Precious Unity (Phil Johnson)

Psalm 133   |   Sunday, March 6, 2016   |   Code: 2016-03-06-PJ

We come to Psalm 133 in our study of the Pilgrim

psalms "Songs of ascents." These are fifteen short psalms

purposely grouped together coming immediately after the

longest psalm in the psalter (Psalm 119 that's also the

longest chapter in Scripture, as you probably know.) Psalm

119, a psalm entirely about the Word of God, is immediately

followed by these 15 short psalms, all grouped together and

labeled with the same inscription: "A Song of Ascents." It's a

small collection of choruses within the book of psalms that

seems to have been collected for singing by pilgrims making

the journey to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. Road-trip


We've already studied thirteen of the fifteen psalms in the

collection, and the two that remain are both very short three

verses each. And here's something interesting. Both of the

two final Psalms of Ascent begin with the same word. It's a

Hebrew word the ESV translators have translated as "Behold"

in psalm 133, and Psalm 134 in they render the same word as

"Come." The KJV, the New KJV, and the NASB all translate

the word "Behold." (The NIV in Psalm 134 seems to leave it

out completely.)

Psalm 133 2

But it's an important word for setting the tone of the

psalm. It's like an exclamation. Grammatically, it's known as

a demonstrative particle. And it's purpose is to express

surprise or delight, and to summon the immediate attention

of the listener. Older English speakers might have said

"Lo!"Cas in, "[Lo!] how good and pleasant it is when brothers

dwell in unity!" The design of this first word, then, is to arrest

our attention and direct our thoughts in a very focused way

on whatever subject is being introduced.

In this case, the subject is unity. By the way, this is one of

just four of the fifteen psalms that is specifically attributed to

David. And let me remind you that the inscription is part of

the inspired text. So we know with certainty who the author

of this psalm was.

Furthermore, what we know about David's life gives us a

solid clue about the context in which this psalm was written,

and I'll show you that. But first, here's the whole psalm:

A SONG OF ASCENTS. OF DAVID. Behold, how good and

pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on

the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the

collar of his robes!

3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the

mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded

the blessing, life forevermore.

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I love the brevity and sharp focus we get from a simple

psalm like this. The whole subject is given in the final word

of that first verse. Again, it's a song about unity. The

structure is very simple. Verse 1 commends unity among

brethren as a great blessing. Verse 2 illustrates the blessing

of unity with the imagery of anointing oil. And verse 3

illustrates the blessing of unity with an illustration of dew on

the mountains.

So let's break this down and learn as much as we can

about unity from these three simple verses.

First, I mentioned the context in which this psalm was

written. That demonstrative particle that starts the psalm

("Behold!") gives it the flavor of a great sigh of relief, a

prayer of thanksgiving, and a gentle pleaCa subtle

admonition to the brethren spoken of in verse 1, urging them

to maintain the blessing of unity.

"Behold!" Here is a marvel rarely experienced! A blessing

worth preserving! A benefit with no danger or downside.

"How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!"

This is a that song apparently comes from the heart of

someone who has been earnestly longing for unity, someone

who has suffered greatly because of the conflicts created by

disunity, and someone who is deeply grateful for the relief

from his suffering now that unity has finally brought peace.

This whole psalm perfectly answers a verse we saw in the

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very first of these pilgrim psalms, Psalm 120:6: "Too long

have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace."

Since this psalm was penned by David, it's not

particularly difficult to infer what era of his life may have

produced this psalm. There is one moment in the life of

David where this psalm would best fit. It seems to be David's

song of celebration in response to the peace and harmony

that settled over the nation when David, the rightful king,

was finally installed on the throne. Scripture describes the

years leading up to that event as a time of fierce division and


David, of course, was anointed to be king shortly after

Samuel prophesied that Saul and his heirs would be deposed.

But David had to endure years of exile and torment from the

hand of Saul, because Saul was obviously not happy to

relinquish the throne. In fact, he never did step down. Saul

continued to occupy the throne until he died.

Even when Saul died, David did not immediately take the

reins of government. There was a long power struggle in

Israel, which led to civil war. The kingdom was nearly torn

in two. Here's how that happened.

You probably remember that Saul's reign as king ended in

utter disgrace. He diedCor rather he took his own lifeCin a

losing battle with the Philistines. Saul had been wounded by

arrows shot from some Philistine archers, and he was about

to be captured. So he committed suicide rather than face

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mistreatment at the hands of the Philistines. The whole battle

turned into a bitter defeat for Israel's army. According to 1

Samuel 31:6, "Saul died, and his three sons, and his

armor-bearer, and all his men, [all] on the same day together."

Now, that would seem to have been the end of Saul's

dynasty. For years before he died, Saul had been nothing

more than a trespasser on the throneCin effect, a usurper.

Now Saul was dead, and so were his three eldest sons. If

Saul had been the legitimate king of Israel, his eldest

surviving son would have been heir to his throneCand these

three sons were the best, most likely candidates. But now

Saul's most capable sons were all dead. Samuel had already

anointed David as the new king. That was way back in 1

Samuel 16Cseveral years before Saul's death in chapter 31.

So you might think David would finally be able to occupy

the throne. It was, after all, rightfully his. And that was no

secret. It was common knowledge that God had appointed

David to be the next king. But the transition from Saul to

David led to bitter conflict. All but one of the tribes of Israel

opposed David.

By the way, you see the character of David in the fact that

he mourns the death of Saul. David even wrote a psalm for

the occasion, and it's recorded in 2 Samuel 2:19-27. You'll

recognize the most famous line in that psalm: "How the

mighty have fallen!" The first and last verse of the psalm both

include that line. It's a song of bitter lament, and despite

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Saul's hatred for David, David's song is full of gracious

praise for Saul.

Saul's son, Jonathan, was of course David's best friend,

and Jonathan was also one of the three sons of Saul who died

on the same day as their father, so perhaps that helps explain

the depth of David's grief. Saul's determination to kill David

made it impossible for David and Jonathan to enjoy any kind

of fellowship or friendship. By now they had not been close

companions for several years, and that was a deep heartache

to David. That perhaps helps explain why David was so sick

of conflict and so eager to see unity in Israel.

Anyway, shortly after Saul's death, a group of officials

from the tribe of Judah came to David with the expectation

of installing Davis as king. Second Samuel 2:4 says, "The

men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the

house of Judah." David, of course, was from the tribe of

Judah, so these men were representatives from his own tribe.

Saul had come from the line of Benjamin, and this bid to

make David king ignited a violent rivalry between those two


Now you have to remember, when Saul became the first

king of Israel back in 1 Samuel 8, it was at the behest of the

people Israel. In an act of rebellion against God's plan for

the nation, representatives of the people came to Samuel and

demanded a king. When Samuel tried to explain that God

Himself was the rightful monarch of Israel, and that made

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Israel unique among the nations, the people told Samuel (1

Samuel 8:19-20) "No! But there shall be a king over us, that we

also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us

and go out before us and fight our battles."

And as sometimes happens when God wants us to taste

the consequences of our own sins, the Lord gave them what

they asked for. First Samuel 8:22: "The LORD said to Samuel,

'Obey their voice and make them a king.'"

So the people chose their own king. Now note carefully

what they said when they demanded a king. We want a king,

they said, so "that we also may be like all the nations." And

therefore the king they chose fit the bill perfectly. He was the

tallest, most muscular, best-looking man in the nation. First

Samuel 9:2 describes him this way: He was "a handsome

young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel

more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was

taller than any of the people." But his looks were pretty much

his only qualification. His reign as king proved that he was

not a man of any depth or character. He was strongly

self-willed, lacking in discernment, and bereft of personal

devotion to the Lord. But he really looked good. (In that

regard, I think, Saul would have made a very appealing

candidate for the American electorate today.)

Anyway, the people chose Saul as their king. And even

Saul at first seemed to think it was a bad idea. When people

started treating him the way you would treat a king, he said

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(1 Samuel 9:21), "Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the

tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans

of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in

this way?"

And it was only after he became king that Saul became

the living embodiment of that familiar saying: "Power

corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Saul morphed

into this self-willed, fleshly-minded, corrupt, capricious, and

ultimately demon-possessed king. It could not have been a

good and pleasant thing to live under a ruler such as Saul in

his declining years.

But the whole point among the people was (in their own

words) to "be like all the nations." And the kings of other

nations had dynasties. Their own sons succeeded them on the

throne when they diedCand it didn't matter whether they

were benevolent or evil; the dynasty had to be kept intact,

because a long dynasty was perceived as evidence of the

nation's power and stability. So amazingly, the majority of

Israel wanted the eldest surviving son of Saul to be the next

king. This was a weak and incompetent man named

Ish-bosheth. He was twelve years older than David, but not a

man who was fit to lead.

The commander of Saul's army was a man named Abner.

When Saul died, Abner "took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul . . .

and he made him king." Ish-bosheth probably would never

have sought such an honor on his own, but Abner used him

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as a political pawn. It's clear from the larger narrative that

Abner was the ambitious one. Second Samuel 3:11 says

Ish-bosheth was afraid of Abner. So Abner is clearly the one

in charge here. He obviously did not want to lose his clout as

commander of the king's army, and he needed a kind of

puppet king who would keep him in that position.

Ish-bosheth was the perfect choiceCa man with a credible

claim to be heir to Saul's legacy. But it's clear that Abner was

the true power behind the throne.

So we read in 2 Samuel 2:10 that "Ish-bosheth, Saul's son,

was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he

reigned two years. [Only] the house of Judah followed David."

All eleven other tribes remained loyal to the dynasty of Saul.

The result was a bitter civil war. At first, Abner (now

Ish-bosheth's commander) and Joab (David's commander)

agreed to choose twelve champions from their respective

armies and have a contest among these elite fighting men in

lieu of an all-out war. But 2 Samuel 2:16 says, "Each caught

his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent's

side, so they fell down together." In other words, all 24 men

from both sides' special forces killed each other, so the

contest immediately gave way to an all-out war. Scripture

says, "The battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the

men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David."

The details of this civil war are chillingCespecially when

you realize these are Israelites fighting their fellow Israelites.

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Brothers against brothers. You can read about it for yourself

in the early chapters of 2 Samuel. Second Samuel 3:1 sums it

up this way: "There was a long war between the house of Saul

and the house of David. And David grew stronger and stronger,

while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker."

Then it all gets really ugly. Ish-bosheth accuses Abner of

fornicating with one of Saul's concubines. So Abner turns

against Ish-bosheth and tries to make peace with David.

Joab, commander of David's army, assassinates Abner in

revenge for the fact that Abner had killed Joab's brother.

Without Abner propping him up, Ish-bosheth is too weak to

maintain the illusion that he was the king. Scripture says,

"When Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, heard that Abner had died . . .

his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed."

A couple of wicked men in Ish-bosheth's army then

decided to try to ingratiate themselves to David by killing

Ish-bosheth. So they snuck into Ish-bosheth's house while

"he was taking his noonday rest." They stabbed him to death,

beheaded him, and took his head to David, expecting to be

rewarded for their treachery. Instead, David had them killed,

their feet and hands cut off, and then he hanged their corpses.

I told you it was ugly. But bear in mind, what those men

did was treachery, couched in dishonesty, against someone

whom they had no right to kill. What David did, he did as

king, with all the authority God gives to a rightful ruler to

punish evildoers. In the words of Romans 13:3-4: "Rulers are

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not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear

of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you

will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good.

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in

vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out

God's wrath on the wrongdoer."

And thus with the death of the men who killed

Ish-bosheth, the civil war and all its ugliness suddenly ended.

Completely. There was no man left in Israel who had an

illegitimate craving for kingly power. And 2 Samuel 5:1-4

describes howC

all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said,

"Behold, we are your bone and flesh.

2 In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you

who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD said to

you, 'You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you

shall be prince over Israel.'"

3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron,

and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron

before the LORD, and they anointed David king over


4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and

he reigned forty years.

David established the nation's capital in Jerusalem for the

first time and began to build the region around Mount Zion

into one of the world's great capital cities. He still fought

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wars against the Philistines and defended Israel against other

foreign threats, but from the time he ascended the throne

until his own son Absalom led a short-lived revolt, unity and

peace reigned throughout Israel. The nation then prospered

and grew under Solomon's leadership without wars of any

kind for another whole generation.

And then to illustrate just how fragile and precarious

unity can be, the nation split into two kingdoms after

Solomon died, and Israel and Judah were never united again.

So I think it's pretty clear that our psalm, written by

David, must pertain to that season in David's life when (after

decades of conflict and internal strife) he was able to unite

the twelve tribes of Israel into one tranquil and harmonious

kingdom. This psalm is the inspired reflection of a royal

heart finally at rest: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when

brothers dwell in unity!" And the psalm divides easily into

three parts. Each verse is one piece of the whole. Each verse

describes a unique blessing that unity brings. Verse 1 is

about how unity is good for the soul. Verse 2 is about how

unity sanctifies the body. And verse 3 is about how unity

refreshes the land. Let's look at each verse individually.

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"Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in

unity!" Let's talk first about why unity is such a virtue, as

well as what genuine unity looks like. People today, I think,

have a totally skewed idea about what unity means and what

it is supposed to achieve. There's a true unity (that's what this

psalm celebrates), and there's a false brand of artificial unity

that is actually harmful rather than beneficial.

True unity is a reflection of God Himself. Unity is

embodied in his very nature. Here is what we confess,

together with all Christians from the beginning of the church

age: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,

neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and

another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of

the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the Glory equal,

the Majesty co-eternal."

That's a quote from the Athanasian Creed. Here's how the

Baptist Confession of faith says it:

The Lord our God is the one and only living and true

God; whose subsistence is in and of Himself . . . In this

divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the

Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one

substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole

divine essence, yet the essence undivided . . . one God,

who is not to be divided in nature and being, but

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distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and

personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the

foundation of all our communion with God, and

comfortable dependence on him."

In other words, God embodies unity. And the unity of God

entails a perfect, absolute agreement. It's a spiritual union,

not an organic or organizational alliance. That spiritual union

is expressly the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:21.

He prayed "that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in

me, and I in you, that they also may be in us." And again in

verse 22: "that they may be one even as we are one, I in them

and you in me, that they may become perfectly one." So the

unity of the godhead is the model for the unity Christians are

supposed to seek and maintain.

Now, I preached a message here about eight years ago on

unity from John 17, and I made the point that what Jesus

describes in that prayer is not denominational unity. That's

what Roman Catholics tend to thinkCno matter how much

they disagree among themselves or how vastly different is

the assortment of worldviews that you will find represented

by various leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. They think

by all being members of the same organization they have

somehow achieved the unity Jesus prays for here.

That's clearly not the case, and the very words of John 17

prove it. In John 17:17, just a few sentences before He prays

for unity, Jesus says, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is

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truth." So at the very least, some shared commitment to truth

must lie at the heart of what Jesus prayed for.

Denominational boundaries are not necessarily a hindrance

to that kind of unity. But above all, the unity Christ sought

hinges on the spiritual union of all believers with Christ.

Ephesians 5:30 says, "We are members of his body." And

Romans 12:5: "We, though many, are one body in Christ, and

individually members one of another." In that sense, Christ's

prayer in John 17 has already been answered and is being

answered as the church is being built up in that spiritual

union that all true believers enjoy. At its root is a shared

belief in certain fundamental truths, and as we are being

sanctified and perfected, our unity with one another is being

perfected as well.

Perfect unity is also one of the central promises of the

New Covenant. Jeremiah 32:39: "I will give them one heart and

one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and

the good of their children after them." When we are glorified,

the unity Christ prayed for will finally be absolutely perfect,

and all true believers look forward eagerly to that day. We

have a taste of it now, but we look forward to an absolutely

perfect unity. It's part of our birthright as believers.

I won't develop that point any further this morning, except

to say that even while we await the perfection of our unity,

we already enjoy a tremendous amount of unity with all the

true people of God right now, and we seek a greater unity,

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which we gradually attain as we gain a more perfect

understanding of God and His Word. That is why we put so

much emphasis on the necessity of sound and accurate


True unity is actually undermined, not advanced, by

people those who think we should set aside all concerns

about sound doctrine. What they think we need is basically

just a group hug with everyone who claims to be a Christian,

regardless of what they teach. That's a recipe for error and

ultimately division. It is not a path to true unity.

I mentioned there's a false kind of unity, and I've just

described it for you. It's the notion that is so popular today

that truth and doctrine are obstacles to unity. As if you could

have unity among people who really don't agree on anything.

But lot's of people think precisely that way. They believe we

might all be able to get along if only we would all refuse to

make truth an issue. Just accept (or ignore) all the lies, the

heresies, the false prophecies, the pagan superstitionsCdon't

contradict any of those things; don't worry about themCjust

get along with everyone. That's how many (perhaps most)

people today think "unity" must be achieved.

That's not unity. It's confusion, and 1 Corinthians 14:33

says, "God is not a God of confusion but of peace."

Again, the spiritual union and perfect agreement among

the Persons of the Godhead are the perfect example of true

unity. And that means agreement with the Word of God an

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absolute essentialCthe single most obvious fruitCof true


But real unity is not only about being of one opinion. As

Christians, we are driven by one affection: our love for

Christ. We share one loyalty: to the lordship of Christ. And

we have one duty: love. Love for God and love for our


Ephesians 4;2-6 starts at that very point and goes on to

describe all the essential elements of Christian unity. Paul

says we pursue unity by:

bearing with one another in love,

3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of


4 There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called

to the one hope that belongs to your call--

5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,

6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all

and in all.

So we enjoy unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, even

while we find it necessary wage ideological battles against

the false doctrines and the superstitious beliefs of Philistines

who pretend to be Christians but are not in any way united

with Christ. They represent a serious threat to true unity

among our brethren if they try to encroach on the fellowship

of believersCbecause they lack that vital connection to


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By the way, that image of simultaneous unity among the

brethren and war against the Philistines mirrors the actual

situation in Israel when David penned this psalm. While

David was celebrating "how good and pleasant it is when

brothers dwell in unity," he was in the process of waging war

against fierce foreign enemies who threatened the peace of


Now back to our text. Notice the two adjectives there in

verse 1: "good and pleasant." Have you ever noticed that lots

of things that are good are not pleasant; and lots of things

that are pleasant are not good. Unity is both good and

pleasantCand therefore it's one of the finest of all virtues, not

only good for the soul, but also pleasing to the heart.

Unity is "good," because it reflects the very nature of God.

It is virtuous, honorableCan expression of righteousness. It's

an extreme wickedness to undermine unity. Proverbs 6:19

says this is one of seven things God hates with a holy

passion: "one who sows discord among brothers." A few

verses before that (Proverbs 6:14), we read: "A worthless

person, a wicked man . . . with perverted heart devises evil,

continually sowing discord." Proverbs 16:28: "A dishonest man

spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends." In

other words, someone who seems to think there's something

compelling about causing division must have a mind totally

given over to evil. Scripture uses very harsh language:

Anyone who delights in setting brothers against one another

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is worthless and wicked. But conversely (James 3:18): "a

harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make

peace." So unity is honorable, and noble, and holy. It's


More than that, unity is "pleasant." That means, first of

all, that it's pleasing to God. He takes pleasure in it. He

delights in it.

But also, in a very practical way, unity is pleasant to those

who experience it. You know this, I hope, in your own

household. It's a truly pleasant, joyous, exhilarating thing to

dwell in unity with your wife and kidsCloving one another,

serving one another, and creating a home environment that is

free from strife. That's perhaps the easiest, most immediate

path to tranquility and earthly bliss that's available to any of

us. I frankly don't understand people who seem to have a

perverse need to cause strife in their own families. But I

know there are lots of people like that, because it seems like

they always end up seeking counsel. But they are also the

kind of people who are resistent to counsel. I think some

people are so addicted to conflict that they simply cannot

abstain from picking fights with their spouse and family

members. Again, I don't understand that, and I certainly don't

sympathize with it. It's absolutely vile; the textbook

definition of sinful foolishness.

But it's a sin that creates its own painful consequence.

Scripture clearly highlights this repeatedly. It's a simple

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principle: Unity is pleasant; living with conflict is

unpleasant. Proverbs 21:9: "It is better to live in a corner of the

housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife."

Same chapter, verse 19: "It is better to dwell in the wilderness,

than with a contentious and an angry woman." Proverbs 25:24

repeats verbatim Proverbs 21:9, so I gather Solomon must

have felt pretty strongly about this: "It is better to live in a

corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a

quarrelsome wife." I'm guessing he had a specific axe to


But he doesn't just single out bickering wives. Proverbs

22:24-25: "Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor

go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle

yourself in a snare." Proverbs 20:3: "It is an honor for a man to

keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling." Bottom

line, a lack of unity makes everything in the household

unpleasant. Proverbs 17:1: "Better is a dry morsel with quiet

than a house full of feasting with strife."

Here's the point: unity is a pleasant thing, pleasing to the

heart and good for the soul. In a family, it makes the

household pleasant; in a nation, it fosters prosperity and civic

congeniality; in the church, it pleases God, honors Christ,

cultivates joy, stimulates love, and nurtures the welfare of the

flock. "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell

in unity!" It is good and pleasant in every wayCgood for the

soul. That's the whole point of verse 1. Here'sC

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The imagery of verse 2 is vivid, and bear in mind that the

subject is still unity: "It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running

down on the collar of his robes!"

If you're reading a different translation, it might speak of

the oil running down to the hem of his garment. The Hebrew

expression literally means "going down to the mouth of his

garment"Cso it suggests the idea of an opening in the

garment. The same Hebrew word was used to speak of both

the lower and the upper opening of a garment, so the text

really isn't as specific as most of our translations make it.

Some commentators think this a reference to the lower

hem, so you'd have the oil literally saturating the whole

garment. Others say, no, this is speaking of just the

collarCbecause, let's be honest, the idea of a priest literally

soaked from head to foot with oil doesn't make a very

pleasing mental image. John Gill says, for example, "[It

wouldn't] have been decent to have his clothes . . . greased

from top to bottom." The fact is, the outer garment of the

priest's outfit was a sleeveless smock called the ephod. Here's

what Exodus 28:31 says about how the ephod was made:

"Make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening

for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the

opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear."

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So in other words, there was a band of woven cloth

encircling opening at the neck, and one class of

commentators say that's what this meansCnot the lower hem

of the priest's robe, but the collar.

But other commentators say, No, this is oil all the way

down. Here's one who says, "The oil was poured upon the

head of Aaron so profusely as to run down upon his

garments. It is customary in the east to pour out the oil on the

head so profusely as to reach every limb."

I don't know whether it's vitally important one way or

another. Either way, it's a picture of the oil copiously flowing

down, being diffused over a long distance. And the idea both

here and in verse 3 is to suggest that the liquid flows from

the height to the depths, so I'm inclined, I think, to agree with

those who think the imagery does picture the high priest

being anointed literally from head to foot.

This wasn't normally done. Priests were routinely

anointed by just a sprinkling of oil. But this specifically

mentions Aaron, and when the first Tabernacle was

inaugurated and Aaron was anointed, Leviticus 8:12 says

Moses "poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron's head, and

anointed him, to sanctify him"Cimplying a large amount of

this special, fragrant oil was used on that occasion. It's

reminiscent of John 12:3, where we are told that "Mary . . .

took a [whole] pound of expensive ointment made from pure

nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her

Precious Unity 23

hair. The [whole] house was filled with the fragrance of the


Now "the precious oil" in our psalm refers to something

very specific and unique. It's the anointing oil that was

prepared for the Tabernacle, and set aside to anoint the

priests and sacrificial furnishings. It was made from a

God-given recipe, and that recipe was not to be used to make

oil for any other purpose.

It wasn't a secret recipe, though. It's recorded for us in

Exodus 30:22-25. Listen to that passage:

The LORD said to Moses,

23 "Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels,

and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250,

and 250 of aromatic cane,

24 and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the

sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil.

25 And you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil

blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing


That's a large amount of very aromatic oilCabout a gallon

and a half. The Lord goes on to instruct Moses to anoint all

the sacred instruments in the Tabernacle, as well as Aaron.

And he says this (verses 29-30): "You shall consecrate [the

priestly implements with this oil], that they may be most holy.

Whatever touches them will become holy. You shall anoint Aaron

and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as

Psalm 133 24

priests." And furthermore (verse 31): "This shall be my holy

anointing oil throughout your generations. It shall not be poured

on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other

like it in composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you.

Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an

outsider shall be cut off from his people."

The oil was highly fragrant, with a very pleasing

fragrance. It was unique and holy. But most important, it was

such an important symbol of holiness that anything it

touched (among the things it was meant to touch) was

thereby deemed holy; and anything it touched illegitimately

was thereby fit only for destruction. The oil belonged to the

Lord, and it had just one purpose: to sanctify the instruments

of worship and sacrifice.

So when our psalm compares unity to the oil running

through Aaron's beard and down to the hem of his garment,

the message is that unity has a sanctifying effect. The church,

the body of Christ, is sanctified by our unity in a way that

even exceeds the mere symbolism of Aaron's oil. We are

truly and literally sanctifiedCmade holyCthrough the

cultivation of unity with one another. That's why Jesus'

prayer for our sanctification in John 17 focused so much on

unity. Unity sanctifies the body in a profound and singular

way. That's what verse 2 is about: the special sanctifying

influence of brotherly unity. So again: Verse 1: Unity is good

for the soul. Verse 2: Unity sanctifies the body. Now, finally,

Precious Unity 25


Verse 3 paints the picture of "the dew of Hermon, which

falls on the mountains of Zion!" That statement is a little bit

hard to unravel, because Mount Hermon is 120 miles north

and east of Jerusalem (as the crow flies), nowhere close to

Zion. And given the geography of the region, there is no way

the dew of Hermon could literally run downhill and end up

on Mt. Zion. It might flow all the way to the Dead Sea, but to

get to Jerusalem from Hermon, it would have to go

thousands of feet downhill, then thousands of feet back up.

One commentator I read claimed there was another hill

just above Mt. Zion nicknamed Hermon, but no one else

agrees with that. Another commentator says verse 3 doesn't

really mean to say Zion, but Sirion, which is another name

for one of the lower peaks on the Mt. Hermon range. I'm not

buying that, either.

Mt. Hermon is a very high range. (It has three peaks all

more than 9,000 feet high.) And Hermon has the heaviest

dew and the greatest amount of rainfall in that sector of the

middle east. And for much of the year, the peak of the

mountain is covered with snow. There's a famous ski resort

on eastern slope of Hermon. So it's true that Hermon is a

major source of water for the Golan heights and all the

regions further south. A lot of that water runs down into the

sea of Galilee, and from there, past Jerusalem to the Dead

Psalm 133 26

Sea. But there's no way (aside from evaporation and then

new rain) that "the dew of Hermon" could run down onto "the

mountains of Zion." Skeptics sometimes cite this passage as

an example of an egregious geographical error in the Bible.

But the solution to all this is really quite simple. The

psalmist is describing a hypothetical a scenario where heavy

dew gathers on Zion and runs down. Zion doesn't generally

get that kind of dew. But the psalmist is comparing brotherly

unity to what it would be like if Zion got the same kind of

heavy dew and rainfall Mt. Hermon gets. You could literally

translate the Hebrew that way: "It is as if the dew of Hermon

were falling on Mount Zion." That's precisely how the NIV has

it, and in this case, I think the NIV gets it right. "It is as if the

dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion"Crefreshing the

land, watering and enlivening the barren ground around

Jerusalem, causing the whole land to be refreshed and


We know what that's like in Southern California after a

period of drought. We wish for a long and steady rain, and

we rejoice when it comes. That, the psalmist says, is what

unity among brethren is like.

There's a similarity between verse three and the

illustration in verse 2. Both verses picture unity as flowing

down, diffusing, and dispersing blessings. In verse 2, it's the

blessing of holiness and a sweet-smelling fragrance. In verse

3 its the blessing of refreshment and life-giving hydration.

Precious Unity 27

The whole idea of the psalm, then is that unity is a

uniquely rich blessing, filled with a plethora of affiliated

benefits. It's a fountain of happiness and pleasure, and it is

sheer folly to spurn the pursuit of unity in a family, in a

nation, and above all in the church. A lack of unity in any

kind of family or community only makes every aspect of life

exponentially harder and more unpleasant.

Romans 14:9: "So then let us pursue what makes for peace

and for mutual upbuilding." And 1 Peter 3:8: "Finally, all of you,

have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and

a humble mind." That's the same message as our psalm.