Shiur #12: Psalm 127 -
By Rav Elchanan
A Song of Degrees,
Unless God builds the
Its builders toil in
Unless God watches
over the city,
The watchman stays
awake in vain (shav).
(2) It is vain
(shav) for you to awaken early,
To sit up
To eat the bread of
For to His beloved He
gives tranquility (shena).
(3) Behold, children
are the heritage of God,
And fruit of the womb
(4) Like arrows in
the hand of a mighty one,
So are the children
of one’s youth.
(5) Happy is the
Who has filled his
quiver with them;
They shall not be put
When they speak with
their enemies at the gate.”
3 in comparison with its predecessors
third stanza differs from its predecessors in several respects. Firstly, it
lacks the negative conditional clause – “If God does not…." This could convey
the impression that awakening early and settling late are negative in and of
themselves, independently of the question of God’s partnership in the efforts of
those who conduct themselves in this way.
while both of the previous stanzas speak in the third person of people who exert
effort in vain, here we find that the psalmist addresses them directly, in the
second person: “It is vain for you…."
while the “vain” action in each of the previous stanzas was a single activity
(building, guarding), described in a single line of poetry, the third stanza
offers three different vain activities (arising early, settling late, eating),
all carried out for a single purpose – apparently, to make a living – but this
purpose is not mentioned in the text.
This stanza therefore consists entirely of the three actions whose heading is,
must now ask, does the third stanza represent a smooth thematic continuation of
its predecessors, or do the differences between them indicate that some new
point is being made here?
the differences set forth above, there are several decisive factors that place
the third stanza as an unbroken continuation.
the appearance of the word “shav” (“in vain”) at the outset represents
the third repetition of this word, after it has appeared in each of the two
previous stanzas. Apparently, the intention here is as it was in the previous
stanzas: “There is no value to your actions unless God is party to
the types of human activity addressed previously – the building of a house and
the guarding of a city – illustrate two typical areas of human existential
endeavor: finding shelter and ensuring security. The third stanza seems to
complement these by presenting another – even more prominent – typical
existential area of effort: economic viability.
three stanzas would therefore appear to represent a single idea that is broken
down into three examples. It is therefore not reasonable to posit that the third
stanza comes to present a new idea, different from the one expressed in the
first two, without explaining its meaning.
then, is the meaning of the differences between the third stanza and its
us first address the matter of the missing condition: “Unless God…." For this
purpose we must go back to the parallel nature of the
third stanza itself is built as a parallel with three limbs.
Is there also a parallel between the third stanza and the previous two? (We have
already seen that the first two stanzas maintain a clear
answer would seem to be clearly in the affirmative. The third stanza is a
parallel in synonymous, chiastic, incomplete
form, as follows:
If God does not….
… in vain
It is vain for you
that the third stanza parallels the previous stanzas in terms of content (hence
our definition of this as a “synonymous parallel”), we must ask why its
structure is different (bringing the consequence to the beginning of the
sentence, and thereby producing a chiastic parallel), and why this stanza is
lacking a part, requiring the intuition of its complement on the basis of the
two previous stanzas (hence the definition as an “incomplete
answer to these questions is that all of the changes characterizing stanza c. in
relation to its predecessors arise from the fact that this stanza concludes the
first section of the psalm. I shall presently explain what this
When a chiastic
parallel follows a direct one, it is often meant to “wrap up” the statement that
is being made. As in many other instances in Tanakh, the chiasm here expresses
conclusion and confirmation.
The third stanza concludes the first section of the psalm, and is therefore
presented as a chiastic parallel to the two preceding
The fact that the
parallel is incomplete arises from the length of the description, in this
stanza, of actions that are “vain”: there is an enumeration of three actions
instead of a single one as in the previous stanzas. Thus, the number of words in
this stanza (9) is equal to the number in the previous stanzas. Had the
conditional clause (“Unless God…”) been added here, the quantitative balance
would have been lost, with the consequent implications for the rhythm which
would have been similarly affected – along with aesthetic considerations.
However, we may ask:
why does the third stanza need to enumerate three different activities that are
undertaken “in vain”, rather than sufficing with just one? The answer is, once
again, that since this stanza “sums up” the message of the first part of the
psalm, the idea of “vanity” is expressed here with greater intensity and with
greater variation – and hence, necessarily, at greater length. I will explain
We have already
hinted above that the example of human effort in the quest for existential needs
that is discussed in this third stanza – the toil to ensure economic viability,
to obtain sustenance – is a more obvious example than either of the two
preceding ones. Why is this so?
The building of a
house lasts for a limited time. When the action is complete, the house stands
firm, and its inhabitant has satisfied his existential need for
The guarding of a
city, in contrast, is an action that continues – every day and every night.
However, this action is not one that every person engages in. The city guards
are a small, defined group of people for whom guarding is a permanent,
professional occupation. Furthermore, while guarding the city is unquestionably
a position of great responsibility, it does not involve much physical effort –
unlike many other human endeavors (such as building a
In a league of its
own is the Sisyphean effort to make a living. This ongoing effort is the lot of
every person, for all of his life. It requires that a person devote his days,
from early in the morning until the evening, to hard work involving physical and
Thus, the message
here is that it is not only the relatively brief endeavors (such as building a
house) or professional specializations (like guarding) whose success depends on
Divine involvement and help, but also – and especially – the endeavor that is
most characteristic of the human condition, and the most demanding: making a
In light of this, the
third stanza represents the most intensive expression of the idea set forth in
the first part of the psalm. This also explains the extra enumeration of actions
that are carried out “in vain” in this stanza – with ramifications for its
structure and its parallel relationship with its
The third stanza
involves one further development: the psalmist addresses the people toiling to
earn their bread in the second person: “It is vain for you…." This technique
serves to intensify the tone of reproof that was already hinted at in the
Previously, we noted
that the formulation of the moral, religious message of our psalm in the
negative (“Unless God builds… in vain”) alludes to the Divine retribution
awaiting builders of the house and guards of the city who are not worthy of
Divine partnership in their actions, and who will therefore see no success in
This note of rebuke
becomes more tangible when the psalmist addresses people directly. The actions
of these people, toiling endlessly to obtain sustenance, will not achieve
anything if they are not blessed by God.
Thus, despite the
differences between the third stanza and the two preceding ones – and by means
of those differences – the third stanza turns out to represent a continuation
and development of the same idea that they introduced.
Translated by Kaeren