What do the Psalms Have to Say About Work?

(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog and published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.)

I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief summary of some of the observations about work from the Psalms that I have compiled in my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.  (Note: I had done this in a previous article I wrote on the book of Ecclesiastes.  Click here to read it.)

The Psalms show us God as a worker

We know that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and then rested from His work (Gen. 2:2-3).  David declares that God’s work is reflected in His creation (Ps. 19:1.)  (See also Ps. 102:25.)

Moreover, God continuously works now to sustain His creation.  Psalms 65:9–13 describes how God provides water, vegetation, and animals for His people through His care over the land He gave them.

Psalm 104:10-31 highlights in much greater detail all of the things that God provides for His people.  In addition to what was mentioned above, he adds wine and oil, trees to build homes, temples, and other buildings, the moon and sun to mark off the seasons, and the sea which contains much food.

Additionally, in Ps. 111:2-7, we observe that God works to show His grace, mercy, providence, power, and faithfulness.  In Ps. 143:5, David ponders all of the work that God has done throughout His own life.  His deep understanding and experiences give him hope, causing him to continue to trust in Him.

The Psalms take us into the work environment

Throughout Ps. 107, we see God’s people stressed out by changes to the work environment.  Some were looking for work.  They wandered in the desert (vv. 4-5).  God delivered them by providing for their needs in His unfailing love (vv. 6-9).  Others made their living on the water.  Storms at sea brought fears of losing personnel, boats, and goods (vv. 23-27).  God delivered them by stilling the storm and bringing them to shore (vv. 28-32).  In spite of these difficult situations that were beyond their control, God’s never-changing covenant love, faithfulness, and protection got them through.

Psalm 128:2 mentions one of the many blessings of those who fear the Lord and who walk in His ways.  The writer states, “You will eat the fruit of your labor.”  This was written after or during a time of exile, when pagan nations swooped in and literally ate the produce that Israel had worked for.  Once Israel returned to the land, they could enjoy the crops they raised.  In general, what I see here is that job satisfaction seems to be a divine by-product of long, dedicated efforts.  I know that it is for me.

The Psalms bring us into God’s presence

The divine attribute I write about most often is God’s omnipresence.  It is essential to my theology of work.  There is a biblical connection between God’s presence and human work that I call Immanuel labor.  I will discuss how this is illustrated below.  Here, though, I want to highlight what the Psalms teach us about the presence of God, and how that will sustain us through every aspect of our work.

The Bible passage that most believers think of with respect to this idea is Ps. 139:7–10, which says:

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  (Italics mine.)

Although these verses highlight God’s supernatural ability to be anywhere, David wants us to see this aspect of God’s character as not merely an objective reality but something he personally feels.  He says things like “you are there” (twice in verse 8), “your hand will guide me,” and “your right hand will hold me fast.”  These words describe that God is there in David’s midst, which gives him peace, security, and hope.  God has been, is now, and will continue to actively lead him every step of the way.

David states elsewhere, “You will fill me with joy in your presence” (Ps. 16:11).  (See also Ps. 84.)

Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, instructs, “When the Bible speaks of God’s presence, it usually means his presence to bless.”  He boldly declares, “To be in his presence, to enjoy fellowship with him, is a greater blessing than anything that can be imagined.” 

The 23rd Psalm, especially v. 4, highlights David experiencing God’s presence when he needs it most.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  Having felt the nearness of God when I walked through my own shadow of death as I have lost family members over the years, I know exactly what he means.

The Psalms show us how God works through us

In Ps. 8:6-8, we see that God created Adam and Eve for the purpose of sustaining and expanding His creation, entrusting them and us with the daunting task of ruling, subduing, and caring for what He had made.  This corresponds with the creation or cultural mandate as it is described in Gen. 1:26-28.

One of the ways God meets the entire spectrum of human needs is through the work of humans. 

Psalm 127:1 confirms this concept. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”  The main point is that if we are not on God’s side, we are wasting our efforts.  We can also see that the Lord ultimately is the one who provides for us (builds our houses) and protects us (gives us security).  And yet, God generally uses people as His coworkers to do the actual building and to stand guard over the city.

Let me close with an appropriate benediction, as we have reflected on how God is a worker who is present with us and works through us to love our neighbor. “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17).

(Note: I invite you to read a similar article to this one regarding what the book of Ecclesiastes, the Minor Prophets, and the Gospel of John have to say about work.)

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 60 articles posted on this blog have been published over 120 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

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