Psalm 133 is one of 15 psalms called “songs of ascents” or “songs of degrees” (Ps. 120-134). Why these psalms are so grouped is not certain, but tradition tells us that they were sung by worshipers traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festivals. The theme of Psalm 133 supports this.
King David, as leader of God’s people, was a keen observer of social behavior. He had personally suffered the effects of jealousy, gossip, envy, rivalry and conflict. But, as expressed in Psalm 133, he also noticed that when God’s people dwelt together in unity, God added something. This divine intervention made their social interaction special; David described it as “good and pleasant.” We refer to this expression of unity as fellowship.
Surprisingly, the word “unity” is used only three times in the English Bible (KJV, JND), to express three unities – positional, future and experienced.
Positional Unity (Eph. 4:3): Here we are urged to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace.” The Darby translation quoted here, emphasizes “unity” by referring to it twice. This unity among all born-again Christians is Spirit made. It is a positional reality – a fact. We are encouraged to make every effort to keep it and express it. But this is not always easy. Therefore, Paul precedes this command with an exhortation: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2 NIV). Without these expressed virtues, this divine unity can never be experienced.
Future Unity (Eph. 4:13): Ten verses later, we read that God gave gifted men to the Church to prepare His people for works of service, “until we all arrive at the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, at the full-grown man, at the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ” (JND). This unity is a perfect goal that we should work towards. This destination provides direction to every Christian ministry.
Experienced Unity (Ps. 133:1): Here David observed “how good and pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity” (NIV). It is not a positional unity caused by belonging to the same tribe. Neither is this unity a future goal. The unity David sang about is a practical experience that can be lived and enjoyed today by you and me. The Spanish Reina Valera (1960) translation expresses this unity as dwelling “together in harmony.” Musical harmony is a pleasant sound made up of different notes – a delightful unity made up of diversity.
To help us understand “how good and pleasant” this fellowship is, King David then used two pictures: that of oil poured on one’s head, and dew falling on a mountain. Jewish figures of speech like these can be misunderstood. We can give them a meaning that was never intended. Modern readers may be tempted to ignore the less obvious figures. My wife, for example, has never been enthusiastic about beards, and even less about oily heads and oily beards. This could affect her appreciation of this Psalm. But 3000 years ago, when this psalm was written, these two figures conveyed clear, positive ideas.
Precious Oil Poured On The Head
Every Bible student soon discovers that oil has many uses in Scripture. For example, it is used in food and medicine as well as in social and religious ceremonies. It is used symbolically to represent joy, happiness, comfort or blessing. Oil is sometimes a picture of the Holy Spirit. Given the rich usage of oil, what could it mean in this psalm?
The expression “precious oil” suggests that it was not common cooking oil. Given that there is no reference to sickness in this psalm, this oil was probably not medicinal. This oil was poured on the head – a social grace (Ps. 23:5; Lk. 7:46) and also a ceremonial rite (Lev. 14:18). The reference to Aaron’s beard suggests that this psalm was referring to the ceremonial oil used to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests – that is, the “oil of holy ointment” or the “sacred anointing oil.” Exodus 30:22-30 tells us how this oil was made and used.
A distinctive feature of this sacred anointing oil was its smell; it was referred to as “a fragrant blend.” It was made by a perfumer. Its base was olive oil and it included great quantities of liquid myrrh, sweet-smelling cinnamon, aromatic cane and cassia. Now imagine it being poured onto the head of Aaron – not just a few drops, but enough to run down his head, down his beard and down to the “hem of his garments.” This helps us understand this picture in Psalm 133.
This unity, this fellowship, this happy interaction between God’s people, is something that smells very good. It’s attractive. “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart” (Prov. 27:9). Like any parent, God enjoys seeing happy interaction among His children. As members of His family, we know this fellowship is sweet. Even non-Christians feel attracted to the aroma of healthy, godly relationships. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote that “we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).
Spiritually speaking, what do your family and church fellowships smell like? Do you contribute towards an attractive smell? Bitterness, selfishness, a critical attitude and an unforgiving spirit are like dead flies – and as Ecclesiastes 10:1 says, “dead flies give perfume a bad smell.”
Dew Of Hermon Falling On Mount Zion
This image is a bit more obscure, especially for those unfamiliar with Bible geography. Mount Hermon is over 2800 meters (9200 feet) high and is situated in northern Israel. Snow and ice cover its peaks. Mount Zion is only 800 meters high and is situated in southern Israel. It is one of the hills on which the city of Jerusalem is founded. King David wished to illustrate “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” and said that “it is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.” What could this mean?
Some suggest that since Mount Hermon was in the northern kingdom and Mount Zion in the southern kingdom, this image is used to encourage unity among these two kingdoms. Perhaps it could have this effect. But the nation of Israel divided into two kingdoms after David died. This motivation would not have existed when he composed this psalm. Some suggest that it is impossible for the dew of Hermon to fall on Mount Zion – because they are many miles apart. They suggest this figure points to a miracle. It is true that fellowship among God’s people is a miracle, something of divine origin, but perhaps the dew image has a more natural interpretation.
The dew of Mount Hermon is cool and abundant. How would it feel for those living near Mount Zion to wake up to the dew of Hermon? It would be refreshing and invigorating. That is what true fellowship feels like. That’s why David sang that the experience of unity among the people of God was “good and pleasant.” Many years later, Paul also noticed how fellowship refreshed a tired saint: “We were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you” (2 Cor. 7:13). And he wrote this to Philemon: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Phle. 1:7).
Does the fellowship at your church refresh and invigorate those touched by it? How do others feel after spending time talking with you or visiting your home? Like cool dew, true fellowship refreshes and invigorates.
Common Features Of Oil And Dew
Having explored the distinctive features of oil and dew, we notice that these two word pictures share two things in common – abundance and source.
Abundance: The oil is poured freely. From the head it reaches the garments. The dew is cool and plentiful. Both figures depict generosity and abundance. With more oil, the smell is stronger. With more dew, the refreshment is greater. It has never been the Lord’s desire for Christians to live in isolation. There are biblical times for solitude and reasons for separation. But the experience of this divine abundant unity within the body of Christ will be either corrupted or hindered if we adopt conditions for fellowship looser or tighter than those observed among the apostles and saints in the New Testament.
Source: The oil is poured from above and runs down. The dew falls from above. Similarly, the type of fellowship King David was excited about was more than natural. Its source was divine. It is different in nature from the fun that football fans have together. Christian fellowship is more than happiness that comes from being part of the same denomination, circle of fellowship or assembly. It is more than having intellectual agreement with some set of religious procedures. There is something divine from above that unites all the people of God, and when it can be expressed it smells good and refreshes the soul.
A Psalm For Us
Our Lord Jesus thought of us and prayed for us: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name – the name You gave Me – so that they may be one as We are one … Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth … I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (Jn. 17:11,17,21).
For the world to believe, they must see something. Clearly the Lord Jesus had in mind a unity and evidence of that unity. Is this an impossible prayer? It presents us with a serious challenge. Naturally we feel more at ease with those who sing like we do and share our social and religious customs. Our consciences are at peace when dealing with Christians we totally agree with. But is this the expression of unity our Lord was praying for?
May the Lord grant us the wisdom and the courage to know when He would have us separate and when he would have us cooperate. Where Christian unity can be rightfully expressed “there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore” (Ps. 133:3). And we desperately need that blessing.
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org