“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Psalm 133:1–3, KJV).
Many Christians ignore Psalm 133. Occasionally, over the years, it flits across our consciousness— our Bible falls open to that page, or our fingers find it in our search for something else. Generally, we skip over it to more familiar passages.
Recently, however, when preaching in a church with a long history of doctrinal and personal divisiveness, I applied myself to this enigmatic psalm. It has a hard shell, but the kernel satisfies, rich in taste and nutrients.
A psalm of community
This psalm seemed appropriate to the worshipping community of Israel when they gathered in Jerusalem for the great national feasts. “From far and wide they have come to dwell in the holy city throughout the days of the great festival.”
The gathering is a sign of a greater reality: the communion of saints, the society of love under God.”1 But not only there. Ellen White comments: “In the cave of Adullam the family were united in sympathy and affection. The son of Jesse could make melody with voice and harp as he sang, ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!’”2 In peril from Saul, David could still praise God for the presence of family and other supporters.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is.” God says unity is good, but at the slightest excuse, we demonstrate how bad it is. God says unity is pleasant, but too often we find it unpleasant, in conflict with our personal instincts, distasteful to our pride of place and opinion. It is good and pleasant when we dwell together in—disunity? One would think so, judging by the ever increasing number of Christian bodies around the world. Every one of them has its own perspective on God’s truth. How easily we use sacred doctrine to certify and sanctify a distinctive position.
Because Scripture describes unity as good and pleasant, are we then to seek it for its own sake? Unity for its own sake as a goal to reach so easily becomes a good work, a moral penchant. But dwelling together—whereby unity as a quality of communal existence becomes a reality—is another matter entirely. By implication, we must conclude that when we dwell together in disunity, we cannot do so in God’s favor, nor can we expect His blessing.
The Spirit is like …
David, in Psalm 133, compares unity among God’s people to oil and dew. But not just any oil or any dew. It is likened to the anointing oil with which Moses anointed Aaron as high priest and compared to the dew of Hermon that somehow comes down upon the mountains of Zion. We read in Exodus 29:1–9 and Leviticus 8:1–12 how Moses anointed Aaron, to sanctify or consecrate him, to set him apart for God’s holy purpose.
What God gives always has the potential of immeasurable liberality. The oil was made by people according to God’s instructions, but the anointing came from the Most High through Moses. It was His enabling, empowering gift, not just for Aaron but for all Israel. Moses did not put a few drops on Aaron’s head. He poured it on; it ran down through his hair, over his beard, down the edge of his garments—representing the fullness of blessing the Lord of heaven had in store for all His people.Unity is not something we decide upon, nor legislate, nor even work to achieve; it is received as a divine gift, for us to honor, treasure and hold as a sacred trust. All Israel was gathered as one body that day before the tabernacle; it was body ministry—from Head to agent, to priest to people.
The anointing from God himself ratified the faith act of anointing with oil, effecting a spiritual authorization not otherwise comprehensible. Just so, Christ gave us the gift of the Spirit, authorizing and empowering His people for His ministry. Although contrary to human nature, just as oil soothes and heals, so the ministry of the Spirit resonates in the submissive heart (2 Cor. 10:5). As a gift from God, the anointing upon Aaron was fitting for ministry just as Jesus said of Himself (Luke 4:18, 19). The literal oil Moses poured on Aaron signified the pouring out of the Spirit from the hand of God, while the Spirit the Father poured on Jesus appeared as a dove (Matt. 3:16). In each case the sign given speaks of the peace, healing, and reconciliation that the heart of the Father directs through His priest to His erring children.
We receive God’s gift of unity in our calling; Paul exhorts us to have a walk worthy of the calling to which we were called (cf. Eph. 4:1). In verse two, he enumerates the essential elements of that walk that even bespeak the soothing effect of oil; verse three lays on us the privilege of doing all in our power to “keep the unity” God has gifted to us. Then in verses 4–6 he tells us there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all—seven times he emphasizes “one.” The same emphasis can be found in 1 Corinthians 12:13–27.
Second Timothy 1:9 says God called us with a “holy calling,” and Hebrews 3:1 reminds us of our “heavenly calling.” In all this there exists that keen sense of ascendant quality, of the nature of that relationship with which we are endowed as derived exclusively from the throne above but willed to the church as its blood-bought legacy.
Yet it’s a package deal. We cannot pick and choose what we take from our Lord and Master. Moreover, we are not given doctrinal unity; instead, we have a responsibility to work through it under divine guidance. We receive a spiritual unity, the “unity of the Spirit” that is gifted to us and we are expected to maintain.
The value of unity
In the Godhead we discover perfect and infinite unity, and what exists in the Godhead God desires to see in Christ’s church. It may only be humanly tender and susceptible to wounding, but it must mirror the original. Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit honor one another, so must we. In our individual focus of worship and service toward the Godhead, we are to find the sacrificial self-denying unity of the Body of Christ—and nowhere else. “In Him we have redemption” (Eph. 1:7, NKJV); in Him we are called with a “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9, NKJV).
According to the psalm, David compares unity to the dew of Hermon, and also to an anointing upon a bonded gathering of believers. All-embracing, it somehow falls on the mountains of Zion. Perhaps the psalmist plays with words in his illustration, for it seems Sion, not Zion, was a name for Mt. Hermon (meaning sanctuary) among the local people (Deut. 4:48; 3:9). The dew of Hermon was unusually heavy due to the atmospheric phenomena created by the enduring snowcap.
Dew falls silently, blanketing everything. It comes down gently, bringing refreshing, new life and sparkling in the sun. Dew is from heaven, as is the Spirit. God commands it just as from His Word came His creation. Dew equalizes with no Gideonlike discrimination. In a congregation during the sermon there may be movement, restlessness or children whimpering. Then focus returns to the message, and a sudden quietness descends—a stillness such as one fears to disturb. The mind and heart instantaneously focus on the words of the messenger, and we are “shut in” as one body with the Lord.
In the upper room, the followers of Jesus waited, and it came at last—the falling of the Spirit. The Spirit comes to endorse the unity, not to initiate it. He comes to inspire with conviction, to enfold with authority, to fill with love, to enlighten with vision. In the spiritual realm, all these are foreign and external to us mortals, not amenable to human manufacture except as sad imitations. We do not produce them, but we are to establish the conditions upon which we receive them.
God has “commanded the blessing” (Ps. 133:3, KJV), and in this sense to command or to bring a blessing means “to anoint.” We seek His authorization. But the blessing will not come, the anointing will not alight, the oil will not be poured out, the dew will not fall from heaven while we negate our responsibility.
One simple fact we find difficult to accept: Churches grow or die because of the people who are in them, not because of those outside. Of course, demographic and other factors may exert an effect, but the aforementioned bottom line remains. The demographics of Jerusalem during and after Pentecost were hardly favorable to the infant church. Yet the power of the Pentecostal witness ensued as much from their being “all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1, KJV) as it did from the alighting of the tongues of fire upon them.
The remarkable teaching Jesus gave His disciples, found in John 13 –17, is a profound admixture of divine and human responsibility. The divine initiates and empowers, but there remains our response. How thankful we can be that God measures the heart’s desire. If we translate that desire into observable terms such as Paul suggests, nothing on earth shall limit God’s anointing of selfless kindness, of preferring others to ourselves, and of an acute sense of the body of Christ to which we belong. Then, and only then, we will fully receive the blessings expressed in this wonderful little psalm, so often neglected yet so sorely needed today.
This article originally appeared in Ministry magazine, April 2006.
- J. H. Eaton, Psalms (London: SCM Press,1967) 294.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1958) 658.