Week 20

  1. Without the Lord, Frustration
    Psalm 127

The title of this post is the motto of the city of Edinburgh in Scotland and summarizes much of the message contained in this Psalm which was probably written by Solomon. It was a time when the household was the basic unit of economic production, it was the cornerstone of society and when Solomon refers to a house he may have been speaking about a family as much as a building. In time past it was not uncommon to refer to a family as the House of Abraham, or David, or in more recent times the House of Windsor or similar.


Solomon suggests that building a house is hard work, but no amount of hard work will be of any value unless God is the heart of the building. “Hard work can produce a large and beautiful house, but it cannot create a happy home. A zealous entrepreneur can create a successful business but cannot by work alone create a good life. Only God can make it all worthwhile.” (Theologyofwork.org). Solomon does not suggest that we do not work at building our house but that we make sure that God is the master builder.


A similar comment is made about protecting the city, which can also refer to the community. The watchman can stay up all night, but unless God is also on guard their efforts will be fruitless. In our societies we tend to rely on others for protection, that may be the police force, neighbourhood watch or some other agency, and in the case of loss or damage there is always insurance. But none of these are sufficient without God. God has determined now much work is enough, he scheduled a day of rest into his creative plan, there is no point in anxiously seeking more and more work if we neglect God’s purpose for us, we will just get more and more tired and probably irritable and of course our family will suffer. It is often said that at a funeral you will never hear it said that a loved one wished that the deceased had spent more time at work and not at home.


Children were a valuable component of the community in Solomon’s day and most families were anxious to have as many as they could. They were seen as a reward for faithfulness and an obvious blessing on the parents. Large families were not only a source of pride but brought greater economic benefit through increasing the workforce but also in providing dowries and alliances through marriage. Despite having 700 wives and 300 concubines there is only 3 children, a son and two daughters mentioned as part of Solomon’s family. In writing this he must have felt a keen disappointment. He mentions children born at the time of the parent’s youth as being particularly valuable. These ideas contradict much of values of modern society in which the size of family is carefully regulated so as not to interfere with economic capacity and lifestyle choices. In the days of Solomon it was usual for girls in their early teens to bear children, while today the average age of a first childbirth in Australia is 31.


As with building a house and protecting a city God expects to be Lord in the realm of child bearing and rearing. The social pressures that existed in Solomon’s day are different to our own and the need for large families is not as significant, but decisions about bearing children and how and when that should be are still matters in which God is keenly interested. Many decisions about family life are made without reference to God; where should we live, what sort of house do we want, how many children should we expect and how do we care for our older relatives, how much should we earn and where should we take our holidays for example. Except when things go wrong, then of course all of those issues inform our most passionate prayers.  God wants to be part of your life and work, he offers to guide, keep and protect you and make your life both valuable and meaningful – without him everything is like chasing after the wind.

  1. Who is building your house?
  2. When is enough, enough?
  3. Does God have a say in your family decisions?
  1. The Blessed Family
    Psalm 128

As the pilgrims headed up the mountain on the way to worship their minds turned to their families and homes. Already in the previous psalm they had reflected on their priorities and the foolishness of putting their work and material benefit at a higher level than their relationship with God. Now they thought about what a truly blessed family would be and what they needed to do to be part of one.


The Psalmist starts by saying that the key to a blessed life is to fear the Lord and demonstrate that by the way in which we live, the choices we make and the habits we develop. It is not our feelings that are in question here, it is pointless to talk about fearing the Lord if we act like he doesn’t exist. In the same way that if we say we love someone we will act in a manner that reflects it, so too if we have reverence for God our behaviour will show it.


The blessed man (or woman, (Proverb 31) will benefit from their hard work. The idea of work is not as a penance for sin but as a source of blessing. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:6: “The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.” And the Thessalonian church: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12). The manner in which we work reflects our relationship to God – he expects us to work hard, and be productive.


It was expected in the days of Solomon and David that people would marry and so references to families that included children were common in speaking of God’s blessing. We know that Jesus was not married and yet was the most blessed of all men and in his time there many who were single. God is not saying through the writer here that the only way to a blessed life was through marriage and a large family, but it was expected at the time the psalm was written. The fruitfulness of a wife is commonly associated with bearing children, but as Derek Kidner points out: “The vine was a symbol not only of fruitfulness but of sexual charm (Song of Solomon 7:8ff.) and of festivity (Judges 9:13).” The vine is set alongside the olive which represents children around the family table, the olive takes much longer to come to maturity and become productive.  They are both biblical symbols of abundant life. They are not basic and essential foods like wheat or corn. They symbolize rich blessing. In the context of the time, the picture given is of a large and happy family gathered around a table sharing in the best of produce. Many single people live a blessed and fruitful life that does not involve bearing children. The fruit of the Spirit is a blessing to all irrespective of marital stats or family circumstance.


The pilgrims were headed to Zion and this was the source of the blessing they hoped to receive. As long as Jerusalem prospered they could expect to share in its blessing. The blessing wasn’t temporary, long life was wished for so that grandchildren would also get to sit at the table and share in the abundance of God’s grace. There would also be a legacy left behind, a faithful family line would be produced to carry on the promises of God. The writer knew that if the people truly did fear the Lord, then his blessings would be obvious not just in their family but in their community as well.

  1. Is your highest priority to have a blessed life and family?
  2. How does your life reflect your reverence for God?
  3. Are you known in your community and workplace as someone who works hard?
  1. We have survived
    Psalm 129

The long journey taken by the pilgrims gave plenty of opportunity for reflection. While the expectation of what lay before them, a time of worship in a festival atmosphere, may have caused them to think of past victories, they instead focused on their struggles.


For emphasis the writer repeats himself, inviting the people to join him stating their grievance, but also declaring that they had survived! It has been suggested that the chief accomplishment of the Jewish people has been survival, from their beginning as a nation until now there have been other nations and peoples who have tried to eliminate Israel without success. Through all of the persecution they have suffered they have prevailed. Just as Israel could say its enemies had not prevailed against them we can say that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. In this psalm the writer speaks in the first person addressing Israel as “I”, passages including Jeremiah 2:2 refer to the time of Israel being in Egypt as the time of its youth.


The enemies of Israel are graphically described as plowing deep furrows in the backs of the people. The Hebrew word means to cut or engrave leaving evidence of the damage inflicted. There would always be reminders of the pain and suffering they had endured, but they were trophies reminding them of their deliverance. You too may be scarred by events of your past and you may be tempted to see them as wounds that define or disfigure you. They do not, they are evidence that you have survived, whatever caused the hurt has not prevailed, you are more than a conqueror through him who loves you.


The psalm writers don’t have problems with mixing metaphors and other writing conventions and he moves from the plough to the cords of the wicked. He may be referring to practice of binding prisoners as they are taken into captivity, but God set the captives free. The cords were not just untied they have been cut, they are no longer any use. The events of the past and the influence they may have had have been cut away, when Christ sets you free, you are free indeed!


The writer of this psalm wants the enemies of Israel to be turned back, unlike in other psalms he doesn’t seek their destruction or eternal condemnation, just that they be put to shame and disappear from the scene. The roofs of the houses were flat and made of clay, grass would sprout quickly but as there was no depth to the soil as soon as it got hot it would dry up. It was of no value, had no permanence and was good for nothing. One day it was there, the next it was gone. This is how the psalm writer pictured Israel’s enemies. They would come and go, but Israel would remain forever. The harvest was a time of blessing and the practice was that as the reapers met they would greet each other with a blessing (Ruth 2:4). This psalmist wanted the persecutors of Israel to be denied this blessing. These wicked men had nothing to bring, their arms were empty, all they had worked for was gone, and soon they would be too.


Life cannot be lived without leaving its marks on us, sometimes they are reminders of good things and sometimes they evoke painful memories. They all contribute to who we are, Israel is a resilient nation, it has suffered and yet prevailed, it is not bowed down and it is not defeated. Neither are you, Israel waits for its final redemption when it bows before the Son of God, but we have the privilege of being already redeemed by the blood of Jesus, by his scars we are healed and we wait in anticipation for his coming in glory.

  1. How to you view the scars of your past?
  2. Do you still feel bound be cords from the past?
  3. Are you blessed?
  1. Keep Humble!
    Psalm 131

When David was told he was going to be king one day he was a young man working as a shepherd. He was still young when he offered to confront Goliath and killed him in battle. It wasn’t long before he had made a name for himself and became the local hero, songs were sung about him, he got to eat at the King’s table and even married one of his daughters. His popularity became his downfall though. King Saul who previously relied on him and brought him in to his own family became Jealous and threatened by David and eventually did his best to kill him. Once he became king, David attracted a following but also a lot of enemies. He was strong, capable, and attractive but also used his power and position wrongly and arrogantly. He had to learn humility through testing experiences and sadly brokenness in his family and in the nation. This Psalm could have been inspired by a number of events in David’s life.


Edmund Chan is a well known pastor in Singapore who founded the Intentional Disciple-Making Churches (IDMC) Conference, “Back when he was 21 years old, Rev Edmund prayed: “God, use me! Use me to change the world!’” Then he heard the Lord say: “I will.” But the Lord had conditions: “I’ve given you speaking abilities, don’t go around the world speaking. I’ve given you writing skills, don’t write books. I’ve given you leadership skills to lead large organisations, don’t do that. I’ve given you a good mind, don’t go for your PhD. “Stay in obscurity.” How long, Lord? “20 years”, God said. Recounting the life-changing moment, he said: “Then He led me to the smallest church in the slowest growing denomination in Singapore”.  (Taken from www.saltandlight.sg) He joined a church of 17 in 1978 which now has a congregation of about 6000. But success didn’t come until after Edmund was 40 years old


Edmund Chan graduated from Bible College expecting to change the world, but God had a different pathway and Edmund was obedient. He did not “occupy himself with things too great and too marvelous for him” (verse 1). Our world is obsessed with celebrities and that world includes the church. Sadly, far too many pastors have been caught up in self promotion and the attractions of success. Churches are considered ‘successful’ if they have full auditoriums, large well appointed buildings with all the conveniences of entertainment venues, multiple pastors and great sound and light shows, and the pastor that brings these things is applauded and rewarded with status and wealth.


Paul the apostle was ambitious, he writes that he made it his ambition to preach the gospel (Romans 15:20) and that he and his colleagues made it their ambition in whatever they did to be pleasing to God (2 Corinthians 5:9), and then to the Thessalonian Christians that they should “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you’’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11). (In each of the passages the word ‘ambition’ is translated from the Greek word. which may also be translated as ‘strive’, ‘aspire’ or another word of similar meaning).


It is not wrong to set goals, be ambitious and achieve success, but the test is ‘for whose glory is it?’ Elsewhere Paul speaks strongly against selfish ambition and we must guard against it. David had to deliberately calm and quiet his soul. He was a driven man, he wanted success, power, status and the cheering of the crowd, but God needed him to be humble, contrite and content. Our world expects us strive for symbols of success but God says ‘Don’t conform to the pattern of this world…’ What are you ambitious for?

  1. How will you measure success in your life?
  2. What things do you think are right to be ambitious for?
  3. Have you ever had to accept lower pay or status so that you could serve God better? Would you?
  1. Finding a place for God
    Psalm 132

Although not stated this is probably a Psalm of Solomon as he looks back on the persistence and passion David had in finding a place for the ark of the Covenant and a dwelling for God. David made a vow to build a Temple for God and to put the Ark in it. For a long period the Ark was lost until after an extensive search under David’s direction it was found and placed in the Tabernacle, but David wanted it to have a permanent home.


David made a vow that he would not enter his own house until a suitable location was found for the Ark, in fact he said that he would not sleep until this task was complete. He is using poetic language here, just as we might when we say we won’t sleep until we have achieved something. We really mean we will work tirelessly and won’t be distracted until we accomplished our purpose. This was David’s intention.
David had a very elaborate palace that was built for him by Hiram, King of Tyre and once while he was resting in his house he decided that it was wrong for him to live in his lavish palace while the Ark of God’s presence resided in a tent. So he decided to build a temple, God however had other ideas and told him that while he was pleased with David, it was not him who would build it. The reasons that God gave at the time were that he had never asked for a Temple, had never had one and didn’t need one. Besides which David was a shepherd when he was called to be king, he had ruled the nation and accomplished great things, without the need for a palace. When he died God would build a house for David that would last forever and his son Solomon would build the temple. (2 Samuel 7) Later in 1 Chronicles 22 David explained to Solomon that he had been prevented from building the temple because he had shed too much blood in battle.


David had it in his heart to build a temple, a good and noble thing. Surely God would bless that work? But God said no. Sometimes we may assume that because we think something is a good idea that God wants us to do it, and we expect that if we just go ahead and do it then he will bless it. The assumption being that if he doesn’t want us to do it, or get that job or buy that house, then somehow it won’t happen. That’s not how it is supposed to work. God expects us to seek direction before doing something in his name rather than just presume that he will go along with it.


Much later when the second temple was being built the people who had committed to the task needed some encouragement so he sent the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to them to stir them up. Haggai in particular was very straightforward in his language: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways” he says (Haggai 1:4,5). He tells them that they had worked hard only to never have enough money, their harvests failed, they were hungry and cold and no matter what they did they couldn’t get ahead. It was if they earned money just to put it into a bag full of holes. The reason was because they neglected God’s house so they could live in comfort and luxury – they needed to have a good hard look at themselves and make some changes. They needed the heart and the motivation of David for God’s house but instead they were only interested in their own comfort.


David was committed to finding a place for God. Does he have a place in your schedule, is there time for the worship of God in your week, or in your budget. Is his house in ruins while you busy yourself with ‘more important things’?

  1. What things compete with God for space in your life?
  2. If God were to tell you to consider you ways -what changes would you need to make?
  3. David planned to do a spiritual thing but God said no, has that happened to you?
  1. A Blessing commanded
    Psalm 133

“Take notice” David says as he begins this psalm, or pay attention I am about to tell you something important. The question of how to be sure of God’s blessing was one that occupied the thoughts of the people of Israel frequently, now David was about to tell them there was a sure way to be blessed because God commanded it.


David begins by telling them that there was something that was good and pleasant. Now we know that not everything that is good is pleasant and not everything that is pleasant is good! When I was growing up I was told repeatedly that eating Brussel’s sprouts was good for you but I never once found them pleasant (apologies to those who have not shared the experience of Brussel’s sprouts, it was one of the components of an English school lunch). Equally spending an extra half an hour in bed, may be pleasant but not good for you, especially if it makes you late for work or an appointment. These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. What David is offering is both good and it is pleasant.


What was so wonderful that it would  be enjoyable and at the same time bring good things to the people of Israel? David announces that it is to dwell in unity. Throughout his kingship David had known division and disunity; when he was finally crowned king over all Israel at Hebron, the nation was for a while at least, one people. Now as pilgrims they were travelling together, as Willem Van Gemeren puts it: “they came from many different walks of life, regions, and tribes, as they gathered for one purpose: the worship of the Lord in Jerusalem.” It is important to notice that David didn’t say that when the people agreed together, or walked together, they needed to dwell, or live together in unity. It is when we live with one another that cracks in relations can emerge, it is easy to be in unity for a short time, but it gets harder when we share all of our lives in close relationship.


David describes this unity using two word pictures. Firstly he compares it to oil running down from the head into the beard of Aaron. This was the anointing oil that was used sparingly, but God’s blessing would be so abundant it ran onto the collar of his robes. Oil was also used in place of a perfume or deodorant for the people of the day. Fresh fragrant oil would be poured out on weary travelers to refresh them and to give them a pleasant and welcome aroma. Paul told the church at Corinth that they were to be a ‘sweet aroma of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2:15). A refreshed and pleasant smelling traveller would likely be a more welcome guest than one who was tired, dirty and smelly!


The second picture relates to Mount Hermon which was the highest of the mountain peaks, believed by some scholars to have been the site of Jesus’ transfiguration. It was always known as the sacred mountain.  While Zion was dry, Mount Hermon was capped with snow most of the year and besides the melting snow received abundant rain and benefited from large springs at its base. It was covered in dew even when the weather was dry so that it always green and moist. This was fertile land, a place of abundance and refreshing, just like it would be when fellow believers live in unity.


The blessing that God commands is life for evermore, it is commanded and it comes from him. God is not saying to try to get along and you will have a good time, but dwell in unity and I will command that you receive an abundance of blessing. In Ephesians 4 Paul writes that as believers we share one hope, one Lord, one faith and one baptism and that we should live in a manner that reflects that. If we do then God’s blessing is certain.

  1. What does it mean for Christians to dwell in unity (not just meet together)?
  2. Do you think your community sees you as a sweet smelling aroma of Christ?
  3. How hard is it to be one with people who are not like you?