How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.
Indeed, how good when sisters and brothers aren’t fighting with one another. How good when husband and wife are getting along. How good when family discord gives way to peace.
To this day my mother reminds my youngest sister and me of our road trip out to British Columbia in 1986. My family lived for 12 years in Abbotsford, British Columbia through the 60’s and 70’s – in 1986 my parents took the two youngest kids back for a visit. To this day my mother speaks of that road trip – you two kids fought like cats and dogs, all the way across the country. I guess that’s about 5000 kilometres of arguing on the way there, and about 5000 kilometres of fighting on the way back. No wonder my mother remembers it well – how good and pleasant, and rare, when Roland and Marion are getting along in the back seat.
The Psalm we look at this morning is a road trip Psalm. The Psalms of Ascent are Psalms spoken or sung by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for a festival – by pilgrims on their way to the holy city to celebrate the covenant between God and his people. Here we do well to remember that this pilgrimage was not an individual event – it is a pilgrimage where whole families are involved – and not the reduced, nuclear family of modern times, either, but family as it has been lived and understood in most other times and places in our world. Setting out on this journey is a father and mother with their children, some children married and some not married – and with them of course also the grandchildren – three generations who live closely together day by day make their preparations and start out for the holy city.
In the wake of the Protestant reformation of the 16th century, the whole logic of pilgrimage has been lost to us – as old practices gave way to new, you might say the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The closest we Presbyterians get to pilgrimage is perhaps the journey we make to church on Sunday mornings. Now even though we aren’t a pilgrimage people, even our preparations for the minor pilgrimage to church give us some small hint of the challenges and conflicts that might have arisen as an ancient family set out. This is especially the case if you think about the careful preparations that were made for church in the past several generations – they would inevitably involve some degree of tension and conflict:
Did I not iron that shirt of yours – where did those creases come from?
Don’t scuff your shoes and don’t you dare spill any juice on that blouse.
We’re going to be late – will you kids please just get in the car. Stop arguing
Don’t you talk back to me, it’s your brother’s fault we’re late.
We could amplify all of that in thinking of a family preparing clothes and food and supplies for a journey to Jerusalem.
Now even though this is a pilgrimage Psalm, there is an expansiveness to the meaning of that first verse. As much as this Psalm relates very concretely to a family on pilgrimage, the opening suggests that it applies to all kinds of situations. The importance of family unity becomes evident, and this Psalm becomes relevant in all kinds of situations where the reality of disagreement and conflict and animosity might rear its head. For example:
Think of when a famine strikes the land, resources are scarce, and the members of a three-generation family are trying to share and get along.
Think of when the family patriarch dies and questions of inheritance arise and there is the possibility of rivalry between siblings and grand-children.
More broadly, think of the division between the northern and southern kingdoms during the monarchic period in Israel, when clans were set at odds politically.
The language of the opening verse of this Psalm is sufficiently expansive that it addresses a variety of communal contexts – which is to say that it addresses a variety of our own communal contexts as well – not only family life, but the life of the church also. It points to the desirability of joy and unity against a backdrop of various threats to that unity.
So the opening part of this Psalm is expansive – it speaks to a variety of communal contexts. In relation to them it declares: how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
But the opening of this Psalm is more than merely expansive. One commentator describes verse one as an opening exultation. Now you don’t necessarily get that feeling from the New Revised Standard Version that is in our pews. Its language is rather pedestrian. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” Those words can be read in a most pedestrian way. They don’t really capture what’s going on in the Psalm.
One translator opens verse one with the word ‘wow’. “Wow! How exquisite and how pleasant is the dwelling of kindred all together.” In fact there is in this one sentence a threefold exclamation – a piling up of exclamations. Wow! How! How! Realizing this it’s not so easy to read that opening in a pedestrian way for in them is expansiveness, fullness, exuberance, and joy: “Wow! How exquisite and how pleasant is the dwelling of sisters and brothers all together.”
This exuberant language reminds us, among other things, that this Psalm isn’t just about the absence of conflict. Sure, it’s great to be able to say we’re not fighting – it’s great to be able to say that we’re not arguing. But such an exuberant opening reminds us that unity cannot be thought of only in terms of the absence of conflict. No – the opening verse of this Psalm celebrates a constructive and purposeful living together of women, men and children. The Psalm has a positive orientation – toward the beauty of a shared life and of shared tasks – toward the beauty of a common life under God. We don’t merely celebrate the absence of conflict – we celebrate the living of a truly human life in community.
We’ll come back to that, but as we move on verses 2 and 3 – and particularly to the figures of speech that are deployed there – it turns out that we have to stay with the theme of exuberance. In verses 2 and 3 the Psalm deploys extravagant figures of speech – similes.
As an aside, we might mention that one of the gifts of poetry in general – and this Psalm is Hebrew poetry – one of the gifts of poetry in general is playfulness; a playfulness of language that can capture our heart and inspire our imagination in a way that prose often cannot. This week I was reading an interview with the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski – and in that interview he speaks of the playfulness of much contemporary American poetry – many contemporary American poets, he says, craft poems that are playful and funny and ironic and even silly. Zagajewski is somewhat critical of this trend because he sees much of it as only a diversion. It is a refusal to try and say something significant.
But there is a playfulness that can be in service to something significant. Indeed, there is a wonderful playfulness in Psalm 133 – but it is playfulness in service to fullness of life in God’s presence.
Let’s look briefly at these two figures of speech in turn. First of all we read that the unity of men and women – their sharing together meaningfully – is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
In our day, anointing with oil is of course uncommon – it is almost alien. But in that ancient context, anointing with oil – pouring oil upon the head – was a practice that commonly marked someone’s entry into a particular role. It marked the fact that God had appointed a person as king or priest or prophet. But this figure of speech captures something more. In moments of celebration in that ancient context, oil might be poured on the head – causing the face to shine. To be anointed in this way was a sensuous pleasure – the perfumed oil was a source of delight through smell and touch. Further to all of this we note that an abundance of oil was a sign of economic prosperity and wealth.
And looking at the text we note that the oil spoken of is the most expensive, precious oil. This precious oil has been poured in such a measure that it comes over the sides of the head and pours down the beard and over the collar.
Here we have a wonderful, playful image – an image of abundance, of prosperity, of fullness, of joy in the pouring of oil – an image filled with movement and energy. When women and men and children live together in unity, it is such a rich experience – a joyful living in the presence of the God who is life and love.
The second image only extends this feeling of abundance and exuberance. We read in verse three that the unity of sisters and brothers “is like the dew on Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.” Here the liquid feel of the poem is extended, water replacing oil. Snow-capped Mount Hermon is a northern mountain visible from much of Palestine – it is a mountain well-known for the plentiful dew that falls there – water condenses at night heavily on leaves and plants and on the ground. We should know that dewfall, in that ancient environment, was essential to the success of crops – a failure of dewfall might well mean a failure of crops – famine, hunger.
But now notice, that snow-capped Mount Hermon, known for its plentiful dewfall, is some hundreds of kilometres from Zion.
Here we have a beautiful image – in the first instance there is plentiful, precious oil poured over the head of Aaron – so much oil it runs down his beard and over the collar of his robes. And in the second instance there is a plentiful dewfall, more than plentiful – a plentiful dewfall that spills down some several hundred kilometres away (perhaps by way of the Jordan river) on Zion. Jerusalem is blessed through the extravagant gift of Mount Hermon.
In these two images, the shared life of women and men and children in community – their belonging together under God – in these two images, their shared life is given wonderful, sensual, tactile, exuberant expression. The pedestrian prose with which we so often work simply cannot capture what it is like when the children of God live together in unity – a unity that is so much more than simply the absence of conflict – a unity in a shared purpose, in a shared direction in life, in a shared vision of God’s kingdom, and a shared service within that kingdom.
Where does this Psalm go from there – well, at the end of verse three it leaves us with the promise of blessing. God has ordained blessing – God has made Zion be a place of blessing. To share in unity is to share in God’s richest blessing to his people.
So often we think of the Christian life in terms of law – in terms of rules that must be followed, commands that must be observed. When it comes to our participation in the kingdom of God and especially in a shared life in Christ, we might think of it in this way:
We belong to the Body of Christ so we must encourage one another and help one another.
God loves us so much we must show love to one another.
If we’re really the church we have to serve each other.
Now, none of this is wrong, strictly speaking. But the logic of command, a rule-keeping, and law following, can be so utterly beside the point. It has its place in Christian life and faith – absolutely. In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus himself says that not only letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. But when it comes to Psalm 133, especially, the logic law, obligation, and of expectation simply falls flat.
Psalm 133 doesn’t command anything. It doesn’t require anything. It doesn’t oblige us to do anything.
Rather, in conclusion we note that this Psalm simply makes an exuberant invitation. Through a poetic playfulness that is in service to something God ordained, we are invited to unity.
Through joyful language and extravagant images, the Palm reminds us how wonderful it is, how beautiful it is, to live together in the kingdom of God.
We belong together in Jesus Christ. In Christ we share in one faith, one hope, one baptism. In Christ we share in the one gift of the Spirit who equips us for service and who fills us with love for each other. In Christ we join our voices in the one song that at all times goes up in praise to God.
Our unity is not something we must achieve. Psalm 133 does not in the first instance point to an obligation we have to seek unity and peace. This song of ascents does not ask us to see unity as yet another requirement of those who live rightly. Our unity is a gift that God has given, with pleasure. The invitation, as so often, is simply to see who we are – brothers and sisters bound together in the person and love of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 133 offers a wonderful reminder that this is who we are and that being true to our identity will be the greatest possible source of joy and blessing. We are invited to take this Psalm with us in the week ahead, to receive it as a gift from God: “Wow! How exquisite and how pleasant is the dwelling of sisters and brothers all together.”
[For this sermon, I have relied on and deeply appreciated the following work: F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Psalm 133 A (close) reading,’ The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (2009) Volume 20, 2-30.]