Psalms 120-134 are called “Songs of Ascent.” It seems most likely that these were songs that were sung by worshippers as they made their way to Jerusalem from their homes around Israel for one of the three annual religious festivals. These songs allayed the fears of the singers as they contemplated the trustworthy character of God. Each of the songs contains a component that recognizes the reality of fearful circumstances and then also reminds the singers of the greatness of God. They can trust Him.
In Psalm 127, for instance, Solomon (the only one of these ascent songs attributed to him) indicates that it is wise for a man to plan and labor and build a house. It is discerning for a city to provide guards to watch through the night. It is prudent for a man to get up early and stay up late to work for the provision of his family.
But in all these activities — building, guarding, and working — it is the Lord who accomplishes the task. A builder builds in vanity unless the Lord is building the house (v. 1a); a watchman’s watching is vanity unless the Lord is guarding the city (v. 1b); and a worker’s labors are vanity unless the Lord is giving him increase in his crops (v. 2).
The key word in these verses is “vanity.” It is wise to work, but there is only emptiness in a man’s labors if the Lord is not providing for him. Solomon is not suggesting that a man not build a house or guard the city or provide for his family. But he is saying that as a man works, he is to do so in dependence on and trust in the Lord’s provision, for while he is working, it is the Lord who is really doing the work. There is only emptiness to his labor unless the Lord is working.
As one old writer has noted, “…all the efficacy of labours and cares is dependent on the operation and providence of God; and all human strength, care, and industry is in itself vain.”
These words would have been significant for those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their homes would be left empty, though perhaps under someone’s watchful eye. Whatever projects they were working on — perhaps the building of a home or the planting of a crop — would be suspended during their travels. The psalm reminds them that they can trust the Lord and they must not trust themselves for the preservation of their homes and the provision of their necessities of food and covering. The Lord would provide. Trust Him.
So it is with us as well. We are tempted to engage in labors and be diligent and work hard — and do it all as if all is dependent on us. What was true of these worshippers three millennia ago is true of us as well. Hard work is useless…unless the Lord is in it.