Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm is entitled "A Song of Degrees for Solomon;" in the margin, "Of Solomon." In the Syriac Version the title is, "From the Psalms of the Ascent; spoken by David concerning Solomon; it was spoken also of Haggai and Zechariah, who urged the rebuilding of the Temple." The meaning of the title may be either "for Solomon," or of Solomon; that is, it may have been either composed by him, or with reference to him. Many have supposed that it was written by David near the close of his life, and was designed to be a guide to Solomon, his successor, in regard to the principles which should govern him in his reign. There is nothing, however, in the title in the Hebrew which would indicate that it was composed by David; and there is nothing in the psalm which would seem to be especially appropriate to address to a young monarch just entering on his reign, unless it was the mere filet of dependence on God. The allusion to children Psa 127:3-5, beautiful and proper as it is, would seem to have no particular pertinency to an entrance on the administration of a government, and would not be the topic which Would most naturally be suggested in such circumstances. The probability, therefore, is, that the psalm was composed by Solomon. On what occasion, however, it was written, it is now impossible to determine. The sentiments and style are such as agree well with the idea that Solomon was the author, and the whole psalm might have been introduced into the Book of Proverbs without any manifest discrepancy with the general character and style of that book. From the psalm itself it would seem that it was composed mainly with reference to one who was entering on domestic life, and that it was intended to set before such a one the views which ought to guide him, or the thoughts which ought to occur to him. Nothing could be more appropriate in such circumstances than the sentiments of the psalm:
I. The entire dependence on God for success, Psa 127:1.
II. The vanity of all efforts - rising early, and sitting up late - without the divine blessing, Psa 127:2.
III. The fact that children belong to God, and are to be regarded as his, Psa 127:3.
IV. The aid which children might be expected to render to a father in supporting or defending him, Psa 127:4.
V. The comfort which he might expect to derive from them, and the honor which, being properly trained, they would reflect on him and on the family, Psa 127:5.
Except the Lord build the house - Or rather, "a house." The word "house" may refer either to an ordinary dwelling; to the temple, as a place of worship; or to a family, with reference to its success and prosperity, as the word house is often used now. The statement is universal, and is designed to indicate a universal dependence on God in human undertakings, though it is not improbable that there may have been an allusion, when the psalm was composed, to some building which was contemplated or commenced. If the psalm was a composition of David or Solomon, the allusion way have been to the temple about to be erected. The language, however, is so general as to be applicable to any enterprise of that kind.
They labor in vain that build it - literally, "In vain toil its builders in it." The idea is, that they are entirely dependent on God. No matter what their skill, their strength, their industry may be - all will be in vain unless God shall assist them. They are dependent on Him for life, for health, for strength, for practical wisdom, for a disposition to continue their work, and for success in it. Their work might be destroyed by fire, by a tempest, by an earthquake, or by an irruption of enemies; and for the result, therefore, they are entirely dependent on God.
Except the Lord keep the city - The same idea of dependence is here repeated in another form. The preservation of a city depends wholly on God, whatever care or precaution may be used.
The watchman waketh but in vain - literally, "In vain waketh the keeper." The word rendered waketh means to be sleepless; and then, to watch. The allusion is to the watch or guard appointed to keep a city, and the idea is, that, whatever may be the diligence, the care, the fidelity of one thus appointed to guard a city, its safe-keeping must depend on God alone. Fires may break out in spite of the watchmen; a tempest may sweep over it; bands of armed people may assail it; or the pestilence may suddenly come into it, and spread desolation through its dwellings. There may have been an allusion in this to some immediate arrangement for guarding Jerusalem when the psalm was composed; but the remark is so general that it is not necessary to confine it to that. It is universally true that, after all the care for their own preservation which people can employ, their safety depends wholly on God.
It is vain for you to rise up early - The psalmist does not here say that it is improper to rise early; or that there could be no advantage in it; or that people would be more likely to be successful in their undertakings if they did not rise early; but that, although this was done, they would be still altogether dependent on God. Mere early rising, without his blessing, would not secure what they hoped to accomplish, for everything is still in the hand of God. Health, strength, clearness of mind, and success, are all under his control; and though early rising may tend to produce all these - as it does in fact - yet still people are not the less dependent on God for success.
To sit up late - That you may labor or study. As in the former case the psalmist does not express any opinion about the propriety or impropriety of early rising, so it is in respect to this. He merely says that if it is done, this, of itself, will not accomplish the object; people are still dependent on God for success though they do it. As a matter of fact, however, sitting up late has less tendency to promote success in life than early rising; but in either ease there is the same dependence on God.
To eat the bread of sorrows - Bread of care, anxiety, or trouble; that is, bread earned or procured by the severity of toil. There may be an allusion here to the original sentence pronounced on man, Gen 3:17. The meaning is, that it is in vain that you labor hard, that you exhaust your strength, in order to get bread to eat, unless God shall bless you. After all your toil the result is with him.
For so he giveth his beloved sleep - The word "for" is not in the original, The sentence is very obscure in the connection in which it stands. The Septuagint and Latin Vulgate render it, "Ye who eat the bread of care - rise when you have rested - when he hath given his beloved sleep." Some have supposed it to mean that God gives his people rest without toil, or that, while others labor, his "beloved" - his friends - sleep; but this interpretation is not necessarily demanded by the Hebrew, and is inconsistent with the general doctrine of the Bible. Others have supposed the idea to be, that God gives his beloved rest after labor; but though this is true, it is not true of them especially or exclusively. Some suppose, with as little probability, that the meaning is, that what others hope (but hope in vain) to get by labor, the Lord bestows upon his people in sleep, they know not how.
The meaning evidently is, that God bestows "sleep" upon his people in some sense in which it is not bestowed on others, or that there is, in regard to their case, something in which they differ from those who are so anxious and troubled - who rise so early for the sake of gain - who toil so late - who eat the bread of care. The idea seems to be that there would be calmness, repose, freedom from anxiety or solicitude. God makes the mind of his people - his beloved - calm and tranquil, while the world around is filled with anxiety and restlessness - busy, bustling, worried. As a consequence of this calmness of mind, and of their confidence in him, they enjoy undisturbed repose at night. They are not kept wakeful and anxious about their worldly affairs as other men are, for they leave all with God, and thus he "giveth his beloved sleep." The particle "so" - כן kên - or "thus," I apprehend, refers to the general sense of what had been said, rather than to what immediately precedes it; to the fact that all success depends on God Psa 127:1, and that it is always by his interposition, and not as the result of human skill, toil, or fatigue, that people find calmness, success, repose. It is only by the favor of God, and by their recognizing their dependence on him, that they find repose, success, and freedom from care.
Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord - They are an inheritance derived from the Lord. They are bestowed by him as really as success is in building a house, or in guarding a city. The idea is, that everything which we value, or which we desire, is a gift from God, and is to be received as from him, and to be acknowledged as his gift. The general idea here, as in the previous verses, is that of entire dependence on God.
And the fruit of the womb is his reward - Or rather, "a reward;" that is, they are of the nature of a reward for a life of devotion to God; they are among the blessings which God promises, and are evidences of his favor. Our translation by inserting the words "is his" obscures the sense, as if the meaning were that they belong to God as his "reward" for what he does for us. The reverse of this is the true idea - that they are a blessing with which he rewards or favors his people. Of course, this is not universally true, but the promise is a general one, in accordance with the usual promises in the Bible in regard to the result of piety. Children are to be reckoned among the divine favors bestowed on us, and for their lives, their health, their virtues, and the happiness derived from them, we are, as in other things, dependent on him - as in building a house, in guarding a city, or in the rest and comfort derived from toil.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man - They are what a parent may rely on for defense in danger, or for help in securing provision for himself and family - as the warrior or the hunter relies on his arrows.
So are children of the youth - Sons in their youth; in their prime and vigor. The comparison of sons with arrows or spears is common in Arabic poetry. See Rosenmuller, Com. in loc. Also Morgenland, in loc.
Happy is the man - Hebrew, The happiness of the man. See the notes at Psa 1:1.
That hath his quiver full of them - The quiver is a case in which arrows are carried; and as a man - a hunter or warrior - feels secure when he has his quiver full of arrows, so a man is blessed in proportion to the number of his sons. This is in accordance with the idea often presented in the Bible, and the promise often made there of a numerous posterity as a proof of the divine favor.
They shall not be ashamed - They shall not turn back discomfited, hanging their heads with shame and confusion. See the notes at Job 6:20.
But they shall speak with the enemies in the gate - Margin, "shall subdue, or destroy." The Hebrew word, however, means "to speak;" and the meaning is, that they would "speak" to their foes in the place of conflict - for a battle occurred often in the gate of a city, as the possession of a gate, or an entrance to a city was of so much importance to those who attacked, and those who defended it. The idea is, that they would speak with effect; they would distinguish themselves; they would let their presence be known. The connection does not allow us to understand this of forensic controversy, or of transactions in business, though these were usually performed at the gates of cities. The meaning is, that they would do honor to the family, and gratify the heart of the parent, by their valor in defending their city and home, or in attacking the cities of the enemies of their country. The psalm is designed to inculcate the lesson of dependence on God for success in everything.