Thursday, June 22, 2017

The fruit of the Passion: Psalm 126 v5

Image result for maciejowski bible


Verse 5 of Psalm 126 is traditionally interpreted as being about the spread of the Gospel: though Christians are often outcasts, persecuted for their views, yet the Church grows from this.

5
V
Sicut sagíttæ in manu poténtis: * ita fílii excussórum.
NV
Sicut sagittae in manu potentis, ita filii iuventutis.
JH
Sicut sagittae in manu potentis, ita filii iuuentutis. 

σε βέλη ν χειρ δυνατο οτως ο υο τν κτετιναγμένων

Sicut (like) sagíttæ (arrows) in manu (in the hand) poténtis (strong): * ita (so) fílii (the sons) excussórum (of outcasts)

Note that the Vulgate and neo-Vulgate versions of the second phrase are quite different. This one of those cases where modern translations, changed to reflect an alternate meaning of the Hebrew word underlying excussorum  - admitted to be ambiguous by expert exegetes – renders the traditional Western commentaries impossible to understand.

sagitta, ae, f., an arrow.
manus, us,   hand
potens, entis, p. adj.  powerful, mighty, strong.
ita – so, thus, even, in this manner
excussus, a, um, part. adj. cast out, thrown out; robust, able to shake enemies off.  

DR
As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
Brenton
As arrows in the hand of a mighty man; so are the children of those who were outcasts.
MD
As arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the sons of vigorous youth.
RSV
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth.
Cover
Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant, even so are the young children.
Knox
Crown of thy youth, children are like arrows in a warrior’s hand.
Grail
Indeed the sons of youth are like arrows in the hand of a warrior.

The first half of the verse is depicted by St Augustine as referring firstly to the spread of the people through the whole earth, and secondly, the spread of the Gospel:
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 you the heathen for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession...From His bow He sends forth His Apostles: there could not be a spot left where an arrow shot by so strong an arm would not reach; it has reached unto the uttermost parts of the earth. 
The second half of the verse is where the differences come into play.  The 'sons of youth' in the neo-Vulgate perhaps is unproblematic in a very literal interpretation of the text, pointing to the virtues of strong and large families.  St John Chrysostom's commentary is not inconsistent with it:
Now, what he means is something like this: not only will they en­joy the security of walls, or a fortified city, or numbers of children, but they will also be fearsome to their enemies - as fearsome as arrows.  Now, he did not say simply arrows but in the hands of strong men: arrows are fearsome, not in themselves, but when held by a strong man, dealing death to his attackers; so will these people be, then. 
St Robert Bellarmine, though points to the Vulgate translation as referring to something quite different, namely the inevitable persecution of Christians:
But why are those brave children called "the children of them that have been shaken?" Because they are the children of the outcasts and the wretched, the children of the prophets and the apostles; and of the former, the apostle writes,"Others had trial of mockeries and stripes, moreover also of bonds and prisons; they were stoned, they were cut asunder, they were tempted, they were put to death by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being in want, distressed, afflicted; of whom the world was not worthy;" and, speaking of the apostles, the same apostle says, "For I think that God hath set forth us, apostles, the last, as it were, men destined to death; because we are made a spec­tacle to the world, and to angels, and to men. Even unto this hour, we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffet­ed, and have no fixed abode; and we labor, working with our own hands; we are reviled and we bless; we are persecuted, and we suffer it; we are ill spoken of, and we entreat: we are made as the refuse of this world; the off-scouring of all even till now." 
And St Aloysius Liguori brings together the two parts of the verse nicely, pointing to the triumph of the Church:
These children, tormented by persecutions, shall be against their enemies as so many arrows in the hand of a strong man. The holy souls, fruit of the Passion of Jesus Christ, and children of the Church, always persecuted as their divine Spouse, are the arms that the Almighty employs to combat and to overcome the errors and bad passions of the world.
Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Church bears children: Psalm 126 v4



The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

4
V
Cum déderit diléctis suis somnum: * ecce heréditas Dómini fílii : merces, fructus ventris.
NV
quia dabit dilectis suis somnum.Ecce hereditas Domini filii, merces fructus ventris.
JH
sic dabit diligentibus se somnum.  Ecce hereditas Domini filii : merces fructus uentris.
ταν δ τος γαπητος ατο πνονδο κληρονομία κυρίου υοί μισθς το καρπο τς γαστρός

Cum (When) déderit (he will give) diléctis (the beloved) suis (his) somnum (sleep): * ecce (behold) heréditas (the inheritance) Dómini (the Lord) fílii (sons): merces (the reward), fructus (fruit) ventris (of the womb)

do, dedi, datum, are, to give,
diligo, lexi, lectum, ere 3  to love; to flatter, make pretence of loving.
somnus, i, m.  during sleep. ecce, adv.  lol see! Behold
hereditas, atis, /. an inheritance, possession; In a fig. sense, the chosen people, the Israelites, the Church,
filius, ii, m. a son.
merces, edis,  a reward
fructus, us, m.  fruit, produce; the fruit of the soil, trees; a reward; the fruit of the womb, children, posterity
venter, tris, m. lit., the belly, the body, the bowels, the breast, heart. womb

DR
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
Brenton
While he gives sleep to his beloved.  Behold, the inheritance of the Lord, children, the reward of the fruit of the womb.
MD
For to His loved ones He giveth it in sleep.  Behold children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.
RSV
For he gives to his beloved sleep. Lo, sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.
Cover
For so he giveth his beloved sleep. Lo, children, and the fruit of the womb, are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.
Knox
Is it not in the hours of sleep that he blesses the men he loves? Fatherhood itself is the Lord’s gift, the fruitful womb is a reward that comes from him.
Grail
When he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. Truly sons are a gift from the Lord, a blessing, the fruit of the womb.

St Augustine interprets this verse as a reference to Christ on the cross, a sense that fits well with the placement of the psalm at None:
But where did He sleep? On the Cross.
And the children referred to are therefore the sons and daughters of Christ made possible by the creation of the Church:
When He slept on the Cross, He bore a sign, yea, He fulfilled what had been signified in Adam: for when Adam was asleep, a rib was drawn from him and Eve was created; so also while the Lord slept on the Cross, His side was transfixed with a spear, and the Sacraments flowed forth, whence the Church was born. For the Church the Lord's Bride was created from His side, as Eve was created from the side of Adam. But as she was made from his side no otherwise than while sleeping, so the Church was created from His side no otherwise than while dying...
The Church bears children, the Bride of Christ; and if she bears them, she travails of them. In figure of her, Eve was called also the Mother of all living. He who said, My little children, of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you, was among the members of her who travails. But she travailed not in vain, nor brought forth in vain: there will be a holy seed at the resurrection of the dead: the righteous who are at present scattered over the whole world shall abound. The Church groans for them, the Church travails of them; but in that resurrection of the dead, the offspring of the Church shall appear, pain and groaning shall pass away....
For each of us individually, the message is that death is not something to be feared, as Cassiodorus explains:
The next words explain when those people earlier ordered to sit are to rise, namely at the time when the faithful are welcomed into rest; for them death is sleep and untroubled intermission. God's beloved are those who seek Him with zealous love. One can infer from this passage the great gifts bestowed on them, since they have received such a title, for one addressed as God's beloved is undoubtedly adorned with eternal blessedness....
The reward though, are the sons and daughters born through baptism, according to Cassiodorus:
The fruit of this womb, the offspring born of the Virgin, the reward is the Lord's entire inheritance, which on rising again is sent to possess heaven, and will rejoice with the Lord in eternal blessedness. The reward is said to have been rendered to humankind; of it Psalm 2 says: Ask of me, and I will give thee Gentiles for thy inheritance." 
Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate



Sunday, June 18, 2017

Those who walk in darkness: Psalm 126 v3

Mosaic of Christ as Sol

Verse 3 of Psalm 126 arguably takes us to that time after Christ's death but before the Resurrection.

3
V
Vanum est vobis ante lucem súrgere: * súrgite postquam sedéritis, qui manducátis panem dolóris.
NV
Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere et sero quiescere, qui manducatis panem laboris,
JH
Frustra uobis est de mane consurgere : postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem dolorum:

ες μάτην μν στιν το ρθρίζειν γείρεσθαι μετ τ καθσθαι ο σθοντες ρτον δύνης

Vanum Vain) est (it is) vobis (for you) ante (before) lucem (the light) súrgere (to rise): * súrgite (arise) postquam (after) sedéritis (pf subjunctive or fut pf indic - you have been sitting), qui (who) manducátis (you eat) panem (the bread) dolóris (of sorrow).

The Hebrew and Greek texts of this verse that have come down to us diverge quite sharply, whether because of mistranslation, as some commentators speculate, or not.  The Monastic Diurnal follows the Hebrew here, the sense being that it is a waste of time to toil unless God assists. 

But the Septuagint/Vulgate seems to be trying to convey a slightly different message, namely that going through the motions of getting up early etc is all to no avail if one is in a state of mortal sin; thus take the time to rest and return to God.  Certainly this second meaning is implied in the liturgy where during certain penitential seasons of the year, the Matins Invitatory is a play on this verse, promising a reward to those who arise early…

ante, prep, with the ace, before, used both of place and time, ante lucem surgere, to rise before the dawn,
lux lucis light
surgo, surrexi, surrectum, ere 3,  rise, stand up; to awake; to rise, to get up from bed or from sleep.
sedeo, sedi, sessum, ere 2, to sit; to rest
manduco, avi, atum, are (mando 3, to chew), to eat.
panis, is, m. bread, food in general
dolor, oris, m.  pain whether of body or of mind, grief, sorrow, affliction. Sin
postquam, conj., after

DR
It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow
Brenton
It is vain for you to rise early: ye rise up after resting, ye that eat the bread of grief
MD
It is vain that you rise early, and late to retire to rest, ye who eat the bread of toil
RSV
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
Cover
It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness;
Knox
Vain, that you should be astir before daybreak, and sit on over your tasks late into the night, you whose bread is so hardly won
Grail
In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat

St Augustine summarises the verse as a whole as follows:
If we wish to be guarded by Him who was humbled for our sakes, and who was exalted to keep us, let us be humble. Let no one assume anything unto himself. No man has any good, except he has received it from Him who alone is good. But he who chooses to arrogate wisdom unto himself, is a fool. Let him be humble, that wisdom may come, and may enlighten him. 
To see how he arrives at this, let us look at each of the key phrases in this verse.

Rising before the light/early

Several of the Fathers interpret this as relating to the Resurrection: Christ is the light; we cannot rise until he does; we cannot truly rise to eternal life unless through him. St Augustine, for example, says:
For all indeed shall rise, but not as His beloved. There is a resurrection of all the dead; but what says the Apostle? We shall all rise, but we shall not all be changed.  They rise unto punishment: we rise as our Lord rose, that we may follow our Head, if we are members of Him....Hope for such a resurrection; and for the sake of this be a Christian, not for the sake of this world's happiness. For if you wish to be a Christian for the sake of this world's happiness, since He your Light sought not worldly happiness; you are wishing to rise before the light; you must needs continue in darkness. Be changed, follow your Light; rise where He rose again: first sit down, and thus rise, when He gives His beloved sleep.
Cassiodorus makes the point more succinctly:
It is the person who longs to be granted blessedness in this world who rises before light, whereas the true Light, the Lord Christ, endured many sufferings here, deigning to undergo the gibbet of the cross for our salvation. 
But Cassiodorus also argues that this verse can be seen as referring to the Second Coming:
This psalm says that no joys are to be taken before light, that is, before the Lord's second coming; while Jeremiah warns the people to abandon wickedness before dawn, that is, before Christ's first coming, so that they cannot be found on crooked paths. So the two prophets have touched upon the Lord's two comings. 
Those for whom it is in vain

St Augustine makes it clear whose labour is for nought:
Who rise before Christ? They who choose to prefer themselves to Christ. And who are they who wish to prefer themselves to Christ? They who wish to be exalted here, where He was humble.
Cassiodorus adds:
The person who rises before light still walks in darkness, and cannot advance his journey because of the blackness of the night... 
 Rise after being seated

Cassiodorus explains this as pointing to the need for humility:
They are told: Rise after you have been seated, in other words, endure being humbled first, and after your ascension seek the rewards of joys; for the seating mentioned denotes humility and not distinction.
Some of the early versions of this verse though, in both Greek and Latin, say 'rest' rather than sit, making the connection to the harrowing of hell more obvious.

The bread of sorrow

The bread of sorrow should, according to Cassiodorus, be interpreted as our work of repentance:
...it is perfect Christians who eat the bread of sorrow, for another psalm says of them: Tears were my bread day and night, and: Thou wilt feed us with the bread of tears, and give us for our drink tears in measure. Their sorrow is indeed their bread, since they refresh themselves with affliction, and console themselves with this world's sadness. Bread nourishes us, and this is the effect of the purity with which the faithful consider that punishment is in­flicted on them not for death but for salvation.

Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate



Friday, June 16, 2017

Work as if everything depends on you...: Psalm 126 - v2

Stones from the Western Wall of Jerusalem
thrown down by Roman soldiers in 70 CE
Continuing on this verse by verse look at Psalm 126, today a look at verse 2:

2
V/NV/JH
Nisi Dóminus custodíerit civitátem, * frustra vígilat qui custódit eam.

ἐὰν μ κύριος φυλάξ πόλιν ες μάτην γρύπνησεν φυλάσσων

Nisi (unless) Dóminus (the Lord) custodíerit (he will keep) civitátem (the city), * frustra (vainly) vígilat (he keeps watch) qui (who) custódit (he watches) eam (it).

custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly.
civitas, atis,  a city, state, commonwealth; the inhabitants of the city
frustra, adv.  in vain, vainly, to no purpose, uselessly.
vigilo, avi, atum, are  to be awake, keep watch, watch; to watch for, seek, long for. 

DR
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
Brenton
Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman watches in vain.
MD
Unless the Lord guard the city, he watcheth in vain that guardeth it.
RSV
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Cover
Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
Knox
Vainly the guard keeps watch, if the city has not the Lord for its guardian.
Grail
If the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watchman keep vigil.

The city of God 

The previous verse talked about the house of God; this one talks about a city, why?  St Augustine tells us that the words mean the same thing:
But that which is the house of God is also a city. For the house of God is the people of God; for the house of God is the temple of God....This is Jerusalem: she has guards: as she has builders, labouring at her building up, so also has she guards...
The obvious allusion in terms of the literal interpretation of the verse is to the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the return from exile, since as Ezra describes, half the men worked while the other half guarded the walls against neighbouring marauders intent on preventing the rebuilding effort, as St Robert Bellarmine points out:
When the city was being built after the captivity, they had to build it and guard it at the same time, as we read in 2 Esdras. The nations round about them not only sought to prevent them from building, but they demolished everything that was built if they could; and thus the children of Israel had to proceed with the sword in one hand, and the tools in the other, and many had to stand guard continually. Yet all this guarding would have been of no avail, had not the Lord chosen to guard the city. 
The destruction of Jerusalem

The verse can also, though, in the context of the Crucifixion, perhaps be taken as a a reference to the coming destruction of Jerusalem some forty years after the death of Christ, and prophesised by him in:
And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying: If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee: and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, And beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation (Luke 19:41-44).
The key point though, is that while we have to work hard, labouring and guarding against the enemy as if everything depends on us, in reality our efforts will be useless without God's aid:
Why mention erection of walls and building of the city? It would also have been impossible for anyone to guard it when brought to completion had that assistance not been available. Now, he said this to persuade them by every means to have recourse again to God's grace lest they become more indifferent owing to the respite. The reason, you see, why he gave them the good things not all at once but slowly and gradually was to prevent their running back to their former wickedness because of their rapid release from troubles; instead, even in the very giving of the good things he constantly reminded them by the onset of their enemies to be ever stirring up their indifference. So the words are of general application, while taking their origin in this occasion: it is necessary to bring them to bear on everyone's situation lest we ourselves become indifferent and supine instead of contributing what is in our power, entrusting everything to God, and completely depending in everything on hope in him. I mean, as it is not possible to bring affairs to completion without his help, likewise if God helps but we are idle and inactive, it is impossible for us to reach the goal. (St John Chrysostom)
The watchmen

Many of the Fathers interpret the role of watchman as especially applying, after Christ, to bishops.  Cassiodorus, for example, says:
We interpret the Lord's city as the heavenly Jerusalem, a part of which still lodges on earth. In it the bishops strive to keep watch, to protect with unsleeping care the flock entrusted to them. The same injunction is given them not to be fired by harmful thoughts, and imagine that human precautions have any dominant effect, for only the Godhead can ward off dangers of attack. 
St Robert Bellarmine though also applies the message to the individual Christian:
The same is very apt to occur to ourselves, when we, through good works, begin to build up a house, for enemies will not be wanting to seek to destroy the work so begun, by various temptations; and, hence, the apostle arms us when he says, "Wherefore take unto you the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day;" and a little further on, "In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one." But unless God be with us, to guard us who slumber so often, and fight for us, all our labor will be in vain.

Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Rebuilding the Church with God's aid: Psalm 126 - v1




Translating the verse

First, focus in the text of the verse.

1
V/JH
Nisi dominus aedificaverit domum:* in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
NV
Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant, qui aedificant eam.

ἐὰν μ κύριος οκοδομήσ οκον ες μάτην κοπίασαν ο οκοδομοντες ατόν

Nisi (unless) dominus (the Lord) aedificaverit (he will build)  domum (the house):* in vanum (vain) laboraverunt (they have laboured) qui (who) aedificant (they build) eam (it).

nisi, conj. (ne and si), if not, unless.
aedifico, avi, atum, are  to build.
domus, us, /.  house, structure.
vanus, a, um vain, idle, profitless, deceptive, null, empty as to purpose or result.  
laboro, avi, atum, are to toil, labor.

Douay-Rheims
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
Brenton
Except the Lord build the house, they that build labour in vain
Diurnal
Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.
RSV
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Coverdale
Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.
Knox
Vain is the builder’s toil, if the house is not of the Lord’s building
Grail
If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor;

The literal sense of the verse is, toil is useless without God’s help, a sentiment echoed in John 15:5:
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 
It can be interpreted, though as applying at both the individual and collective levels.

God's guidance of history

St John Chrysostom, for example, interprets it as referring to God's providential guidance of history in relation to the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile (as described in Ezra and Nehemiah):
This psalm has to do with the state of affairs after the return. You see, when they were freed from captivity and had returned from the savage country, the city they took possession of was in ruins, and they endeavored to rebuild the walls knocked down along with the towers. But many attacked them from many quarters and hindered the work, envying the prosperity of the Jews and fearful of their success. Then time was spent on doing these things, and so much time that over forty years was devoted to the construction of the Temple, as the Jews also indicated in saying, "The building of this Temple took forty-six years," referring not to the former build­ing of Solomon but to this later one, after the freedom from the Persians. Since, then, much time was spent in building Temple, city and walls (the building of the city, in fact, took much longer), the inspired author wanted to teach them once more to have re­course to God, and so went through all this in detail to show that everything happened without any other rhyme or reason than winning grace from God. That is to say, not only freedom from captivity but also erection of the walls by the recently released was impossible without the grace of God.
If we read the psalm Christologically, though, in the context of the crucifixion, this psalm reminds us that Christ's death was necessary in order to build the Church, which is no longer a physical entity like the Temple of old, but rather the body of Christ, which can never be destroyed: though it be destroyed in a particular time and place, it can be rebuilt through Christ.  Indeed, the Church is always in this constant process of rebuilding.

The work of sanctification

This is not something that can be done apart from Christ though. St Augustine, for example, sees the verse as a reference to the Churches ongoing work of sanctification:
The Lord, therefore, builds the house, the Lord Jesus Christ builds His own house. Many toil in building: but, except He build, their labour is but lost that build it. Who are they who toil in building it? All who preach the word of God in the Church, the ministers of God's mysteries. We are all running, we are all toiling, we are all building now; and before us others have run, toiled, and built: but except the Lord build, their labour is but lost...We, therefore, speak without, He builds within. We can observe with what attention ye hear us; He alone who knows your thoughts, knows what ye think. He Himself builds, He Himself admonishes, He Himself opens the understanding, He Himself kindles your understanding unto faith; nevertheless, we also toil like workmen; but, except the Lord build...
St Hilary of Poitiers sees the verse as directed at us each individually:
 This, then, is the temple of God, filled with his doctrine and his power, able to provide the Lord with room in the sanctuary of the heart. It was of this that the prophet spoke in the psalm: Holy is your temple, made marvellous by his justice. Holiness, justice and righteous­ness are a temple for God, and God ought then to build his house. If it were built by the hands of men, it would not stand; strengthened only by worldly knowledge, it would not hold firm; supported only by our ineffective watchfulness and useless works, it would not be secure. This house must be built and guarded in a very different way: it should not be founded on the earth or on shifting sands, but estab­lished on its proper base, the prophets and the apostles. This house should be built with living stones; with Christ to hold it together as the corner stone, it should grow by the ties that bind all the elements that go to make it up, until it becomes the perfect man and is made perfect as the body of Christ; it should be decorated with the jewels of spiritual graces and shine forth with his beauty" (Tractatus super Psalmos, 126,7-8).
Origen makes the point that our dependence on God does not mean that we are excused from hard work ourselves:
By which words he does not indeed indicate that we should cease from building or watching over the safe keeping of that city which is within us; but what he points out is this, that whatever is built without God, and whatever is guarded without him, is built in vain, and guarded to no purpose.  For in all things that are well built and well protected, the Lord is held to be the cause either of the building or of its protection. 
 ...Of God in Christ Jesus, unless this very good will of ours, and ready purpose, and whatever that diligence within us may be, be aided or furnished with divine help.  And therefore most logically did the apostle say, that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy;” in the same manner as if we were to say of agriculture what is actually written:  “I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.  So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” First Principles

Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate