A song of ascents. Of Solomon.
Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.
How are you feeling about your labor on this Labor Day holiday? Are you feeling good about it? Wearied from it? Worried about it? Wondering about its meaning?
I find myself on this Labor Day thinking about what the wise Solomon says about labor. Three thousand years after Solomon, he is still remembered for his down to earth, practical wisdom. Even Scripture testifies to his godly wisdom, noting: “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand of the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29). As one often feeling wearied from my labor and wondering about its meaning, Solomon’s voice is a voice I am needing on this Labor Day.
Today’s scripture is authored by Solomon, known not only for his wisdom, but as one of the great doers and builders of the ancient world. He built a great kingdom and is remembered for building a magnificent temple for the worship of the Lord along with other grand, palatial buildings. Solomon got a lot done! His many proverbs sternly warned the slacker and lazy, telling them, “Get to work! (Proverbs 6:6,9; 10:26; 13:4; 20:4; 26:16).
In today’s psalm, Solomon tells of the need to always take God into account as we labor: “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Three times Solomon hammers his point that all labor is “in vain” unless we labor as co-laborers with God:
- “the builders labor in vain…”
- “the guard stands watch in vain…”
- “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat…”
The key word here is the word “unless”; it means that our building, guarding and toiling is in reality useless, “unless” we labor with God. God is a builder, a guard, a toiler, and He calls us to labor with Him. You perhaps know what it is to live and to work as if everything depended on you. This can be as true of a minister as of a doctor, bricklayer, mother, or retiree. We can go about our work as if it all depends on us. One can write a sermon, or do surgery, and care for a sick child, as if God was not in the picture. I am helped by what farmer and poet Wendell Berry says about this in a few lines of a poem:
“And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.”(This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems)
Today’s scripture is from the New Revised Version which has a note in the margin, indicating this more literal translation of Solomon’s words: “the LORD provides for his beloved during sleep.” That is the “great work” of which Wendell Berry speaks. Our work is “left to grace.” Not only is our salvation “by grace through faith and not of works,” but so is our day to day living. It is all left to grace!
A fellow traveler,