Mighty Oaks and Graceful Pillars: A Prayer for Our Children
September 30, 2001
“Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace” (Psalm 144:12).
Today is Children’s Sunday at Calvary. In all of our services we are featuring our children and honoring those who teach them the Word of God. When I was asked to devote a sermon to our children, I wondered what text I should choose. From somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered a comment in the biography of G. Campbell Morgan about a sermon he preached in the early part of the 20th century based on a rather obscure text in Zechariah. The passage he chose describes children playing happily in the streets of the city. It took me awhile to find that text. From there I used the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge to go on a Bible safari in search of verses that talked about children. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for so I ventured from text to text until at last I came to Psalm 144:12, a verse I had never noticed before. But as I read it, the Holy Spirit seemed to say, “This is your text.” And so I chose it as the text for today.
That was in August. I did not return to it until a few days ago. Then I discovered that Psalm 144 is a wartime psalm, written by King David as the armies of Israel are about to go into battle with their enemies. The first 11 verses are a prayer to God for victory. He begins in verse 1 by praising God “who trains my hands for war.” Later he declares that God is “the One who gives victory to kings” (verse 10) and who delivers his people from “the hands of foreigners whose mouths are full of lies, whose right hands are deceitful” (verse 11). I wasn’t thinking about all of that when I chose my text, but it seems amazingly relevant this morning.
Nothing That Matters Has Changed
It all came together for me earlier this week when a friend in another state sent an email that included this comment about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11:
Personally, I was fighting Satan that first week of the attack because before I became a Christian I refused to have children because I didn’t want to bring them into what I viewed as a rotten, corrupt and evil world. After becoming a Christian I was convicted of this attitude and prayed for God’s will to be done in my life and we now have two children. I had to keep fighting the thought that “See! The world is rotten and now look what you’ve done!” The repercussions of this terrible incident are many and I feel that not only are the perpetrators looking to see if they can break us but so is Satan.
I think my friend is right. When the terrorists drove those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they wanted to stick a dagger into the heart of America. Along with destroying lives and buildings, they also struck a blow at our safety and security. Over the years I have heard other people say what this woman said: How can you bring children into a world like this? To which I give this answer: The world has not changed since the World Trade Center fell to the ground. Whatever was wrong with the world before September 11 is still wrong today. And whatever reasons we had for hope in a fallen world are still true today. Nothing that matters has changed. God hasn’t changed. His Word hasn’t changed. The gospel hasn’t changed. Every promise is still true. Maybe we’ve changed, and maybe that change is for the better, but nothing eternal has changed. And because that is true, we can still bring children into this world and we can still raise them for the Lord.
The context of verse 12 is very clear. After praying for victory over his enemies (verses 1-11), David declares the blessings that will come as a result (verses 12-14). It is very significant that the first blessing relates to our children. “Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace” (Psalm 144:12). This verse is both a promise and a challenge. And most of all, it is a guide to prayer. It tells us how to pray for our children, especially in a time of national crisis.
I. Our Sons—Growing Straight Toward Heaven
David begins with a familiar biblical image. We should pray that “our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants.” The New English Bible says that “our sons will be like plants that quickly grow to full size.” Eugene Peterson offers this paraphrase: “Make our sons in their prime like sturdy oak trees.” It is a picture of young men in their growing-up years becoming strong and powerful, like a forest of mighty oak trees.
This image has two parts that deserve special attention. First, these trees are “well-nurtured.” They are not trees growing in the wild, but rather trees planted by hand in a location specially chosen to produce the best growth. Those of you who like to garden know how important this is. Last spring I bought a 350-page book about the trees and shrubs of Illinois. As I read it, I was amazed and then overwhelmed at the detail. There are temperature zones in Illinois, and you have to make sure that the plant you purchase can grow in the zone where you live. Then you have to study the location carefully—is it near a fence? By a road? Near the house? Is it in full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or total shade? What is the drainage like? And most of all, you have to know when to plant it: early spring, late spring, summer, or early fall. If you plant too soon or too late, your viburnums (a plant I learned about by reading the book) may die and your honeysuckle may not blossom correctly. I found it all very complicated and somewhat discouraging because I like to dig a hole, put the plant in, throw in some plant food, water it once, and then forget about it until next year. But that’s not how it should be done. Gardening is an art and a science, and for many people, it’s an avocation and even a way of life. When this verse speaks of “well-nurtured plants,” it’s not talking about people who garden like I do; it’s talking about people who take their gardening seriously.
Second, these trees are well cared for so that they grow to maturity at an early age. They don’t take 20 years to grow 20 feet or 20 years to produce apples or peaches or plums or pears. Because the gardener tends to them constantly, because he knows about watering and fertilizer and he knows how to get rid of pesky critters that could kill the tree, because he pays attention to the young trees, they grow quickly to maturity. They grow strong and straight and tall at an early age. They spread their branches and bring forth fruit early on so that others can find shade under their branches and sustenance from their fruit.
Deep Roots in Good Soil
They grow quickly because their roots go down deep into the good soil of the earth. Because that root system is strong and deep, even though the tree is out in the open, not sheltered, but growing in the midst of the world, it is made stronger by the passing of the seasons, standing tall in sunshine and shadow, in the heat and in the cold, in the rain and in the snow.
And one writer noted that when a tree has been planted properly and carefully cultivated, it points straight to heaven.
This is what we should pray for our sons. That at an early age they might be firmly rooted in the good soil of God’s Word. That their roots might be so strong and so deep in the Word that they can stand strong in every storm. The familiar words of Psalm 1 come to mind at this point: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3 ESV).
What does a young man like this look like? There is nothing ugly, nothing shameful about him. He stands strong and tall and clean and pure. His character dominates the horizon and others come to him for shade and for rest and under his branches others find safety.
All his thoughts are pure.
All his actions are noble.
All his intentions point in the right direction.
Not by Accident
Please understand that sons like this do not happen by accident any more than a beautiful garden plants itself, waters itself, weeds itself, and fertilizes itself. We should pray that our sons might be …
Deeply rooted in the good soil of God’s Word.
Properly cultivated—watered and weeded and pruned of dead branches.
Blessed to flourish at an early age so that they bring forth the good fruit of godly character.
Gifted with stamina to bring forth fruit in their old age.
Let us pray that our sons will be strong and straight and pointed toward heaven. Not dwarfed by bad habits or foolish choices, not choked out by the weeds of the world, but young men of visible character who stand alone, strong enough to withstand the storms of life. God grant them visible strength, godly character, and the beauty of full development.
Let me say it again. Sons like this do not happen by accident. We must work for it and pray for it and wait for it and believe God for it.
Wanted: Young Men Who Will Lead!
One final word and then we will move on. Implicit in this image is the challenge for our young men to be spiritual leaders right now. Let me pause to speak a word to all our young men who are teenagers, college students, and young adults. God has called you to leadership right now. Do not say, “When I grow up, I’ll be a leader.” Or “When I am married, then I’ll be a leader.” No! Lead now! Be a man of God right now! At Emerson and Julian and Roosevelt Junior High Schools. At OPRF and Fenwick. At Riverside-Brookfield. At York. At Timothy. At OPCA. At Moody and Wheaton and Trinity and UIC and every other college our young men attend. At the offices and businesses where our young men work. I offer this challenge to all the young men of our congregation: Get your roots down deep into the Word of God. Grow close to the Lord. Find some friends who can challenge you spiritually. Stop making excuses. Don’t waste your life playing video games. The world is looking to you, your friends are looking to you, the church of Jesus Christ needs you right now. Grow now! Lead now! Stand strong now! Don’t wait for tomorrow.
May God give us a generation of young men who will be mighty oaks, standing strong, with deep roots, pointing straight toward heaven.
II. Our Daughters—Building a Godly Foundation of Strength and Beauty
The second image in this verse applies to the daughters in the family and is equally compelling. We ought to pray that “our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace” (Psalm 144:12b). The New American Bible stresses the image of beauty: “Our daughters, like carved columns, shapely as those of the temple.” The New English Bible adds a crucial part of the picture: “Our daughters will be like corner pillars, carved like those in a palace.” If you read the older translations, they used words like “cornerstone.” The King James Version even says, “that our daughters may be as corner stones.”
When you pull the various strands together, the result looks something like this: In Bible times, beautiful palaces contained a number of large columns that were both decorative and weight bearing. The most expensive columns were cut from marble, highly polished, and carefully put in place. The most important of those columns were placed at the intersection of two or more walls. They united various parts of the building, connecting one wing with another. Those corner columns were crucial because they held everything together. The master craftsmen would take extra time, choosing the best materials, working overtime to produce stone cut to exacting measurements, and polished to high degree of brilliance. The corner columns were placed with exquisite care because the integrity of the entire building depended on them. If they were cut wrong or placed wrong, the entire building would be unsound. But when properly placed, they became the foundation and connecting-point for everything else. Do not be deceived by the emphasis on beauty and grace. These columns are not mere ornaments added to please the eye. They are corner pillars that hold the palace together.
Fit for a King’s Palace
This, then, is the image of godly daughters. They are like those highly polished, carefully chosen, perfectly placed corner columns that hold together the palace where the king dwells. There is both form and function here. Godly daughters are both beautiful and strong. They hold the family together and serve as the connecting point for everything else. They are at the center of family life. Everything flows to them and through them.
Note the difference between the tree and the column. The oak tree stands outside the home, while the column upholds the home with strength and beauty. The corner pillar is the strength of the home itself. When the column is weak, the house itself is weak. When the corner pillar is strong, the house can stand against the storms that rise against it.
Daughters like this do not happen by accident. There is no clumsy workmanship here. Only a master craftsman can produce beautiful corner columns fit for a king’s palace. Do you dream of this for your daughters? You can have it but it will be the work of a lifetime.
In light of this, how should we pray for our daughters? Let us pray that they will be …
Graceful and useful,
Beautiful and strong,
Polished and perfectly placed.
Polished with Godly Character
One writer said that our daughters should be polished three ways: First, with good education. Second, with good manners. Third, with godly character. All three points are worth considering. A good education prepares our daughters to use their gifts and talents to the fullest. In the olden days, it was common to educate the boys and let the girls learn on their own. Thankfully, those days are long gone. Today there are abundant opportunities for our daughters to go as far as they care to go in their education. The second point suggests that having good manners is both an attitude of the heart and a skill to be learned. It involves knowing how to act appropriately in every situation and how to make others feel at ease in your presence. This is greatly needed in our highly competitive, dog-eat-dog, Look Out For Number One world. But the greatest polish is the grace of a godly character. Such a daughter is truly a cornerstone of godly strength. She is the one who keeps the family united. She is the rock upon which others may safely rest. As she rests on Jesus, her husband and her children draw strength from her godly example. How many of us are going to heaven because a mother prayed for us or a grandmother made Jesus so beautiful in our eyes that we could not help but believe in him?
Here is a noble goal for any Christian woman: to be this sort of polished corner pillar who holds her family together with strength, joy, love, laughter, and a contagious faith in Jesus. If you go all the way back to the beginning of history, you discover that the last thing God made was a woman. God’s best gift to Adam was Eve. So shall it always be. God’s best gift to any man is a godly woman of strength and beauty. Her worth is far above rubies. Such a woman is truly God’s masterpiece, the crowning glory of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden.
God Honors Daughters
If you consider these two images—the mighty tree and the stately corner column, you might have thought that the images could have been reversed. After all, it is the women who are fruitful in the bearing of children and it is the men who bear the primary burden of spiritual leadership in the home. But in putting things this way, the Lord emphasizes the high value and worth of our daughters. Women are the primary spiritual teachers of our children. It has always been so and it is so today. I know of no evidence to the contrary. In the ancient world, young girls were not always highly esteemed. And even in our day, in some parts of the world, female babies are left outside, exposed and left to die. In contrast to this devaluing of women, God intends his people to understand how much of their security, their strength, and their happiness depends on the daughters of a family. They bring something to the table that sons cannot and do not bring. What that something is, is hard to say but it is there and unless we are totally blind to reality, we can see it and feel it and we know it. And here God honors daughters by making them the cornerstone of the whole family, the source of beauty and strength, and the meeting point of all that is good and holy.
We return to the text with new understanding: When our work as parents is done well, “our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace.” This is what we want for our daughters. This is what we hope for, work for, pray for. Let us never be turned aside and never settle for anything less.
III. Our Families—United We Stand, Serving the Lord
When I was a teenager sitting in church some 35 years ago, I heard a speaker say that the husband is the head of the home, the wife is the heart of the home, and children are the hope of the home. Lots of things have changed in the years since then, and there has been much shifting of expectations and some healthy debate, but at this point in my life, I cannot quarrel with what I heard so many years ago. Every healthy home needs a head and a heart. You can’t live without either one and you can’t survive with two heads or two hearts. Let godly men be godly men and godly women be godly women, let the head and the heart work together in harmonious, joyful partnership, and the home will be strong and the children will be happy and blessed by God.
David tells us to pray for mighty oaks and graceful pillars. If we put these two images together, we are to pray that our children would have a strong foundation—that they would truly love the Lord, that their faith would be genuine, and that their faith would be visible to everyone who sees them. Let us pray for our children to have the beauty that comes from knowing the Lord. “Those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5). The most beautiful people—men or women—are those whose lives are filled with noble purpose, who have found a higher calling than simply making money or passing time or building empires of sand to be washed away by the tides of time. They live and move to the call of something higher and better and the light of noble purpose transforms their outward appearance. They are truly beautiful to behold.
Let me repeat what I have already said several times: Children like this don’t happen by chance. If we want sons like mighty oaks and daughters like graceful pillars, we must pray for this and we must work for this. Indeed, producing children like this is the work of a lifetime. It is our greatest and highest and noblest work, the finest gift we can give to the world. If we come to the end of life and have done great things (as the world counts greatness), but our children are not walking with the Lord, how will we ever be satisfied? And if we come to the end and our dreams of worldly fame have not come to pass, but our children love Jesus, we can go down to the grave smiling, knowing that our time on earth has not been in vain.
We Need the Whole Body of Christ
And there is more to be said. Not only must we work and pray for this, we need the help of others. We need gifted Sunday School teachers and godly Awana workers, and dedicated choir leaders and Vacation Bible School leaders to help us raise our children to serve the Lord. We cannot and should not do it alone. We need the help of the whole body of Christ. By the way, this means that singles and couples with no children (or couples whose children have long since left the home) can have a powerful ministry of praying for the children of this church. If you can, you should teach and you should serve. If you can’t, then you should pray. That’s something all of us can do. The whole church must band together to raise our children for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, our children must seek godliness for themselves. Let us not fill our children so full of earthly dreams that they forget to seek first the Kingdom of God. Challenge your children to follow Christ. Pray out loud and in their presence for them. Dream great dreams for your children to serve the Lord. Tell them you dream of them becoming men of God and women of God.
From the Battlements of Heaven
And then there is one other thing we must do. Verse 15 tells us where all these blessings come from: “Blessed are the people of whom this is true; blessed are the people whose God is the LORD.” How happy are the people whose God is the Lord. They are blessed and shall be blessed and their blessing will pass to their children and to their children’s children.
Raising children who love the Lord and grow to be mighty oaks and graceful pillars, who build strong families and bless others, does not happen by accident. If we want our children to love the Lord, then we must love the Lord. If we want our children to make God their Lord, then God must be our Lord. We cannot give lip service to true religion and then expect our children to be genuinely dedicated to Christ. The stream does not rise higher than its source. The best thing you can do for your children is to love the Lord and serve him with all your heart. Make God your Lord and your children are likely to follow in your steps. Your faith will one day be their faith. They are likely to do what you do, to believe what you believe, and to live as you live. Put the Lord first and you have given a gift to your children that will still be a blessing long after you have gone to heaven. And perhaps God will grant you the privilege of cheering as you peer over the battlements of heaven, watching your great-great-grandchildren following Jesus Christ.
As I thought about this Children’s Sunday at Calvary, and about our parents and all the gifted teachers who work with our children, my mind was drawn again to those ringing words of Joshua as he challenges the people of Israel to make up their minds about whom they will serve. “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15a, NKJV). If you want to serve the gods of this world, then so be it. You will have your reward, and your children will pay the price. But let the people of the true God declare their faith this way: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15b, NKJV).
Father, help us as parents to live so that our children find it easy to believe in Jesus. Grant that our sons will be like mighty oaks and our daughters as graceful columns. Give us children of strong faith who are not ashamed to live for Christ. As we see the world reeling from one crisis to another, we ask for single-minded focus on the things of eternal value. May we say, “Let the world do what it will. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.