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Trouble, Trouble: How Worship Banishes Anxiety

Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Nov 3, 1999

Psalm 127:1-5

“A Song of Ascents, of Solomon.

Unless the Lord builds the house,

They labor in vain who build it;

Unless the watchman keeps awake in vain,

It is vain for you to rise up early,

To retire late,

To eat the bread of painful labors;

For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.

“Behold, children are a gift of the Lord;

The fruit of the womb is a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,

So are the children of one’s youth.

How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;

They shall not be ashamed,

When they speak with their enemies in the gate.”

We come this evening to a consideration of Psalm 127, and we’ve been looking at these Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), fifteen Psalms which, as we’ve been saying, constitute Psalms that the pilgrims in the Old Testament would have used as they made their way to some of the pilgrim festivals—the feast days in Jerusalem.

The opening words of this Psalm in Latin are Nisi Dominus frustra, and they form the basis for the motto of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland—and they mean, of course, Without the Lord it is vain, and they capture the main point of this Psalm.

I’m having trouble sleeping. It’s a common enough problem that affects us all at some time or another; and, lest I be misunderstood, the reasons for it are sometimes complex and involve physiological and psychological factors that require medical diagnosis and prescriptions for its alleviation and cure. But sometimes, too, the causes are simple enough: worry, anxiety, distrust of God’s providence or care, or both. And it appears to be the case in the particular Psalm that the Psalm is giving expression to something that is familiar to many of us: That there are times in our lives and in our personal experience when we eat the bread of sorrows, or, as the version I read before you says, to eat the bread of painful labors, and we feed upon our anxieties and depression, and it often becomes a vicious cycle.

And we’ve all known the kind of person who’s come to us and said, “Don’t worry.” And don’t you find that terribly frustrating when people say that? Because you want to say to them, “But you don’t know the kinds of things that I need to worry about! If you only knew what it was that I’m passing through, if you only experienced the kinds of things that I experience, then you would realize that I have every right to worry, and be anxious and be troubled.” Very often the reason why we get irritated by people who just say “Don’t worry” is because they’re dismissive...dismissive of the realities and the burdens of the anxieties that we face.

But the Bible is never like that. The Bible is never dismissive of the realities of the burdens that you and I go through. The Bible shares and underlines the reality of the trouble that many children of God pass through. But what the Bible does do, and what it says to us is that we need to take a wider look and a wider perspective: a more cosmic worldview, a worldview that sees not only the trouble and the difficulty and the trial, but sees the God who is greater than the trial and greater than the problem.

“All the way, my Savior leads me;

What have I to ask beside?

Can I doubt His tender mercy,

Who through life has been my guide?

Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,

Here by faith in Him to dwell,

For I know whate’er befall me,

Jesus doeth all things well.”

 And that’s the theme of this particular Psalm, and I like to think of this Psalm in terms of one of these worshipers making his way to Jerusalem, and perhaps now finding himself within the very outer precincts of the temple. There he is, perhaps with his family; there he is, thinking about all the events that have brought him to this particular point. He’s thinking about home. He’s thinking about his family, and he’s being reminded in the context of that temple and in the context of worship of the great God who is, and who cares for him and loves him.       And therefore I think this Psalm divides into two particular parts: that it first of all speaks to the anxieties that trouble us; and, in the second place, to the God who comforts us.

I. We are anxious and worry.

In the first place, it speaks to the anxieties that so often trouble us, and it does so along three areas of worry. It speaks about the home, and it speaks about the city, and it speaks in particular fashion about the family, and more particularly about children: the house in terms of personal prosperity, and the city in terms of security from the invasion and pillage of enemies, and, in the third place, of the family circle.

It speaks in the first place of personal prosperity, and it puts it like this: It says to us, “Unless the Lord build the house....” Perhaps the psalmist, finding himself now in Jerusalem and away from home, and finding himself in the midst of the precincts of the temple, is thinking about home. You know how it is when you go on vacation: you’re thinking about home. And perhaps he’s thinking about his home, and thinking about all of the energy and all of the work, and all of the mental and physical activity that’s gone into making that place a home. We spend an enormous amount of effort, an enormous amount of our time and energy on the making of our homes.

A home is a very special place (and I don’t wish to remind the senior minister this evening, but it is a known fact that moving home, next to divorce, is one of the greatest stresses that we can face!), and it’s interesting to think that the psalmist here would be thinking about home, and he’s saying something of profound significance. And what emerges as he thinks about home is this: that unless the Lord builds that home, that it is all in vain. There’s no point to it. All the effort and all the energy, and all the expenditure of talent...it’s all in vain unless the Lord builds it; that apart from what God does, it has no lasting value whatsoever. It’s only the things of God that will last.

But perhaps relevant and important as that is in our materialistic age, perhaps the psalmist is thinking of something a little bit wider than that. He isn’t just thinking here of the bricks and mortar, but he’s thinking of what is actually inside that home, what actually makes a home a home. And it’s the family and the wider connections that constitute that place home, and what concerns him is this reality that is now brought home to him: that unless the Lord is building all of that, unless the Lord is right there in the very center of all of that, unless God is the architect of all of that, and unless I am focusing all of my efforts and energies in maintaining that God is at the center of all of that, then it’s all in vain and it serves no purpose.

And don’t you think that the psalmist is being reminded here of the provision that God makes for the home, and the means of grace, and the worship of God that is provided for him in the temple? And perhaps he’s thinking of his own responsibility as a father and as a leader in the home in procuring that blessing and that grace of God, in leading his family to that throne of grace, and he’s reminding himself that unless God is right there in the midst of the home, then it’s all in vain.

And I wonder tonight if you can say...and I’m sure that many of you can, if not all of you... can say a hearty “Amen!” to that....that unless God is in our homes, that it’s all in vain.

But there’s a second line of concern that the psalmist turns to, and that is personal security; and he turns now to the city, and he says “Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain.”

And you will see the picture that he’s painting here of the city, and perhaps his home city, and how it was necessary for watchmen, especially at night, to guard and protect the people contained within its walls. But it was impossible often for a watchman to maintain that vigilance, and who knows but that a Trojan horse has come within the city containing enemies that would pillage the city?

Can you imagine how it feels to be in one of those cities and towns in Iraq when a stealth bomber undetectable by radar comes in the middle of the night with its deadly weapons? You can imagine how terrifying that would be. And the psalmist is saying something along these lines: that it’s impossible for us to protect our city, and unless the Lord does it, unless God guards the city, unless God guards my life...you see the perspective that he has?

And then he has a third line of concern—not just his home and not just the city, but of personal relationships, and especially the relationships he has with his children.  And he’s reminding himself (and us here this evening) that children are a heritage of God; that whether we have children or not, and how many children that we have and what they turn out to be is very often that which God Himself in His sovereign providence determines.

We worry about our children, don’t we? It’s a matter of great concern to us at every age from infancy through adolescence and beyond that; and the friends that they form, and the people that they marry, and the homes that they establish, and the jobs that they secure...and all of this is part of our daily concern, and it’s what the psalmist is referring to here. We need to appreciate here in particular an Old Testament perspective: that here is a man with his sons, and a quiver full of them, standing at the city gate where justice would be administered, and it’s a beautiful picture of God’s providing for the needs of this particular worshiper.

And the point that the psalmist is making in all three of these pictures is that it must be God’s doing. And the reason why we so often become concerned and anxious and worry is because we lose sight of that particular perspective; we lose sight of that sovereign grace of God, the God who guards and the God who protects, and the God who is over the city, and the God who builds the home, and the God who provides us with a family.

And I wonder where you are tonight, my friend. Maybe your levels of concern and anxiety are along different lines than that which the psalmist expressly measures here, but I venture to suggest that for many of you these are the very concerns that you have: that you are concerned about your home, and you are concerned about your jobs, and you are concerned about your futures, and you are concerned about your 401(k)’s (or whatever they’re called); and you are concerned about your protection and your safety and your health, and you’re concerned about your families. I know that many of you are, and you’re concerned about young people, and you’re concerned about teenagers, and you’re concerned about the friendships that they form and where they’re going, and you want to see them won for the Lord, and you want to see them brought into the kingdom of God. And if only you could do it, you would take their very place! And the psalmist is saying here, “Unless the Lord does it...”

You see, my friend, there’s no point in you trying to do it, because everything that you try to do apart from God is vain, and it has no lasting significance. It’s an edifice that will come crashing down.

II. God is the source of the remedy for all of our anxiety and distress and fear.

But the only solid structures are those structures which God Himself builds, and so the psalmist turns, in the second place, to consider the great God who is the source of the remedy for all of our anxiety and distresses and fears. And the psalmist has three particular characteristics or attributes of God that he focuses upon.

He focuses, in the first place, on the God who rules, and you see that in particular in verse 1, and you see it again in verse 3.  The God who builds and the God who guards and the God who creates, the God who is in control...that He hasn’t lost His ancient power; that He’s still in charge, and that God’s will is absolutely supreme, and that His decree is invincible and irresistible.

You remember Paul and Silas at Philippi in that prison cell, and, chained as they were, what are they doing at the stroke of midnight? When they weren’t sure whether or not they would be taken out and deported and executed...they had no idea of what the future held in store for them...and what are they doing at the stroke of midnight, but singing songs to Almighty God (in Acts 16). And you remember that context in Philippians where Paul gives us a glimpse of how it was that he was able to do that, and he says, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.” And how could he know that contentment? And he tells us in Philippians, chapter 4, when he reminds us, you remember, that “the Lord is at hand.” The Lord is at hand! This sovereign God who guards and creates and keeps and rules—He’s at hand! And He never leaves, and He never forsakes.

Let me put it this way to you: What this Psalm is saying to us is that we need to take our stands on that principle that our Savior took to stand upon when He found Himself, you remember, in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the Scriptures tell us that facing the consequences of His impending death, He trembled...that His soul trembled at the very thought of it. And you remember the stand on which He took: “Thy will be done. Not My will, but Thy will be done.” Trusting in a sovereign God who rules, trusting in the providence of God...unless the Lord does it, unless the Lord rules and guides and directs my feet....That’s a profound statement: that Jesus Himself, the sinless Lamb of God in the Garden of Gethsemane casts Himself into the arms of a sovereign God and the will of God, and says, “Thy will be done.”

And that’s this Psalm, my friends. That’s this Psalm.

And in the second place, He directs our thoughts to the God who defends and protects, and you see the reference there, that beautiful image in the second verse, where, at the very end of the verse, he says, “He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.”

Now, some of you will be familiar with the Authorized Version, “He gives His beloved sleep.” And that may be the translation, although it’s doubtful that that’s the correct translation; and this particular version, the American Standard Version here, has rather given the different interpretation that rather than the promise of sleep, it’s the promise that God provides even when we sleep. And that’s an even profounder thought, because when we’re asleep, we’re unconscious! If there is any part of our lives that betrays how utterly dependent we are and how creaturely we are, it is that time when we sleep—when we don’t even know what it is that we’re doing...we’re not even conscious of being alive, sometimes! And at that very moment, in that very condition, God provides and God cares.

There is this picture, you see, of a man who’s feeding on the bread of sorrows, and he’s feeding on his anxiety; and the psalmist is saying ‘Take a look at the God who provides even when you’re sleeping.’

But then, in the third place, he bids us look at another aspect of the character of God...and this is so typical of the Psalms: that the way out of anxiety, and the way out of difficulty, and the way out of spiritual depression is to look outside of ourselves and to look to God, and to look to God’s character, and to look to the attributes of God.

And the third particular attribute of God that the psalmist seems to focus on—it would be so very easy to miss it—is the attribute that God loves His children...that God loves His children. And you see it there at the end of verse 2: “He gives to His beloved....”—the ones whom He loves. And isn’t it this evening a most reassuring thought that in the midst of our personal anxieties and troubles and difficulties, that, trusting in Jesus Christ, God loves us; that the truth of this is so wonderfully brought out for us in what Paul has to say in Romans 8:32, that if “God be for us...” and we know that God is for us, because ‘He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all...if God be for us, then who can be against us?’ What possible circumstance, what possible set of contingencies can be against us if God is for us? If He loves us? If He loves us so much that He sent His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for us in our room and in our stead?

I came across this week a poem by William Cowper. I hadn’t seen it before. It’s called Peace After a Storm, and it goes like this:

“When darkness long has veiled my mind,

And smiling day once more appears,

Then, my Redeemer, then I find

The folly of my doubts and fears.

“Straight I upbraid my wandering heart,

And blush that I should ever be

Thus prone to act so base a part,

Or have one hard thought of Thee.

“Oh, let me then at length be taught

What I am still so slow to learn:

That God is love and changes not,

Nor knows the shadow of a turn.

“Sweet truth, and easy to repeat,

That when my faith is sharply tried

I find myself a learner yet,

“Unskillful, weak, and apt to slide, but, oh, my Lord!

One look from Thee subdues the disobedient will,

Drives doubt and discontent away,

And Thy rebellious worm is still.

“Thou art as ready to forgive

As I am ready to repine.

Thou, therefore, all the praise receive;

Be shame and self-abhorrence mine.”

And that’s what this Psalm seems to be saying, my friend: that those of you here this evening who find yourselves in any kind of trouble or difficulty, then look to the sovereign God, who in Jesus Christ loves you with an everlasting love; and may you know that sweet and beautiful contentment as you rest in His divine promises and character.

Let’s pray together.

Our gracious God and ever blessed Father, we do thank You and bless You for Your gracious and beautiful word, speaking to us as it so often does in the very condition in which we find ourselves. How sweet a thought it is to know that when our hearts are troubled and our minds are beside themselves with grief and anxiety, that You are a God who never changes, and that You are a God who has revealed such love and grace and favor to poor, wretched sinners in the giving of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Savior. Father, help us now. Help us individually and personally to know that peace that passes all understanding, and help us to resolve to put God, to put You, first and foremost in every aspect of our lives: in our homes, and in our employments in this city, and with respect to our family and children. And, O Lord, may You receive all the praise and glory, because we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now would you stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you now and forevermore. Amen.

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