are children always a blessing?

Let me begin with a warning. What I’m about to suggest is probably to be perceived as sacrilegious to many and tantamount to heresy.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard/read/been told that children are only and always a blessing in the Bible. The assertion is frequently made, but rarely demonstrated. The statement gives the impression that the Bible is full of affirmations of the blessings associated with children.

When pushed, however, the number of references provided is very small. In fact, people usually turn to Psalm 127 and are hard pressed to offer further substantiation for the claim (so the “only and always a blessing” starts to sound somewhat hyperbolic). But does Psalm 127 really say quite as much as is often claimed for it? I think not!

Let’s take a look at the Psalm:

שיר המעלות לשלמה

אם יהוה לא יבנה בית
שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם יהוה לא ישמר עיר
שוא שקד שומר
‎‏שוא לכם
‎משכימי קום
‎מאחרי שבת
‎אכלי לחם העצבים
‎כן יתן לידידו שנא

‎הנה נחלת יהוה בנים
‎שכר פרי הבטן
‎כחצים ביד גבור
‎כן בני הנעורים
‎אשרי הגבר אשר מלא את אשפתו מהם
‎לא יבשו כי ידברו את אויבים בשער

A song of ascents. This is Solomon’s.

1If Yhwh does not build a house,
pointless is the toil of its builders.
If Yhwh does not protect a city,
pointless is the watchfulness of the protectors.
2It is pointless for you
who get up early,
who stay out late,
who eat the food of hard work,
thus he gives to his beloved sleep.a
3See, sons are an inheritance of Yhwh,
a rewardb is the fruit of the womb!
4Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
are sons of [one’s] youth.c
5Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them,
They will not be ashamedd when they argue with their enemies at the gate.


Notes:

(a) It seems likely that verse 2 closes with שנא because of the similarity with the repeated שוא in the preceding material. Without Yhwh all is pointless yet arduous, with Yhwh one can rest.

(b) The term שכר can mean “wages” but points to a reward in a tangible, material sense. The sons born will bring material well-being.

(c) The expression בני הנעורים, translated “sons of [one’s] youth” implies that the particular blessing of sons is associated with those born while the parent (father) is relatively young. The implication is that when the father is old, his sons are old enough to help him. The focus is on what they can do for the parent in a tangible way, not in some intangible, feel-good manner.

(d) It is interesting to ponder a minor emendation in verse 5b:

לא יבוש כי ידברו את אויבים בשער

i.e. change יבשו to יבוש and read “he [the father] will not be ashamed when they [the sons] argue with their [the family’s] enemies at the gate.” There’s no support for such a change in the DSS nor in the LXX, and the unaltered reading does make sense as well, indicating that the sons will prevail in legal disputes (presumably by weight of numbers). OTOH, the emended reading implies that the father’s honour stands unchallenged through the actions of his sons. This perhaps fits better with the thrust of the preceding verses.


What is clear about this Psalm, however, is that its view of children as a blessing is heavily culturally conditioned. For one, the focus appears squarely to sit on “sons” not children (see the note in the NET Bible on this point).

Second, that they are a blessing is founded on a couple of caveats — their value is greater if the father is young. This is likely to be a cultural consideration because once the father is older his sons will themselves be of sufficient age to support him rather than need to be supported by him. This is reinforced by verse 5 where the value of these sons of one’s youth is tied to their ability to contend for the family in disputes at the city gate (in the modern world you’d probably be better off hiring a good lawyer).

Ultimately, if you want to argue that children are always a blessing, this is not the text for you. The strongest argument for seeing all children as a blessing is to be found in Gen 1:28 where God’s blessing is linked to filling the land.

What is more, the claim that children are only and always a blessing is further undermined when we look at what is said about children in the book of Proverbs. For example:

Prov 17:25

A foolish son is grief to his father,
and bitterness to her who bore him!

Prov 19:13a

A foolish son brings destruction to his father.

Furthermore, Proverbs implies that children are born without wisdom and hence need training to make them wise:

Prov 22:15

Folly is bound to a child’s mind,
A rod of discipline will remove it from him.

(See also Prov 13:24; 15:5; etc.)

Then it would also be helpful to explain how Absolom was a blessing to David (2Sam 15–16).

Finally, the transition from OT to NT presents another consideration: do Jesus’ words about families (e.g. Matt 12:46–50) suggest that the same consolation found in sons in Israel (and Ps 127 implies the blessing comes from adult sons, not toddlers or infants!) can now be found in our relationships within the people of God? Was a large family seen as a blessing because it meant the growth of God’s people? If so, the NT offers a different perspective where all can become children of Abraham. In the OT, becoming a “great and numerous people” was a sign of God’s blessing, and this was largely achieved through reproductive means. In the NT, the expansion of God’s people is through evangelism: not once in the NT is having children described as a blessing although many other things are so described. The categories do change.

5 thoughts on “are children always a blessing?

  1. Ah Enkers, you set little trap for me. I side step.

    I notice that you move from

    “What is clear…is heavily culturally conditioned” in the first paragraph through to the much more careful “This is likely to be a cultural consideration… ” in the second.

    So which are you thinking? ‘Clear’ (= ‘as any fule kno’) or ‘likely’?

    So I note your shifting vocab, and sidestep by saying

    (a) it’s not clear to me and

    (b) if you are really saying it is likely, rather than ‘clear’, then you leave open the possibility (which the text itself leaves open) that this observation by the Psalmist is not culturally conditioned at all.

    Indeed, I was just reflecting the other day, as I begin my descent from the giddy heights of middle age and start to take in the view on the other side, that my 3 daughters are a blessing in every sense that this Psalmist speaks of. And I am not Hebrew, I do not shoot arrows, and I have no gate to sit in. I just understand metaphor.

    By the way, speak to me about the blessing of Deuteronomy 28, in particular verse 4. A blessing that continues to be regarded as a blessing to this very day, or a blessing that comes to a crunching halt with the revelation of the promised Messiah?

  2. Dunno,
    how are your cows Gordon? Do you see fertility as a sign of the obedience of the parents? And so take 28:18 to still be in play, infertility is a sign of disobedience? Would you be willing to stand up in church and say that?

  3. The obvious answer, Enkers, is, it depends.

    My cows are doing well thank you. They are on a farm near Bega, being managed by a farmer in private enterprise who through a complex system known as capitalism, supplies me with their milk. I take that as a blessing. Do you?

    Infertility is certainly still a curse. Whether it is a curse for ‘person x’ on the grounds of some sin is a matter that John 9 warns me against concluding.

    But again, you are shifting! The specific question is whether these deuteronomic blessings and cursings remain so today. My answer is yes, cows and fertility remain blessings today. But your answer appears to be sidling towards ‘no, they are not’.

  4. Gordo,

    I assume your obvious answer is to Mike’s question, not one I haven’t yet posed?

    What makes you think infertility is still a curse? Is it Matt 12:46–50¡

    The problem with appealing to metaphor is that your appeal to metaphor extends well beyond the metaphors actually contained in the psalm and reach beyond into the realms of allegorical interpretation. Now if that’s a legitimate hermeneutic (and it certainly has a long-standing tradition in Christian and Jewish hermeneutics), then you’re right in your application of this psalm.

    And I’m glad to hear your three daughters are a blessing. I’m not saying children are never a blessing! My children, too, are a blessing (but I can’t say that for some other people’s children¡).

  5. Hi, I stumbled across this blog at random and want to say thanks for challenging a statement that, while true in context, sometimes feels overemphasised from my perspective as a childless church-goer in a middleclass family oriented church.

    In my work I come across many women whose pregnancies are not seen as a blessing. (Do the people who stress that “children are a blessing” also extrapolate that to “all pregnancies are a blessing”?)

    I struggle with many aspects of this, including wondering why God chooses to “bless” people with pregnancy when that is the last thing they want, while with-holding it from godly people who desperately want a child.

    Some examples of the types of pregnancies I’m talking about: those that eventuate after schoolies weeks and similar drunken holidays, when there is uncertainty to the identity of the father; those that occur during a doomed marriage/partnership (perhaps one involving domestic violence, or a drug addicted mother); the ones that occur in marriage when a wife has an extra-marital affair; the “disabled” 16 year old school dropout who lives in community supported accommodation on a disability pension; and who doesn’t like her boyfriend enough to want him to live with her; the learning-disabled girl who (along with her learning-disabled boyfriend) has no inkling of how to judge whether her baby is hungry, or cold, or even how to hold or feed it.

    It helps to be reminded that generalisations in the Wisdom literature are simply generalisations made from a specific time and place, and have exceptions and cultural connotations that limit their application to a given individual.

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