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Psalm 133

In a world where conflict makes the news more readily than peace and harmony, and where governments can foster fear among electors for their self-interest, Psalm 133 sounds quite a different note. As we probe the images of this psalm further we find that it strikes what might even be called in our context a counter-cultural note.

This short psalm is one of those referred to as the ‘Songs of Ascents’. They comprise Psalms 120-134 and each has the superscription ‘a song of ascents’. There has been a lot of speculation about this collection. They are of different lengths and genres, can be dated to different times, and have different concerns, raising the question of why they have the same superscription. Their general brevity and a common theme of ‘Zion’, are about all that seems to tie them together.

Some have suggested that the superscriptions indicate some literary device used to organise them but this remains unconvincing to most. In the Jewish writing the Mishnah, rabbis related these 15 songs to the 15 steps from the court of women to the court of Israel in the Jerusalem temple. This suggests that one of these songs was sung on each of the steps as the men ascended. The most popular view today among scholars is that the word translated ‘ascents’ draws on the use of the verb calah, ‘to go up’, especially for pilgrimage (cf. Ps 24:3; Isa 2:3). That is, these psalms were songs for pilgrims in worship, either on the way to Jerusalem or returning from there. Psalm 133 is the second last of the collection.

Having made the statement that it is good and pleasant for kindred to live ‘as one’, i.e. in unity, the psalm develops this theme by means of two vivid metaphors. The first may not sound like a particularly delightful thing to our ears. It is of oil running down the head, beard and collar of Aaron. But we ought to remember that Aaron was Moses’ brother, and in the exodus story was designated as a priest and head of the priestly line (Exodus 28-29). The oil spoken of here is that of the anointing of the priest in the midst of his people. The oil is referred to as ‘precious’, in Hebrew literally ‘good’, linking the act of anointing the priest to the statement in v. 1.

The second metaphor focuses on the image of Mt. Hermon, that great peak in the far north of the country. Mt. Hermon is often snow capped, and from springs at its base issue the waters that feed the Jordan River. In the image the whole land is seen as being fed by the ‘dew of Hermon’.

The concluding statement in v. 3b relates to both images. Just as the dew falling on the mountain brings life to all the land, a blessing from the Lord, so the anointing of his priest is a blessing to the people. The priest, and the whole liturgical system embodied in his office and in the temple at which he ministered, represent the means of communion between the Lord and his people. This too is a source of life forevermore for the whole people.

In this light we may return to the first verse in the psalm, for now we can see what is implied and assumed in this statement. Behind all things stand the gracious, life-sustaining gifts of the Lord, both physical and spiritual. The unity that can exist between kindred is also a gift of the Lord. But, in turn, living in unity presumes that there is access for all to both the physical sustenance and spiritual comfort made available by the Lord. It assumes both a sharing of the resources of the earth, and an active acknowledgment and practice of the spiritual life of the people. The Lord’s blessing is in the intricate working of all this.

The preacher today can develop this in relation to the other readings set. The Gospel (John 20:19-31) may in the end focus on Thomas and his belief in the risen Jesus but the initial meeting of Jesus with the disciples is about peace and comfort for them and the granting of the Holy Spirit so they can move out into mission. Likewise, the Epistle reading (1 John 1:1-2:2) speaks of the fellowship Jesus’ disciples have in God through their risen Lord. In the Easter events God blesses us with the one gracious gift that undergirds all others, ‘life forevermore’ through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the basis of our unity, and its goodness and pleasantness, as the psalmist puts it.

But a word of caution should be spoken here. Verse 1 speaks about unity between ‘kindred’. I have no doubt that the psalmist had in mind God’s covenant people of Israel when these words were spoken. But today, in our multi-cultural and multi-faith society, we need to re-examine what we might mean by goodness in unity, and blessing, and who indeed are now our ‘kindred’. This passage has a lot to say to us about tolerance and compassion on asylum seekers, and about living with understanding and tolerance alongside people of another faith, two issues of importance in Australian society at present. Surely, the blessing of God, and any sense of the call to living in unity implicit in v. 1 can no longer be understood in light of the Gospel in any exclusivist sense.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

The words of assurance of forgiveness after confession can be adapted from Psalm 133:3,

The LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Here, then, Christ’s word of blessing, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.

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