Unless the Lord Builds the House

King David was one of the most beloved and well known kings in Israelite history. As the second king of Israel, he followed God’s call for his life (even though it made him brush up really close with death), he led his people in many battles and defences, and he loved God. But he wasn’t perfect. He messed up, and some of his mistakes are things many of us could only imagine. The most famous was his seduction and adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah, to cover up his lies (the event behind the well known Psalm of confession - Psalm 51).

King David, as a follower of YHWH, saw the need for God’s presence to rest in the midst of his people. It was important for him to build the house of the Lord. He made plans to build the temple, but then God told him not to. Although David was greatly admired, he had shed a lot of blood and God didn’t want his house to be built by a warrior (1 Chronicles 28:1-6).

Instead, David’s son, Solomon, would take on the task of building the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Although David had good intentions and longed to build God’s dwelling place on earth, He knew it would be better to listen to God and give that task over to his son who would succeed him as king. In David’s speech to Israel and Solomon, he commissions him to build the house as God’s sanctuary and to not go against what God commands (1 Chronicles 28:10).

It is fitting then, that Solomon became the author of Psalm 127, the first lines being:

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.”
Psalm 127:1a

Perhaps David’s example taught his son that having God as the master-builder was much more important and rewarding than trying to do it all yourself. Perhaps it was God Himself, who gave so much instruction about the building of the temple, that made Solomon realize that it is really God who builds, although the builders put together what God wants to happen. It could also be that Solomon’s Psalm wasn’t intended to make the connection to the building of the temple, but is to be seen as an image from which we can learn some of the characteristics of who God is. And what can we glean from a passage like this?

  1. God is in the business of building. However we want to use that image or metaphor, God is an active God. He is a creative God (as we see in Genesis or by simply taking a quick look at our own bodies). He is doing and He is building. He does not just sit around and wait for us to do everything. He is actively involved in His creation.
  2. God uses His creation to build. He is active in this world in so many ways and He uses His creation as His way of getting the job done. He is building, but the builders are still there. The biblical story is one where we see the hand of God working through people all the time. We also see His work through acts of nature (including talking donkeys!). It seems like, although He doesn’t have to, He chooses to use His creation to do His work.
  3. It’s better when God is in charge. We can all choose to build our own metaphorical house. We can all choose to do things our own way. But unless it is the Lord who is in charge, we are doing it for nothing. The things we do out of selfish intent (because we want to be our own boss) won’t last. We do much better when we allow Jesus to be the centre and follow His lead.

I don’t think it's a stretch to see the house as a metaphor for our own lives. As living, breathing temples of the Holy Spirit, we are called to be God’s hands and feet in this world. God is in the business of actively shaping and building us up. We all have a choice to allow God to be the centre of our lives or to just follow our own ambitions. When we allow God to be the foreman, we choose to use his plan for our lives.

A more intriguing image for me at this point is to see the building as the body of Christ. Our Christian institutions have been built, used, renovated, and even torn down over the centuries. We, as the members of the church (whether denominational or the global, Capital “C”, Church), are the builders. We have built churches, camps, aid organizations, missions agencies, health organizations, media companies, schools, help centres, and countless programs. 

The church is full of builders, some who like to follow and some who are natural visionaries. But no matter how much talent we have, no matter how much money we throw at something, no matter how much time we spend with it, if it isn't God who is building the house, we are working in vain. The truth is that the success of these buildings is not up to us. It is God’s work, He will do it.

I don’t think there is any doubt that God is active in His body and that He wants to be building. There is also no doubt that God will use us. We have no evidence that God is finished with the world and that He just wants us to disengaged from everything. The question is, will we let Him take control? 

It is a humbling challenge to ask God to take control. It is a test of trust to allow the God with the master plan to guide us. But as the psalmist Solomon learned, the blessings come when we allowed God to lead the build. Even if it is unconventional, unexpected, or unproven, when it is God who builds, it will not be in vain.