Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2015
Psalm 133 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 133 is a song that at first glance appears to applaud familial unity. After all, it uses familial language when it speaks of the wonder and beauty of “brotherly” unity. In fact, some scholars suggest this lends credence to the idea that families sang Psalm 133 on their pilgrimages to and from Jerusalem.
An emphasis on familial unity certainly would be appropriate in light of the seeming countless things that have all too often fragmented families ever since our first parents fell into sin. So Psalm 133 may offer an opportunity for preachers and teachers to reflect with hearers about the blessings of familial unity.
However, it’s quite clear to most scholars that the unity to which Psalm 133 primarily refers is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, among “brothers” (and sisters!) in God’s family, our true family. After all, verse 3 refers to Mount Zion, that symbol of God’s house where God’s people gathered together, as the place where God bestows God’s blessing of life forevermore.
However, the unity Psalm 133 praises is distinctly counter-cultural. We sometimes talk about the “balkanization” of society by which we seem to increasingly define ourselves by and divide ourselves along racial, gender, socio-economic, national and other lines. Sadly, such lack of the unity this psalm lauds haunts Christ’s church as well. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously called 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the whole week. Beyond that, of course, Christ’s church has divided itself into three main branches: Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as a nearly infinite number of denominations.
So Psalm 133 offers preachers and teachers a good opportunity to explore both the sad fragmentation of Christ’s church and steps Christians might take to deepen our unity. After all, Jesus himself prayed for such unity among Christian brothers and sisters in John 17:20:1: “I pray also for those who believe in me through [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Yet the psalmist doesn’t seem to be praising just the kind of theological unity for which many Christians long. She isn’t just claiming that it’s beautiful and wonderful when God’s people “get along,” as The Message paraphrases verse 1. Psalm 133 also seems to be a song in praise of physical unity among God’s sons and daughters. After all, in verse 1 the psalmist prays, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together [italics added] in unity!”
This may refer to God’s Israelite children’s practice of eating and living together like family during festivals like the Tabernacles. James Mays suggests that such festivals transformed pilgrims into one big family that temporarily lived and ate together. This is a unity part of the early Christian church also tried to literally embody. After all, in Acts 4:32-35 we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had . . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Augustine even claimed that Psalm 133 served as the inspiration for the monastic movement. Even if that isn’t literally true, Psalm 133 is a song in praise of unity that was important for such communities that came together to serve God and God’s kingdom.
In verse 1 the psalmist refers to unity among God’s children as “good” (tob). He may mean it’s either the opposite of moral evil or that it’s valuable. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it as “wonderful.” Its use ties it to verse 2 where the psalmist compares unity to the tob oil poured on Aaron’s head. In verse 1 the psalmist also refers to unity among brothers and sisters in God’s family as “pleasant” (na’im). The Hebrew word can mean acceptable, favorable or beautiful. However, na’im is also used elsewhere to refer to a song’s melodiousness. That at least hints that Christian unity is like a beautiful song.
In verse 2 the psalmist compares the value and beauty of Christian unity to “precious oil poured on the head … running down Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” This would seem to refer to the oil with which Aaron was anointed for priestly service that soaked not only his head, but also his beard, in fact, running down on the collar of his priestly garment. The NIV Study Bible suggests that this profusion of anointing oil symbolized Aaron’s total preparation by God for service to God and God’s sons and daughters.
Preachers and teachers might explore how, in a similar way, God’s Spirit uses Christian unity to prepare God’s children for service to the Lord and each other. In fact, it might prompt a search for a more modern metaphor for Christian unity such as, perhaps, a cool shower on a hot day or a bowl of soup on a cold night that heartens a person for further work.
In verse 3 the psalmist also compares the value and beauty of unity among God’s people to “the dew of Hermon … falling on Mount Zion.” After all, if as much dew were to fall on Zion as regularly falls on Hermon, Zion’s hillside would be very fruitful. Similarly, The NIV Study Bible notes, unity makes God’s children very fruitful.
The psalmist closes this lovely short psalm by noting that Christian unity has wonderful benefits. It doesn’t just please the Lord who created us for such unity. Wherever there is Christian unity, the psalmist suggests, God also gives the gift of God’s blessing, perhaps referring to the gift of prosperity. God also, however, gifts God’s united children with “life forevermore,” with life that lasts into the future without end.
Preachers and teachers might reflect on how where there is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, there is real life, in fact, eternal life. As an old cliché goes, Christians might as well get used to spending time with fellow Christians, even those with whom they don’t fully agree. After all, by God’s grace we’re going to spend eternity, “life forevermore” united with them in the glory of God’s redeemed and renewed creation.
There’s certainly no shortage of modern tips on how to promote family values. One website encourages parents to ask their children what they think are their family’s most important beliefs and values. Another offers tips on how to “create a foundation which allows your children to make healthy choices on their own.” Still another “promotes traditional family values, focusing primarily on the influence of television and other media on our society.”
However, Psalm 133 reminds us that while such discussions about strengthening the nuclear family are important, they’re often far too narrow. After all, we easily turn biological families into idols that exclude those outside of them. They’re also all too often places of abuse and neglect.
By the Holy Spirit, God is busy graciously incorporating otherwise unrelated individuals into the family of God, making us the brothers and sisters whom God longs to unite. As James Mays writes, Psalm 133 “is a witness that God was at work building a family that transcends all the given and instituted barriers that separate and diminish life.” Even when members of Jesus’ own family came to visit him, he pointed to his followers when he said, according to Mark 3:34-35, “Here are my brothers and sisters! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
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