At three verses, this is one of the shortest psalms in the psalter. Psalm 117, with two verses, is the only shorter psalm. Psalms 131, 133 and 134 each have three verses. It may be significant that those three are among the 15 Songs of Ascents, but I have not been able to determine the significance.
A Song of Ascents. By David.
This is one of 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with the superscription, “A Song of Ascents.” These psalms may have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (which was on a mountain) for the three great festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles.
Or Levites may have sung them as they ascended the steps to the temple.
The Qumran manuscript includes “By David.” Other manuscripts do not.
PSALM 133:1. THE BLESSING OF DWELLING TOGETHER IN UNITY
1 See how good and how pleasant it is
for brothers (Hebrew: ‘ah) to live together in unity! (Hebrew: yahad).
The word ‘ah (brothers) has several meanings. It can mean sons having at least one parent in common, but it can also mean having common ancestors. In the latter sense, all Israelites were brothers and sisters. It can also mean a close friend. David spoke of Jonathan, his beloved friend, as his brother (2 Samuel 1:26).
Christians are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
The word yahad means unity or community or together. This verse, then, affirms the blessedness of brothers (whether narrowly or broadly defined) dwelling together in unity.
We have seen the truth of that statement. People who live and work together harmoniously can accomplish much more than people who pull in different directions––who undercut each other.
Yadad (unity) doesn’t require that we must all be cut from the same cloth. A sports team will have people of differing gifts and personalities and opinions. To succeed they must work together to maximize the benefit of their respective gifts in pursuit of a common goal.
Knowing the power of unity and the corrosiveness of disunity, Jesus prayed that his disciples (including those yet to be born) “may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:11, 20-21).
That prayer has gone largely unanswered. The church today is divided, by denominational loyalties, theological differences, and racial and national differences:
- Some churches emphasize Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” and proclaim that “No one comes to the Father, except through (him)” (John 14:6). Others condemn that kind of preaching as arrogant and insensitive. That gap is sufficiently wide that it would seem to defy bridging–– but the Holy Spirit can bring us together if we will subordinate our ideologies to the Spirit’s leading.
- Some churches emphasize doctrinal faithfulness. Others emphasize ministry to marginal people––the hungry, the homeless, prisoners, and the sick. That gap is more easily bridged, because we are called both to preach the truth about Jesus and to help the needy. We need not choose one or the other, but are called to do both.
To have any hope of unity, we must share a common purpose. Keep in mind that Jesus prayed that we might be one “that the world may believe that you sent me” John 17:21). Pope John Paul II said, “Our divisions prevent our neighbors from hearing the Gospel as they should.”
But church unity won’t come easily. H. Richard Niebuhr said:
“The road to unity is the road to repentance.
It demands resolute turning away from all those loyalties
to the lesser values of the self, the denomination, and the nation,
which deny the inclusiveness of divine love.”
We must rely on the Spirit to make it possible for us to work together harmoniously “in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
PSALM 133:2. LIKE PRECIOUS OIL
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
that ran down on the beard,
even Aaron’s beard;
that came down on the edge of his robes;
In that time and place, people used olive oil for cooking, medicine, fuel for lamps, and religious rites. In this verse, the psalmist is referring to oil being used for religious purposes.
In Exodus 30:22-33, Yahweh gave Moses a recipe for “a holy anointing oil,” and prescribed that he was to use it to anoint the tabernacle, the ark, and the various pieces of tabernacle furniture––acts that would make those things “most holy.” Likewise, “whatever touches them shall be holy.” Furthermore, Yahweh told Moses:
“You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and sanctify them,
that they may minister to me in the priest’s office.
You shall speak to the children of Israel, saying,
‘This shall be a holy anointing oil to me throughout your generations.
It shall not be poured on man’s flesh,
neither shall you make any like it, according to its composition:
it is holy. It shall be holy to you.
Whoever compounds any like it,
or whoever puts any of it on a stranger,
he shall be cut off from his people.'” (Exodus 30:30-33).
Aaron was Israel’s first high priest and the father of the priestly family (Exodus 28:1-2; Numbers 18:1-7). In this verse, the psalmist uses Aaron to represent all priests.
This verse pictures the priest being anointed with oil on his head, using enough oil that it would run down his beard and come down to the edge of his robes. That suggests that Moses was to anoint Aaron with a substantial amount of oil––certainly more than a little oil applied to Moses’ fingers and then to Aaron’s head.
PSALM 133:3. LIKE THE DEW OF HERMON
3 like the dew of Hermon,
that comes down on the hills of Zion:
for there Yahweh gives the blessing,
even life forevermore.
Mount Hermon was a large mountain (9230 feet or 2813 meters high) located near Israel’s northern border. Precipitation on the mountain (to include snow) helped to feed the Jordan River and thus to provide water for much of Israel.
In verse 2, oil ran downward in copious quantity. In this verse, the dew “comes down on the hills of Zion.” As we will see (below), “comes down” is important to understanding this psalm.
Dew is moisture that condenses in the cool of the night air and helps to moisten vegetation. In that dry climate, dew provided an important supplement to rain. It would not be exaggerating to say that, in that arid land, dew had life-giving potential.
Zion is Mount Zion, the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. However, the word Zion is sometimes used for Judah, the tribal area where Jerusalem was located. It was also used to mean Israel. When talking about dew coming down from Mount Hermon onto the hills of Zion, it must be this last meaning (the nation of Israel) that the psalmist means by Zion. Mount Hermon is 120 miles (190 km) north of Mount Zion, so dew falling on Hermon would not reach Mount Zion.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The last two lines of this verse (“for there Yahweh gives the blessing, even life evermore”) provides a clue to this psalm’s meaning. Just as the oil and dew come down from above, so also Yahweh’s blessings come down from above to brothers who live together in unity. Those blessings include “life evermore.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan