I want to acknowledge that a day like this, set aside to celebrate fathers, is a difficult day for many people. For some of you, it’s the first time you’ve done this since your father has passed away. Others of you have situations where your home life is nothing you look back fondly on. And even others of you were fathers but helped the mother abort the child. I want you to know that there is grace from God in the midst of all those situations.
For those who had a bad experience with their earthly father, one of the glories of Christianity is that you have a Father and he is perfect. He is without mistake. His love is completely sufficient. Many of you need to cling to that because of the damage done by your home situation.
So whatever situation you are in, we recognize that this is not an easy day for everyone, but we point you to the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Read Psalm 127 and 128]
I heard Urban Meyer, the coach of Ohio State football, give a talk to high school coaches. One of the things he said in the talk was:
You don’t win or lose football games with schemes. Schemes are overrated. I can show you people winning with a particular scheme, and I can show you people who are using the same scheme and losing. They’re running the same stuff and losing. Scheme is a tiny portion of a coach’s job. You win or lose in football with players and culture.
It’s a powerful observation. We understand players. If you don’t get good enough players, you can do whatever you want to and you’re not going to be able to compete. But culture—what is culture?
In the simplest terms, culture is what we make out of the world that God has made. God is the only one that can create from nothing. But God has created a world and we are at work in his world and we make things. So it’s what we make out of the world God has made.
It’s also the meaning that we assign to it. There are various musical expressions of culture, and have you noticed that different regions like different kinds of music and add to the culture making with their own particular flavor and fare?
So culture is what we make out of the world that God has made, and the meaning that we assign to it. It’s vitally important. A lot of us have jobs; a lot of us have children in the home; a lot of us do this, that, and the other; and all of those things are the same, and yet it does not look the same. Because how it unfolds is dependent upon the meaning that we assign to it and the way we make it.
On a football team, the head coach is the primary culture maker. The environment of the program flows down from the head coach. Their personality, to some extent, will be replicated in the team. Their values will be replicated in the team. They can say, “Well, I don’t want to make culture.” It doesn’t matter. They will help determine the culture, the atmosphere of that particular program.
Dad, you are the head coach of your home. You are the primary culture maker, the one who helps determine the atmosphere of your home, and you’re the one who is given the responsibility to assign meaning to all of the things that you do in your life. Why do we do what we do? How should we view going to school? How should we view serving other people? How should we view going to church? So the cultures of homes are distinct, and they’re distinct based primarily on what the father does creating that culture in the home.
Now, think with me a little bit. The Bible makes it very clear the man’s responsibility and his influence is culture making. At the very beginning of the Bible, we have Adam and Eve. Eve eats from the tree she was forbidden to eat from, then Adam does it, and God shows up and God says first of all, “Adam, where are you?” Why was he looking for Adam? Didn’t Eve eat first? Well, yes, but Adam was given the responsibility to be the covenantal head of his wife. He bears responsibility for what goes on. He is held accountable.
In Ephesians 5 we have the command, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” I’ve heard a lot of sermons down through the years and it says, “Husband, you need to start being the head of your home.” That doesn’t make sense of what the text says. It says the husband is the head of the wife. It is a fact. If the husband leaves, then he is an absent head and he is accountable for that.
The point is that whether he leaves or stays, or how he does what he does, he bears the responsibility for his influence on that home. He is the one who creates the atmosphere. He is the one who is held accountable for the culture in a particular home.
So the question for dads is not whether or not you will build a culture in your home, but what kind of culture are you making? What is the atmosphere of your home?
These psalms paint a picture of what a proper culture in a home looks like. They both have each one of the things that we will see has an opposite. So we want to consider those contrasts. Is the culture you are cultivating in your home reflective of what’s commended, or does it reflect what’s rejected? Better yet, what will it look like in the days ahead? Because the dad who is here today who feels a sense of conviction about certain things ought not hang his head in despair. It is the gift of God to point us in a new direction. It is never too late to start doing the right thing to the glory of God. In fact, there is a unique testimony to someone who has failed and then reversed course.
Trust or Anxiety
Is the culture of the home one that is marked by trust—trust in God, dependence on God—or is it a home that is marked by anxiety—that is, worry and fretfulness even in the sight of God?
First of all, we notice in the superscription this is a song of ascents and it’s of Solomon. That means that it’s either by Solomon—if so, there are only two psalms that are by Solomon—or perhaps it is written for Solomon. We are not exactly sure, but a song of ascents would be a song that was sung while traveling from wherever you were in Palestine to Jerusalem to go to the temple for worship.
There are all kinds of songs that would be sung, and they are to help shape your family on the trip. Just like there ought to be rituals in your home that are shaping your family before you come to corporate worship on the Lord’s day. Men rarely traveled alone, most often they traveled with their families, and this is one of those songs that was sung. The home building was evident in the singing of this particular psalm.
Notice the contrasts in these verses. There are vain actions that can be taken. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” In other words, it is empty labor; it is meaningless labor. It happens, but it doesn’t have any meaning behind it.
House here in the Bible could be used to reference the temple, it can be used in reference to some sort of priestly or kingly residence, or it can be a family home. Here in this song, it is clearly a reference to the family home. Building a home is far more than building the structure that the family lives in. That’s why this is a reference to culture making. There is a sense in which the culture that you’re building in your home can be marked by vanity because you don’t recognize the provision of the Lord. You don’t reverence God and therefore the culture in your home is marked by anxiety. Eating the bread of anxious toil.
He says the same thing is true in the city. We often don’t just worry about our home; we worry about the location and the problems in our city.
This is a call for absolute and utter dependence upon and trust in God. He doesn’t take away the problems, but it means that you view the problems through the lens of a sovereign God who has settled his love for you. We know he settled his love for us on the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the glorious resurrection of Christ.
There is a way for our lives to be hopeless, pointless, and meaningless. We do things but we say “What is the point of all of this?” But there is a way for us to live lives marked by rest. Rest or restlessness. Trust or anxiety. “For he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Now, understand the words that are used here: building, labor, watching, toiling. These are all good and necessary things, but you can build, labor, watch, and toil without dependence upon God. You can do it as though you have to control things and you try to be God, but you can do those things with dependence upon God and therefore those things have meaning even if they don’t go well.
A failure to live with trust in God and to create a culture of trust in God in your home is cultivating a culture of anxiety and restlessness. I wonder, dads, which one are you passing on to your family? Far too often we are worried about the things that matter least. We think the most important thing related to our families is how much money we make and what we can provide for them and whether or not we can pay for college. Those things are, in the big picture, meaningless. Because a home that is marked by poverty where you cannot pay for college but there is trust in the Lord is glorious and pleasing in God’s sight and can be a restful place. But a home where you have more than you could have ever imagined and can send your child to an Ivy League school that is not marked by obvious dependence upon God can be a place ridden with anxiety and restlessness.
There is an easy test. Men, how do you treat your wife? Many men devolve into treating their wives like employees or roommates. Rather than honor, it’s simply a demanding relationship and a functional relationship. You create that culture in your home, your wife will be anxious and your children will be marked by anxiety. Some are marked by losing control and raging in anger; some dads are impossible to please. Anxiety. Some discipline their children with a lack of self-control, and the discipline might be appropriate but the way it’s carried out is inappropriate. Some go through difficulties seeking the Lord with joy and talking about the goodness of God. Some enjoy time with their family and laughing and conversation even when times are hard. You see, all of this is about the culture you are creating in your home. Would your children say, “A mark of my dad is his trust in God, not his trust in himself”? Or would they say, “My dad is always worried and never satisfied”?
Building a Family
The psalm moves from home and place to a specific focus on the family unit that’s in the culture of that home. Now, we know that these are connected because the first phrase of verse 1, “Unless the Lord builds …” The word builds, and in verse 3, “Behold, children,” or most literally, sons, are words that sound almost exactly the same and are chosen to be a play on words. So the homebuilding that he is talking about includes the building of a family and the blessing of children.
What about those children? Do you see them as a blessing or a burden? Now, nobody is going to stand up and say, “Oh, my kids are a burden.” But do you function as though they are a blessing or a burden?
Verse 3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord.” Heritage means inheritance. Inheritance is a blessing, to receive a heritage from the Lord. Who do your children really belong to? They belong to the Lord, not you; you’re a steward of this inheritance. “The fruit of the womb a reward.” Look at verse 4 as well: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.”
Now, notice all the words; they are all positive. There are no negative words here. Heritage, reward. The view of children in the Bible is they are a gift from God. That they are a blessing. It’s a dangerous thing when we treat the blessings of God like they are burdens.
The language here is very powerful. It’s powerful because it points us to a reality that we ought to absolutely, fundamentally embrace. One of the greatest blessings in our life, outside of our salvation in Christ, outside of our marriage relationship, is the gift of children, the heritage of children, the inheritance of children, the reward of children.
Calling what God calls a blessing a burden has been done before. It was done by Pharaoh. No matter how many times he tried to stamp out the Israelites, they kept reproducing and he says: “They are growing. We must put an end to this. I am threatened by the birth of those children.” It’s also done by Satan, who has been raging against children from the very beginning because he wants to stop that promise that the seed born of woman will crush the head of the serpent. We do not want to be on the side of Pharaoh and the side of the Evil One, because children are a challenge doesn’t mean we should see them as a burden. Because marriage is a challenge doesn’t mean we should conceive it as a burden. Living as a Christian is a challenge, but it is a blessing—eternal blessing.
But what about this language about arrows? Arrows in the hands of a warrior. Arrows were for protection. He talks about here the children of one’s youth. In the world of the Old Testament, they saw the Lord as a divine warrior who fought for his people. In this passage, the picture of the culture of this home as these children are raised with dependence upon the Lord and treated as a blessing is they are tethered to their parents and their father in such a way that they can be seen as arrows. They are protectors of the family. They will be there in the old age of the parents. Biblically, the primary elder care program is called children. Judy and I remind ours of that a lot. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. That’s the way we are supposed to conceive it and think about it. That is a part of the blessing.
Look at verse 5: “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” “Blessed is the man,” meaning the smile of God, the favor of God. “Who fills his quiver with them,” the focus there is not so much number as opposed to whatever children God gives you, you are to count as a blessing.
So what should the culture of the home be? It should be marked by trust and a very real palpable sense that the parent, the father, feels blessed to have this family. “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” Traveling to the gate was the law court of the day, and the idea is when they see this man’s children he will never be put to shame, no matter what anybody else says about him. The idea is also that the children will willingly go there and defend the honor of their father at the gate. “He will not be put to shame.”
There is nothing here about wealth; there is nothing here about position. Why? Because those things don’t bring security. There are plenty of people with wealth and position who are wracked with anxiety and see life itself as a burden. Dads, this doesn’t just mean you are providing for your children. It means that you are providing for your children, but you are pouring your life into them. You are pointing them to God in Christ. You are willing to lovingly discipline them. You are training them in godliness.
This is an active project, not a passive one. So many men think that their responsibility ends with a paycheck and they will leave the rearing of the children to the wife. That is not counting it as a blessing. You are to be tethered and active in your children’s lives. This is an active project where we must be totally committed. And by the way, one of the things that you do to create a culture of blessing is demand that your children honor, respect, and obey your wife and other leaders. See, a parent that allows the children to disrespect the other parent is creating a child that will ultimately disrespect them as well. “Does not respect authority” is a problem.
Now, there’s the temptation here to say, “Well, this seems so over-romanticized. It seems so idyllic. It’s not real-worldish.” Well, yeah, sure it is. It’s just not the only thing in the Bible. The Bible is so clear painting all the problems and the challenges. But the problems and the challenges fit into the context of the direction that we are heading. The problems and challenges don’t change the goal. The problems and challenges are the context to live out the right culture, not the enemy to it, because they put our values to the test.
Derek Kidner in his commentary on the Psalms says, “It is not untypical of God’s gifts that they are liabilities or at least responsibilities before they become obvious assets. The greater their promise, the more likely they will be a handful before they are a quiver full.” That’s the real world, that’s where we live in. This is a struggle. There are some ways in which we fail to create the culture that we are called to create, and yet what we do is not hang our head and mope on. You were called to be the culture maker so you reverse course. And it is powerful when anyone is willing to do this. Today is a great day for you to start a new direction. Your failures can be redeemed and can be powerful in the lives of your wife and children and all of the watching world.
Reverence or Disregard
But as we move to Psalm 128, I want us to look at the first four verses and the next contrast is this: Reverence or disregard.
This is a song of ascents as well. “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!” Fearing the Lord means bowing before the Lord, reverencing the Lord. It means that you have ideas but God has spoken, therefore you say God is right so you walk in his ways. You don’t try to bring God to account of your ideas. You live your life in subjection to him.
Now, notice that verse 4 ends with “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.” So blessed is everyone who fears the Lord and walks in his ways, and then it ends in verse 4, “Behold thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.” The man, who is the primary culture maker in the home. So everything in between is about this issue of what it means to be blessed in light of fearing the Lord. Trusting his wisdom, not your own.
Look at verse 2: “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.” Now, notice here again labor is mentioned. Labor is not a bad thing, labor is necessary, but when labor is done in dependence upon God, then you enjoy the fruit of the labor of your hands. It’s not something you use to exalt yourself; it’s something you use to exalt God. So when labor is done in dependence upon God, enjoying it to the glory of God is an act of worship. You shall be blessed and it shall be well with you. Now, the “well with you” is a long-term promise. It’s certainly not a promise: “You shall be blessed and therefore everything will be smooth sailing.” Not at all. But it shall be well with you.
Verses 3-4 says, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” Then there’s the end: “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.” Now notice here it infuses into this conversation your wife. The blessings of the husband who trusts the Lord, who sees his family as a blessing, means that he doesn’t just look at his children as a blessing but his wife as a blessing. He delights in sharing the blessings of his labor with his wife because he fears the Lord. That means if he doesn’t delight in that, it is a failure to fear the Lord.
To reverence God, a man has to honor his wife, who is a blessing from God. He cherishes her; he delights in seeing blessings extend to her from his labor. He sees that as a gift from God itself. When it says here “She will be a fruitful vine,” that’s a big encompassing picture there. It doesn’t just mean that she produces children; it’s a symbol of fruitfulness and a symbol of delight. It’s a call for the husband to delight in his wife, and it’s also used for sexual delight. In the Song of Solomon, you see that. So all of these things are the man looks at his wife and says, “Blessing from God. This home is fruitful partly because of her, and I am going to give my life to serve her and protect her, and God has given us the blessing of a sexual union, and we should not neglect one another in the way God has intended us to picture the one-flesh relationship.”
Notice it says, “Within your house,” that speaks to fidelity. If Solomon composed the previous psalm, if we go back to Proverbs, the wisdom literature, it is always the adulterer who goes outside the house in the streets and does rebellion against God by seeking sexuality and other things where God did not give it. God has given it within the home with one’s wife.
When it says children will be like olive shoots around your table, that’s a powerful image there. It’s full of promise. We know about olive trees; they take a long time to mature. It takes a long time for them ever to become profitable. It takes nurture and care and trust and hope, but when they do start producing, they can produce crops for centuries. They have incredible staying power for the production of these blessings. And it’s a powerful image. Your children are like olive shoots around your table. This isn’t going to be easy. This takes cultivation. This means you’re going to have to honor the Lord even when it seems that they’re rejecting you. You’ve got to stay in there with them; you’ve got to keep pointing them in the right direction. And the hopefulness is that they will bless a generation as well after you.
See, all of this language means that the culture of our home is either marked by trust, blessing, and reverence or by anxiety, burden, and disregard. Disregard for God always leads to disregard for others. A person who treats people badly is a theological problem. Somebody who wants to walk away from their spouse just because they say, “Ah, just not making me happy anymore.” It’s a theological problem. Somebody who forsakes their problem, it’s a theological problem. What we like to do is to have our theological ideas as abstractions in our mind and as long as in our mind we are committed to them we think we are theologically strong. They are not tested in your mind; they are tested in your life. We must never forget it. You see, none of this is automatic. This is no formula.
Influencing the World
That brings us to the last contrast, in verses 5 and 6, and that is peace or conflict. Look with me at those verses. “The Lord bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children's children!” Multi-generational blessings. “Peace be upon Israel!”
Notice what he does here. He’s talking about the family and then he starts talking about the community. Why? Because the community is simply the accumulation of the culture in families. There is a way that you influence the broader community by the way you live within your home, the culture in your home, and that is true for good or for bad. We have families, but we are members of a community.
This is a prayer here because none of these things are automatic. We are to see this in a formulaic sort of way. We’re dependent upon God; we’re crying out to God. So prayer drives us back to the beginning of trust. Trust leads us to see what God has provided in our wife and children as a blessing, which means that we live with reverence for God, which drives us back to prayer. One way that we can live produces peace. Peace in the midst of the conflict of this world. And one way that we can live, we add to the conflict of this world because we add to it in our own home.
This is a prayer for the big picture of what our families can mean to the world that God has put us in. He is saying it can matter for the sake of Zion, Jerusalem, Israel itself, the community. Home, city, nation, world—God has ordained us to influence all of them the best we can. Galatians 6:16 picks up on this kind of language at the end: “And for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God.” Those who are part of the covenantal blessings to Israel through the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to see our lives in this way as well.
This fear of the Lord, this embracing of the peace of God in the midst of a world marked by spiritual war, is not personal perfection. The idea is not if your life is perfect and completely represents this picture then you’re ok. No, the exact opposite. If you ever think in this fallen world you will get to a state of perfection, then you are not fearing the Lord. You are not living with the humility that God has called you to live with. That’s not it at all.
Your humility drives you to know that you fail all the time. But your faith doesn’t drive you to despair in that moment. You reclaim the gospel promise of peace; peace to somebody like you. And because you love God and you are thankful for his grace, you get up and try to take a step in the right direction again, knowing that doing so is attractive to everybody watching. And fathers, it’s attractive in your home and to your children. A failure to fear the Lord leads to the fear of man. The fear of man always produces conflict. Conflict in the home, the community, and the nation.
If we’re going to create the culture in our homes that we need to create, then we have to trust in God and his gospel. We have to see as blessings the privilege to receive his good gifts, including our wife and children. We have to reverence the Lord in all things, not just the easy things. Only then do we have the peace that comes from the gospel. This peace can turn our family into a mission team that can influence our community and the world.
Honest question: Dad, what kind of culture are you creating in your home? If it’s not what it needs to be, it can be. You don’t need a certain amount of money, you don’t need a certain status to trust, bless, reverence, and embrace the peace that comes from the gospel. All you need is by faith a willing heart. You can move in a new direction today, clumsily, awkwardly, missteps. Fine. The glory of God and the grace of the gospel call you to it.
David Prince is Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and he blogs at www.davidprince.com.