Principles are universal, and we can apply them in a host of circumstances, variables notwithstanding. I’m constantly (no exaggeration) thinking about maintaining the long view and helping others to do the same. An excellent academic education is not our chief aim. (GASP!) Frankly, that’s too small. That excellent academic training is a part of the package as we are intentional about the enculturation of our Raggants. Our chief aim is to assist parents in turning cute little kids into weapons, mighty warriors for Christ who will be very well-equipped to stand shoulder to shoulder with their parents, addressing real adversaries. And we use laughter and worship and rigorous academic training as tools in this process.
In a recent service at Trinity Evangel Church, I addressed these matters from Psalm 127, and we wanted to make that available to you all.
HERE is a link to the audio, and I’ve pasted the text of the message below. I hope you find it helpful.
Tonight I get to speak on one of my favorite passages in Scripture, and it’s Psalm 127. I’ve selected this passage for a few reasons. For one, I’m a father who wants for my children to be full-blown weapons of spiritual warfare when they’re trained. As an elder, I want that for all of our people. As a school administrator, I want that for all of our school families. And if we can keep the long view in mind – to remember our long-term goals – it helps to provide a healthy and helpful perspective when things are hard now. “Where are we going and why?”
Another reason this Psalm fires me up is because of Solomon’s presupposition that dads are warriors with enemies and that their children are weapons to be wielded in a war of cultures. The Seed of the Serpent is at work, and so is the Seed of the Woman, and we’re on the winning side as the outcome is being played out. I never get tired of talking about spiritual warfare and how our worship is our most potent weapon in that warfare, as there’s no shield that can deflect the arrow of worship. Our enemy will try to get us to stop it, or to get us to offer it poorly, but he can’t stop it or answer it in kind himself.
And it’s a beautiful thing now, to imagine whole families speaking with these enemies together, armed with worship and a grin. Keeping this long view in mind will lend calming clarity when life is hard now. Thinking about my daughter as a young wife and mom with three kids helps me both to not freak out when she gets a 10% on a Latin quiz, knowing that she’s going to take a lot of Latin quizzes before she’s fully-trained. But it also motivates my helping her study well and wisely so she gets a 100% on the next one. It is a matter of stewardship and training more than academics. I need to be concerned with whom she is becoming more than her getting impressive test scores right now. And doing all of this with a smile helps communicate that my delight in her is not tied to her test performance, but rather who she is as my daughter. Sometimes I do this well; oftentimes I don’t. But it’s critical to have principles that drive my thoughts and behavior when the circumstances constantly change.
To be sure, parenting is hard. Raising children who are well-equipped to be used by Christ involves a lot of training, but that training must be saturated with love lest we exasperate our children. That’s hard.
As with my example with my daughter above, as a parent, I want all sorts of impossibilities for my children.
- I want for my kids to be stretched and grown…and I want them to love it.
- I want for them to learn to work hard, enjoying the satisfaction that comes from getting all of you homework done beautifully and excellently…and I want them to have a vibrant, active life outside of school.
- I want for their education to help shape their worldview…and I want them to have time to put that worldview into practice.
- I want them to be aware of the dangers and evils of this world…and I want them to laugh at the days to come.
- I want them to work like all the outcomes and success depend on them…and I want them to rest confidently in the sovereignty of God.
- I want them to love the Church…and I want them to lovingly engage the culture.
Some of this will bear fruit (either ripe or rotten) right now, some of the fruit won’t bud for twenty years. But why do I call those things “impossibilities?” Because I can’t do it. No human actually can. Left to ourselves we would ruin our children.
My own upbringing is a testament to this truth, and it’s bearing out in the lives of my children as well. I’m quite happy with my childhood and my upbringing, and there are things I learned from my parents that I want to characterize my life, and other things that I don’t want to emulate. I trust the same will be true when my children are grown and gone. But when children turn out well, it is quite often in spite of us parents rather than because of us. Rather, they turn out well because the Lord is building the house.
How many times have you messed up with your children? How many times have you spanked in anger, or drawn too hard a line on chores, or been too soft on chores? How many times has your example communicated to your children the the way to handle life’s challenges is with anger, anxiety, or despair?
Did it ruin them? Probably not. Why is this? Is it because of you? No, it’s because parenting is dripping with grace.
Now along with Paul, I might ask the question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may increase?” Shall we go right on being oafs as parents so God gets greater glory in overcoming our parenting weaknesses? God forbid! Only do that if you really do want to ruin your children.
Now King Solomon was a guy who was aware of his inadequacies. When he could have asked the Lord for wealth or fame, he asked for wisdom instead. God was so pleased with this that He granted Solomon not only the wisdom he requested, but wealth fame and peace as well. And Solomon’s legacy includes Proverbs and Psalms that include help for parents who would rightly understand God’s view of parenting.
Solomon seemed to understand this well…as did most of the ancients. Regardless of what men would like, we are at the Lord’s mercy…constantly. And the enculturation of our children is a clear example. Solomon, who lived in the 10th century before Christ, recorded for us a brief and helpful meditation in Psalm 127.
Now, while speaking with enemies in Solomon’s day looked different from how it does now, it is no less certain. His language was figurative then (i.e., children aren’t literally arrows) and it is now. But the principles he brings up are timeless. I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing this psalm this evening.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children[a] of one’s youth. 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.
We’re going to just plod through the psalm one verse at a time. Look with me at verse 1.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (v. 1).
As I mentioned before, Solomon penned this psalm, and some people think that the inspiration for it might have been the Temple in Jerusalem…the Lord’s house. Can you imagine that task? Building a house for God? I can see how it’d be potentially overwhelming.
Now, if I’m building walls for a house, nailing boards together, who is actually swinging the hammer? Me, or the Lord? (Yes!)
Many times, we operate in the flesh, working hard to do what we do from our own strength, forgetting that we only have strength at all if God gives it. We must work hard to worship well; we must work hard to feast well; we must work hard to engage our culture winsomely and effectively. Yet we must be constantly mindful that we can’t do anything at all – let alone successfully – unless God is at work in and through us. The alternative is to find ourselves working against the Lord.
But here’s the thing: for whom is the Lord likely to build the house? For those who are faithful. It’s not as though parents, for instance, can throw their hands up, absolving ourselves of any responsibility, insisting that God is going to do it all. If that were so, then parents would not be accountable for their stewardship of their children.
And this ought to be a source of encouragement for you; you’re never alone! You don’t have to have the strength to succeed, so long as the Lord does.
Solomon rewords his point in verse two:
“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (v. 2).
Working days are long. We work late and rise early, but doing so without the work of the Lord with us, on our behalf, we work in vain.
Even the bread we eat may be the product of our anxious, fretful work in the flesh. “He gives to his beloved sleep.” Let me ask you a question: when is your sleep sweeter? When you’re anxious or when you’re satisfied? And who is granted that blessed, satisfied sleep? Those who have been faithful and who have worked hard! But the sweet rest is not a product itself of our work, but rather it is a gift from the Lord. “He gives to his beloved sleep.”
If you want to rest well, then work hard, plead with God to work for you, and then rest in him. That rest will be sweet.
In verse three, then, Solomon switches gears. And while it might seem like an interesting decision, I think he’s offering an example. Could there possibly be a better example of how someone could be working as hard as possible, only to ultimately fail because the Lord is not at work?
Raising children is a perfect example of the sort of thing that parents can attempt to do in their own strength, and fail miserably. And when kids turn out well, it’s a testament to the Lord’s having built the house.
There is tremendous grace built into child-rearing, but that doesn’t mean that parents stop paying tuition or feeding their children, because, hey, it’s God’s job to build the house or not. Of course not! They’re trying to fashion weapons out of you!
This is how God works. He ordains means as well as ends. He ordains outcomes, and the ways that those outcomes come about.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening in this process.
“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (v. 3).
The Bible never speaks of children as a curse, or a problem to be fixed. They are a huge responsibility, but then so was building the Lord’s temple. It’s an overwhelming task, but a blessing!
While we may take this for granted, many in our culture have this backward. While lots of people really want children, lots of people in our nation kill their babies before they’re born. These are people who evidently do not want a heritage from the Lord. They’re not concerned about having kids and grandkids and great-grandkids, and they certainly don’t think of kids as a prize.
When we make sacrifices for our children, we regard them as a blessing. When we grumble at dirty diapers or are irritated by their childishness, we regard them improperly as but a problem.
“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children[a] of one’s youth” (v. 4).
There’s no denying it: little kids are cute. They’re cute when they show up on Sunday mornings in their church clothes, or when they march off to school in their uniforms or school clothes. They’re cute when they own the end of the song “Children of God” with full-throated glory (We are the saints. We are the children….). And part of the reason they’re cute is because God wants parents to find delight in their children. So it’s right and good, and it’s not close to enough. Nobody thinks it’s cute when a 30-year-old living in his mom’s basement still requests that mom trim the crust from his PB&J sandwiches.
We want our children to progress from cute to beautiful, and I don’t mean flowing golden hair or a broad shoulders and a iron jawline. I’m talking about arrows that are straight and true; weapons that are fit for God’s use.
Back in Solomon’s day, they didn’t have guns, or else he probably would have called children “bullets.” Their weapons for fighting from any distance were the bow and the arrow. They didn’t use crossbows anywhere for at least 300 years after Solomon wrote this. They did use spears, but you needed to be within throwing distance to use them. So arrows were pretty important!
What do we know about arrows?
Arrows are the finished product, wood is the raw material. Children are the wood; a father’s job is to turn them into arrows. How does this happen? There are all sorts of steps. There are lots of different approaches, but here’s how I do it. Ideally, you go to a place where there’s high shade and hardwood undergrowth, where the shafts grow tall and straight, making a beeline for the sunlight above. Yes, the ideal arrow shoots start in a sheltered environment. So, a shaft is selected and cut about four inches longer than you need the finished arrow to be. The bark is then peeled. The shafts are dried slowly so they don’t crack. To do this, they’re bundled together so they dry straight. Once they’re dry, they’re straightened out, using tools (from stones to teeth) and heat. Next, they’re smoothed out and then trimmed to length. My favorite way to do this is by scraping the shaft with a piece of broken glass or volcanic rock. It removes teeny peels of wood at a time, and works at least as well as sandpaper, and it’s easier to come by out in the woods. You can also accomplish the smoothing out by taking a handful of sand or even gravel and running the shaft through your hand a bunch of times until it’s smooth. Finally, the bowyer (that’s a person who makes bows and arrows) may put an arrowhead and feathers (called fletching) to help the arrow to fly straight and to penetrate the target. And the arrowhead will differ based on the target.
I’ll draw some parallels later, but I must point out a few things before we move on to verse 5:
The process of refining is not comfortable for the arrows. From scraping, to trimming, to heating up to be bent and straightened, it’s not necessarily a fun process, but in the end, it’s worth it. While a green hardwood shoot may be cute at best, a well-crafted arrow is both beautiful and useful. This is a slow process. Arrows made too hastily are of poor quality and will not last. They may be fine for short-term use or for a survival situation, but not for long-term use.
So, Solomon wraps up the psalm with 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” (v. 5).
Based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s a lot to these arrows, and having a lot of them is handy for the warrior who is staring down his enemies. You can do damage with one arrow. But two is better. Twelve is better still…especially when speaking with many enemies in the city gates. And one dad’s quiver may hold more arrows than another man’s quiver.
A poorly-crafted arrow can result in the death of the warrior. And one made quickly, that is crooked, split and dull is not as dependable or as useful as one made carefully, that is straight, smooth and sharp?
As parents, there ought to be purpose and intention to all we do. And we wish to accomplish in our children a humanly-impossible task, like all of the things I mentioned at the start. But it’s absolutely possible if God is building the house (or “arrows”), and granting us the sweet rest of the faithful and beloved.
To accomplish this task, we must be faithful to do what we’re supposed to do as parents and as Christians. In the school contexts, we will never be satisfied by good test scores, even if it looks impressive for a moment. That’s like being satisfied with an arrow that’s slapped together in a few hours. No, our work is not complete until our children are complete in Christ.
So there is a very real sense in which for our children, making their bed is peeling the bark from the green shoots. Coming to church every Sunday is like the slow drying of the arrow shaft; the mind is slowly curing around these simple truths.
Older children are being heated and bent into straight shafts. The prepared but still raw material is being shaped and trimmed. Confession and communion and watching their little siblings…they’re being straightened and smoothed out.
Still older children, of young adult age, are being finished, replete with the barbed broad-heads of love that will pierce and fix into the liver of our enemies, fletched with the truth that will enable them to be straight and true.
So the next time you’re doing you’re having your children clear the dishes from the table, think about the sort of arrow that they’re becoming…a weapon in the quiver of their earthly father, but also a weapon to be wielded by Christ our Master.
And last, remember that attitude is everything! This is a really great thing that’s happening to you arrows-in-the-making! The process is hard, but the outcome is both determined already and really, really great. And God is in control, so let’s laugh with joy at the days to come.
When you look at your children, let me encourage you to envision them ten twenty years from now, standing with you, as you speak with your enemies.