Covenant Children in the Psalms

The common default paradigm we have in contemporary Evangelicalism is that of a lost sinner experiencing a sharp or sudden conscious crisis and conversion as an adolescent or adult. We’ve modeled contemporary worship music around it, and many hymns that arose from the revivalism of past centuries likewise express it. And it’s appropriate when a person’s conversion is, in fact, the result of an acute conscious crisis as someone raised in alienation from the Faith.

But that model has frequently proven to be an ill-fitting paradigm for children raised by Christian parents who were taught to pray and sing as if they were Christians and yet to think of themselves as not being Christians until they’ve had a special experience, i.e. the importation of a crisis-conversion into their spiritual upbringing. But Scripture doesn’t support that model for children born and raised within God’s covenant community. The normative model in Scripture for covenant children is one of paedeia (covenant nurture and discipline) where conversion is a matter of continually leaning into their status and deepening their trusting embrace of it for themselves.

The Psalter in particular implicitly accepts and presents this model of paedeia.

The Psalter not only speaks to every circumstance in the life of a member in the Faith but also to every age in the life of a member in the Faith. From cradle to grave and beyond in both directions to the time in the womb and in the tomb where God is with his people.

An excellent example of this is Psalm 139. And beginning with a passage in Psalm 139, I’ll be focusing on the status and significance of children born within the covenant people of God as presented in the Psalms.

For you formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
​​I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are your works,
​​And that my soul knows very well.
​​My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in your book they all were written,
​​The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16 NKJV

David the Psalmist reflects on God’s involvement in his life when he was still a fetus in the womb being formed by God. He recognizes that fetal frame and substance as himself. God has been attending to David even there and has written down (i.e. determined) the entire course of his life before it even began.

The phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a common English translation. However, it’s not accurate. There are two Hebrew words underlying that translation. The first word is yare’ which means fearful or wonderful. The second word is palah which means to be marked out, distinguished, or separated; it has little or nothing to do with being created, made, fashioned, or built. The word palah is uses seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s used four times in the Book of Exodus (8:22; 9:4; 11:7; 33:16) where God is separating, marking out, or distinguishing his people Israel from the nations. This use in Psalm 139 is the same. The phrase is best understood and translated as “awesomely / marvelously” + “separated / distinguished” with respect to begin marked out as a part of God’s covenant people. This idea is parallel to 1 Cor. 7:14 where the child of a believer is sanctified / holy (rather than unclean) by virtue of merely being the child of a believer.

Psalm 139 wasn’t written as an experience or relationship unique to David. He wrote this psalm to be on the lips and in the heart of every Israelite so they should remember their covenantal union with Yahweh, be faithful to it, and hope in it as an expression of God’s love toward them. We should do likewise.

Excursus: You can also see in this passage that David connects a mother’s womb in which he and other children were/are formed with the lowest parts of the earth (i.e. valley, hole, cave, etc.) in which Adam was formed. This idea is present even in Genesis. The man will toil with the earth to yield seed (fruit and crops), and the woman will toil with the womb to yield seed (offspring). And further, the man sows his seed in the woman’s field where it grows. That’s the imagery. The expression “the lowest parts” is also used in the Apostles’ Creed to describe the place where Jesus descended. It indicates he entered into a place of unmaking in his death, like returning to the womb, when he was in the tomb. And from there, he rose as the firstborn from the dead. The Easter story is a second Nativity story.

The Psalms also teach an active response on the part of young covenant children toward God. They are not merely the passive and unconscious objects of his covenantal care.

But you are he who took me out of the womb;
You made me trust while on my mother’s breasts.
I was cast upon you from birth.
From my mother’s womb
​​You have been my God.

Psalm 22:9-10 NKJV

For you are my hope, O Lord GOD;
You are my trust from my youth.
By you I have been upheld from birth;
You are he who took me out of my mother’s womb.
My praise shall be continually of you.

Psalm 71:5-6 NKJV

Psalm 22 and Psalm 71 teach us to believe and confess that children born in the covenant (whether ourselves or others of all ages in our church community) have been trusting in God as their God from their infancy as suckling newborns. In fact, these psalms teach us that covenant children possess a seed-faith or paedofaith that, while inarticulate and not particularly intellectual (as far as we know), is still a valid expression of faith toward God.

The faith-response of covenant parents and the covenant community must be an attitude of trust rather than doubt in the reality and power of paideia and in the seed-faith of our covenant children. Indeed, the “magic” that makes covenant nurture ordinarily function (i.e. the ordinary means through which God expresses grace) is the covenant community actually acting as if covenant nurture works. Adopting an attitude of doubt is a curse and robbing of the ordinary means of grace from our children. Undermine covenant nurture, and you undermine covenant succession. Giving it our best won’t always guarantee that covenant nurture is successful. (After all, it’s not a mechanistic formula. God has his own mysterious plans.) But not trying at all will virtually guarantee failure.

The Psalter also teaches that children have a role to play in the people of God.

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
​​Because of your enemies,
That you may silence the enemy and the avenger.

Psalm 8:2 NKJV

Young children have some appointed part to play in God’s war upon his enemies. In fact, in some paradoxical way (which seems to be a common motif with God’s wisdom), these little ones who we’d think of as weak are those who pour strength out of their mouths.

But what enemy of God does he oppose with children? Consider the last enemy, i.e. death. Although begetting children has a purpose before the Fall (which is to fill the earth and be a civilization to worship and glorify God, to be a Bride for the Son, and to be a Temple for the Spirit, a purpose which is retained), begetting children is the only way to fight against death and continue to give Mankind a future. It’s the only way short of the Resurrection, that is, when this order and way of doing things ends and gives way to a new order.

I’ll conclude with a brief discussion of covenant succession in Psalm 127 and Psalm 128.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127:3-5 NKJV

Psalm 127 can be a bit of a minefield to navigate or a PTSD trigger for some folks after the imbalances and errors associated with the Quiverfull Movement in the 20th Century. But abusus non tollit usum, as they say. The abuse of something does not eliminate the proper use of that thing. And the essential truth being expressed in Psalm 127 remains, because it is the Word of God. The basic truths to be embraced are as follows:

  1. Covenant children are to be considered a heritage and legacy from God. They are to be seen ultimately as an asset rather than a liability. They may consume much of our time and resources, but that’s because they’re a wise and worthy investment.
  2. Covenant children are a part of the weapons of our warfare. And this requires that we know who our enemy is and how it is that we fight the enemy. Without giving a fuller explanation, I would say this has much to do with our spiritual and liturgical warfare and the covenant succession of the Faith through our children.
  3. Having a lot of covenant children is a good and praiseworthy thing. It’s generally not a thing to be mocked or ridiculed or looked upon with disapproving eyes. In light of the good that covenant children bring about as they’re faithful successors, more is better. Yet all are good.
  4. In the ancient Hebrew paradigm, being a parent to children goes far beyond biology. All superiors who raise and nurture inferiors are fathers and mothers. All inferiors who are raised and nurtured by superiors are sons and daughters. And this is all the more so in the Christian Church.

If you need reassurance, because you’re struggling to be married and/or have children, or have any number of obstacles to doing so, or find yourself in some other calling, then I’ll tell you there are opportunities for you to be a part of someone else’s spiritual parenting (see Point 4), and there are other good callings for the Kingdom that are not negated by marriage and family. Celibacy for the sake of fully committed ministry to the Lord is also praiseworthy and has its place. The truths enumerated above do not function to negate or marginalize anyone. They are what they are where they apply.

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
In the very heart of your house,
​​Your children like olive plants
All around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
Who fears the LORD.

Psalm 128:3-4 NKJV

Psalm 128 describes children as olive trees around the table of the blessed man who fears Yahweh. Olive trees were the most valuable plants in ancient Hebrew agriculture because of the oil they produced. Olive oil was valued for its ordinary uses. And beyond that, olive oil was valued for its sacred ceremonial uses in the service in the Tabernacle and Temple. And because of its use in anointing, olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Here, covenant children are trees bearing fruit and full of the Holy Spirit through covenant nurture. It’s a rich image of the glory that God is bringing about for his Name’s sake through them.

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