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