“Dwelling in Unity”

1 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!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,

life forevermore.

Psalm 133

This tiny psalm celebrating unity is ascribed to David. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing exactly when he wrote it. Was it the moment when God united all the tribes under his leadership at Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5:1-10) or perhaps when two individual Israelites reconciled? Was it written early on in David’s reign when Israel enjoyed harmony or later after he had exchanged peace for the sword which would “never depart” from his house (2 Sam. 12:10)? Though knowing the occasion might color our reading of the psalm, the theme maintains its truth and beauty regardless of the situation.

The clause “when brothers dwell in unity” resembles Deuteronomy 25:5, where it applies to physical family living under one roof. But all Israelites were considered “brothers” by God. In fact, the same phrase appears in Gen. 13:6; 36:7 where the land could not support multiple families dwelling in close proximity. In such cases, they had to separate (as with Abram and Lot). Therefore, the psalm could be a celebration both of peaceful relationships between God’s people and the abundance of the land which God provides. Both would make it possible for brothers to “dwell in unity.”

Verse 1 is followed by two illustrations of that unity. The first describes unity with the image of Aaron’s anointing as priest (2). The blessing of unity overflows and spreads among God’s people just as the anointing oil intended for Aaron’s head also ran down his beard and the collar of his robes (Ex. 29:7). As the oil covered the priest and his garments making both holy (Ex. 29:21), so unity among brothers sets them apart from the world. Though fragrance is not mentioned directly, the oil for anointing was “blended by the perfumer” (Ex. 30:23-38). When God’s people “dwell in unity” it gives off an “aroma from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15f; cf. Jn. 17:20f).

Second, unity is like “the dew of Hermon,” Israel’s highest peak. Just as dew refreshes the land making it fruitful, unity provides an atmosphere conducive to growth. The emphasis in the last part of verse 3 is on God’s initiative; “for the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” This fact of God’s blessing coming down from above is further emphasized by the three-fold repetition, which is partly lost in translation: literally ‘descending… (2a) descending… (2b) descending’ (3a). The point being that unity is a gift bestowed upon us by God, “a blessing far more than an achievement” (Kidner, Psalms 73-150). But a blessing to be protected and cultivated.

Sadly, while heaven’s unity was to come down and find expression “there” (3), i.e. in Jerusalem, King David brought discord to the people instead (2 Sam. 11:1ff). But much later, it was also “there” in Jerusalem where David’s great ancestor and Lord died on a cross breaking down the barrier of separation between God and humanity (sin) and between Jew and Gentile (the Law of Moses). Through this achievement God unites humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). He “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” The challenge is plain: will we seek to maintain and cultivate that unity which Jesus died to create? (Eph. 4:1ff) Or will we dishonor that sacrifice by seeking our own interests and creating division? God help us to “dwell in unity.”