This is a simple psalm which celebrates the blessings which come from fearing the Lord, blessings primarily described in terms of family relationships. While it may be just possible to allegorise these to refer to spiritual family (compare Jesus’ ‘the same are my brother, sister and mother’), the focus is primarily on the blessings of natural family, a theme which connects up nicely with the previous psalm, 127, which speaks of the blessing of children like arrows in a father’s quiver. If the Songs of Ascents were originally collected together or even composed to celebrate pilgrimage to Zion this would for most have been a family occasion (remember how Jesus’ mum and dad assumed that he was among the company returning from Jerusalem, presumably with the other children). There is something wonderful about worshipping God with one’s entire family present: a sense of ‘this is how it is meant to be’; small wonder, then, that a psalm with this likely pilgrimage context would celebrate such a blessing; it is a psalm that would fit really well for an occasion such as a family camp or Bible school
- [A Song of degrees]
Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD;
That walketh in his ways.
- For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands:
Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
- Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house:
Thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
- Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD.
- The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion:
And thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.
- Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children,
And peace upon Israel.
Blessing from Zion
The piece opens by describing God’s blessing on those who fear Him, a theme which is reprised in v4-5 in similar language but where the blessing is doubled:
Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord …
Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee (v1-2)
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord
The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion
Thou shalt see the good… (v4-5)
The key to unlocking these blessings, then, is to fear the Lord (v1,4) and to walk in his ways (v1).
God’s blessing is delivered from Zion, the centre of His concern and the location of His earthly throne. It is a blessing which seems to be expressed in broadly concentric circles:
You yourself will be happy and well (v2)
Your wife will be a fruitful vine in the heart of your house (v3)
Your children will be like olive plants round your table (v3)
You will see your grandchildren (v6)
And peace upon Israel (v6)
The immediate family
v1-3 describe the blessings of God which will fall upon the individual and his immediate family. Each of these is described in an intriguing way. First, the man who fears the Lord will eat of the labour of his hands. Despite the fact that working to eat is a central part of the punishment on man in Genesis 3, it is a wonderful thing that in God’s mercy satisfaction and even enjoyment can nevertheless be gained from the whole process. To be free to be able to do one’s work and eat the results with one’s family can bring an immense sense of wellbeing, despite all the hard work involved; for a man to be able to provide for his family in this way is an honourable and satisfying thing. This is explored further in the book of Ecclesiastes where both the blessings (the ‘good’ as the Preacher terms it) and the limitations of this aspect of existence are explored.
The flip-side to eating the labour of one’s own hands might be the existence of those who are not free to take charge of their own provision such as slaves or prisoners. Ecclesiastes also describes the ‘vanity’ of a man labouring only for another to come along and eat the result himself, thus reaping the benefits of the first man’s labour without having lifted a finger himself. This kind of cruel twist on what seems to be ‘proper’ and ‘right’ can be characteristic of the fallen world in which we live; this psalm promises better for those who fear the Lord.
Given this context of labour and food it is interesting that the next blessings of wife and children are described in agricultural or horticultural terms (a wife like a fruitful vine and children like olive plants round one’s table). Tending a garden with fruit trees in it was a core element of Adam’s initial labour; for several millenia the sort of work referred to in the curse of Genesis 3 would have been agricultural or horticultural just like this. Interesting, then, that a wife and children should be described in the terminology of plants, and plants that produce food which can be eaten. A man’s labours are not just tilling the physical ground to encourage it to bring forth fruit, but also his labours in his family. The blessing of the Lord is correspondingly not just that the earth will bring forth fruit for him (albeit restrainedly after the curse), but also that his family will be fruitful and that his labours in that sphere will not be in vain. With God’s blessing his family itself will bring forth fruit to sustain, fulfil and satisfy – a blessing no less rich and much more emotionally satisfying than the food on his table.
Wife and children
His wife, then, will be a fruitful vine ‘in the very heart of his house’ (NKJV; this is a better translation than AV’s ‘by the sides of your house’). A vine is not only a plant that brings forth fruit; specifically, it brings forth the fruit which produces wine which makes glad the heart of man, an apt metaphor for many of the good things in marriage shared between a husband and wife. This would include the physical aspect (see Song of Songs 7:8+), but also the practical help as well as the intellectual, emotional and spiritual companionship they will share. The wife is not just ‘in’ the house, she is in its very ‘heart’, core to its proper functioning and survival. She is, to change the metaphor, a well-spring for the household, able to sustain both her husband and her children. There is an interesting contrast between the wife positioned here ‘within’ the house and the false woman of Proverbs who is ‘without’ in the streets (Prov 7:11 etc), seeking to lure him somewhere he should not go. The husband must make sure he obtains satisfaction from within the house, not outside.
This concept of the wife at the very heart of the house almost like its central nervous system chimes with what is said about wives and mothers in the New Testament. A wife is to be a ‘keeper’ of the home (Titus 2:5 – a ‘house-worker’; perhaps the modern day equivalent is the term ‘homemaker’ – this is part of her God-given responsibility, although there is no Scriptural prohibition against her also having a career if she chooses). She is to be a ‘house despot’ (the Greek term behind AV’s ‘guide the house’ is literally the word from which the English despot is derived; it didn’t have the negative connotation that the English has today, but it is an apt measure of the sort of determination and commitment a woman should have in her part of managing the domestic affairs). In both of these New Testament passages, then, the pivotal role of a woman in her household is stressed, just as it is in the psalm.
Returning now to the psalm, the children are depicted as olive plants round about the table. The children, then, bring something productive and positive to the family, they are not merely a drain on its resources or an encumbrance which gets in the way of what the parents would rather be doing. Olive plants bring forth olives, a central part of the Mediterranean diet as well as the source of olive oil used both for food and light as well as the special purpose of anointing. Children can be expected to be productive, and they bring enormous riches and blessing. While they can seem like more like liabilities in the early years with their constant need for attention and care, the olive metaphor used here is an apt reminder that in fact they are the most wonderful productive assets. Children are able to relate at their own level to spiritual principles, and, in an age-appropriate way, they are able to respond; perhaps in the light of this passage we should have higher expectations of them than we sometimes do?
The bigger picture
The second part of the psalm moves on to consider the wider blessings of godliness:
The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion:
And thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.
Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children,
And peace upon Israel.
Time and again in the pages of the Bible we learn that God works through families. From the moment He called Abraham, He was not only calling him as an individual, but through him his entire family who would ultimately become a nation and come to bear responsibility with respect to the promises and commands of the Lord. This implies that one’s own response to the gospel and the level of commitment one displays towards it impacts not just oneself, but potentially the many generations that may follow (it’s just a logical consequence of heredity). This psalm tells us that if we try to get it right ourselves, this unlocks potential not just for us, nor even just for our immediate family – but for the generations to come. Here the specific blessing of grandchildren (‘thy children’s children’) is called out, but it potentially goes well beyond that for many further generations.
It is intriguing that the blessing of grandchildren comes ‘wrapped’ in the blessing on Israel:
you will see Jerusalem (v5)
you will see your grandchildren (v6)
you will see peace upon Israel (v6)
Our eternal future and the eternal future of our children and of our grandchildren is bound up with the hope of Israel. Of course they are a natural blessing too: even if they choose not to accept the gospel’s call they are still a wonderful gift from the Lord. But if they do accept that call (and how much more likely that they will if our own priorities are right!), then they are guarded and kept by the hope of Israel surrounding them on every side. If God cares for Israel as the apple of His eye and our children are bound by that hope, then we truly have nothing to fear and every reason to be glad.