Commentary on Psalm 133
Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascents–a song for going up to a high place.
For the Jewish people in ancient times, that high place was the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. One literally “goes up” to Jerusalem. The city crowns the hill and its Temple stood on a “mount.” In this exalted place, the highest act was to worship God.
The Jewish people sang Psalm 133 to express their joy in coming together for worship at the Temple, where God promised to meet them. The Psalm imparts blessing and life to God’s people. And it proclaims oneness in faith. These themes–abundance and unity–flow from Psalm 133.
As the Temple in Jerusalem was the high place for the Jewish people, so Easter is the high point of the Gospel. From here the Gospel spreads around the world. Jesus has risen from the tomb, and he raises us up from unbelief to faith, from death to everlasting life.
Faith in the risen Christ draws people–not only to see things from this Easter point of view, but to see things with our fellow Christians. The risen Lord creates a new family of those who believe in him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells Thomas in John 20:29. The Gospel flows down freely from the summit of Easter and makes one family in Christ. Easter unites Christians around the world. Standing on this high place, we become one in faith, hope and love.
Unity in God is a major theme in Psalm 133. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (verse 1).
According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the word “kindred” (which may also be translated “brothers”) does not mean blood relatives, but a people joined by God’s grace1. The Psalm, though short, is “highly” ambitious: it calls all people to worship God. It begins at one very particular summit and cascades downward from there. It starts with a few insiders but flows outward in blessing for many. To preach this Psalm is to “go with the flow” down the mountain and outward to valleys and plains.
Only liquid can flow. So the Psalm (in classic Hebrew parallelism) gives us two liquids: oil and dew.
First in the text comes the “precious oil on the head” (verse 2). This is the fragrant, refreshing oil used to consecrate a priest. The priestly intent is clear because the Psalm refers to Aaron, part of Israel’s priestly tribe. “Moses ordained Aaron to the priesthood by anointing his head with oil,” (Leviticus 8:12).
“All priests have the oil of Aaron on their head,” writes biblical scholar James Limburg. And though the oil is precious, God is not stingy with it. Indeed the oil is poured out so lavishly on the head of the priest, it runs down the beard of Aaron and onto the collar of his robe. “The generous quantity of oil adds to the picture of the community gathering as ‘a sweet pleasant time together.'”2
Of course, priests were not the only ones to use oil in this way. A generous host would provide oil to a guest for anointing before a meal (Luke 7:44-46)3. Looking back from the high point of Easter, Christians recall a woman who anointed Jesus for his burial and how the women brought spices to the tomb. But on Easter, these gifts of mourning took on a new meaning as hope spread from the empty tomb. Life is no longer scarce but abundant, no longer rationed but spilling over like an endless fountain.
For Christians, the oil signifies worship, feasting, celebration in unity. Death separates people, but resurrection promises that we will dwell in unity forever in Christ4. God is in the business of bringing the faithful together, a community of saints across time and distance.
The second liquid in Psalm 133 is the “dew of Hermon” (verse 3).
Mount Hermon is far to the north of Jerusalem (i.e. Mount Zion). Mount Hermon rises above the upper Jordan Valley. It had its share of heavy rainfall and snow. The melting snow, or dew, flowed down into the valley. It fed the Jordan River and reached as far as the oasis of Jericho5. In arid country, where the rain is scarce and the rivers dry up, the land and the people depend on water that comes from a distant source. It is the scarcity of water in the dry lands, which makes Mount Hermon’s dews so precious.
Like the oil that flows down the beard of Aaron, so the dew of Mount Hermon reaches far beyond its point of origin and gives life to faraway lands. God’s generosity calls people to worship. And in worshiping this God of abundant life and love, we become one family.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ slakes our thirst for life and love. We thought that life was a scarce commodity, measured out in years and months, days and hours. But Jesus arose and opened the way to eternal life. We thought that love was reserved for a chosen few, with never enough to go around. But Jesus arose and his Word calls forth a global family of believers. And there at the high point of Easter, “the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (133:3). Grace flows down to us and makes us one in faith.
In our times of conflict and economic distress, Psalm 133 is like water on parched ground. People who are divided and estranged from one another need God’s call to “live together in unity.” For them, this Psalm offers hope and the promise of kinship in Christ. And people suffer scarcity in everything from food and housing, to justice and love. The message: God loves us abundantly and holds nothing back.
Easter is like the oil of blessing, bringing people together in faith. Easter is like the dew of Mount Hermon, flowing with abundant life.
1New Interpreters’ Bible vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1214.
2James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 455.
3Richard Clifford, Psalms 1-72, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 260.
5Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 416.
April 19, 2009