Summary of the Text
Songs of Ascent: Psalm 133 is part of the Psalter’s collection of the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. The Songs of Ascent were sung by the throng of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem during the three prescribed “in-person” festivals of Israel: the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Tabernacles. They are a travelogue of the journey of God’s children to his holy temple and the songbook of their pilgrimage. The songs of Ascent are celebration songs!
Pilgrimage: The closest that Christians may come to pilgrimage are family summer camps, conferences, and group trips to the “Holy Land,” unlike Muslims for whom a pilgrimage to Mecca is still a central part of the role of faith. Vestiges of Medieval Christian pilgrimage such as the Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James” are still embarked upon for personal spiritual renewal rather than plenary indulgence, but these are few and far between. The Jewish Diaspora today still makes “Aliyah,” an ascent, a pilgrim journey as either immigrants to Israel or 21st century adherents of its faith still desiring to ascend Mt. Zion.
North Americans have had their share of pilgrim festivals: Woodstock, Burning Man, and Coachella, to name a few. Elvis super fans still make their way to his Graceland home! (See Illustration from Jim Forest below). Scotland has its Fringe Festival. Innumerable other cultures and nations around the world host collective celebrations that draw caravans of celebrants. While these can be unifying events for those attending and participating, the US festivals have largely focused on the celebration of self expression, music and art and for some the opportunity to experience a free-flowing bacchanalian party!
The Songs of Ascent represent a pilgrim celebration quite the opposite of these. The descent of every region of Israel upon the slopes of Mt. Zion and its temple is an expression of the worship of God, that there is a being greater than us who draws us collectively into community. The journey is a family reunion of sorts, extended biological family and kindred spirits, not seen since the last feast’s gathering, on the roads and byways, all compelled by God to journey to worship him in his holy temple.
Historical Context: According to Hassell Bullock in his Baker Academic Commentary on the Psalm, Psalms 132 and 133 are read as a pair. In Psalm 132 David will not rest until the Ark of the Lord is returned to its proper place in Jerusalem. Bullock suggests that the historical occasion of Psalm 133 may rest in three possible occasions: 1. David’s coronation as king at Hebron, 2. One of the pilgrimage festivals (in general as we mentioned above), or 3. Celebration of Judah’s return from Babylonian exile around 538 BCE.
Theme of Familial Unity: Artur Weiser in his Westminster Press Commentary on the Psalms, says that a, “feature from family life was taken and made into the teaching of practical conduct in life.” Ideal life is unified life where brothers and sisters live together in unity. Real life, unfortunately, is a lot more like Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Easau, Joseph and his other brothers, and worse yet Cain and Abel, where division to the point of abandonment, abuse, and murder break into the unity of the family. Weiser says, “The Psalmist perceives that the strength and the peace of a family that lives in unity are the fruit of God’s blessing and the fulfillment of his promise.”
This Psalm, which is attributed to David, brings with it a sense of irony, for the same unity David would have wished within his own family was destroyed by his warring nature, his own personal familial sin, and by strife expressed by the rebellion of his son Absalom. The flowing oil and refreshing dew of “good and pleasant” unity of family was not entirely known to David, the King.
Similes for Unity: We have two similes used to describe this good and pleasant life of brothers and sisters living together in unity: oil and dew. They are both described as falling down, coming down, being poured from above, oil upon the head of a man, Aaron the priest to be specific, and dew upon a mountain, Hermon the highest mountain in Israel and the smaller “mountain/hill” of Zion. It is there upon Zion, the destination of the pilgrims, that the command of the Lord is found, “blessing of life, forevermore.”
The Oil of Unity: The reference to the oil falling down upon the head, unto the beard, and the mouth of the garment, is a reference to the consecration of a priest of Israel.
In his IVP commentary on the Psalms, Derek Kidner speaks to the significance of this simile beyond the priesthood,
God’s blessings are not the preserve of a few but are free to spread and be shared, unifying the recipients all the more, just as the anointing oil intended for the head (Exodus 29:7) was not confined to it, nor could its fragrance be contained. Exodus 29:21 provided explicitly that after the pouring of the oil on the head, some was to be sprinkled on the robes: ‘and he and his garments shall be holy’
The Dew of Unity: In Israel, the grape harvest arrives around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles in September and October. During the preceding six months, precipitation is either scarce or more likely non-existent. This makes the transference of the overflowing dew on the highest mountain of Israel to “little” Mt. Zion, quite significant. Of course, the Psalmist does not intend to make a meteorological pronouncement but rather a poetic one. Dew on one mountain cannot fall on another.
Bullock speaks to the spiritual significance of this simile, “…the dew, one of God’s great blessings on the land, falls on the high mountain and on the low mountain. It falls everywhere. There is no discrimination with God. Unity is like that. When it settles down on a family, or a church, or a community, or a nation, it brings blessing, a rich harvest of joy.”
Unity Bestowed Rather Than Contrived: There is a three-fold occurrence of the use of Hebrew verb “to go down” [Hebrew root yrd] which is used to describe the overflow of the oil upon the beard (v. 2), the collar (v. 2), and the dew upon the mountains of Hermon and Zion. Kidner draws comparison between the pouring down of the precious oil and the dew with the unity and blessing of God, “In short, true unity, like all good gifts, is from above; bestowed rather than contrived, a blessing far more than an achievement.”
Angle for Preaching: As a general theme, unity can be applied to a number of different settings: the church, the marketplace, the nation, and the world, but unity becomes quite personal when applied to the closest of relationships, the family. Familial unity may be illusive for some of us.
I remember my father teaching me this Psalm as a child, singing it to me in Hebrew, as a matter of fact. It became a part of the connection between my father and me which unified us under the goodness of God’s blessing even when we struggled to “like” one another. I have sung this Psalm to and with my own son. We have had some hard days in our relationship, but this Psalm is a reminder of the good and pleasant blessing of the unity of family bestowed upon us by God, that we cling to one another under his care.
Despite our relational struggles, God brings unity born not wholly from our good efforts towards healthy communication and understanding, although these are indeed important, but from his divine mercy and grace towards people whose modus operandi is to fumble and falter in relationship to others, to reap disunity rather than unity as a product of our selfishness and sinfulness.
The preacher may wish to focus on that deepest and most intimate of relationships needing unity. She may wish to address the brokenness of personal and familial relationships; global unity starts at home, with us as individuals within the precious community in which God has placed us. Furthermore, the experience of that unity is bestowed upon us within the context of a pilgrimage towards God as a family, as a church, as a people called away from our myopia to see the “other” as God sees him or her. Ultimately, as Christians, we are joined on this journey by the risen Christ who breaks bread with us and gives us eyes to see and hearts to experience the benefits of unity through him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this of Psalm 133:1 in his book, Life Together, “this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But now we can rightly interpret the words ‘in unity’ and say, ‘for brethren to dwell together through Christ.’ For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another” (39).
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.
Elvis and St. James of Compostela: Connecting to Something Bigger than Yourself
Every day long lines of pilgrims wind their way through rooms that Elvis lived in. Not long ago my friend Paul Chandler, a Carmelite priest, was among them. He writes:
I made it to Memphis and to the Presley mansion and did the Graceland tour (Platinum Package, $24). I stood in the garden at Elvis’ grave, slightly bemused by the large number of people sobbing. A big, dignified man with his arm around his weeping wife gave me a nod. I nodded gravely back, not entirely sure of what was passing between us, but knowing that something was…
There are interesting things to see in Graceland, which is pretty much as the King left it. You can see the Jungle Room (Elvis had no taste in furniture), the kitchen where they cooked up his favorite deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches, his two private jets, a collection of satin and rhinestone jumpsuits, and the TV set he shot a bullet into one night when he was tired and emotional and they were a bit slow getting the gun away from him.
I thought it was well worth the platinum ticket. For some odd reason I best remember incidental things from my big trip to Graceland: a kindness here, a nod there, a fear disarmed, a prejudice undone.
People have been going to visit St. James in Compostela since the ninth century. and they have been going to Graceland to visit Elvis since 1977 … Why does the dead Elvis still call travelers to Memphis, and does St. James to Compostela? What kind of journey makes you a pilgrim and not just a traveler?
You can be a traveler on your own, but not, I think, a pilgrim. Pilgrimage connects you to something bigger than yourself. Pilgrimage connects you to longings that come from deep places and that cannot be easily explained. Even the solitary pilgrim is on a shared quest, overhearing some whisper of a conversation that has been going on for years. Pilgrims don’t always have a clear idea of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, but they keep going, exchanging nods on the way. Their touch can wear away stone.
Grace is subtle and elusive. You’re not a pilgrim if you stay where you are.
Jim Forest, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Orbis, 2007.
Walking Towards Unity
Some marches are not against anyone or anything. They are marches for something or someone. Jesus. Peace. Hope. Unity. In a town where I lived for many years, a few of us organized an annual Walk of the Nations. It wasn’t against anything. It was a sign of unity.
We called upon the community—schools, churches, business, government, First Nations leaders, clubs, and all and any individuals—to walk together. Hundreds responded. We walked together as a sign that, whatever the differences between us, we were neighbors.
We all loved our children and our parents. We all wanted a community that was safe and flourishing. We all wanted to live without fear, hunger, hate. So we walked. As far as I know, that community still gathers every year to do this.
This kind of walking—walking as a sign of unity—has a deep echo in the twenty-five Psalms, from 120 to 134, called the Songs of Ascents. These songs were sung by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem, to the temple, to gather and to worship and to feast.
…Rich and poor, old and young, male and female, slave and free, every tribe and tongue and nation—all walk together to the same place and sing as they go. The singing, as the walking, helps level differences. It declares shared cause and shared faith and shared humanity. I wonder what it would look like to recover something of this in our churches. In liturgical churches, a form of the Ascent Psalms is preserved in processionals, where the community sings as the officiants march into the sanctuary, holding the Scriptures aloft. I dream of being part of a church that does this. We walk together singing. We invite onlookers to join us.
… For your next walk, consider inviting along two or three fellow church members. Find something that will unify you—a cause, a prayer, a penitence, or a praise—and enact your oneness in a walk.
Mark Buchanan, God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul, Zondervan, 2020.