A Pepper Grinder Post

The Shunned Blessing – Part 1

One of my biggest passions in writing this blog is to highlight ways that the modern western church has subtly replaced Biblical teachings with cultural values.  Today I want to look at an issue where there seems to be very little, if any, difference between the attitudes of most evangelical Christians and those of most non-believers.  This is an issue where the cultural norm is at odds with the Bible.  Here’s an issue where Christians have an incredible opportunity to be radically and noticeably different from the culture around them.  Instead, it seems that here, the church, as a whole, has chosen not to be salty.  The issue is our attitude towards children.

Because this can be a very emotionally charged topic, I’d like to start out with a disclaimer.  I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should use contraception.  That is a very important topic that I think every Christian should be seeking God’s will about, but I think having a Biblical attitude about children must be the foundation for any questions about contraception or family size.  The Bible does not, in my opinion, speak directly about whether or not it’s okay to try to prevent conception, but it speaks extremely clearly about the value of children.  Here is one of the clearest passages:

Children are the inheritance God gives,
What comes from the womb is his reward.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior—
That’s what sons of a young man are like.
Happy is the man whose quiver is full of them,
He will not be ashamed when he speaks with his enemies at the gate. 
(my translation of Psalm 127:3-5)

mother and child asleepDoes Psalm 127 sound familiar?  In , we looked at the first 2 verses of this psalm.  The theme there was the futility of striving to do things if God is not doing them.  As you may remember, the last phrase was, “he gives sleep to those he loves.”  I can picture a sleep-deprived new parent thinking that combining the message about God giving sleep with the message that children are a gift seems like a sick joke.  I myself have thought that the apparent change of subject between verses two and three is very abrupt.  A number of commentators have even proposed that the first and second sections of Psalm 127 were two separate pieces of writing that someone stuck together as one psalm.

I have read some fairly convincing arguments for why the whole psalm hangs together in terms of writing style, but what makes me believe that Psalm 127 is a unified whole, even more than that, is the unity of the message.  On the surface, it sounds like two unrelated themes, but think about it for a minute.  Verses one and two talk about the uselessness of our trying to accomplish things apart from God, while verses three through five talk about a gift that God gives freely.  It is as if God is saying to us, “Don’t try so hard to accomplish things on your own; look at the incredible gift that I will give you!”  It is not the things we work to achieve that are the most valuable, but the gift God gives freely to most sexually intimate couples who don’t work to block it.

There are two basic metaphors used for children in this passage.  The first is that children are an inheritance.  Verse 3 uses a common type of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, where the same basic message is repeated twice in different words.  First the psalm says “children,” then it says “what comes from the womb” (literally the fruit of the womb).  First children are an inheritance from God, then they are his reward.  An inheritance is something that is not earned, but given because of something the heir has no control over.  The Hebrew word I’ve translated “reward” is often used for a wage, but when God gives it, it has the connotation of a gift given as a reward for faithful service.  So there are two separate nuances, but the thing that both phrases have in common is that children are seen as something that is given by God.  This especially makes sense since it is being contrasted with things that we work to achieve.

quiver with arrowsThe second metaphor is a warrior’s arrows.  For peace-loving souls, this might sound at first glance like a creepy way to think about kids.  “Yup, my wife and I have five bullets in our clip and we’re expecting number six in June.”  On the other hand, the world of the Old Testament was not a safe place.  Unless you were part of a country with a far stronger army than those around you or had the good fortune to live in a strong walled city, you never knew when some armed band might sweep down on you to take your goods and kill or enslave you and your family.  Remember when David got his fateful view of Bathsheba taking a bath on the roof?  Remember what time of year it was?  According to 2 Samuel 11:1, it was, “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war.”  In America, we have had the blessing of not having a war on our own soil for over 135 years.  In the middle east during Old Testament times, war was such a regular occurrence that one of the four seasons was set aside for it.

In this type of world, having good weapons and knowing how to use them could make the difference between life and death for a family, or between freedom and slavery for a nation.  Bows and arrows were state-of-the-art weaponry at that time—deadly and able to be used at a distance.  Arrows gave a warrior power and safety.  An archer with an empty quiver was in big trouble.

I remember hearing in a sermon, that someone said, regarding this passage, that a quiver in Bible times held five arrows, the implication being that five was the ideal number of kids.  This is silly.  First of all, I’m doubtful that there really was one size for a quiver or that we know what it was.  More importantly, it is taking ancient eastern poetry and trying to make it into a western technical specification.  The psalmist’s point here was not to dictate how many children one should have.  What we see in the Old Testament is people having as many children as they could.  If someone was wealthy, like a king, he would have multiple wives at least partly so that he could have more kids (not that I’m advocating this!!).  The point of the passage is that having children is a tremendous blessing.

Our passage ends with a line that is cryptic to western ears: “He will not be ashamed when he speaks with his enemies at the gate.”  There are two things this could be referring to.  Judicial proceedings were often carried out at the city gate (as when Boaz made the deal to take Ruth as his wife in Ruth 4:1-12).  Some have speculated that our passage refers to a situation where one is facing one’s adversary in “court” at the city gate.  This is possible, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the warrior metaphor with which it’s being used.

city gateAnother thing that happened at the city gate was parleying before or during a battle.  When an enemy attacked a city, those being attacked were usually given a choice.  They could surrender or they could fight.  If someone knew that he didn’t have enough military strength to fight and had no hopes of being reinforced, he would ask for terms of peace (see Luke 14:31-32 for an example of this).  This kind of parleying would often take place at the city gate.  I believe this is what the writer of Psalm 127 had in mind.  The man with children is like the warrior who does not need to submit to the terms of the enemy, because he has the strength to fight.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Psalm 127 presents children as an amazing gift.  This leaves us with two big questions:

  • Does the rest of the Bible agree with this psalm in its assessment of the value of children?
  • Does this really apply to us, in a modern society that is so different from the world in which this psalm was written?

, we’ll consider these questions, along with the implications the Biblical teaching about children has for us.  See you then.

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*Photo credits: mother and baby sleeping from , quiver with arrows from , city gate by