The psalms in Book 5 have less of a common theme or setting than those in the other books. However, amidst the diversity of forms and settings, work appears more directly among these psalms than in other parts of the Psalter. Issues of economic creativity, business ethics, entrepreneurship, productivity, the work of raising children and managing a household, the proper use of power, and the glory of God in and through the material world all emerge in these psalms.
Psalm 107 relates human economic endeavors to the world of God’s creation. It is worth citing at length.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. (Psalm 107:23–31)
Then as now, people went to sea for fishing and trading. Their ships were fragile, and they had little warning before storms surged. Their lives and livelihood depended on the weather. Notwithstanding our technological advantages, we, too, depend upon a multitude of factors beyond our control in much of our work. Perhaps the most honest thing anyone can say about success at work is, “I was fortunate.” As Bill Gates remarked about the amazing success of Microsoft, “I was born at the right place and time.” To the believer, “fortunate” is a term to describe God’s constant provision for our needs. Wringing success from the uncertainties inherent in our work depends a bit on skill (a gift from God in itself), a bit on hard work, and a lot on God’s providence. Whatever our “desired haven” in life and work, “let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” Perhaps James had this psalm in mind when he said, “You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will we will do this or that’” (James 4:15).
A bit later, Psalm 107 adds further insight to this.
God turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in; they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield. By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their cattle decrease (Psalm 107:35–38).
God creates the conditions for life to thrive on earth. He can turn a desert into a pasture (or a pasture into a desert). Agriculture, including sowing crops and managing livestock, depends on God-given growth. Where agriculture prospers, towns arise. With the emergence of towns every kind of work appears. The urban economy provides all kinds of goods and services to a growing and diverse population. In an ancient economy, in addition to farmers and shepherds, a community would need potters, metalworkers, and scribes (to record commercial agreements and transactions, as well as laws and religious texts). The whole economy of any city, past or present, depends upon agricultural abundance, whether home-grown or through trade. When the world’s farmer can grow more than his needs for his own subsistence, complex communities can thrive. And this comes from God, who waters the dry land (Ps. 65:9, Genesis 2:5).
Psalm 107 thus covers economic activity on both land and sea, and asserts that God is over it all. And God is not hostile to our work. The psalm speaks of how he saves and provides. Our livelihood depends upon God’s beneficent governance of natural forces.
“Bill Gates Answers Most Frequently Asked Questions” [document on-line]; available from http://download.microsoft.com/download/0/c/0/0c020894-1f95-408c-a571-1b5033c75bbc/billg_faq.doc; (12 February 2010).
Psalm 112 declares God’s blessings on those who do business—dealing and lending, to use the psalm’s terms—according to God’s commandments. “Wealth and riches are in their houses,” the psalm observes, and “they are not afraid of evil tidings” (Psalms 112:3, 7). The virtues that bring such blessings include graciousness, mercy, righteousness, generosity and justice (Ps. 112:4-5). Righteousness and justice may come as no surprise to us. People want to buy and sell from businesses that are upright and just, so these virtues can be expected, in general, to bring prosperity.
But what about graciousness, mercy, and generosity? Graciousness could mean informing a customer about a lower-cost solution that brings less profit to ourselves or our company. Mercy could mean giving a supplier another chance after they miss a delivery. Generosity could mean sharing specifications with others in the industry so they can make products that interoperate with ours—good for customers, but potentially creating competition for ourselves. Does Psalm 112 mean to say that such things lead to greater prosperity, not less? Apparently so. “They have distributed freely” the psalm says, yet they are firmer, more secure, steadier, and ultimately more successful than those who do not practice such virtues (Ps. 112:7-10). The psalm attributes this to the Lord (Ps 112:1, 7) but it doesn’t say whether this is because he intervenes on their behalf or because he has created and maintained the world in such a way that these virtues tend to bring prosperity. Perhaps he does both.
Then again, perhaps the Lord blesses the upright by giving them a different picture of prosperity. Wealth and riches are included (Ps. 112:3, as above), but the overall picture includes much more than wealth. Thriving descendants (Ps. 112:2) who remember (Ps. 112:6) and honor them (Ps. 112:9), stable relationships (Ps. 112:6), heartfelt peace (Ps. 112:7), and an ability to face the future without fear (Ps. 112:8) are equally important in God’s view of prosperity. Is it possible when we follow the Lord’s commandments in business, it is not only our fortunes that are changed, but also our desires? If we could come to want for ourselves what God wants for us, wouldn't we be guaranteed to find a happiness that endures forever?
Psalm 113 informs us “from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised” (Ps. 113:2). Is it suggesting we should be in the temple (or in church) all day in order to praise the Lord? Or is it suggesting that in everything we do, including our daily work, we do it in praise to the Lord? From verses 7 through 9, we clearly see it is the latter. “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes.” Although the psalm doesn’t tell us how God accomplishes this, we know—as did the Psalmist—that it generally means through work. The opportunity for well-paying work brings the poor out of poverty, and generally God creates such opportunities through his people’s work—those in business who create economic opportunity, those in government who ensure justice, those in education who instill the skills needed for good jobs. With its emphasis on lifting the poor and needy, Psalm 113 is calling for a whole life of practical praise to God.
Although the psalm could have named myriad kinds of work to illustrate its point, it selects only one—the work of bearing and rearing children “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (Ps. 113:9). Perhaps this is because childlessness in ancient Israel virtually doomed a woman (and her husband) to poverty in old age. Or perhaps it is for some other reason. Regardless, it reminds of us of two important matters today. Most obviously, when mothers (and fathers) conceive, feed, clean, protect, play with, teach, coach, forgive, train, and love children, it takes work! Yet many mothers feel that no one—even the church—recognizes that what they do is as valuable as the work that others do because they get paid. Secondly, God’s relief for adults who lack children and for children who lack adults usually comes about through the work of other people. Medical professionals may be able to restore fertility. Adoption professionals and child welfare workers bring would-be parents together with children who need parents, and remain with families to provide training and supervision as needed. All families depend on the support of a wide community of other people, including the people of God. For more on the work of families, see "The work of marriage, raising children, and caring for parents (Psalm 127, 128, 139)".
As Psalm 107 speaks of large-scale economic activity, so Psalms 127 and 128 speak of the household, the basic unit of economic production until the time of the Industrial Revolution. Psalm 127 begins with a reminder that all good work is grounded in God.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch 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 sleep to his beloved. (Psalm 127:1–2)
Both the “house” and the “city” refer to the same thing, the goal of providing goods and security for the residents. Ultimately, all economic activity is aimed at enabling households to thrive. The passage obviously asserts that diligent labor alone is not enough (compare Proverbs 26:13–16, on laziness). Beyond the obvious point, there is a deeper meaning. Hard work can produce a large and beautiful house, but it cannot create a happy home. A zealous entrepreneur can create a successful business but cannot by work alone create a good life. Only God can make it all worthwhile.
In most economies today, work other than farming is not usually performed in households, but in larger organizations. But the message of Psalm 127 applies to today’s institutionalized workplaces much as it does to ancient households. To thrive, every place of work must produce something of value. Putting in hours is not enough—the work has to result in goods or services that others need.
Believers may be able to offer something of special significance in this regard. In every workplace there is a temptation to produce items that can turn a quick buck, but don’t offer any lasting value. Businesses can increase profits—in the short term—by cutting the quality of materials. Sales people may be able to take advantage of buyers’ unfamiliarity to sell dubious products and accessories. Educational institutions can offer classes that attract students without developing lasting capabilities. And so on. The more we understand the genuine needs of the people who use our goods and services, and the more we contribute to the true value of what we produce, the more we can help our work institutions resist these temptations. Because true worth is ultimately grounded in God, we may have a unique ability to serve this role. But it must be done with humility and constant listening. It will accomplish nothing to loudly throw around our half-baked opinions until people are sick of hearing from us.
The work of marriage, childbearing and caring for parents comes to the fore again in Psalms 127, 128 and 139. (The work of childbearing is an important element of Psalm 113, "Participating in God's Work (Psalms 113)".) “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3). Husbands and wives together engage in production of the most fundamental kind—re-production! Needless to say, the wife performs more labor in this endeavor than the husband. In the Bible this is not a despised role—it is understood to be essential for survival and was honored in ancient Israel. Beyond the bearing of children, wives typically managed the household, including both domestic and commercial production (Proverbs 31:10–31).
The Bible honors those who go down to the sea and those who shepherd the sheep (traditional male occupations) as well as those who manage the household (a traditional female occupation). Today, work roles are much less divided according to sex—except for managing the family home, which still is performed mostly by women—but the honor accorded to marriage and to the work of families still applies.
Like every form of work—and bearing children is work! —child-bearing comes from God. “It was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). Likewise, as with every other form of labor, this does not mean that when tragedy strikes it is a punishment from or abandonment by God. Rather, child-bearing is a point of God’s common grace to humanity throughout the world. In the womb God makes us, and he makes us for a purpose. Our birthright is to do work of value to God himself.
We return to Psalm 127 for the final element of this theme, that the work of a household includes caring for those whose age diminishes their work capacity. “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). In the ancient world, people had no institutionalized pension plans or health insurance. As they became older, their sons provided for them. (The text speaks of “sons” because typically daughters would marry and enter the households of their husbands’ families.) In effect, sons were a couple’s retirement plan, and this bound the generations closely together.
It may seem stark to put the value of raising children in economic terms. Today, we might feel more comfortable speaking of the emotional rewards of raising children. Be that as it may, this verse teaches that adults need children as much as children need adults, and that children are a gift from God, not a burden. It also reminds us of all the investments our parents made in us—emotional, physical, intellectual, creative, economic, and many more. As we grow up and our parents come to depend on us, it is right for us to take on the work of caring for parents. There are a variety of ways this may be done. The point is simply God’s command to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12) is not only a matter of attitude, but also of work and economic care.
Man Yee Kan, Oriel Sullivan, and Jonathan Gershuny, Sociology, April 2011; vol. 45, 2: pp. 234-251.
Power is essential to most work, and it must be exercised rightly. Psalm 136 lays out the proper use of power by showing four examples of how God uses power.
The first example comes in verses 4-9. It shows God’s use of power to create the world, “who by his understanding made the heavens…who spread out the earth upon the waters” (Ps. 136:5-6). This takes us back to Genesis 1—to the God of creation, giving our world all that we need to flourish. But note the order in which God works, first creating systems (land, water, night, day, sun and moon) that were necessary for the survival of his later creations (plants, land animals, swimming and flying creatures). God did not create animals until there was dry land and vegetation to sustain them. When it is in our power to create tasks or systems, we use power properly when we create environments in which we and those around us not only survive but thrive. For more on God's provision in creation, see "Provision (Genesis 1:29-30; 2:8-14)" in Genesis 1-11 and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.
The second example comes in Psalm 136:10-15 when God delivers his people from slavery in Egypt. The third comes immediately afterwards, when God strikes down the Canaanite kings who oppose Israel in its journey to settle the Promised Land (Ps. 136:16-22). Together these show us that God uses power to free people from oppression and to oppose those who would keep others from the good God intends for them. When our work frees others to fulfill their destiny in God’s design, we are using power rightly. When our work would re-enslave workers or oppose God's work in and through them, we are abusing power.
The fourth example comes at the end of the psalm. “It is God who remembered us in our low estate…and rescued us from our foes…who gives food to all flesh” (Ps. 136:23-25). God lovingly recognizes our weakness and supplies our needs. When we use power to do work that benefits others, we are using power as God would use it.
Finally, for the proper use of power, every verse of Psalm 136 reminds us to give thanks to God, “whose steadfast love endures forever.”
The final five psalms each begin with the shout “Praise the Lord!” As our survey of the psalms has shown, work is intended to be a form of praise to God. These five psalms depict a variety of ways in which our work can praise the Lord. In all of them we see that our work is grounded in God’s own work. When we work as God intends, we imitate, extend, and fulfill God’s work.
God executes justice for the oppressed (Ps. 146:7a). So do we, when we work according to God’s commandments, by God’s grace. God gives food to the hungry (Ps 146:7b). So do we. God liberates people in chains, as do legislators, lawyers, judges and juries. God restores sight to the blind, as do ophthalmologists, opticians and glassmakers. God lifts up those who cannot rise on their own, as do physical therapists, orderlies, elevator makers, and parents of infants (Ps. 146:8). The Lord watches over strangers, as do police and security workers, flight attendants, lifeguards, health inspectors, and peacekeepers. He takes care of orphans and widows (Ps. 146:9), as do foster parents, elder care workers, family lawyers and social service workers, financial planners, and boarding school workers. Praise the Lord! (Ps. 146: 10).
God gathers the outcasts (Ps. 147:2), as do Sisters of Charity, teachers in prisons, and community organizers. He heals the brokenhearted (Ps. 147:3), as do grief counselors, matchmakers, humorists, and blues singers. He counts the stars and gives them names (Ps. 147:4), as do astronomers, navigators, and story-tellers. He is abundant in power (Ps. 147:5a), as are presidents, chairpersons, admirals, parents, and political-prisoners-turned-statesmen. He has profound understanding (Ps. 147:5b) as do professors, poets, painters, machinists, sonar operators, and people whose autism gives them extraordinary powers of concentration on details. He lifts up the downtrodden, as do civil right activists and donors, and he breaks the power of the wicked, as do district attorneys, whistleblowers, and all those who walk away from gossip and speak up for co-workers being treated unfairly (Ps. 147:6).
God prepares the earth for the coming weather (Ps. 147:8), as do meteorologists, climate researchers, architects and builders, air traffic controllers. He feeds the animals (Ps. 147:9), as do ranchers and shepherds and boys and girls in rural villages. He strengthens the gates, protects the children, and preserves peace at the borders (Ps. 147:13-14a), as do engineers, soldiers, customs agents, and diplomats. He prepares the finest foods (Ps. 147:14b) as do cooks, chefs, bakers, winemakers, brewers, farmers, homemakers and two-career householders (mostly the women), recipe bloggers, grocers, truckers, and—in their own way—fast food workers, cafeteria ladies, and frozen dinner cooks. He declares his word—his statutes and ordinances (Ps. 147:19). Praise the Lord! (Ps. 147:20).
The Lord takes pleasure in song, dancing, and the music of instruments (Ps. 149:2-3), as do musicians, dancers, composers, songwriters, choreographers, film scorers, music librarians, teachers, arts organization workers and donors, choir members, music therapists, students in bands, choruses and orchestras, garage bands, yodelers, laborers who sing at their work, music producers and publishers, YouTubers, hip-hop scratchers, lyricists, audio manufacturers, piano tuners, kalimba makers, acousticians, music app writers, and everyone who sings in the shower. Perhaps no form of human endeavor is more universal, yet more varied, than music making, and all of it derives from God’s own love of music.
The Lord takes pleasure in his people (Ps. 149:4a), as do all good leaders, family members, mental health workers, pastors, sales people, tour guides, coaches, party planners, and everyone who serves others. If situations oppress people or systems make it impossible for people to take wholesome pleasure in others, the Lord vanquishes the oppressors and reforms the systems (Ps. 149:4b-9a), as do social and corporate reformers, journalists, ordinary women and men who refuse to accept the status quo, organizational psychologists and human resource professionals, and—if conditions are extreme and there is no other way—armies, navies, air forces and their commanders. When justice and good governance is restored, the music can begin again (Ps. 149:6). Praise the Lord! (Ps. 149:9b).
Unlike Psalms 146, 147, and 149, Psalms 148 and 150 do not depict God at work, but skip directly to our response of praise for the work he has already done. Psalm 148 speaks of God’s creation, as if the creation’s very existence is a praise to God. “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees, and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Ps. 148:7–10). His creation makes our work fruitful, so it is fitting that we offer all the work we do as praise to him. “Young men and women alike, old and young together, let them praise the name of the Lord!” (Ps. 148:13). Praise the Lord! (Ps. 148:14).
The final psalm returns to music as our response to God’s “mighty deeds”, upon which all our activity and work are founded. Praise God with trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipe, cymbals—both clanging and crashing— and dance. Coming as the climax of five songs full of work, and as the ultimate end of the entire collection of psalms, it gives the impression that music is very important work indeed. Not music for its own sake alone, however, but because it allows us to praise the Lord louder. We can take this both literally and metaphorically. From the literal perspective, we might hold music, dance and the other arts in a bit higher regard than is customary in the Christian community, which is not always welcoming to music (except within narrow borders) and the arts (at all). Or at the least, we might hold our own music and art in a bit higher esteem. If we cannot seem to find time to express our own artistic creativity, is it possible that we are missing the value of the songs that God puts in our hearts?
Metaphorically, could Psalm 150 be inviting us to go about our work as if it were a kind of music? We could probably all do with more harmony in our relationships, a steadier rhythm of work and rest, an attention to the beauty of the work we do and the people we work among. If we could see the beauty in our work, would it help us overcome work’s challenges, such as ethical temptations, boredom, bad relationships, frustration, and low productivity at times? For example, imagine you are so frustrated with your boss that you are tempted to stop doing your work well. Would it help if you could see the beauty in your work beyond your relationship with your boss? What kind of beauty does your work bring to the world? What beauty does God see in what you do? Is that enough to sustain you in difficult times or to lead you to make the changes you need to make in your work or the way you do it?
In any case, no matter how we perceive our work, God intends our work to praise him. The 150 psalms in the Bible cover every aspect of life and work from the darkest terrors to the brightest hopes. Some speak of death and despair, others of prosperity and hope. But the final conclusion of Psalms is praise. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6).