An exegetical study of psalm 127 by

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Bruce K. Dahlberg

Submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements

for the degree of Master of Theology in

Grace Theological Seminary

May 1984

Digitized by Ted Hildebrandt, Gordon College, 2007.


Author: Bruce K. Dahlberg

Degree: Master of Theology, 1984

Advisers: John J. Davis and D. Wayne Knife

Proper exegetical study of Psalm 127 is often clouded by

unnecessary baggage. Presuppositions have torn this psalm away from

its historical situation. These presuppositions hindered the understanding

of the psalm and the resolution of specific problems in the psalm.

By way of a contextual analysis that is confirmed

and developed through an exegetical study of this psalm, a

proper focus for exegetical study can be achieved. The

Hebrew text is clear of any textual difficulties. It is the

LXX that has created textual difficulties which can be

cleared up by proper exegesis. This wisdom psalm is com-

posed of two aphorisms that are unified in one psalm. These

two aphorisms or proverbs seek to describe and prescribe the

way to achieve the good life. The psalm evidences a

eudaemonistic or prudential wisdom flavor. The Sitz im

Leben is probably seen in the pilgrimages of the Israelite

to the annual feasts in Jerusalem. The authorship and date

are tied together. The trustworthiness of the psalm titles,

the nature of wisdom literature, and biblical evidence point

to a Solomonic authorship and a date around 971-941 B.C. It

is important to note that wisdom literature does not indicate lateness.

The dictum of Yahweh's sovereignty is spelled out in

verses 1-2. If the activity of life providing shelter and

security is done without acknowledgement of Yahweh in the

attitude of the worker, the thing which is done is evil.

xvw speaks primarily of wickedness, that which is done

against the will of God. The dictum of God also speaks to

the livelihood of man. The life that stretches that day

beyond normal limits because of anxiety or licentiousness is

declared evil. xnAwe means sleep as traditionally understood,

is the reward of the diligent worker (Ecc 5:18-6:2).

Because of the literary device used, it is unnecessary to

seek other meanings for the word xnAwe. The blessing of

Yahweh is spelled out in verses 3-5. The themes began in

verse one tie in the second proverb. Sons become a heritage

of earthly parents who are like arrows to be used by the

mighty warrior. In time of need the father can depend on

them for support against unfair judiciary practice in the city gate.

The beauty of the psalm is not only in the meaning

of it, but the literary production is truly superb. Many

types of parallelism are used along with verbal figures that

tie the psalm together and guide one in the understanding of

the semantical aspects of the psalm.

Accepted by the Faculty of Grace Theological Seminary

in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree

Master of Theology

John J. Davis

D. Wayne Knife





Textual Critical Note 3

Gattung 4

Sitz im Leben 7

Structure 10

Unity of Psalm 127 10

Outline of Psalm 127 14

Authorship and Date 15

Psalm Titles 15

Wisdom Literature 17

Biblical Evidence 23


Introduction 28

Verse One 29

Grammatical Observations 29

Semantical Studies 31

tyiba/ ryfi 32

xv;wA 37

Interpretative Summary 39

Verse Two 42

Grammatical Observations 42

Semantical Studies 48

xnAwe--A Resolution 49

xnAwe---Other Explanations 55

Interpretative Summary 58

Verse Three 59

Grammatical Observations 59

Semantical Studies 61

Interpretative Summary 63

Verse Four 65

Grammatical Observations 65

Semantical Studies 65

Interpretative Summary 68

Verse Five 69

Grammatical Observations 69



Semantical Studies 71

Interpretative Summary 75

Conclusion 76


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


I. Structural Schematic 79

II. House/City 80

III. Quiver/Arrows 82

IV. City Gate 84


AB Anchor Bible

ANE Ancient Near East

ANET J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern


BA Biblical Archaeologist

BDB Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, C. A. Briggs,

Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament

BHS Biblia hebraica stuttgartensia

DJD Discoveries in the Judean Desert

DSS Dead Sea Scrolls

ExpTim Expository Times

GKC E. Kautzsch, A. E. Cowley, Gesenius' Hebrew


HUCA Hebrew Union College Annual

ICC International Critical Commentary

JANESCU Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of

Columbia University

JAOS Journal of the American Oriental Society

JSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

LXX Septuagint

MSS Manuscripts

MT Massoretic Text

VT Vetus Testamentum


In a few terse verses, Psalm 127 delineates the

spectrum of God's sovereignty--a spectrum that moves from

the realm of judgment to the realm of blessing. The verses

which open up this spectrum are superficially familiar to

many. They present simple truths that are often used with-

out consideration for the context from which they come.

Consequently, the literary beauty and total impact of the

psalm are lost.

The psalm is not a difficult one. Yet, there are

problems in it that perplex interpreters. The unity of the

psalm and the final colon of verse two are problematic areas

of this psalm.1 It is usually the latter problem which

draws the most attention. Apart from these two areas of

concern the psalm has not been inundated with serious study.

Not only does the psalm speak of tremendous theological

truths, but, it also provides a sphere in which to see the

literary hand of a poet at work. Both of these areas tease

the interpreter for further study. Above all of these, the

canonicity of the psalm is a major factor for the pursuit of

study. It is part of God's word which reveals God and any

1Patrick D. Miller, "Psalm 127--The House that

Yahweh Builds," JSOT (1982):119.



study in which one's knowledge of God is expanded is worth-

while (2 Tim 3:16).

The purpose of this thesis is to exegetically under-

stand this psalm as a basis for valid application for the

modern day believer. In order to accomplish this goal,

introductory matters must be dealt with such as the Gattung,

Sitz im Leben, structure, authorship, and date; an exegeti-

cal study of the verses must be undertaken; and finally the

application of the psalm is necessary.
The matters dealt with in this chapter should not

be viewed apart from the exegetical study. These matters

are derived from and confirmed by exegetical study. They

are presented here prior to the exegetical study proper to

alleviate some unnecessary baggage from the exegetical study

and to provide a proper focus for the study.

Textual Critical Note

The text of Psalm 127 is not problematic as it

relates to the Hebrew text. The MT is substantiated by the

Qumran materials. The Qumran texts are filled with many

lacunae in regards to Psalm 127, but what is found agrees

with the MT.1 The LXX, however, presents some problems.

1J. A. Sanders, The Dead Sea Psalm Scroll (New York:

Cornell University Press, 1967), pp. 40-41. Cf. John M.

Allegro, Qumran Cave 4, DJD (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968),

pp. 51-52 and D. Barthelemy and J. T. Milik, Qumran Cave 1,

DJD (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 71. It should be

observed that an orthographic variant exists between the two

texts. The Qumran text uses a waw instead of the holem.

Comments on this variant can be found in David Noel Freedman,

"The Massoretic Text and the Qumran Scrolls: A Study in

Orthography," in Textus, vol. 2, edited by C. Raben (Jeru-

salem: Magnes Press, 1962), pp. 87-102. This difference

supports the text rather than detracts from it. Even though

the Essene scribes decided to adapt the plenary spelling,

this did not change the meaning. Furthermore, it shows the

scribes were willing to change the text, but they did not


There are a number of variants which appear to be misunder-

standings of the MT or interpretations of the MT. These

differences will be brought to light in the next chapter.

The outcome of these variants will be readily seen as the

meaning of the psalm is unfolded.


The Gattung of Psalm 127 has been generally classi-

fied as a wisdom psalm.1 Yet, there are some who see wisdom

influence but are unwilling to classify it as a wisdom

psalm.2 Walter Kaiser has compiled two lists from various

authorities which delineate the distinctive style and themes

of wisdom psalms.3 Using these lists one can readily iden-

tify Psalm 127 as a wisdom psalm. Drawing from the list of

stylistic distinctives, Psalm 127 evidences a few of these

distinctives: (1) A "blessed" saying (yrew;xa) is used in

verse five; (2) A comparison is found in verse four; (3)

Admonitions are accounted for in verses one and two; (4) The

where many recent scholars would do so. This would support

the earlier text.

1A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, in New Century

Bible (London: Oliphants, 1972), p. 866. Artur Weiser, The

Psalms (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), p. 764.

2Roland E. Murphy, "A Consideration of the Classifi-

cation 'Wisdom Psalms,'" in Studies in Ancient Israelite

Wisdom, edited by James L. Crenshaw (New York: KTAV Pub-

lishing House, 1976), p. 464.

3Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), pp. 165-66.


use of wisdom vocabulary such as "vanity" and "sons";1 (5)

The employment of proverbs of which this psalm is composed.2

Westermann amplifies this proverbial idea with these com-


These three 'psalms (127:1-2; 127:3-5; 133)' could

appear in the book of Proverbs without changing a word,

and no one would imagine that they were supposed to be


The use of thematic criteria according to Kaiser

would classify this psalm as a wisdom psalm.4 Themes such

as "the contrast between the 'rasha ' and 'saddiq "' and

"practical advice as regards conduct" find expression in

this psalm.5

The literary form associated with "wisdom litera-

ture" can also be broken down into different styles. Psalm

127 would fall into the didactic genre.6 C. Hassell Bullock

would group this psalm with the "lower" wisdom contained in

the Old Testament. This lower wisdom would be contrasted
1James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta:

John Knox Press, 1981), p. 184.

2Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content

and Message, translated by Ralph D. Gehrke (Minneapolis:

Augsburg Publishing House), p. 115.


4Kaiser, Old Testament Theology, p. 166.

5Murphy, "A Consideration," p. 460. Also cf. Pius

Drijvers, The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning (New

York: Herder and Herder, 1965), p. 230.

6Leupold Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and

Meaning, vol. 2 (New York: Alba House, 1969), p. 257.

with the "higher" wisdom such as the book of Job.1 Higher

wisdom is reflective. It takes an issue and probes it from

various angles.2 Lower wisdom is more eudaemonistic in

nature. It seeks to "describe and prescribe the way to

achieve the good life,"3 which would include moral obliga-

tions.4 Walter Kaiser notes that this psalm falls into a

"prudential type of wisdom writing consisting of smaller

units of thought which are disconnected and often isolated


Clarifying the Gattung of this psalm helps in under-

standing it. Being a wisdom psalm, it mingles the religious

expression of the individual (i.e. a psalm)6 and the means

to live life skillfully (i.e. wisdom)7 with the goal of

instruction (i.e. didactic). Its eudaemonistic motif is

developed and defined in the content of the psalm which will

be explored in the next chapter.

Horace D. Hummel gives an appropriate perspective on

lAn Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Tes-

tament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 140.

2Ibid., p. 25. 3Ibid., p. 140.

4Kaiser, Old Testament Theology, p. 178.

5Ibid., p. 94.

6Cf. John J. Davis, "The Psalms: Studies in the

Hebrew Text" (Winona Lake, IN: Grace Theological Seminary,

1977), p. 3.

7Cf. Bruce K. Waltke, Understanding the Old Testa-

ment: A Syllabus (Grand Rapids: Outreach, Inc., 1976),

pp. 29-30.


the role of wisdom literature.

In a word, the main dogmatic category for properly

approaching wisdom is the 'third use of the Law.' It

represents an alternate mode of expression and type of

approach to the illustration of faithful living found in

the 'legal' sections of the Pentateuch, and thoroughly

harmonious and compatible with it. It concentrates on

those aspects of living which the believer shares with

all men, and where the motivations or any uniqueness

will often be unapparent to men.1
Sitz im Leben

Roland E. Murphy is correct when he states, "All

things considered, however, it must be admitted that the

precise life setting of these poems [wisdom psalms] eludes

us."2 He speaks of the original setting of composition.

But perhaps some light can be shed if the Sitz im Leben is

expanded to include the use of the psalm.

The first hint of the possible use of the Psalm is

found in the inscription of the Psalm tOlfEma.ha rywi. Psalm 127

falls into a group of fifteen psalms (120-134) which contains

this same inscription. The meaning of rywi is not disputed.

The meaning BDB assigns to it is "song"3 and there is no

reason to doubt this meaning.4 Doubt arises, however, in

regards to tOlfEma.ha. It is often translated "degrees,"

1The Word Becoming Flesh (St. Louis: Concordia

Publishing House, 1979), p. 396.

2Murphy, "A Consideration," p. 461.

3P. 1010.

4Weston W. Fields, "Solomon's Most Excellent Song"

(Th.D. dissertation, Grace Theological seminary, 1979), p.

"ascents," or "goings up."1 These meanings are within the

lexical range suggested by BDB.2

An extended treatment of this subject is beyond the

scope of this thesis. Cuthbert C. Keet's work, A Study of

the Psalms of Ascents, overviews this subject and is bene-

ficial for a more indepth study.3 Of the various views,

four explanations have possibilities: (1) This particular

term denotes a peculiar rhythmical structure of these psalms;

(2) The psalms were sung upon the fifteen steps leading from

the court of the men to the court of the women; (3) These

psalms were sung by exiles on their return from Babylon; (4)

These fifteen songs were sung by the pilgrims as they went

up to Jerusalem for the three great annual feasts (Ex 23:17;

Deut 16:16; 1 Kgs 12:28).4

The fourth view is the generally accepted view today,

but is far from being unrefutable. Adopting this view would

suggest a cultic use of Psalm 127. Mowinckel suggests that

Psalm 127 be included with those psalms that appear to be

1A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Fincastle,

VA: Scripture Truth, n.d.), p. xxviii.

2P. 752. The root can be traced to hlf which adds

further dimension to the meaning.

3(Greenwood, SC: The Attic Press, 1969), pp. 1-17.

4J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms (George

Bell and Sons, 1.878; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1976), pp. 87-88.

non-cultic.1 Furthermore, Mowinckel denies the possibility

of any of these fifteen psalms being associated with

"pilgrimages."2 The content of Psalm 127 implies the

acknowledgement of Yahweh as supreme and would not be diffi-

cult to see this psalm being sung by the pilgrims as they

journeyed to the temple to worship their sovereign God.

The second hint is contained in the phrase hmolow;li.

This phrase will be discussed more completely in the follow-

ing section. But some of its ramifications can be pursued

here. Accepting the validity of this expression, it would

not be difficult to see this psalm composed for or by

Solomon to remind him in his activities3 that God is the

ultimate builder. Another situation in which this psalm

might have been composed is for the use in scribal schools.

Solomon might have developed schools to train his nobles in

the way of Yahweh to counteract the secular teachings in

which they were also trained.4

In summary, the Sitz im Leben is not readily obtain-

able. However, the suggested situations, if retained, would

1Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship,

trans. by D. R. Ap-Thomas (New York: Abingdon Press, 1967),

vol. 1, p. 111.

2Ibid., p. 209.

3See 1 Kings 9:10-26.

4Barry D. Halvorsen, "Scribes and Scribal Schools in

the Ancient Near East: A Historical Survey" (Th.M. thesis,

Grace Theological Seminary, May 1981), pp. 149ff.

not present any serious objections by the writer to eluci-

date the setting of the psalm.

Unity of Psalm 127

Diverse opinion exists on the unity of this psalm.

Some hold that this psalm is actually two separate psalms

and must be treated as such.1 Others see the psalm as

unified but made up of two original psalm fragments.2 A

third view is that the psalm is an original unified psalm

composed of two aphorisms.3

Three avenues can be used to bolster the unity of

this psalm. First the thematic aspect of the psalm under-

girds its unity. Both proverbial sayings speak of the

sovereign nature of God. He is the one who determines what

is worthwhile (v. 1) and He is the one who decides to give

reward (v. 3). Other variations of this theme are seen

underlying the two sections of this psalm. Kidner states,

"Both parts proclaim that only what is from God is truly

strong."4 Scroggie sees "the underlying thought throughout
1E.g. Charles Briggs, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1, 2,

ICC (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909), p. 458.

2W. O. E. Oesterley, The Psalms (London: S. P. C. K.,

1962), p. 517.

3A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, in New Century

Bible (London: Oliphants, 1972).

4Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (London: Inter-Varsity

Press, 1975), p. 441.


is the uselessness of all human effort which does not rely

on the will, power, and goodness of the Lord."1

Second, the literary and semantic expressions bond

the psalm together. From the literary vantage point,

Mitchell Dahood observes,

the alliteration of 'b' sounds in vs. la, yibneh

bayit . . . bonayw bo is echoed by vs. 5b, yebosu

. . . yedabberu . . . 'oyebim bassa.'ar; and the

repetition of 's' (=sh) sounds in vs. lb, yismor . . .

saw' saqad somer recurs in vs. 5a, 'asre . . . 'aser

. . aspato.2

Semantically, there are a number of subtle attractions that

hold the psalm together. In verse one the city is mentioned

which creates a semantic bond with verse five which speaks

of the gate of the city.3 This member-class relation shows

off the inclusio technique of Hebrew poetry. Another

semantic bond between the two sayings is the concept behind

the words NTeyi (v. 2) and tlaHEna/rkAWA (v. 3). Yahweh is one who

possesses something to give. Another connection is seen in

the ideas of "house" and "sons." It is in the house that

sons are born and reared. It is only natural to see these

concepts as associated.

Conceivably, the best treatment on the unity of this

psalm is found in Patrick D. Miller's article. He brings
1William Graham Scroggie, The Psalms (London: Pick-

ering ering and Inglis Ltd., 1948), p. 245.

2Psalms, vol. 3, AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and

Co., 1970), pp. 222-23.

3Ibid., p. 222.


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