This was the service for the last Sunday of June at Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church in West Virginia. It builds upon the same theme from the sermons that I shared with the congregation for Mother’s Day and for Father’s Day. Below you will find the video and the prepared text of the sermon called “Meaningful House Construction.” As I’m searching for houses right now and entering a new phase in life, it seemed particularly relevant to me and I hope that you find that it speaks to you as well…no matter what phase you’re in at the moment…
Everyone at some point or another wonders if their work is in vain. This is especially true for those who never stop and rest–those who get up early, work all day–eat on the go or late at night–and get to bed late. And there are plenty of people who follow this lifestyle. I myself am prone to be a workaholic. So I know what it is like. People will tell you to delegate some of the work to others. What they often neglect to mention is that at first it can take a lot more work to delegate than to just do it yourself. And unless they also are a perfectionist, the work is never to the same quality that you would do if it gets done at all. So the workaholic acts like everything all depends on his or her own labor. They may intellectually believe that God is in control, but they don’t act like it. This causes anxiety–wondering if everything that they are doing, if the getting up early and the staying up late, if the skipping meals so that they can get a little more done, the sleepless nights because you cannot stop thinking about your work, the workaholic wonders if this is not all in vain. And when you work and work and work and have nothing tangible to show for it and are surrounded by people suggesting more things for you to do…well that just feeds this anxiety. Sometimes the extra hours mean extra income, but even then the workaholic still wonders if it is worth it to spend all that time away from their family. And this leads us to want to know what activities can I do and know they are not in vain? We want to know—when is my work meaningful? Solomon wrote this psalm to answer that question.
God is not in your work, your work is in vain; if God is in your
work, then it is meaningful.
us the negative answer to our question
the first couple lines of the poem.
- His first example of this negative answer is constructing a house. Solomon knew a few things about building a house–after all, his signature achievements as the king of Israel were building a house for God and building a palace for himself. But let me suggest that we could also translate this example, saying, “Unless YHWH builds the home, those who build it labor in vain.” You may not be able to articulate the difference, but we know there is a difference between a house and a home. Yet another way to understand this example is more obvious if we translate the phrase, “Unless YHWH builds the household, those who build it labor in vain.” At the very least, building a household involves the birthing and adopting of children. Thus when we speak of the royal house of David, we aren’t speaking of a palace but a people. Solomon is intentionally not specific because he wants to invoke all of these ideas. If God is not in it, then our work at building a house, home, or household would be in vain – it would all be pointless.
- His second example of this negative answer is the work of a watchman. “Unless YHWH watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Cities in the ancient near east had large walls to protect the people inside and on top of those walls there were people whose job it was to stay awake and watch for incoming trouble. But unless God was watching over that city, it would be pointless for the watchman to stay awake and see it coming. (These examples were both pretty obvious to the ancient Israelite—though they are perhaps less obvious to us today and certainly the example of a watchman is much less urgent for us. Yet they both answer our question negatively: if God is not in your work, your work is in vain. But there is a flip-side to that.)
- The positive answer implied by these examples is that your work is meaningful if God is in it. The work of a watchman is meaningful work if God is watching over the city. The work of building a house, home, or household is meaningful if God is building it. Your work is meaningful if God is in it. That has a double meaning when it comes to the house: your work building a house, home, or household is meaningful if God is in the house, home, or the hearts of those in the household. (Thus the first couple verses show us that if God is not in your work, your work is in vain; and if God is in your work, then it is meaningful.)
- The psalm tells us the negative answer to our question in the first couple lines of the poem.
then Solomon moves from these couple general examples that were at
least pretty obvious to people at the time and he applies it much
more broadly and personally, “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.”
- So Solomon takes aim directly at the workaholic and says that it is in vain for you to get up early and work all day, perhaps “eating the bread of anxious toil” is Solomon’s way of picturing someone eating on the run, and going late to rest. This work is in vain because God is not in it. Of course you can find commentaries where the commentator will say that this is no excuse for laziness. Maybe you already guessed why. The people who write commentaries get up early, eat as they write, and finish up late. For some reason these Bible commentators get it into their mind that their work depends on themselves rather than on God. And everyone who works in the church is prone to the same mistake. We can think we are doing work for God but sometimes God is not in it. And no doubt you may be thinking if people doing what we call the work of God are working in vain, then how can I know that God is in my work?
- Well remember that line “for He gives to His beloved sleep.” I sleep a lot less well when I’m going through a crisis of faith. And maybe you simply aren’t thinking in those terms. You can ask yourself: Am I burning the candle at both ends because I think that it all depends on me or do I trust God that He is going to work it all out and spend more time with my family? So people who get up early, eat on the run, and work late into the night and don’t get much sleep and then wonder if all of it is in vain are actually working in vain because they are not trusting in God. Instead, consciously or not, they are trying to be gods.
the second half of the psalm, which we are only going to reflect on
in passing now, gives us a specific case-in-point: children.
- Every believer knows that God is in it when we conceive and give birth to children. We can add that having and adopting children when you know that God is in it will never be in vain. And Solomon says, “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” A full quiver is twelve, which I will leave to you to ponder. Let’s just say that we should encourage Christian couples to have more children not less.
- But the ultimate case-in-point is a particular child who would be born to the house of David and his family the church. The book of Psalms is divided into five books. This psalm is in the fifth book. It is the only psalm in the fifth book that is by Solomon. And it is at the center of book five—exactly in the middle of the songs of ascents that they would sing as they went up to the Temple. That’s because it is about Jesus and His church. The psalm encourages the house of David to have children because of the coming birth of a particular child–Christ. But unless YHWH builds the house–Christ’s church–those who build it labor in vain. The prophets were even described as watchmen—it is an appropriate metaphor for the work of a pastor. But unless YHWH watches, the watchman labors in vain. Thus if we trust Christ, not just with our words but also with our actions because spending all day and night trying to build His church is not trusting Him to do it through us—if we trust Jesus Christ in our words and works then God will be in it and we’ll know it. Our salvation did not depend on us, it depended totally on God’s work, and likewise with all that we do.