Psalm 127 Translation and comment

A song of ascents or degrees. For Solomon

Unless Yahweh builds the house

Its builders’ effort is empty;

Unless Yahweh watches over the city

The watchman’s work is wasted.

What a waste for you to wake up early and work till late

Eating the bread of sweated labour;

For God gives to his loved ones as they sleep.

So children are a heritage from Yahweh,

The fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the warrior’s hand

Are the offspring of your youth.

How happy the man with a quiver-full of them:

He will not be quelled when he argues

With adversaries at the city gate.

The problem with this psalm is how the very practical second half relates to the lovely wisdom of the first. Yet it’s entirely typical of Jewish faith, that trust in the care of God should immediately remind a poet of the divine gift of children, and that children should be seen as a resource for parents. The social power of a large family is hard to beat. We see that the “house” that Yahweh builds is also a household, and that the “builders” may be a husband and wife. Anxiety over building a viable family is tempered by trust in the one who gives quietly.

This wisdom may be a useful antidote to the frenetic hard work ethic of many families in today’s society.

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