Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2017
Psalm 133 Commentary
This tiny, jewel-like Psalm is perfectly suited to our times. Its wise words about the blessings of unity need to be heard and believed and practiced. But even the best preacher will struggle with this little nugget, for two reasons. First, our world is so divided that even the most eloquent sermon will sound like a kitten mewing in a hurricane. The divisions in the world have so fractured the church that you will probably be preaching to folks who literally can’t hear you.
I think of the man with whom I played golf this week. He was apoplectic about the way his grandson has been “polluted” by the liberal faculty of a Christian college; they have turned his grandson into a Democrat. “How can a Christian be a Democrat? They support abortion and same sex marriage.” That rant made me think of a dear friend who cannot fathom how Christians can be blasé about issues like immigration. “Don’t those blankety blank Republicans know that the Bible is full of calls to justice?” she screams. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity.” Fat chance.
The second reason you may struggle with a sermon on this Psalm is that its words are so hard to interpret. What does Psalm 133 mean by “brothers?” And what’s this business about oil and dew, Aaron and Hermon? And what’s the referent of “there” in verse 3. And what is this vaunted ”unity?” I’ve never seen so much diversity of opinion about the meaning of words as I’ve found in my research on this little jewel.
Most of all, this Psalm is difficult because of the claim it seems to make, namely, that unity among brothers (and sisters) is the key to enjoying God’s blessing, even life forevermore. Notwithstanding the impossibility of achieving unity in this world, that claim seems out of touch with what the rest of Scripture says about what it takes to enjoy God’s blessing. Is unity really the key to God’s blessing, as the Psalm seems to claim? What about faith or obedience? If unity is as central as Psalm 133 seems to say, then it will be well worth our time and effort to wrestle with and preach on this Psalm.
Let’s begin by parsing the words of verse 1. “How good and pleasant…” sounds innocuous enough. Unity is a nice thing, though not a necessary thing. Is that the sense here? Not really. Though “pleasant” sounds merely aesthetic, the word “good” is the Hebrew word tov, which is used again and again in Genesis 1. “And God saw what he had made, and it was good.” It suggests perfection, probably of a moral sort. Unity not only makes the world a lovelier place, but it also enables the world to regain the goodness for which God created it. Unity is essential to God’s original design for the world.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers….” Is this a reference to unity in our nuclear families? Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascent, and there many references to such families scattered through these Psalms (cf. 122:18, 127:3-5, 128:3,6, 131:2). As families made their pilgrimage up to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals, it is not hard to imagine that the family unit got fractured by the strain of the journey. (I vividly remember my brother and I squabbling on long vacation drives and my father threatening to “turn this car around and go home,” or, worse, to let us off on the side of the road.) So the call to unity issued in Psalm 133 makes abundant sense. Another of the RCL readings for today is the story of Joseph being united with his miserable brothers who had sold him into slavery (Genesis 45:1-15). You could make a whole sermon around such a theme of unity in the nuclear family, and it would be helpful.
But I think it is more likely that Psalm 133 is addressed to the Family of God on pilgrimage from all over the Promised Land, headed up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple where they came into the presence of God. It’s not about family life, first of all, but about pilgrimage and worship and being in the presence of God as the family that was chosen out of all the nations on earth. Indeed, some scholars believe that Psalm 133 was penned by David at a time of national re-union. II Samuel 5:1-3 tells such a story. After years of internecine conflict, all Israel comes together at Hebron to officially recognize David as God’s anointed King. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers (all the tribes, all the combatants) live together in unity.”
What constitutes unity? That will be the question on the minds of your partisan congregation. Does it mean uniformity, where everyone thinks exactly the same on every issue? Or does it mean harmony, where people get along even though they have different ideas? Is everyone in the church supposed to think the same ideas, or are we supposed to united in faith, hope, and love. Is this a call to have one voice, or a call to be a choir singing different parts in harmony?
The latter seems not only more feasible, but also more biblical. Think of Paul’s insistence that the church is the Body of Christ with many members, a multiplicity of gifts, a variety of ministries, a mystical union composed of male and female, rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Gentile, and every other type of difference you can imagine. That such a diverse people could be united is the miracle of the church.
But the miracle doesn’t always (or even often) happen. Thus, it is the important to preach on Psalm 133. The images that follow in verse 2 are designed to highlight the blessing that comes to God’s people when they are united in their journey into God’s presence. Such unity is “like the precious oil poured on the head, running down the beard, running down Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” Undoubtedly a reference to the anointing of Aaron and his line into their priestly duties in the earliest days of Israel’s national existence, this simile focuses on sanctification. The oil of Aaron’s anointing saturated all the hairs on his beard and even ran down onto his clothing as a sign that he was totally consecrated to holy service (footnotes in NIV Study Bible). Similarly, brotherly harmony in Israel’s pilgrimage and worship sanctifies God’s people to God’s service. That is, without such unity, we cannot serve God as we should.
Further, when God’s people are united it is “as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.” The reference is lost on us, but even the most secular of modern day Israelis know what this means. Hermon is the highest mountain within view of Israel, looming nearly 7,500 feet above sea level far to the north of the Promised Land. It captures moisture like no other geographical feature in that area. Indeed, it is snow covered most of the year; its ski resort is known around the Middle East. In an arid region, its “dew” is crucial, feeding the headwaters of the Jordan River and making Galilee green. Mount Zion is in the middle of dry Palestine.
Thus, when God’s people are united in walk and worship, it’s like the waters of Hermon falling on Zion, making that desert place as fertile and fruitful as the region around Hermon. Unity not only makes God’s people fit for service; it also makes them fruitful in all their endeavors. Even more powerfully, harmony among God’s people is the key to God’s blessings on his creation.
These two similes point to God’s blessing in redemption (through the priestly ministrations at the sanctuary God’s redemptive mercies flow to Israel) and creation (through heaven’s dew on the fields God’s providential mercy flowed in creation’s bounty). When God’s people live in unity, God’s blessings flow upon Israel, both creational and redemptive blessing, not only physical life through creation resources, but also “life forevermore” through redemptive mercy. If verse 1 makes unity sound nice, verses 2 and 3 make it sound necessary to earthly and eternal life.
But can that be? That sounds so, well, exaggerated. Can the unity of the church possibly loom that large in this world and the next? Some scholars say, “No, that’s a misreading of this text.” When verse 3 says that God bestows his blessing “there,” that is a reference to Zion, just mentioned in the previous phrase. God bestows his blessing on Zion where his temple is located, where he is present in a special, redemptive way.
That interpretation makes sense, but it ignores the emphasis on unity in the rest of the Psalm. Perhaps the best interpretation is that God bestows his blessing when God’s people are united as they gather and serve in God’s presence. It’s not that geographical place in the Promised Land that is the focus on God’s blessing, but any and every place where his people are united in faith, hope and love to worship God and serve his world.
And, indeed, the rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament, emphasizes the importance of unity in God’s plan for this world. It was sin that introduced the divisions that now dominate the human scene. It will be grace that restores that unity. “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9,10)
God has already begun his grand re-unification project in the church. “For he (Christ) himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two….” (Ephesians 2:14-15) The unity of the church is absolutely crucial to God’s plan to bring his shattered creation back together into the Shalom that reigned before sin came into the world.
So, it’s no wonder that Jesus prayed as he did just before his death. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20, 21) The success of God’s mission depends on the unity of the church.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that our unity can save the world. Only Christ can do that. And only Christ can unite the church. Only through his grace and Holy Spirit can we overcome the divisions produced in the Body of Christ by sin, Satan and a splintered humanity. But we must try. No, we must trust the Word of the Lord here in Psalm 133. God’s blessings on his world depend on the unity of the church. So, we must get over ourselves with our cherished opinions, our firm convictions, our self-centered bickering, even when we’re sure we’re right because the Bible backs us up.
Here’s how Paul put it in Philippians 2:1-7. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others.” In a divided world like ours, how can we possibly do that? “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in appearance as a man….”
“How good and pleasant,” indeed. How Christ-like to set aside ourselves for the sake of the unity of the Body, and the salvation of the world.
The clearest illustration of the unity spoken of in Psalm 133 was seen in the earliest days of the Christian church, according to Acts 2:44-47. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” And, listen to this fulfillment of Psalm 133 and John 17 in response to their unity. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Alas, this unity continued only a little while. It was broken when self-centeredness reared its ugly head in the greedy lying of Ananias and Sapphira and the bickering of the ethnically divided widows (Acts 5 and 6).
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