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Nisi Dominus Frustra

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, August 1, 2007

While in London, my wife and I visited several of the usual tourist sites: Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. For those who haven’t been to London, let me say that the Tower of London isn’t a tower so much as an ancient castle. The Tower tour is both fascinating and humorous, especially if you have a quirky sense of humor.

One of the things that caught my eye while we were touring the Tower wasn’t mentioned by our guide. It was a sign over the door of the apartment of the rector of the Tower church.  Though it’s hard to read in this photo, the sign says: NISI DOMINUS FRUSTRA. The Latin reads, literally, “Unless the Lord in vain.” It’s a summary of the first verse of Psalm 107 in the Latin Vulgate. In our translation it reads: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

What a great reminder in the midst of a historic building and a magnet for tourists! “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Unless the Lord is working through me, my writing and my pastoral ministry are in vain. Unless I’m a channel of the Lord’s wisdom and power, my efforts at parenting are empty. Unless I am God’s servant living by His power and for His glory, my life lacks ultimate meaning and purpose.

NISI DOMINUS FRUSTRA. Now there’s something worth posting above your door, on on your refrigerator, or whereever you might see it on a regular basis. Life without the Lord is in vain.

Topics: European Reflections |

10 Responses to “Nisi Dominus Frustra”

  1. Mark Goodyear Says:
    August 1st, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Great observation. The thing is, what does it look like to let the Lord build my house, or my writing, or my family?

    Does that mean I pray regularly and offer my work to him? Does it mean I just remember my work is about God, not myself? Does it mean I have to wear Jesus T-shirts as often as possible?

    Those are rhetorical questions, but you get my meaning. The concept is easy to understand. What is hard for me is knowing how to apply that concept on a daily basis.

  2. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    August 1st, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    Oh, definitely Jesus t-shirts. And ichthus bumper stickers. And big fat Bibles. Yeah!

    Well, maybe it’s more about offering all that I am to God many times each day. And remembering that I’m working for His glory. And asking for the help of the Spirit. And relying upon the wisdom of the Christian community . . . .

  3. Alkis Agapidis Says:
    September 25th, 2008 at 8:50 am

    This is my favourite motto!

    You would find the same motto as part of the City of Edinburgh’s Coat of Arms, and since I have discovered this in a hazardous way, as yourself, we can hope the motto lies on other places too, and people get the opportunity to dwell into and contemplate upon its meaning.

    England is for another reason, then, such a beautiful country! In the words of Victor Hugo “England has two books; the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England.” (By the way, it is part of Psalm 127 in the Bible, so there is a difference in numbering with the Vulgate).

    It is also said that President John F. Kennedy included in what is known as “the undelivered speech”, i.e. the speech he would have addressed on the day of his assassination, the phrases “…and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

    I find all that most comforting. I live, as you do, in a world and age where people are regarded as omnipotent and yet of one thing alone there is a genuine need for all human beings, and that is the Lord.

    And yet churches, pastors and faithful people alike, we all seem reluctant or too weary to disperse that basic truth, or too busy with everyday matters and material or social considerations. The gap can be, and let us all pray it shall continue to be, filled by “anonymous” Christian resources such as writings above walls, magnets on refrigerators, emblems of cities or speeches of leaders.

    To my mind it is not that the Lord works in all that mysterious ways, it is the fact there is work to be done, it is the reality of “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” and the question begged “who will go for us?”. And since He does continue to work while we forget to, we can at least pray and hope for the vision of a full Heaven and an empty Hell. At least this is what I think.

  4. Brad Johnston Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Nisi Dominus Frustra is also the motto of the City of Los Angeles. This is Psalm 127, verses 1 and 2.

  5. Peter & Trish Coleman Says:
    February 22nd, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Of interest? “Nisi Dominus Fructa” [psalm 127 in my Jerusalem Bible] was in an obituary in todays [23 Feb 2010]”Dominion Post” honouring a Headmistress of St Oram’s School, Lower Hutt, Wellington New Zealand. It is the school motto. I was interested, as we are told it was the favourite psalm of Marcellin Champagnat [1789-1840] founder of the Marist Brothers[FMS].I was educated by the Marists at their flagship in NZ, Sacred Heart College, Auckland. Greetings fro downunder & kind regards, Peter. Napier NZ

  6. sujit varghese Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Nisi Dominus Frustra is the motto of my school in kolkata, india. St.Thomas’ Boys school,it was built in 1789 by the British then.

  7. Ananda Dias-Jayasinha Says:
    July 12th, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Nisi Dominus Frustra is the motto of my Alma mater Richmond College, Galle, Sri Lanka. The lore is that Nisi Dominus Frustra was adopted in 1899 instead of the original “Palma Virutti” by Rev. Darrel who was a Latin scholar and the Principal of Richmond. The first Wesleyan Mission school in Asia was started in 1814 in Galle which was the precursor of the present Richmond College. Seem to be a popular motto.

  8. Tyler Masoud Says:
    July 17th, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Who wants to hear something refreshing? I found something that is just like that Easy Button that they advertise on TV for Staples. It’s a little known secret that is only shared by some top level Internet gurus. There is nothing illegal or shady about it… it’s just kind of secret. The software needs very little babysitting so it’s basically set it up and forget it. Some people are tempted to exploit this software and use it for unethical web promotion but the owner is asking that everyone who is lucky enough to get it, please try to respect the laws of the internet. It really is as simple as downloading the software and then pushing a button. This never seen before push button software proved that the best and most profitable traffic on the internet is free traffic. You might be tempted to try to disect this software in order to ’see the magic’ but why bother? It’s a pretty amazing piece of software and it just simply… works. Check it out ->

  9. Brierley Denver Stubbs Says:
    October 11th, 2011 at 5:18 am

    This was the motto of my Grammar school in Manchester. Poundswick Grammar School was built in 1957 to provide higher level education for the post war “baby boomers” of the sprwaling Wythenshawe estate. Alas it was demolished a few years ago and is now replaced by a modern “academy” recently opened.

    Fascinating to see that this is so widely used a motto. This year I visited the imposing St Rumbold’s cathedral in Mechelen, Province of Antwerp, Flanders. The building was 320 years in construction! The 167m tower was never completed to its full height (a point allegedly noted by Pope John Paul II during his visit in 1985).

    In the visitors book I wrote; “Nisi Dominus Frustra”

  10. richard jacoby Says:
    October 19th, 2011 at 1:18 am

    This motto is also used by Canford School in Dorset UK


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