The opening lines of the psalm, in Latin, were chosen as the motto of the city of Edinburgh (‘without the Lord, it is vain’). Although it appeared on official documents of the city it is clear that the sentiments of the motto are no longer prominent in the thinking of the majority who live there.
Unusually for a psalm this one contains neither prayer nor praise to God; instead it contains observations on life. The main point of the psalm is that the Lord is the God of providence, that he is working in all the areas of life, both public and domestic.
It is a psalm that is concerned about the healthy functioning of society and it tells how to relate to political authority, military power and family responsibilities.
The political authority is described in verse 1: ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ Every time a country has a general election, the various political parties make great promises about what they intend to construct in that society. The military authority is described in the second clause of verse 2: ‘Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.’ The presence of political leaders and military strength does not remove worry unless the Lord is with them.
The psalm has three applications at a personal level: (a) work; (b) worry; (c) family.
The believer and work. In verse 2, the writer is not saying that there is anything wrong with getting up early or staying up late. What is wrong is the assumption that such personal sacrifices will have any benefit if God is omitted from the person’s life.
The believer and worry (v. 2). The great benefit that the Psalmist has experienced is that of sleep. Again the writer is not saying that lack of sleep is always the result of sin. Yet it is the case that unnecessary worry deprives us of sleep just as much as justifiable concern. We cannot expect to have pleasant sleep in general if we do not trust in God day by day. Jesus commanded his disciples that they were not to be over-concerned about their daily needs because of the awareness of those needs by the heavenly Father.
The believer and his family (vv. 3-5). Verse 3 teaches that children belong to the Lord and are given by him to be prized by their parents (the word ‘reward’ does not mean that they have earned their children by right living; it means a ‘precious gift’). In Old Testament times it was essential for families to have children in order to ensure the continuation of the family inheritance.
In verse 4, children are likened to arrows that parents shoot out into the world. Arrows have to be made from branches by being shaped and smoothed. Similarly, parents have the God-given task of shaping and smoothing the characters of their children in order for them to benefit society and the church in the future.
Solomon realised that he needed God’s help in very situation of life. We know that he had to learn this basic lesson through hard experiences arising from his own folly. May we learn the same lesson by remaining on the path of obedience to God’s commands.