You have heard it said that “children are a heritage of the Lord” and “Blessed is the man who has his quiver full of them” (Psa. 127:3–5). Christians should, therefore, have many, many children, right? Not just a couple, but a whole “quiver full”—as many as may come. So we’ve been taught by some.
This teaching has been prevalent in more than a few Christians circles and affects thousands of individuals. While it works in some cases, it also produces various forms and degrees of legalism, which means forms of repression and unbiblical burdens, as well as the potential for various forms of abuse. I would like to discuss why I think this surface-level interpretation and application is misguided.
According to the “quiver full” view, Christians should practice an “open womb” and be open to however many children God gives them, with no limits, trusting that God will provide for the mouths to feed, etc.
This teaching usually goes on to say Christians should never (perhaps in rare medical emergencies) do anything that may prevent or hinder the blessing of more children. Most proponents forbid most or all forms of “birth control” or contraception. A few censure as well even “natural” family planning or rhythm-based methods, at the very least because even the desire to avoid possible conception is an attempt to thwart God or to play God yourself in this area.
Those who practice any form of contraception may be seen not only as disobeying God, but as “anti-child” as well. A few would even say that the “sin” of contraception is of the same mindset as that of abortion, or on the same spectrum.
Understanding the “quiver full” Psalm
Before we go further let’s read the whole Psalm:
127:1 Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
2 It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.
3 Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
The quiver full view says we should have as many children as possible. These many children then become a heritage of the Lord for us and an offensive weapon in society. The happy father of so many children will have them in hand as godly arrows being launched out at the enemies of Christ in our culture.
The problem with this “quiver full” interpretation of Psalm 127 is that it does not consider the theology of the Psalms, or of much of the Bible for that matter. The primary meaning of the Psalms, and the rest of Scripture, is God-centered, which usually means Christ-centered. When we consider primarily our children and our heritage and our arrows and our family, we are reading primarily in a man-centered way instead a Christ-centered way.
While Christians should certainly see children as blessings from God and seek to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, Psalm 127 is not talking about our children, but about God’s children. Psalm 127 is not about the nuclear family. It is about the family of God, the sons of God—the church.
Consider, for example, that we rarely hear the quiver full passage read in context with the other two verses of Psalm 127. We usually hear verses 3–5, separated from the context of verses 1–2. But verse 1 begins, “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it. . . .”
When you consider that this is speaking about a house that the Lord builds, it changes the whole outlook and interpretation. Verses 3–5 are no longer being interpreted as the children of our house, but the children of God’s house. So let’s talk about God’s house, the church.
Family and church in biblical perspective
Adam was created first as a son of God (Luke 3:38). He was one of God’s children before there was a physical family or any blood descendants. Thus, the family of God is prior to and fundamental to the family of man. Man’s family is secondary and reflective of the spiritual reality. It is a powerful institution, no doubt, but it is an image of the real family of God.
Paul refers to the earthly family as a mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church: husband and bride. He literally quotes Genesis 2:24 concerning the institution of the earthly family, and says it is about the family of God:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31–32).
Thus, also, the New Testament frequently refers to the church or her members as the house, family, children, sons, daughters, or household of God (Rom. 8:14; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 4:5–7; 6:10; Eph. 2:19–22; 3:15; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 3:6; 1 John 3:1–2).
The family of God, the church, is the only institution given a promise of victory (Matt. 16:18). The earthly family is not given such a promise. The church has been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19). The earthly family may have the keys to the minivan, but not the kingdom of heaven.
The church—the assembly of God—is the only eternal institution. The earthly institution of marriage will come to an end (Luke 20:34–36); there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage. This means that eventually, there will either be no physical reproduction at all, or God will not require marriage for it.
Reproduction (if we should call it reproduction) in God’s family is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8–9). It comes by spiritual regeneration and spiritual adoption into God’s family. It is by the sovereignty, election, and authority of God. It is never by blood. Blood relation has absolutely zero to do with whom God elects and adopts into his family.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12–13).
Considering Psalm 127 in the context of all this New Testament theology, it is clear what the prophetic Psalmist was really talking about. He was talking about the house built by the Lord, the church, the household of faith. The sons and daughters of God are like arrows in the hands of a mighty man. Blessed is the man (God, Christ) who has a quiver full of them. The church is this quiver, and the faithful are these sons and daughters.
A Christ-Centered Commentary
As I compiled all of this, I immediately thought of St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms. His is probably the most theologically Christ-centered commentary on the Psalms ever written. I was sure he would get this right. Sure enough, he did.
Augustine writes in his Commentary on Psalm 127:
There is a certain woman, in whom what was said unto Eve, “in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,” is shown after a spiritual manner. The Church beareth children, the Bride of Christ. . . . In figure of her, Eve was called also “the Mother of all living” [Gen 3:16, 20]. He who said, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you” [Gal. 4:19], was amongst the members of her who travaileth. . . .
6. “Like as the arrows in the hand of the mighty one, even so are the children of those that are shot out” (ver. 4). Whence hath sprung this heritage, brethren? Whence hath sprung so numerous a heritage? Some have been shot out from the Lord’s hand, as arrows, and have gone far, and have filled the whole earth, whence the Saints spring. For this is the heritage whereof it is said, “Desire of Me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” [Psa. 2:8]. And how doth this possession extend and increase unto the world’s uttermost parts? Because, “like as the arrows in the hand of the mighty one,” etc. Arrows are shot forth from the bow, and the stronger the arm which hath sent it forth, the farther flieth the arrow. But what is stronger than the darting of the Lord? From His bow He sendeth forth His Apostles. . . .
I would differ with St. Auggie on a couple details, but his Christ-centered and Church-focused understanding is clear. I believe he has gotten that right.
Many Puritan and other commentators, however, do look only at a surface meaning of this passage. Even Calvin discusses mainly the mundane aspects of the family in it. Yet Calvin also acknowledges in the end that “although fathers ought diligently to form their children under a system of holy discipline, yet let them remember that they will never succeed in attaining the object aimed at, save by the pure and special grace of God.” This means, of course, that the church application must be primary and superior to any blood family application.
A Christ-centered corrective to us
We need to be very careful, then, when we make our own families and children the focus of this passage. As Paul says of Genesis 2:24 itself, so this Psalm is speaking of Christ and the church. We need to correct our view to focus upon Christ first.
When verse 5 says, for example, “Blessed is the man that fills his quiver,” who do you think is “the man” of whom it is speaking? Too many readily think this is a generic “that man”—any old man who happens to do this. If any man does this, he will be happy. But this is not the interpretation. “The man” here is a specific man—the Head of the household of God, the Head of the Church, the man Jesus Christ. More properly we may say it is God the Father, and all his sons, Jesus as the Head of them.
It is the faithful sons and daughters of God, and these alone, who will “not be ashamed,” but will “speak with the enemies in the gates” (v. 5). In contrast to this prophecy, many Christians throughout many ages of the church have produced many blood offspring who have departed from the faith. These were ashamed. These could not stand faithfully at the gates—the seat of judgment—against the cavils of the adversaries. These in fact have joined the adversaries in many cases.
Blood offspring, therefore, cannot be the meaning and fulfillment of this Psalm, or else it is false, and God is a liar. No, God is speaking of the church, the sons and daughters of God, the arrows of God.
Christ-centered prudence and consistency
The “quiver full” understanding is therefore wrong, and can lead Christians into the legalism of thinking that they must have as many children as they can, and must eschew all forms and all attempts at family planning and prudence lest they fail the command of God.
But God is certainly not opposed to prudence and planning:
The prudent see danger and take cover, but the simple keep going and suffer the consequences (Prov. 22:3; 27:12).
This is especially true in matters of great and costly import:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28)
Indeed, Christ seems to suggest that trying to build more than you can afford is a proper subject for ridicule:
Otherwise, if he lays the foundation and is unable to finish the work, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:29–30).
Or it may be, “This man fathered ten children and was not able to feed or clothe them.”
Contrary to this, the Proverbist says to analyze your capacity first, then “build your house”:
Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house (Prov. 24:27).
Christ assures us that even in times that may call for firing arrows, the person supplying the arrows must first plan ahead for the cost:
Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? (Luke 14:31).
But let us suppose even that Scripture had no such teachings about prudence and cost-counting. Let us assume all we had to go on here were this Psalm alone. Even then we would have enough to rectify our thinking.
When Psalm 127 begins by speaking of the house built by the Lord, it means that man cannot build or generate this by his works. When he tries, it is in vain.
In short, you cannot fill God’s quiver. Only God can do that. Arrows only get added by God. Any attempt by man to add a single arrow means an attempt to add someone to God’s church by the works of men. It is works righteousness. It is legalism by definition.
When someone demands this, however, they are not only forsaking the meaning of the text, they are running into conflict with ways that they do understand and apply this teaching correctly.
For example, the second part of verse 1 says, “except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” So now this is not only speaking of building the house, but of defending it as well.
How many of an open womb persuasion would treat home defense by the same logic they treat contraception? How many would forbid the use of locks, bolts, alarms, cameras, dogs, or arms? Let’s just say, “Trust the Lord for home defense,” and do nothing else. “Trust the Lord in His providence. He will provide all we need, for he has said so.” “Do not try to thwart the purposes of God by bolting your doors. We should have open doors.”
Obviously, the idea is absurd. But such absurdity could be multiplied with examples in every area of safety, health, savings, clothing, shelter, sanitation, food, and much more. The failure to apply the tools, planning, intelligence, and talents God has given us in any of these areas is to fail in the basic tasks to “work and keep” (Gen. 2:15) by which we exercise the dominion mandate for humanity.
Too many people have been subjected to a legalistic mindset by misapplying this “quiver full” passage in Psalm 127. It is not speaking of our children, but of the Lord’s children.
Children are indeed a blessing, and even the worst of the challenges that may come to us throughout their years are nevertheless part of that blessing—in all extremes of joy, trial, and the stretching of our responsibility and ability. It is also crucial to consider that children of a covenant Christian family have a far greater advantage when they can grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and an immediate Christian culture.
Nevertheless, the Psalm is still not speaking of these aspects. It is speaking of that house that is built by the Lord, and the man, the mighty warrior, who is the head of that household. When we depart from this understanding, we are walking into a humanism in pious garb, and we are in danger. There is no command in the Bible to have as many children as you can possibly have, and there is no prohibition on the wise planning of family size.
In light of this, there are many Christians who need to rethink a fundamental stance in which they have set themselves, or have been beset by the teaching of others. God calls us to be faithful first, wise second. Fecund may or may not fit into that picture for many people. Large families can be good for those for whom God has provided means. For those he has not, it is dangerous to ignore the obvious, and even more dangerous to tempt God. Further, it is unloving to those who depend upon you already.
In light of the dogmatic pressures of some, we need to ease burdened consciences of some false ideas. It is perfectly acceptable to have smaller families. It is not only OK to use certain planning methods and some types of contraception in this planning, it is advisable. It is proper to consider economics in such planning. It is wise for many to plan for fewer children based upon what the Lord provides. Figure out the situation in your fields for yourself, then build your house.
God is not super impressed or extra pleased when you have many children. His family is not automatically grown by that means. He is pleased by having his own children increase by faith. He doesn’t need you or me for that. He is able to raise up children from the stones if he needs (Matt. 3:9).