Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. — 1 Corinthians 15:58, NIV

The U.S. holiday of Labor Day began in the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the average American worked 12 hours/day, 7 days/week to make a basic living. Children as young as 5 or 6 often worked in mills, factories, and mines because employers could hire them for a fraction of the cost of an adult worker. Working conditions for both children and adults was often very unsafe. Long hours and children are, in fact, the focus of Psalm 127, to which we will turn in a minute.

In the late 19th century, labor unions became more vocal, organizing protest rallies and strikes. In today’s language, they would have been emphasizing “Workers Lives Matter.” Most protests were peaceful, like the 10,000 workers in New York who took unpaid leave on the first Monday of September 1882 to march from City Hall to Union Square, creating the first Labor Day parade in the United States. At times, protests erupted into violence by protesters and/or the police and troops assigned to maintain order. The Haymarket Incident in 1886 resulted in the death of several Chicago police and workers. The Pullman Strike of 1894, which lasted over two months, resulted in more than a dozen worker deaths at the hands of federal troops. Soon after, Congress, in order to repair ties with the American worker, passed a law recognizing Labor Day as a federal holiday.

As we consider Psalm 127, we see that, without the Lord, our labor is in vain. Three times in the first two verses, the psalmist reiterates the phrase “in vain.” Whether building a house, standing guard over a city, or engaging in daily labor–all is in vain unless our work is within the Lord’s greater work. Even if we rise early and do not eat the bread earned from our “painful toil” until late in the evening (v. 2), our work is in vain if we view it as the goal or the end itself, our purpose for living. Perhaps that is why the psalmist shifts gears in the rest of the psalm to speak of children (vv. 3-5). The psalmist says children also are “from the Lord.” (Note that he doesn’t say children are “in vain” apart from God, so family or relationships are, at the very least, a “better” end or goal.) Yet whether we speak of our physical labor or the labor of bearing children–our lives find their ultimate meaning when they are in the Lord.

A second thing we find in the psalm is that, with the Lord, Eden’s curse is undone. Again, verse 2 speaks of the bread of “painful toil.” The Hebrew (עֵצֶב) describing the bread has the same root word that we find in the curses spoken in Genesis 3:16-17. After humans ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God pronounced the land cursed so that the man had to work the ground with painful toil for the food he would eat. Childbirth was cursed so that the woman brought forth her children with painful toil. And so here, we find work (vv. 1-2) and children (vv. 3-5) as the twin themes of the psalm.

But in the psalm, we find that the Lord grants sleep to those who love him. This sleep is juxtapositioned with the sleeplessness of the person who works in vain apart from the Lord. It is also apposed to the guards who “stand watch” as the Hebrew term (שָׁקַד) carries the idea of “wakeful” or “sleepless.” For those who trust God, they are blessed with productive sleep in place of unproductive and unending toil. While they continue to engage in hard work, it is not their end. They do not worry about the outcome but find their rest in the Lord. We find the same idea in Proverbs 10:22, “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it” and Jesus’ promise, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).

In the psalm, the Lord gives children by the handful or quiverful (v. 4-5), specifically “sons.” To have many sons in the ancient world was important. They provided strength in potential times of conflict or negotiation (cf. v. 5). They brought respect in life and welfare in old age to the parents. They were also a way for your legacy to extend beyond your physical death. In verse 3, these children are called “fruit of the womb,” harkening back to the first commandment given to humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Psalm 128, the companion to Psalm 127, picks up on this fruit imagery, calling one’s food the “fruit of your labor,” one’s wife “a fruitful vine,” one’s children “olive shoots,” and ending with a prayer that one sees “your children’s children” (that is, to see the olive shoots become fruit-bearing trees). So when humans chose their own way in Eden, God pronounced a curse describing what this life outside the Lord’s will would be like. Psalm 127, however, speaks of Eden’s curse being undone for those who seek to live “in the Lord.” (Perhaps this is why Paul emphasizes being “in Christ” so frequently.)

Finally, we are called to trust the Lord in all areas of our life. Reading through the psalm, we find that it is the Lord who builds, the Lord who watches, the Lord who gives sleep, and the Lord who grants children. That said, we must understand that the psalmist is speaking in corporate terms. He surely was aware that not all work is productive nor all marriages fertile. Yet even in these individual times of drought, we are called to trust the Lord with all areas of our lives.

The psalm’s superscription identifies it as a “song of ascents,” most likely a song to be sung by pilgrims as they traveled to and from Jerusalem for festivals. If this was its purpose, then the “house” becomes the temple, the “city” becomes Jerusalem, and the “sons” become either the sons of David (the kings) or the nation as a whole. This helps us see yet again that we are called to trust the Lord in all areas of our life–our religious life (the house), our political life (the city), our vocational life (toil for bread), and our family life (children). Trusting God in all areas of our life is described in Psalm 128 as the “fear of the Lord.” Paul, writing to Timothy, called it hope. “That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10). This Labor Day, make sure your work is within the Lord’s work so that you can rest knowing that your labor is not in vain.

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Psalm 127 “Your Labor Is Not In Vain” (video or audio podcast)

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