Psalm 128 is a Song of Ascents. The superscriptions for Psalms 120-134 identify them as such. These superscriptions are in the Hebrew text. The assumption is that this Psalm collection included the songs the Jewish people would sing as they made their way to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles).
A classification given by interpreters is that Psalm 128 is a wisdom Psalm like Psalm 1, 37, and 73. Psalm 19, 111, and 112 might also be classified as wisdom Psalms. A Wisdom Psalm discusses the path to a blessed life. It resembles Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (possibly Job) in its theology, approach to truth, and rhetorical structure.
Another way to understand the Psalm is using Walter Brueggemann’s description of Psalms as Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Psalms of orientation have a sense that life is as it should be. Disorientation Psalms reveal the hardship and lament of life. They are the laments. Psalms of reorientation reveal a continued awareness of hardship and pain but they also sense that change has occurred such that a new place of hope and stability has been achieved (consider Psalm 73).
Psalm 128 is a Psalm of orientation. It states in polite and succinct ways the Psalmist’s belief that the life of the ones who follow God’s way will be blessed with material and vocational prosperity (Psalm 128:1-2) and with a blessed family life (Psalm 128:3-4). That part of the Psalm seems to connect to Psalm 127. And it concludes with a simple affirmation of God’s goodness. I tend to resist Psalms of Orientation. I resist the easy promises that God will act in predictable ways. I resist the idea that God can be viewed in mechanistic ways–you behave correctly and God will do good things for you (really? seriously?). I almost skipped the Psalm. On my first and second reading of it, I was bored by the time I had gotten to Psalm 128:6. And then I saw it.
“May you live to see your children’s children.” At 46 I still consider myself too young to become a grandfather–grindaddy–but, My daughter is at the stage in her life now where we were when she was born. She’s been married a year, she’s finished college, and she’s pregnant. I am reminded that for the ancients, 46 would have been an old man. There were no guarantees that a person would live long enough to “see their children’s children.” In truth, there are no guarantees for us. I am more aware now than I was when my daughter was born of just how precious life is. It cannot be taken for granted. Still, I feel confident that I will see my children’s children.
Yet as I go back and read Psalm 128 in light of becoming grandfather, this is what I see. “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in God’s ways” (Psalm 128:1). In a few months, I become a part of the larger family that will teach young lives what it means to worship the Lord and live in reverent relationship with God. “You will eat the fruit of your labor . . .” . We do not now live in a world where goodness is guaranteed the blessings of reward. The wicked thrive and the good suffer. Without grandchildren that fact is simply something I lament. Now, I see it as that which I must confess and from which I must repent. My grandchildren will be born into a world that I helped create. If indeed the world into which they are born is unjust and if it rewards the unrighteous, at least part of the blame belongs on me. Rereading the orientation of the Psalm renews my commitment to helping shape the kind of world that will provide stability for them, blessing for them, and renewal. I need to work for the kind of world where I can confidently prayer over my grandchildren, “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life.” Amen