The Work of Marriage, Raising Children, and Caring for Parents (Psalm 127, 128, 139)
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.