diligently, but we also pray they may understand that while it is their duty to be diligent, only in the hands of the Lord are they built up and made whole. May believers truly live out their commitment, and may we face today’s material life or turbulent times without fear. We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.