Theme: The Gift of Unity
In this week’s lessons, we see what true Christian unity looks like, and how it blesses everyone involved.
Scripture: Psalm 133:1-3
E Pluribus Unum! One out of many! That used to be the American ideal, one people formed out of many diverse cultures, languages and nations. One nation under God! The great melting pot! But we have discovered in our not-so-long history that unity is not that easy to attain, and today what unity we had is fracturing as self-conscious, competing and even hostile groups selfishly pursue their own way. Nor is it always different in the church of Jesus Christ. We are supposed to be one. “We are not divided, all one body we,” we sing. But sadly, the community of the saints is fractured too.
Psalm 133 is about unity, the unity of those who “live together” as “brothers” (v. 1). The title says it is by David, a leader who aspired to this blessing for his kingdom. But even David, great as he was, did not see his kingdom achieve this ideal, and the later years of his reign were marked by rancorous divisions and even civil war. Is unity possible? Yes. It is the fruit of community. But genuine community can only be established by Jesus through the power of his kingdom. This important fact makes Psalm 133 an appropriate psalm to follow the promise of blessing through the Messiah’s reign, which came at the end of Psalm 132.
Psalm 133 is beautiful poetry, sometimes quoted by those who know almost nothing about the rest of the Psalter. J. J. Stewart Perowne, a Church of England bishop of the last century, wrote, “Nowhere has the nature of true unity—that unity which binds men together, not by artificial restraints, but as brethren of one heart—been more faithfully described, nowhere has it been so gracefully illustrated, as in this short ode.”1
When was it written? There is nothing in the psalm to help us date it. It could have come from nearly any period of Israel’s history. However, if it was written by David—we have no real reason for rejecting the claim—it could date from the crowning of David at Hebron when the leaders of the nation were, for a time at least, of one heart and mind (2 Sam. 5:1; 1 Chron. 12:38-40). After the divisive years of Saul’s reign, the ascension of David would have marked a great new beginning, and it would have been appropriate to celebrate it with these hopeful words. The Hebrew text (though not the New International Version) begins with “behold,” drawing attention to what must have seemed an extraordinary reality at that time.
This short poem is so beautiful in its classic celebration of unity and community that it is almost a pity to analyze it. Some literary treasures die slow deaths by dissection. Still, it is worth looking at a few of the more obvious points the psalm makes about unity. There are four points that are hard to miss.
1. Unity is a gift from God. This is the point of the first of the psalm’s two metaphors for unity, in which it is compared to an anointing with oil, specifically the anointing of Aaron, the high priest.2 Anointing is done at God’s direction, in his way and with his authority, and any blessing it confers is from God. In this psalm the threefold repetition of “running down,” “running down” and “down” in verse 2—the Hebrew uses the same verb each time—emphasizes that the blessing of Aaron’s anointing is from above himself, that is, from God.
And so with unity! We are sinners. One of the first sad marks of sin is that it separates, divides, and creates disharmony and hostility. It takes God to overcome sin and bring harmony again. All real unity—at least all lasting unity—is from him.
1J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 417. Original edition 1878-1879.
2References to Aaron’s anointing are in Exodus 29:7; 30:22-33; Leviticus 8:12 and 21:10.
How can unity be achieved?
What is the extraordinary reality of the psalm?
Explain what is meant by the anointing of oil. Explain also the repetition of “running down.”
Application: Have you ever witnessed or experienced disunity in the church? How was unity restored? What can you do to make sure that you do not contribute to such disunity in Christ’s church?