30 June 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
30 June 2022 (Psalm 127)

‘Nisi Dominus’ … the inscription over the door of Rothenburg House on High Street, Stony Stratford, designed by Edward Swinfen Harris, quotes the opening words of Psalm 127 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 127:

Psalm 127 is the eighth in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 126. It is sometimes known by its opening words in Latin, Nisi Dominus.

Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.

One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon, ascending to Jerusalem or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.

These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.

This the only one among the 15 ‘Songs of Ascents’ attributed to Solomon rather than David: ‘A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.’

Psalm 127 says a safe home and a large family are the Lord’s gifts.

The text is divided into five verses, with two wise sayings (verses 1-2 and 3-5). The first two verses (verses 1-2) express the notion that ‘without God, all is in vain’, popularly summarised in Latin in the motto Nisi Dominus Frustra. They say anxiety has no place in the life of the faithful.

The second part (verses 3-5) describe children as God’s blessing, and say the gift of many stalwart sons makes a father feel secure.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 127 is recited as a prayer for protection of a new-born infant. According to Jewish tradition, Psalm 127 was written by David and dedicated to his son Solomon, who would build the First Temple. According to the French mediaeval rabbi, David Kimhi (Radak), verses 3-5 express David’s feelings about his son Solomon. Another French mediaeval rabbi, Shlomo Yitzchaki, said these verses refer to the students of a Torah scholar, who are called his ‘sons.’

The Midrash Tehillim interprets the opening verses of the psalm as referring to teachers and students of Torah. On the watchmen of the city mentioned in verse 1, Rabbi Hiyya, Rabbi Yosi, and Rabbi Ammi said, ‘The [true] watchmen of the city are the teachers of Scripture and instructors of Oral Law.’

On ‘the Lord gives’ in verse 2, the Midrash explains that God ‘gives’ life in the world to come to the wives of Torah scholars because they deprive themselves of sleep to support their husbands.

The translation of the psalm presents some difficulties, especially in verses 2 and 4. Jerome, in a letter to Marcella in the year 384, laments that Origen’s notes on this psalm no longer exist, and discusses the various possible translations of לֶחֶם הָעֲצָבִים‎ (‘bread of sorrows’ (KJV), ‘bread of anxious toil’ (NRSVA), after the panem doloris of Vulgata Clementina).

Jerome’s own translation is panem idolorum, ‘bread of idols,’ following the Septugiant (LXX). The phrase בְּנֵי הַנְּעוּרִֽים‎ (‘children of the youth’ (KJV), ‘sons of one’s youth (NRSVA)), is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as υἱοὶ τῶν ἐκτετιναγμένων, (‘children of the outcast’).

There are two possible interpretations of the phrase כֵּן יִתֵּן לִֽידִידֹו שֵׁנָֽא‎ ‘for he gives sleep to his beloved’ (verse 2, NRSVA). The word ‘sleep’ may either be the direct object (LXX, Vulgate, KJV, NRSVA), or an accusative used adverbially, ‘in sleep,’ meaning ‘while they are asleep.’ The latter interpretation fits the context of the verse much better, contrasting the ‘beloved of the Lord’ who receive success without effort, as it were ‘while they sleep’ with the sorrowful and fruitless toil of those not so blessed.

This sentiment is paralleled in Proverbs 10: 22, ‘The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it’ (NRSVA).

English translations have been reluctant to emend the traditional translation, due to the long-standing association of this verse with sleep being the gift of God. And so it is that Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses the phrase ‘He giveth his beloved Sleep’ as the last line of each stanza in her poem ‘The Sleep.’

Psalm 127 is sometimes called ‘the builders’ psalm,’ because of the opening verse and because of the similarity between the Hebrew words for sons (banim) and builders (bonim).

The phrase Nisi Dominus Frustra (‘Without God, it is in vain’) is a popular motto often inscribed on buildings. It has been the motto of Edinburgh since 1647, it was the motto of the former Borough of Chelsea, and it is the motto of several schools, including Mount Temple School, Dublin.

The Vulgate text, Nisi Dominus, has been set to music by many Renaissance and Baroque composers, often as part of vespers, including Monteverdi, Charpentier, Handel and Vivaldi.

‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain’ (Psalm 127: 1) … scaffolding against the west wall inside the Basilica in Torcello, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 127 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.

3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Ethics and Leadership.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Andy Flannagan, Executive Director of Christians in Politics.

Thursday 30 June 2022:

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for greater accountability and transparency in the political sphere, with trust and dignity at the heart of political processes.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org