In the first verse of Psalm 127 Solomon puts into beautiful simplicity the most important truth upon which a marriage, family, and all that pertains to them depend: "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain."
The devil, the world, and our sinful nature do not want us to believe we can trust God to provide "all that we need to support this body and life" - as we confess in the Small Catechism regarding the First Article of the Apostle's Creed.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean?--Answer.
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
And again as we confess in the meaning of the Forth Petition of the Lord's Prayer:
Give us this day our daily bread.
What does this mean?--Answer.
God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all wicked men; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.
What is meant by daily bread?--Answer.
Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
This is what Christ is explaining to us in the Sermon on the Mount when He says:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. "
In what follows, Luther masterfully unpacks and explains what God wants us to understand from this simple first half of verse 1 of Psalm 127. It is an even further explanation of what we as Lutherans confess we believe according the above passages from the Small Catechism. If you keep this understanding about life on this earth firmly in your mind, you will live in the faith that gives a peace that the world cannot give. Here is Luther:
Solomon composed this psalm. Not only was he enlightened by the Holy Spirit, but as he daily exercised his administrative functions and mingled with people, he learned from frequent experience how vainly unbelief burdens itself with worries about feeding the belly, when in fact everything depends on God’s blessing and protection. For where God withholds his blessing, we labor in vain; where God does not protect, our worry is futile. And he speaks thus:
1a. Unless the Lord builds the house,First we must understand that “building the house” does not refer simply to the construction of walls and roof, rooms and chambers, out of wood and stone. It refers rather to everything that goes on inside the house, which in German we call “managing the household” [haushallten]; just as Aristotle writes, “Oeconomia, ” that, is pertaining to the household economy which comprises wife and child, servant and maid, livestock and fodder. The same term is used by Moses in Exodus 1[:20–21], where he writes that God dealt well with the two midwives and “built them houses” because they feared him and did not strangle the children of the Israelites; that is, he helped them to obtain husbands, sons and daughters, and enough of whatever goes along with keeping a family. Solomon’s purpose is to describe a Christian marriage; he is instructing everyone how to conduct himself as a Christian husband and head of a household.
those who build it labor in vain.
1b. Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
2. It is vain that you rise up early,
sit up late,
and eat the bread of sorrow;
for to him who enjoys his favor,
he gives while he sleeps.
3. Lo, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb is a reward.
4. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
so are the children of youth.
5. Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them;
They shall not be put to shame
when they speak with their enemies in the gate.
Reason and the world think that married life and the making of a home ought to proceed as they intend; they try to determine things by their own decisions and actions, as if their work could take care of everything. To this Solomon says No! He points us instead to God, and teaches us with a firm faith to seek and expect all such things from God. We see this in experience too. Frequently two people will marry who have hardly a shirt to their name, and yet they support themselves so quietly and well that it is a pleasure to behold. On the other hand, some bring great wealth into their marriage; yet it slips out of their hands till they can barely get along.
Again, two people marry out of passionate love; their choice and desire are realized, yet their days together are not happy. Some are very eager and anxious to have children, but they do not conceive, while others who have given the matter little thought get a house full of children. Again, some try to run the house and its servants smoothly, and it turns out that they have nothing but misfortune. And so it goes in this world; the strangest things happen.
Who is it that so disrupts marriage and household management, and turns them so strangely topsy-turvy? It is he of whom Solomon says: Unless the Lord keeps the house, household management there is a lost cause. He wishes to buttress this passage [Ps. 127:1a] and confirm its truth. This is why he permits such situations to arise in this world, as an assault on unbelief, to bring to shame the arrogance of reason with all works and cleverness, and to constrain them to believe.
This passage alone should be enough to attract people to marriage, comfort all who are now married, and sap the strength of covetousness. Young people are scared away from marriage when they see how strangely it turns out. They say, “It takes a lot to make a home”; or, “You learn a lot living with a woman.” This is because they fail to see who does this, and why He does it; and since human ingenuity and strength know no recourse and can provide no help, they hesitate to marry. As a result they fall into unchastity if they do not marry, and into covetousness and worry if they do. But here is the needed consolation: Let the Lord build the house and keep it, and do not encroach upon his work; the concern for these matters is his, not yours. For whoever is the head of the house and maintains it should be allowed to bear the burden of care. Does it take a lot to make a house? So what! God is greater than any house. He who fills heaven and earth will surely also be able to supply a house, especially since he takes the responsibility upon himself and causes it to be sung to his praise.
Why should we think it strange that it takes so much to make a home where God is not the head of the house? Because you do not see Him who is supposed to fill the house, naturally every corner must seem empty. But if you look upon Him, you will never notice whether a corner is bare; everything will appear to you to be full, and will indeed be full. And if it is not full, it is your vision which is at fault; just as it is the blind man’s fault if he fails to see the sun. For him who sees rightly, God turns the saying around and says not, “It takes a lot to make a home,” but, “How much a home contributes!” So we see that the managing of a household should and must be done in faith—then there will be enough—so that men come to acknowledge that everything depends not on our doing, but on God’s blessing and support.
We are not to understand from this that God forbids us to work. Man must and ought to work, ascribing his sustenance and the fullness of his house, however, not to his own labor but solely to the goodness and blessing of God. For where men ascribe these things to their own labor, there covetousness and anxiety quickly arise, and they hope by much labor to acquire much. But then there is this contradiction, namely, that some people labor prodigiously, yet scarcely have enough to eat, while others are slower and more relaxed in their work, and wealth pours in on them. All this is because God wants the glory, as the one who alone gives the growth [I Cor. 8:6–7]. For if you should till the soil faithfully for a hundred years and do all the work in the world, you couldn’t bring forth from the earth even a single stalk; but God without any of your labor, while you sleep, produces from that tiny kernel a stalk with as many kernels on it as he wills.
Solomon here wishes to sanction work, but to reject worry and covetousness. He does not say, “The Lord builds the house, so no one need labor at it.” He does say, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” [Ps. 127:1a]. This is as if he were to say: Man must work, but that work is in vain if it stands alone and thinks it can sustain itself. Work cannot do this; God must do it. Therefore work in such manner that your labor is not in vain. Your labor is in vain when you worry, and rely on your own efforts to sustain yourself. It behooves you to labor, but your sustenance and the maintenance of your household belong to God alone. Therefore, you must keep these two things far apart: “to labor,” and “to maintain a household” or “to sustain”; keep them as far apart from one another as heaven and earth, or God and man.
In the Proverbs of Solomon we often read how the lazy are punished because they will not work. Solomon says, “A slack hand causes poverty, but industrious hands bring riches” [Prov. 10:4]. This and similar sayings sound as if our sustenance depended on our labor; though he says in the same passage [Prov. 10:22], as also in this psalm [127:1], that it depends on God’s blessing; or, as we say in German, “God bestows, God provides.” Thus, the meaning is this: God commanded Adam to eat his bread in the sweat of his face [Gen. 8:19]. God wills that man should work, and without work He will give him nothing. Conversely, God will not give him anything because of his labor, but solely out of His own goodness and blessing. Man’s labor is to be his discipline in this life, by which he may keep his flesh in subjection. To him who is obedient in this matter, God will give plenty, and sustain him well.
God sustains man in the same way he sustains all other living creatures. As the psalm [147:9] says, “He gives to all flesh their food, and to the young ravens which cry unto him” Again, in Psalm 104, “The eyes of all look to thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and fillest every living creature with blessings,” that is, with fullness and sufficiency. Now no animal works for its living, but each has its own task to perform, after which it seeks and finds its food. The little birds fly about and warble, make nests, and hatch their young. That is their task. But they do not gain their living from it. Oxen plow, horses carry their riders and have a share in battle; sheep furnish wool, milk, cheese, etc. That is their task. But they do not gain their living from it. It is the earth which produces grass and nourishes them through God’s blessing. Christ himself, in Matthew 6[:26], bids us look at the birds: how they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns; yet they are fed by God. That is, they perform their tasks all right, but they do no work from which they gain sustenance.
Similarly, man must necessarily work and busy himself at something. At the same time, however, he must know that it is something other than his labor which furnishes him sustenance; it is the divine blessing. Because God gives him nothing unless he works, it may seem as if it is his labor which sustains him; just as the little birds neither sow nor reap, but they would certainly die of hunger if they did not fly about to seek their food. The fact that they find food, however, is not due to their own labor, but to God’s goodness. For who placed their food there where they can find it? Beyond all doubt it is God alone, as he says in Genesis 1[:29–30], “Behold, I have given to you and to all creatures every growing plant for food.” In short, even if Scripture did not teach this directly, experience would prove it to be so. For where God has not laid up a supply no one will find anything, even though they all work themselves to death searching. We can see this with our eyes, and grasp it with our hands; yet we will not believe. Again, where God does not uphold and preserve, nothing can last, even though a hundred thousand fortresses were thrown up to defend it; it will be shattered and ground to dust till no one knows what has become of it.
Tell me: who puts silver and gold in the mountains so that man might find them there? Who puts into the field that great wealth which issues in grain, wine, and all kinds of produce, from which all creatures live Does the labor of man do this? To be sure, labor no doubt finds it, but God has first to bestow it and put it there if labor is to find it. Who puts into the flesh the power to bring forth young and fill the earth with birds, beasts, fish, etc.? Is this accomplished by our labor and care? By no means. God is there first, secretly laying his blessing therein; then all things are brought forth in abundance. And so we find that all our labor is nothing more than the finding and collecting of God’s gifts; it is quite unable to create or preserve anything.
Here then we see how Solomon, in this one little verse [Ps. 127:1], has solved in short order the greatest of all problems among the children of men, about which so many books have been written, so many proverbs and approaches devised, namely, how to feed our poor stomachs. Solomon rejects them all in a body, wraps the whole matter up in faith, and says: You labor in vain when you labor for the purpose of sustaining yourself and building your own house. Indeed, you make for yourself a lot of worry, and trouble. At the same time by such arrogance and wicked unbelief you kindle God’s wrath, so that you only become all the poorer and are mined completely because you undertook to do what is his alone to do. And if with such unbelief you should succeed anyway in attaining wealth in all things, it would only bring greater ruin to you soul eternally when God lets you go blindly on in your unbelief.
If you want to earn your livelihood honorably, quietly, and well, and rightly maintain your household, give heed: Take up some occupation that will keep you busy in order that you can eat your bread in the sweat of your face [Gen. 3:19]. Then do not worry, about how you will be sustained and how such labor will build and maintain your house. Place everything in God’s keeping; let him do the worrying and the building. Entrust these things to him; he will lay before you richly and well the things which your labor is to find and bring to you. If he does not put them there, you will labor in vain and find nothing.
Thus, this wholly evangelical verse in masterful fashion sets forth faith, as against that accursed covetousness and concern for the belly which today, alas! everywhere hinders the fruit of the gospel. When this verse is fully understood, the rest of the psalm is easy. We will now briefly run through the other verses.
The rest of Luther's exposition of this psalm can be read here: http://lutheransandcontraception.blogspot.com/2010/09/luther-on-psalm-127.html
God's peace in Christ to you all on this Holy Saturday during which Christ rested in the tomb.