I’ve been trying to grow in my appreciation for the Psalms recently, taking my time to savour them with the five Cs of coffee, crayolas, concordance, curiosity and commentaries. From time to time I may post a few of my thoughts. Here are some musings and scribblings on Psalm 133.
Psalm 133 is labelled as a Psalm of Ascents, designed to be sung by pilgrims making their way up the mountain to worship at the Temple. It has an ABBA structure. An intro and a summary, both of which contain a character and a positive statement:
- V1 – How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity
- V3b – There the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore
In between are two similes in v2 and v3a, describing what the blessings bestowed on united brothers are like.
I’ve often heard this Psalm quoted as if human unity must precede divine blessing. As in, brothers need to dwell in unity before God blesses them. And presumably the flipside is true, that disunity causes us to miss out on the blessing of God. I think that’s true… but I do wonder whether it might actually work the other way round as well? Verse 3 says, ‘There God has commanded blessing’, which may suggest that our very ability to live in unity is itself a result of God’s blessing.
I suspect we’re meant to feel the ambiguity. I think the Psalmist wants us to strive for unity in order to enjoy God’s blessing. But we’re also meant to recognise that it’s God’s blessing that makes us brothers and sisters in the first place. Like Paul says in Ephesians,
‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit, through the bond of peace’Ephesians 4:3
The Spirit blesses us with unity. We are tasked with keeping what the Spirit has created.
And it’s probably cyclical. The more we dwell in unity, the deeper the blessing we receive, and the more we dwell in unity… and so on.
Either way, it’s God who takes our ‘dwelling’ (v1) – which is a decided and firm, but temporary, action – and turns it into a permanent state – ‘life forevermore’ (v3b).
Is the term ‘brothers’ a general one? Or does the Psalmist have particular brothers in mind? There are a couple of famous Old Testament stories of brothers who didn’t dwell in unity. Cain and Abel is a pretty obvious one! But also, Genesis 13:6 and 36:7 tell stories of brothers – Abraham and Lot, and Jacob and Esau – who were unable to dwell in unity, because the land was not able to support them. If the Psalmist had those brothers in mind, then it’s interesting that in this Psalm the land is watered with dew, which would make it fertile and thus more able to sustain brothers dwelling together. Does that reinforce the thought that maybe the blessing of God precedes the unity of the brothers? The Lord has commanded the blessing, which is like dew, making fertile the land, such that brothers can dwell in unity, unlike their forefathers.
Even if the singers weren’t thinking of those brothers in particular, I’m sure they were thinking of themselves. As they ascended the mountain singing in united worship, their voices making beautiful harmonies, they were longing for God to respond to their unity and bless them and make their land fertile. To fulfil the promises to Abraham, in their day.
So what about the similes in v2-3a? They both describe the blessings bestowed on united brothers. Each begins with ‘it is like’ and then in both images something is placed upon something else, and flows down. The same Hebrew word ya.rad is translated ‘running down’ (v2) and ‘falls’ (v3).
In the first image, oil is placed on the head and runs down the beard. Not just any beard, but the beard of Aaron, the priest. And it doesn’t stop there, it overflows onto his priestly robes. That’s a lot of oil! My beard isn’t quite of biblical proportions, but I tend to use 3 drops at a time, and it gets nowhere near my clothes!
In the second image, dew comes from the mountain of Hermon and is placed on the mountains of Zion. Dew is in effect the moisture of heaven, compressed on the earth. Zion means ‘parched place’, I don’t think we’re meant to imagine a few drops that sit on the mountain top, but an abundance that refreshes the land, rolling down the hills, just like the oil runs down on Aaron. And since the oil on Aaron is presumably an act of anointing to make him holy, are we meant to consider the dew to also be a kind of anointing? God is making the land holy.
But hang on… why Aaron, and why Zion? Why this specific person and this specific place? Aaron was the High Priest; the mediator between God and man. Mount Zion was the site of the Temple, where people could come to worship YHWH. So the link is that both Aaron and Zion are the intersection points between Heaven and Earth; God and Humanity.
There’s an implicit downward movement in both images, from Heaven to Earth, via an intermediary, in order to make both the land and humanity, holy. And of course, that reminds me of a certain other High Priest – one greater than the Temple – who came down from heaven to Earth for the very same purpose.
I can’t help but wonder, since there’s a threefold movement with the oil – it overflows from Aaron’s head to his beard and then even onto his robes – are we meant to imagine a similar threefold movement with the dew? Will the dew of blessing remain on Mount Zion? Or should we imagine it being so abundant that it rolls down the mountain and overflows to the nations? That is, after all the end goal of the Abrahamic covenant; that Israel would be blessed in order to be a blessing.
But let’s go back to the mountains for a moment. Why Hermon? Hermon was a snow-capped mountain in the North of Israel which means we have yet another downward movement in the Psalm from one mountain in the North to Mount Zion in the South. So that is now three downward movements:
- Heaven > Earth
- Head > Beard > Robe
- Mount Hermon (North) > Mount Zion (South)
This Psalm of Ascents is really a Psalm of Descents! The whole flow of it is downwards. In fact, the only thing going up is the people singing it.
So put yourself in the place of a worshipper singing this Psalm. As you are ascending the Mountain, singing in unity with others, God’s blessing and His covenant faithfulness is descending the mountain like an avalanche, to meet you, engulf you, and spill over to the nations, like a refreshing dew and an anointing oil.
As Chance the Rapper might put it,
“When the praises go up, the blessings come down.”