Psalm 127 is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist wants to teach that all human efforts are in vain if they are lacking divine blessing. Only God can assure prosperity and blessing.
Psalm 127 can be divided into two sections. The first section (vv. 1-2) shows that only God gives success to human enterprise. The psalmist’s words speak of the futility of human efforts when these efforts are devoid of God’s blessings. An individual may build a house but he may not be sure that he will dwell in it. Deuteronomy 28:30 speaks of the curses that will come upon Israel when the people violate the demands of the covenant: “You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit” (cf. also Zephaniah 1:13).
A watchman watching over a city may sound the alarm at the approach of danger (Ezekiel 3:17) but he many not prevent the attack of an enemy.
In the second section (vv. 3-5), the psalmist says that sons are a blessing from God. For the Israelites, a family with many sons was one of the greatest demonstrations of divine favor: “And Obed-edom had [eight] sons . . . for God blessed him” (1 Chronicles 26:4-5).
People in Israel believed that all things came from God, especially sons, since they were seen as God’s gift, especially the sons of one’s youth, because they are strong and because they are the firstfruits of one’s strength (Genesis 49:3).
So, when the psalmist declared how blessed he was, he wrote:
“Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3 -5).
The versions are not unanimous in translating 127:3. I checked twenty-eight English versions of 127:3 and the results are as follows: ten versions, including the NRSV and the NIV, have “sons.” Eighteen versions, including the ESV, and the TNIV have “children.” If these translations differ in their understanding of whether 127:3 should be translated “sons” or “children,” then, which translation is better?
In a recent post, Peter Kirk at Gentle Wisdom said that 127:3 should include both sons and daughters. Peter wrote:
I know these psalms well in NIV and have always semi-consciously understood them as meaning that sons are more of a blessing than daughters, at least in the mind of the psalmist. But is this what was intended?
Peter said that the Hebrew word banim “has a generic meaning, referring to daughters as well as sons.” Then, chastising the NIV and other translations by perpetuating the view that “sons are more of a blessing than daughters,” Peter wrote:
It seems to me that this is a case of the RSV (1952) and NIV (1978) translators (and, more surprisingly, those of NRSV (1989)) introducing and perpetuating an innovative rendering suggesting extremely damaging teaching, that sons are more of a blessing from God than daughters. This may be what is believed in some countries, e.g. China where, according to a 2004 report, nearly 20% more boys than girls are born because of selective abortion – a statistic which is becoming a threat to that country’s future prosperity. But this preference for sons was never taught in the Bible, at least not in Hebrew, and not in modern English until 1952.
It really is well past time for some of these misleading translations to be retired.
The question then becomes: Are the translations which use “sons” misleading the readers? Is the writer of Psalm 127:3 speaking about sons or is the writer speaking about daughters and sons?
It is true that the expression “the fruit of the womb” (Psalm 127:3) can include both sons and daughters, but this expression occurs in parallel with the word banim, “sons,” a word which occurs twice in the psalm (verses 3 and 4).
In the Old Testament, when the writer wants to speak of sons and daughters, he will use the expression בָּנים וּבָנֽוֹת (see Genesis 5:4; 11:1; 19:12; 31:28; 36:6). For instance, when the writer wants to say that Adam had many children, he wrote:
“The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:4). The writer did not say, “Adam had other banim.” Rather, he included both sons and daughters in his statement.
When the writer of Genesis wanted to say that all the children of Jacob went into Egypt with him, he wrote that Jacob came with “his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters” (Genesis 46:7 NRSV).
A better example appears in Exodus 21:4, where all three words, “sons,” “daughters,” and “children” appear together, each being represented by a different Hebrew word: “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone” (Exodus 21:4). The writer here used banim for sons, banot for daughters, and yeledim for children.
The people of Israel lived in a patriarchal society in which a family with many sons was considered to be a great blessing from God, while the absence of sons was considered as one of the severest punishments from God a family could receive.
This is the reason that Rachel, unable to conceive, cried to Jacob: “Give me sons, or I will die!” (Genesis 30:1 HCSB). When Hanna, who was also unable to conceive, went to make a vow at the temple at Shiloh, her prayer was very specific: “Give to your servant a male child” (1 Samuel 1:8).
In ancient Israel, the life of a father had meaning only insofar as it was continued in the life of his son. A son kept the name of the father from being forgotten in Israel. Absolom said: “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” (2 Samuel 18:18).
It is out of this cultural context that the psalmist declared that sons were a blessing from the Lord. Many sons could help a father when he was old, primarily when he was engaged against his adversaries or when he was litigating at the city gate.
The psalmist said: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). But once the house was built and the family had been established, then the man of the house had the responsibility of protecting his family. And it is out of this cultural context that the reader must understand the words of the psalmist.
Sons are divine blessings because they help their father bring protection and security to their family. A family with many sons was a theme that reflected the reality of Israel’s culture. A large family with many sons was less vulnerable against hostile attacks. Thus, in a male-dominated society, sons were prized more than daughters.
The words of the psalmist reflect a warlike situation. Sons are “like arrows in the hand of a warrior.” Sons are like a weapon. They are able to protect and defend their father when he is getting old and in need of support. A father who has many sons will not be put to shame before his enemies. A father would not be able to prevail against his enemies were it not for the support of his many sons. He who has many sons has his quiver full.
Patrick D. Miller, in his book, Interpreting the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 134, wrote:
“The psalm seems to have in view primarily sons and the father rather than parents and children in general. The contemporary community can and should interpret the psalm in a more inclusive way, recognizing the joy and the reward for both mothers and fathers in having both sons and daughters.”
However, when a contemporary community reads Psalm 127 and reads “children” rather than “sons,” they find themselves separated from the cultural reality that gave birth to this psalm. Readers today, who live in a gender-inclusive society, will not appreciate the reality of ancient Israelite society which prized the value of sons for utilitarian reasons.
If the writer of Psalm 127 were to read his psalm in some versions today and find the word “children,” he probably would say to the translator: “But this is not what I said.” And the translator probably would say: “I know, but I am not translating for your culture, but for mine.” And the despondent writer of Psalm 127 would say: “Yes, but this is not what I meant.”
The word “children” in Psalm 127:3 reflects a translation that does not take seriously the historical realities of the culture that gave birth to this beautiful psalm.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary